The Price of Progress

A pile of marshmallows on a table.
Would you be patient enough to wait for the second marshmallow?

In the 1960s Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University, conducted an experiment testing the willpower of four-year-old children. The idea was simple: One large marshmallow was placed before them, which they could eat immediately. However, if they could wait fifteen minutes, they could have a second.

The study concluded that only 30% of the children were able to wait for the full amount of time. For the remainder of test subjects, the average wait time was less than three minutes.

Mischel was mildly interested by the results but moved on with his research, admitting “there are only so many things you can do with kids trying not to eat marshmallows”.

As the children grew older, however, the results of the experiment revealed a striking correlation. Those that were able to delay gratification performed better academically, professionally and in their relationships. They had more successful careers and higher incomes. Those who could not delay demonstrated an increase in behavioural problems and possessed a lower capacity to cope in stressful situations.

Commenting on the outcome of this experiment, Dieter Uchtdorf said:

“What started as a simple experiment with children and marshmallows became a landmark study suggesting that the ability to wait—to be patient—was a key character trait that might predict later success in life”. [1]

However, being patient and waiting is not simply sitting around and waiting for the time to pass until the second marshmallow is handed to us. In the real world, it won’t. If we adopt this attitude, we will experience no growth, no progress, no reward and no success. Patience is actively working toward worthwhile goals, as Uchtdorf continues:

“…Patience is not passive resignation, nor is it failing to act because of our fears. Patience means active waiting and enduring. It means staying with something and doing all that we can—working, hoping… bearing hardship with fortitude, even when the desires of our hearts are delayed. Patience is not simply enduring; it is enduring well!”. [2]

We all have a second marshmallow that we are chasing. Perhaps it is an academic qualification, professional achievement or promotion. It might be the fit, healthy and toned body we have always aspired to, but never achieved. It might be playing a musical instrument or speaking a foreign language. It might be overcoming a fear of public speaking. To succeed in any of these things, there is a price to be paid. The question that each must answer for him or herself is this: Am I willing to pay that price?

I work in a secondary school. A student approached me recently and expressed a desire to achieve a high grade in his upcoming English exams. At the time, I was about to begin running sessions after school, one hour each week, for six weeks. When I invited him to attend, I was stunned and bemused when he responded: “That’s too much effort, sir!” I can guarantee he will not get the desired outcome because he was not willing to pay the price of investing six hours in his own education. Guaranteed, he’ll easily spend that long shooting things on his Xbox. If you want specific results, there is a specific price to be paid.

A set of piano keys in a darkened room.
L:earning to communicate effectively and speak in public is a craft. Like the piano, it takes years to master the subtleties of the art.

If an audience is asked if they ever had a lesson on a musical instrument, most hands go up. When asked if they still play that instrument, almost all the hands in the room go down. What happened? Somewhere along the line, almost all of us lost the desire to pay the price of consistent and patient practice in order to refine that talent. We decided the outcome of slow, sometimes imperceptible progress didn’t satisfy the investment of time, money and energy. The most tragic part of this attitude is that given time and left unchecked, it can easily infect our other interests, careers and relationships, meaning that we give up on those too.

I’ve played the piano since I was eight. By the age of eighteen, I had completed grade 6 out of a possible eight. When family or friends came to visit, I would sometimes be asked to play for them. The consistent thread running through their reactions often struck me. Almost without exception, I would hear them say something like, “I’d give anything to be able to play like that!”

What did I give to be able to play ‘like that’? What was the price I paid? A weekly half-hour lesson and an average of fifteen minutes’ practice a day for ten years. My mother deserves more than an honourable mention for shouldering the financial cost of those lessons. I hope the practice – and the occasional serenade – goes some way to repaying her sacrifice.

There is a lot of debate surrounding the idea of the ‘10,000 hour rule’, suggesting that if you spend 10,000 hours doing something, you’ll become an expert at it. I’m not here to argue for or against the verity of that concept, but I am a firm believer that the more time you invest in something, the better you get at it. I’m not the world’s greatest pianist, but I’m about 6-7000 hours better than if I’d never started in the first place. The next time someone tells me, “I’d give anything to be able to play like that!” I might be brave and say, “How about a weekly half hour lesson and fifteen minutes’ practice a day for a decade?” I might just get a few clients out of it. Anyone for piano lessons?

My wife’s keenest interest is health and fitness. She has religiously investigated concepts and plans by Joe Wicks, Sophia Thiel, Kayla Itsines and Jillian Michaels. We have books and DVDs all over the house. All of these gurus advertise themselves through their clients’ miraculous transformations and promote their recipes, workouts and fitness plans as vehicles to aid that transformation. Though their methods differ slightly, their core message is the same: To achieve your ideal image and fitness levels you need to be consistent, disciplined and persist with exercise and nutrition even on days when sticking at it is the last thing on earth you want to do. Are we prepared to pay this price for these results? That question can require a daily, even hourly, answer, especially when walking past a chip shop, fast food chain or Krispy Kreme donuts.

A tortoise moving slowly across a rock.
Overcoming fear or achieving a challenging goal takes patience and persistence, much like the tortoise in the fable.

Aesop’s fable of The Hare and the Tortoise is a profound lesson in persistence. The Hare, able and quick as he was, fell short of winning the race due to his inconsistent effort. The tortoise, less apt to the task at hand, won because his efforts demonstrated integrity and consistency. Zig Ziglar’s little adage seems to ring true:

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude”.

Commenting on this precise scenario, David Bednar said:

“The Tortoise is a classic illustration of steadiness and persistence. The Hare, on the other hand, is an example of a “spurter”—one who is given to short bursts of spectacular effort followed by frequent and lengthy periods of rest.  A spurt may appear to be impressive in the short run, but steadiness over time is far more effective, far less dangerous, and produces far better results”. [3]

Agonisingly, we don’t know how close Hare was to the finish line when he decided to take that fatal nap. He might have been a hundred yards away. He might have been fifty. He might have slept with his head propped against the finishing post. All we know is that he didn’t cross it.

This underscores the greatest challenge in the pursuit of progress; it doesn’t matter whether you eat the marshmallow immediately or after fourteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds, the outcome is still the same: You won’t get the second one. The end goal was missed because the full price was not paid.

I ran a marathon in November 2016. Complacently, I assumed that running 150 miles or so in August would provide me a good base level, so I slacked off. September and October passed in a blur and without the necessary preparations. I managed 4 hours 39 minutes, not bad considering. However, I haven’t been able to run since thanks to a knee injury caused by my body not being sufficiently prepared for the strain I placed upon it. A painful lesson, but one I am determined not to repeat following a successful rehabilitation.

A lone figure sits in the shadows beneath a streetlight.
Fear and anxiety can hold us back and seem overwhelming, but there is a way out.

This same frustration is created by our inconsistency in many other areas of life. We wonder why we don’t lose weight when we behave Monday to Friday and binge all weekend. We question why we don’t get fitter when we leave three weeks between gym sessions. The sight of an untidy house bemuses us when we did a deep clean last month. We invest monumental amounts of physical, mental and emotional energy into a single exertion and wonder why the earth doesn’t move. As Bednar points out, the smaller, daily exertions yield more results than the occasional heroics and cause us far less pain in the long run. No wonder Clayton M. Christensen affirmed, “it’s easier to hold your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold them 98 per cent of the time” [4]. Mastery here takes patience, discipline and time, three things we are not always inclined to give.

Mo Farah did not get up one morning and decide he was going to dominate the world of distance running for nearly a decade. He understands the idea of consistent, regular effort. Dave Brailsford understood that progress for Great British cycling was to be through ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. Small, specific, patient modifications has revolutionised the sport and made British cyclists a force to be reckoned with [5].

We live in a world that celebrates instant gratification and have cultivated a culture of impatience. Messages of ‘Instant Download’, ‘Fast Food’, ‘On-Demand Movies’ and ‘Buy it Now’ are just a few that bombard us daily; now we get impatient when the ultra-fast fibre optic broadband is running a tad slow or we have to wait for the kettle to boil so we can have Instant Noodles.

This is a dangerous predicament because our brains are chemically vulnerable. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain largely responsible for reward-motivated behaviour. From his research, Simon Sinek [6] explains that indulging our appetites releases dopamine. The accessibility and affordability of gratification means that the path of least resistance leads to the excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, social media, vidoe games, gambling, sex, pornography, over-eating and binge watching. Chemical rewards from these behaviours lead us to believe that they are desirable and provide happiness, persuading us to return to them repeatedly. Before we fully understand what is happening, we may have shackled ourselves into a process of chasing not a long-term, fulfilling goal, but a short-term chemical release. We may someday wake up feeling despondent that we have wasted a large part of our lives chasing a cheap counterfeit of true happiness. I believe this is a far higher price than the price of progress.

Jim Rohn said:

Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day’. [7]

We must take care that small, seemingly insignificant decisions do not lead to unforeseen or unwanted consequences.

In the words of one prominent speaker: ‘Decisions Determine Destiny’ [8]. The good news is that it is never too late to make the decision to stop selling ourselves short for something we think will make us happy and pay the price for something that will truly enhance our lives.

We sometimes mistakenly believe that there is not enough time to change or that ‘leopards don’t change their spots’. An American prison warden, Clinton Duffy, was well known for his rehabilitation efforts and was often quoted as saying: “You should know I don’t work with leopards. I work with men, and men change every day”.

Daniel Gilbert echoes this sentiment:

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change”. [9]

Now is the best time to decide that we are willing to pay the price for what we truly want, remembering that resilience will be required when resolve is tested.

What if we set an ambitious goal, strive towards it and don’t quite get there? Simply remember that you are far closer than you would have been had you never set the goal. I haven’t reached grade 8 piano yet, but grade 6 is far from a complete failure! Celebrate the success, then modify the goal and keep striving.

Theodore Roosevelt said:

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat”. [10]

Jim Rohn profoundly stated:

There are two types of pain you will go through in life, the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tonnes.”[11]

Amen to that.

There is no doubt that the price of progress is high. ‘No challenge, no growth’ and all that. Learning to be consistent with our efforts, resilient in times of testing and patient with our progress – however slow – is a constant battle. Yet I fear that procrastination or hiding behind addictive behaviours that dull our desires, blockade our progress and obscure our potential will result in our paying a far higher price.

I’ve always believed that everything I present should challenge readers or listeners to change. Before this day is over, I invite you to write down one thing in which you want to progress, then one thing you are going to do tomorrow to begin making that progress. I then invite you, as the tortoise did, to demonstrate integrity through consistent effort. We will not only be paying the price for progress, we will be reaping the rewards.

The sun rising over a hilltop against a blue sky.
There is hope for progress and overcoming fears, if we are willing to pay the price and work through setbacks and disappointments.

References

  1. Dieter F. Uchtdorf ‘Continue in Patience’, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/04/continue-in-patience?lang=eng
  2. Dieter F. Uchtdorf ‘Continue in Patience’, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/04/continue-in-patience?lang=eng
  3. David A. Bednar, ‘Steadfast and Immovable, Always Abounding in Good Works’, https://www.lds.org/new-era/2008/01/steadfast-and-immovable-always-abounding-in-good-works?lang=eng
  4. Clayton M. Christensen, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/891558-it-s-easier-to-hold-your-principles-100-percent-of-the
  5. James Clear, http://jamesclear.com/marginal-gains
  6. Simon Sinek ‘Milennials in the Workplace’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MC2X-LRbkE
  7. Jim Rohn, http://jamesclear.com/marginal-gains
  8. Thomas S. Monson ‘Decisions Determine Destiny’, https://www.lds.org/new-era/1979/11/decisions-determine-destiny?lang=eng
  9. Daniel Gilbert ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/06/18/daniel-gilbert-happiness-future-self/
  10. Theodore Roosevelt, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/theodorero103499.html
  11. Jim Rohn, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/218411-there-are-two-types-of-pain-you-will-go-through

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