There’s a famous “marshmallow” experiment on little children (since debunked because it couldn’t be replicated at a large scale) to show the benefits of the ability to delay gratification. Basically toddlers were offered one marshmallow immediately, or two if they were willing to wait a bit. The researchers found a correlation between those children who waited and future achievement.
Interestingly if you look at the childhood of most of my middle-class Indian peers, it was this experiment. Except, it was conducted during our entire childhood. Delay the gratification, the fun activities, video games, and focus on work first. Get the homework done, the exam preparation finished (did it ever finish?), attend classes, then more classes. Time for fun later. They didn’t specify when, presumably sometime around retirement.
At a personal level, I managed to escape the rat race (after getting my engineering degree) to find the field of design. A few classes in my Master’s programme in the US, a few great professors and I was hooked. Since then, even in the initial years of working at consulting companies, I was excited to get back to my desk—work was interesting, the flow, which made it like a grown-up version of play, basically.
Meanwhile, I’m a parent. At home, for fun, we tried the marshmallow experiment with our toddlers and found that the results varied wildly based on, well, how hungry and mischievous they were at the time.
But seriously, this idea that fun is bad and drudgery is good is so seeped into our mindset that it is easy to miss the big picture. Life is not a one-off experiment, and we simply cannot go through it waiting for marshmallows.
I’ve since changed jobs multiple times, like everyone else, and am running my third start-up now. One thing I know is that I cannot go back to, even for a lot of money, is a job that’s not fun. And that’s what we look for in the people we hire too—is someone that hasn’t been flattened by a youth of drudgery (though looking at the system as it is, I can’t blame them!) and still has the potential to approach their job with excitement.
Find ways to experiment, play with their roles, take risks (and yes, make mistakes), and enjoy what they are doing.
Walter Mischel, the man credited for the marshmallow experiment, goes on to talk about it: The whole point of the experiment was never to predict how well a child will do, or to show that going without pleasure is a good thing. The point was that certain children were able to delay gratification using a tool—they started playing, they invented games to distract themselves like wiggling their toes to play piano while they sang along.
How is this relevant to you? Well, adults have certain responsibilities—the work has to be done, the money has to be saved for retirement, the children have to be raised, the weight has to be lost. All that can be seen as drudgery, the temptation to not do it can be overwhelming—in fact so much so that you often fail (you eat the marshmallow).
In fact, the only way to succeed at fulfilling your responsibilities is to make sure that they can be framed as fun. If you have the privilege to do what you love, nothing like it, the fun part takes care of itself. If not, choose a workplace that encourages playfulness and risk, rather than focusing on hours spent and mistakes made. Make it easy to save the money (automatically deduct it from your salary). Raising children with a sense of fun is not difficult—they’re brimming over with it, you just have to join them. For weight loss, choose only those sports, workouts and diets that you enjoy or you’ll set yourself up for failure.
All of this is easier said than done, of course, and require a lifetime of commitment to put into practise. I have a long way to go here too. But what we have to gain here is only a lifetime of fun, and who wouldn’t want that?
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