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The Best Predictor of Success

Updated on December 6, 2013
The Marshmallow Test
The Marshmallow Test

It's always been a burning question: how to tell who will be successful and who will not. While it's not totally foolproof, there is one indicator that stands out.

During the early 1960s, Walter Mischel, a Stanford University psychologist, conducted a series of experiments involving pre-school children. In one test, the researcher had a group of children in a room and gave each child a marshmallow. The researcher then told the children he was going to leave the room. His instructions were if the child did not eat the marshmallow until he returned in a few minutes, the child would get another marshmallow. However, if the child ate the marshmallow before he returned, the child would not receive another marshmallow.

Some children were anxious to double their take and therefore followed his instructions. The majority of the children simply could not or would not wait. They ate their marshmallow. The study followed these children later in life and the results are very interesting. The children who waited, that is choose to delay the gratification in order to receive a greater reward, scored an average of 210 points higher when they took the SAT test. According to the study, "Those who were able to delay gratification became more educationally successful and emotionally intelligent. It was reported that this one factor, the ability to delay gratification, was the single most important factor in predicting future success."

The Marshmallow Test

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman points out that IQ only accounts for about 20% of a person's success. The balance -- by far the majority of a person's success -- is attributable to social and emotional intelligence. And the ability to delay gratification is a major indicator of emotional intelligence.

In all our actions there is a perceived cost and perceived benefit. Often, there is a timing difference between the cost and the benefit. The more actions we take where we pay the cost first and receive the benefit later, the better our chances of success. It is like depositing money in the bank. The more deposits we make, the more we have to withdraw later.

Two major actions where the cost (not just in terms of dollars but expenditures of time and energy) are immediate and the rewards are delayed are education and building relationships.

Are you willing to invest in the future? The more you are willing to work today for the rewards tomorrow, the better your chance of success. Delaying gratification is the single biggest factor in determining your eventual success in life.

Remember the words of Aesop from the fable of the grasshopper and the ant, "It is wise to prepare today for the wants of tomorrow."

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