“The bedrock of character is self-discipline; the virtuous life, as philosophers since Aristotle have observed, is based on self-control. A related keystone of character is being able to motivate and guide oneself, whether in doing homework, finishing a job, or getting up in the morning. And, as we have seen, the ability to defer gratification and to control and channel one’s urges to act is a basic emotional skill, one that in a former day was called will.” — Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ
During the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted “the marshmallow test” with four-year-olds in the preschool at Stanford University, to assess each preschooler’s ability to delay gratification. Each four-year-old was given one marshmallow. They were told that they could eat it immediately or, if they waited until the researcher returned in 20 minutes, they could have two marshmallows.
Some kids in the group just couldn’t wait. They gobbled down the marshmallow immediately. The rest struggled hard to resist eating it. They covered their eyes, talked to themselves, sang, played games, and even tried to go to sleep. The preschoolers who were able to wait were rewarded with two marshmallows when the researcher returned. Twelve to fourteen years later these same kids were reevaluated as teenagers.
The differences were astonishing. Those who had been able to control their impulses and delay gratification as four-year-olds, were more effective socially and personally. They had higher levels of assertiveness, self-confidence, trustworthiness, dependability, and ability to control stress. Their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores were 210 points higher than the “instant gratification” group!
A key difference between successful people — leaders — and those who struggle to get by, is self-discipline. As Confucius wrote, “The nature of people is always the same; it is their habits that separate them.” Successful people have formed the habits of doing those things that most people don’t want to do. But, if discipline is a key to success, most people would rather pick the lock. Delaying gratification is a good example. It’s much easier to live in the moment and let tomorrow take care of itself. It takes discipline to control the impulse of instant gratification and make investments for the future.
In The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck writes, “Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.” He goes on to state that self-discipline is self-caring. “Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.”
Discipline means having the vision to see the long term picture and keep things in balance. A Chinese proverb teaches “If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.” Regret can cost hundreds of hours, discipline costs minutes. An ounce of bite-my-tongue can outweigh a ton of I-am-so-sorries. One test of our size and maturity is what makes us angry — and how we express our anger. A boiling temper can really cook our goose.
We all want more patience — and we want it now. Most of us would like to be delivered from temptation, but we’d like it to stay in touch. Discipline is what keeps us going when the excited mood of our first beginning has long past. Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, makes a key leadership question about discipline, “It’s easy to be a starter, but are you a sticker, too? It’s easy enough to begin a job. It’s harder to see it through.”