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What the Marshmallow Experiment Teaches Us About Grit

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What the Marshmallow Experiment Teaches Us About Grit

Ever wonder what you have in common with a four-year-old left alone with a marshmallow?

Turns out… a lot.

Whether we are four or 44, the age-old temptation to choose immediate gratification in favor of the patient path to eventual success surfaces multiple times a day.

To save our birthday money or let it burn a hole in our pockets? To increase to 6% matching on our 401k or splurge on the trip we have been seeing on Groupon?

It can feel like the devil is on our shoulder and yet we know the path of most resistance will likely lead toward success.

But how? How do we quiet the gluttony, greed, and impatience that will us in the direction of the here and now so convincingly?

Turns out, what we are really in search of is GRIT.

According to Angela Duckworth, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Grit is the:[1]

“passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.”

She coined the term in her quest to understand what distinguishes the success of some from the failure of others regardless of IQ. But, where do kids and marshmallows come into play?

Enter: The Marshmallow Experiment

The earliest study of the conditions that promote delayed gratification is attributed to the American psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues at Stanford in 1972. They designed an experimental situation (“the marshmallow test”) in which a child was asked to choose between a larger treat, such as two cookies or marshmallows, and a smaller treat, such as one cookie or one marshmallow.

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After stating a preference for the larger treat, the child was told that to obtain that treat, it would be necessary to wait for the experimenter to return.

The child was also told that if he or chose to signal the experimenter, the experimenter would return and the child would receive the smaller treat.

Thus, the smaller treat would be available now, but the larger treat required waiting. To get a larger treat, the child had to resist the temptation to get an immediate treat.[2]

What Happened?

The researchers studied the choices that the children made in real-time and correlated them with performance when they reached High School.

Children who were best able to wait for the larger treat in the experimental context at four years old also turned out to be more socially and academically successful as high-school students earning higher Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores.

What we know is that each child who held out for the larger treat was practicing grit. We know that this is the intangible that prepares us to resist temptation and muscle through the tough stuff in life….and the good news is ….we can get better at it.

What can we do to enhance our own grit and achieve success in life?

Visualize And Verbalize the Goal

Practicing grit is only worth it when it is in service of a worthwhile outcome. You will want to be clear with yourself about what you are aiming for and explicit about why it is so important to you.

  • Does achieving this goal bring you closer to who you want to be?
  • Does it help you access new opportunities or skills?
  • Will it change your legacy?
  • If you were trapped in a time loop would you be willing to do this way forever? You have to want this for YOU and only YOU. Attempting to practice grit in service of someone else’s dreams will get you nowhere.

Decide If the Juice is Worth the Squeeze

You know this process is going to involve giving something up, feeling FOMO, and settling for alternatives — it was going to be easy everyone would do it…

So, the question is, are you willing to sacrifice now in service of the goal you have committed to?

If you say, yes…you are ready to tackle the task at hand.

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Examine Your Circumstances and Surroundings… Don’t Set Yourself Up to Fail

Comb unnecessary visual reminders from your environment

– out of sight, out of mind!

Successful four-year-olds who resisted the marshmallow went so far as to cover their eyes so they didn’t give in to temptation— we can do the same! Scour your immediate surroundings for visual reminders of the thing you are trying to resist.

ie) put the donuts inside the cabinet, your cell phone in another room, or your favorite shopping alerts on silent. What isn’t staring us in the face, won’t tempt us quite so hard!

Make space for creative and fun alternatives

Bring alternatives closer. Plan for the moments of weakness and meet the moment with something else you enjoy instead. Try an adult coloring book, a notebook for journaling, or your favorite record for an impromptu dance-a-thon. Focusing your energy elsewhere may be just what you need to let the tempting moment pass.

During the most difficult moments, learn what you need to get through. Is it yoga? meditation? time alone to reset? Just like the gritty kids in the experiment who sang to pass the time or imagined the marshmallow as a cloud, your ability to distract yourself from the hardship in front of you dictates your ability to surmount it.

Self-Soothe

Whether this means taking a conscious breath or practicing positive self-talk, our ability to recognize our own discomfort, confront it head-on, and redirect ourselves is a muscle that will grow stronger the more we lean into grit.[3]

Work to Build New Habits

Resisting immediate gratification often requires us to replace quick fixes with long-lasting and consistent behaviors that stretch our physical and mental abilities.

Staying home from that high school rager to study for exams, taking a pass on happy hour to stick to the Whole-30, or signing up for the latest Salesforce certification instead of the boozy volleyball league takes grit.

In place of what we would otherwise have been doing, we will need to establish rituals, practices and follow through tactics we may not have needed before.

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We might need to learn proactive study habits like flashcard making, begin tracking meals in our fit-bit, or schedule time to take weekly quizzes online.

Whatever the habit is– we should build it slowly.

According to Roy F. Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, when we effectively build strong habits, it gives us the ability to practice will power long term.

It is less about resisting temptation one marshmallow at a time, and more about proactively creating a series of habits that help us achieve the goals we prioritize.

“People use their self-control to break bad habits and establish good ones, and then life can run smoothly and successfully, with low levels of stress, regret, and guilt.” As he writes, “willpower fluctuates,” but habits don’t — that’s their defining trait.

So how might we do this?

Try microsteps.[4]

They’re small, incremental, science-backed actions we can take that will have both immediate and long-lasting benefits to the way we live our lives.

We know that success fuels success and that when we are able to delay gratification in small ways and feel successful at it, we will be willing to work toward it in bigger and bigger ways– it is when we attempt to make a drastic change all at once that we fail.

Pick out a single step related to the habit you wish to build and do it regularly for a pre-scheduled amount of time.

For example, if you are working toward the goal of earning a promotion and you know that you will need to be consistent studying for your latest certification, you can start to carve out a half-hour after dinner every night to sit down at your desk and spend two weeks carving out that time, going to your desk and showing up for that moment.

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Once you are successfully able to do that for a week you can add in downloading the course and reading 3 pages per evening. This approach will help you to develop the habits that underpin your capacity to be gritty in very real and ongoing ways.

Learn to Impress Yourself

Pursuing your goals may be a lonely road. There may not be glory in the trenches–validate yourself, remind yourself why you are doing it, and know that the payoff will be there on the other side.

Don’t Be All or Nothing About it

You will slip up…. unlike the marshmallow experiment real life does not have a final reveal or last data set. When you are practicing grit in real life you will have to be forgiving. There may be times you forget to show up for yourself, your goals, and your newly built habits. Life is messy.

That is OK.

Grit is all about getting back up when you have been knocked down and trying again. In search of perfection, we will become our own worst enemy. Stay focused on your vision, be forgiving, give grace, and keep moving.

Be Your Own Cheerleader

It is up to you to maintain your momentum so you will have to be the one to celebrate yourself. Notice when you are trying your hardest and validate that effort.

Be Unwavering

Know who you are. Know what you stand for. Know that no obstacle in your way will be too great to prevent you from getting to where you said you were going.

Bottom Line

Trust your gut. Follow your heart. Don’t look back.

Next time you see a marshmallow– remember there is always S’more to the story.

More About Developing Grit

Featured photo credit: Joyful via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Staci Taustine

Founder & CEO, Stubborn Heart Consulting LLC.

How To Train Yourself To Be More Open-Minded 10 Critical Lessons To Learn When You Feel Like a Failure 9 Ways to Be Intentional Every Day to Change Your Life How to Stop Playing the Victim in Life And Fight for What You Want What the Marshmallow Experiment Teaches Us About Grit

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Last Updated on November 24, 2021

How to Deal with Setbacks And Use Them for Future Success

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How to Deal with Setbacks And Use Them for Future Success

Life is crazy. Sometimes it is beautiful and amazing—you feel like you’ve got things figured out, you’re on top of the world, you’re exactly where you’re meant to be. But sometimes, life sucks. It’s hard, complicated, tragic, and awful, and you can’t imagine how you’re going to take one more step forward.

At various points in our lives, we are all met with setbacks, failures, and obstacles. Some are small, like a speedbump, just enough to slow us down. Some are huge, like a wall, and stop us entirely in our tracks. But while difficult, challenging, and often heartbreaking, all of them give us an opportunity—an opportunity to pause, restart, reflect, learn, grow, and reshape our lives.

My life has been full of setbacks and obstacles. I’ve lost loved ones, missed opportunities, and made huge mistakes at work. I’ve suffered from injuries, accidents, anxiety, and overwhelm. Some setbacks sent me crying in my room for weeks. Some landed me in therapy. Some just left me with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. But through them all, I’ve learned how to honor them, get through, and use them to prepare for future success.

While I often couldn’t see it at the time, I now know there have been no mistakes on my journey. Instead, each step has led me to the life I live today. Each scar made me stronger. Each failure helped me learn, and each setback had a strange way of setting me up for the next step in my life.

Whatever setback you might be facing and however big or small it may be, in this article, I’ll share simple, practical ways you can deal with whatever life throws your way so you can come back stronger, wiser, and more resilient.

Types of Setbacks

There are all types of setbacks you might face along your journey: personal, professional, financial, and environmental.

Personal setbacks might include injuries, illness, mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, relationship challenges including breakups, divorce, and fights with those you love. This also includes loss of all types: a partner, child or loved one, a job or home, a hope or dream.

Professional setbacks might include bombing a critical meeting, losing a big sale, working under a terrible boss, being overlooked for a promotion, or being laid off or fired.

Financial setbacks could include limited or not finding work, losing money, an investment gone wrong, or being underwater in your home.

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You might face environmental setbacks, including natural disasters like a fire or hurricane, or, like many are facing right now, a global setback due to the pandemic and all the impacts it is causing in many areas of our lives.

Often, one setback leads to another and causes a downstream effect, impacting every area of your life. However, it is possible to take a step back and help manage how things go.

3 Powerful Steps to Deal With Setbacks in Life

Here is a three-step process I created to help you deal with your setback, capitalize on the experience, and set yourself up for future success.

Step 1: Allow Yourself to Feel

When bad things happen, many people want to go straight to fixing it, looking at the upside, trying to work through it, or pushing through whatever pain they may be feeling. However, it’s critical to first give yourself permission to acknowledge and allow yourself to feel. Are you hurt? Angry? Frustrated? Embarrassed? That’s okay.

Often when we have a setback, we are told—or we tell ourselves—“everything happens for a reason,” “the sorrows make the joys so much sweeter,” “it could be worse,” or we immediately try to find the silver lining. This is what can be defined as “toxic positivity.” When you deny, minimize, or invalidate your feelings, not only is it unhelpful, but it can also be harmful.

Maybe a setback has left you feeling angry, frustrated, sad, hurt, overwhelmed, terrified, disappointed, worried, embarrassed, or all of the above. Whatever the feelings are, allow them to emerge. Because unless you feel it, you’re not going to move past it. If you don’t grieve or honor your feelings, they have a way of sneaking back up on you. There’s a saying:

“What the mind conceals, the body reveals.”

When we conceal, try to hide, push down, or ignore our emotions and feelings, they don’t simply disappear. They go deep within us, and they eat at us. So, that sudden heart attack, unexplained high blood pressure, or unexpected anxiety may not be so inexplicable after all. We physiologically need to acknowledge and feel our emotions.[1] When we do, it provides a release and prevents those feelings from eating away at us.

So, take the time to honor, acknowledge, and truly feel your feelings. Cry. Scream. Journal. Talk to a friend or work with a therapist or coach to acknowledge and understand your emotions. Identify what the feelings are telling you. Let them arise. They may persist, but they will eventually pass once they are heard and dealt with.

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Step 2: Pause and Reflect

Life setbacks allow you to pause and reflect on what you want from life. Life has a way of giving you whatever is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. Even if you can’t see it yet, this change is trying to teach you something. Here are some ways to step back and garner perspective.

Get Clear

You can use this setback to identify what you want or don’t want in this next stage or step of your life. Just had a bad breakup? Identify what you want and need in a life partner. Lost your job? What do you want in a job or career going forward? This is your chance to evaluate your priorities, identify what’s important to you, and define what you want from now on.

Learn the Lesson

Identify what you learned from the situation. Lessons in life have a way of being repeated until they are learned. For example, I had a client who was disappointed about how an entrepreneurial venture had turned out. He had a falling out with his co-founder and decided to move on from the business. He was down, frustrated, and trying to figure out what to do next.

As we reflected on this setback, I asked him to consider what he learned from the situation. Once asked, he revealed that he learned to make sure he was aligned with his business partners. He realized he wasn’t as great a manager as he thought he was and that he should have trusted his instincts on a few decisions made along the way. As he made a list of what he learned, he could move forward with knowledge and experience about how he could better set up his next venture. How can you do things differently next time?

Be Grateful

Now is also the time to be grateful for the setback—to be thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow and see things from a different perspective. I know it’s not easy, but challenge yourself.

Perhaps you lost your job. Did you like your job? Were you thriving? Did you feel like it was really where you wanted to be? I had a client that lost their job recently, and while devastating, it was a tremendous gift. They were miserable, burnt out, and hated their boss, but they would have never left that job on their own. Letting go allowed them to be free and move on to something better where they could thrive.

Often, setbacks provide an opportunity to reassess your life and what you are genuinely grateful for. I know many people who have had severe medical issues who step back and take stock of their lives and what’s important and eventually feel deep gratitude for all they have, even amidst the chaos. Why are you grateful for what happened? How can you find appreciation for your recent setback?

Step 3: Use It as a Step Forward

Once you’ve had a chance to process and reflect on your setback, it’s time to use it as a stepping stone for future success. Think of your life as a progression. Each setback, lesson, and failure are like stairs with each step taking you towards your future. When you face a setback, you can choose: will this setback take me down, or can this setback bring me closer to where I want to be? If you view your setback as a failure and get stuck in what went wrong, it will be. If you view it as a step up, you can move forward.

I also like using the metaphor of a backpack. We spend our lives filling our backpacks with tools, tricks, and strategies for any situation. When you have a setback, you learn and grow and add another tool to your backpack. You are now more skilled and equipped to handle whatever life throws your way. Each setback makes you better at life!

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Life doesn’t get any easier; you get stronger, wiser, and more capable.

Years ago, there was a story shared with new hires at IBM. According to the anecdote, a VP made a huge mistake that reportedly cost the company $10 million. The employee met with Tom Watson Jr., the head of the company, expecting to be fired, and presented his resignation letter. Instead, Mr. Watson replied, “You are certainly not leaving after we just gave you a $10 million education!” Regardless of whether this long-told story is true, the point is critical—leaders at IBM did not see failure as a problem if it was turned into a valuable learning experience.

Most entrepreneurs live this way. They know that failure takes them one step closer to their success. Salespeople are the same. They understand that each “no” gets them closer to the next “yes.” Thomas Edison was famously quoted as saying, “I learned 10,000 ways not to invent a lightbulb.” He saw every failure as an opportunity to learn.

Think about how to use your setback as a step forward. I have close friends, a couple who were just diagnosed with cancer at the same time. Are they scared? Of course. But they are looking at this as an opportunity. The minute they found out, they began to research ways to make healthier decisions from food to sleep to environmental choices. They are looking at this setback as an opportunity to change their lifestyles together. By looking ahead, they will boldly fight cancer and live longer, healthier, happier lives.

Think about the setback you are currently experiencing. What opportunities will this bring to your life? As you look at your setback, what options does this bring? How can this setback be a setup for what’s next? What changes does this force or allow?

Not sure? It can be helpful to look at the situation as a neutral observer. Imagine you’re a fly on the wall or you’re watching a movie of your life and setback. From this zoomed-out view, what do you notice? What insights or advice would you give yourself? What perspective does this new setback bring? How will this set you up for future success?

Pay It Forward

Once you’ve learned and grown from your setback and used it to set you up for success, then what? At some point, you’ll have the opportunity to pay it forward. Consider how you can use your experiences to help others who are going through the very same setback you once thought was impossible.

If you look at many successful business owners, mentors, TED talkers, motivational speakers, and entrepreneurs, most of them have one thing in common: they faced a major setback. They usually hit rock bottom, and they used their setbacks, failures, and painful experiences to help others.

Arianna Huffington got rejected by 36 publishers. Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school (twice!). Oprah Winfrey faced a challenging childhood, was told she wasn’t suited for television, and was fired from her first co-anchor position. Eckhart Tolle was on the brink of suicide before he became one of the most prominent spiritual teachers in the world. And JK Rowling hit rock bottom before the Harry Potter series went on to become a smashing success. I could go on.

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Use Your Setback to Make a Difference

How can you use your setback to make a difference for others in a powerful way?

You don’t have to be an influencer, write a bestseller or stand on stages across the world. Maybe you’ve struggled with addiction and can support others in your local AA group. Perhaps you were challenged to make your business successful, and you can help other local entrepreneurs. Maybe you had a tough childhood, and you’d like to be a big brother or sister for those who could benefit from your help, wisdom, and support. Maybe it’s as simple as teaching your kids a different way of being.

Whatever challenges you’ve faced on your journey, you can use your experiences to make someone’s life better. Sure, you don’t have to do that now. But you can look to the future and dream up ways to spin the negative into something positive.

However big or small your ripples will be, these experiences are setting you up to help someone else. Who will that be?

Final Thoughts

Let’s face it. Life is full of setbacks, failures, obstacles, and challenges. Setbacks are not in the way of your life. They are a critical part of your life. They are redirecting you to where you truly should be. They are not throwing you off your path. Instead, they are reminding you which way the path lies.

Philosophically, I believe that life is working for us, not against us. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that my setbacks are opportunities for learning and growth. I believe there are no mistakes on our journey, even when it feels that way. But that doesn’t mean I don’t completely understand how it feels when a setback smacks you straight in the face. It can hurt, but it can also be the best gift.

Right now, this setback may feel like the end of the world. I promise you, it is not. Instead, it’s a chance for you to define your destiny. You get to choose what happens next. Will this setback take you down, or will this setback be the very thing that defines who you are? It’s completely up to you.

More Tips on How to Deal With Setbacks in Life

Featured photo credit: Jonathan Chng via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] verywellmind: 5 Reasons Emotions Are Important

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