Of Marshmallows and Man

There’s a fun article about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (not the Stanford Prison Experiment šŸ™‚ ) in a recent New York Times Sunday magazine, entitled “We Didn’t Eat the Marshmallow. The Marshmallow Ate Us.”

The article is a “Riff” (their characterization; check it out) on the major finding of the study: four year olds who were able to delay gratification were more successful as adults.

While I enjoyed the article, I disagree with the author’s take. He saw the experiment as a Calvinist club to be used against the lazy and the shiftless: Not successful? That’s your fault, you don’t have self-control. (I exaggerate his conclusions. He also questions the methodology and other issues.)Ā 

Nonetheless, I see it much more simply: self-control can help you be successful. Most worthwhile endeavors require sustained effort. No self-control, no sustained effort, no (or fewer) successful worthwhile endeavors. That seems like a pretty straightforward statement, but in my postmodern childhood, self-control was seen as something of a character flaw.

Where I grew up, people with self-control were, well, “controlled,” “uptight,” “OCD,” and “neurotic.” Those of us (and I am one of them) who had less self-control, were “free,” “uninhibited,” “fun,” “crazy,” and “happy.” Woodstock free lovin’ rock-n-roll was the ideal.

I’ve spent my professional life teaching in progressive schools in a large east coast American city. Most of the parents, in order to afford the tuition, had to delay gratification to get the piasters to pay for expensive private schools. They nonetheless paid for the “free” philosophy of progressive school, even if it contradicted in some ways their climb up the ladder for their child’s education.

Now I’m not knocking the freedom of a progressive education. But as an insider, I do think we (progressive educators) too often let the kids off the hook, like any challenge or trouble students face should be supported or accommodated. You know, self-esteem and all that. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. Too often, the child doesn’t have to “man up” when the going gets tough.

So I think that both freedom and self-control are required for success. I think there’s a false dichotomy between “free” and self-controlled. I am the type of person who says hello to any stranger and can dance on a crowded subway platform, but it takes a fair amount of focused self-control for me to…well…do almost anything. That said, whenever I marshal self-control, my uninhibited self has never disappeared. Neither freedom nor self-control is the ideal. Some kind of balance of the two is my ideal.

I once saw a movie about the sculptor Alexander Calder. Each morning he would get up, work until lunch, eat, then get back to work until dinner. No one would call the work of Calder “uptight” or “OCD,” yet his work rituals looked a bit old fashioned. “Square,” as the hep cats used to say.

Ultimately, self-control is a tool. As the untiringly creative (and obsessively focused and driven) guitarist Robert Fripp said on the back of an album cover, “DisciplineĀ is never anĀ endĀ in itself, only aĀ means to an end.” Self-control can hurt if it controls you, but if it remains a tool, it is a key to the fulfillment of one’s creative, free self. Groovy.