“Nothing is easy, and life can be extremely tough, but there’s always a yin to the yang, so to speak. It’s up to you to seek it out, embrace it, and live happily ever after. No matter how bad the hand you’ve been dealt may seem, there’s always a way to play it.” – Alex Gaskarth
Author P.G. Wodehouse once wrote, “Everything that’s fun in life is either immoral, illegal, or will make you fat.” I reckon the inversion of this is also true—that is, everything moral, legal, and non-fattening is, by definition, probably boring. As a willingness to suffer will lead one to greater freedom, success, and meaning. I want to argue that the ability to sustain boredom constitutes a sort of modern virtue that would enrich your life far more than whatever your now is. Nothing good in life is easy, delayed gratification is the way.
Everything good in life seems to arise from, well, our ability to delay everything good in life. In the psychological literature. Delayed gratification has been linked to pretty much anything any of us could ever consider “good“. Better health, more money, better jobs, higher life satisfaction, better relationships etc.
While we’re on this “everything good in life is unenjoyable” trip. Let’s take it a step further and implicate a group of people that surely won’t send hate mail: teachers. Some new research looks at how friendly teachers were with their students and compared that to the students’ academic performance in later years. What’s important to note here is that the researchers didn’t look at academic performance in the teacher’s class itself because—surprise, surprise—friendly teachers tend to give higher grades for bad work. Instead, the researchers focused on how the students did the following academic years.
Allow me to spoil the pool party and say that, basically, the nicer the teachers, the worse off the students were in the following years. Now, I’m not suggesting that we bring back corporal punishment or hire drill sergeants to teach multiplication tables. But once again, we find that the most important things in life (in this case, being highly educated and understanding a subject) require some unpleasant experiences.
The fact is, throughout your life, society will often force you into situations where being a bit of an idiot is necessary to make sure you and everyone else is treated fairly. In these situations, if you’re unwilling or unable to summon your inner idiot, then you are doing everyone involved a disservice.
Of course, dozens of people will complain that they would never condone being an idiot and how dare I suggest that it was okay to be one to anyone, ever. Fortunately, like any good teacher, I have no qualms with these people thinking I am an idiot.
Have you ever wondered how convenience can backfire? That it’s often the inefficient friction in life that slows us down long enough to actually forge meaningful connections. For example, instead of ordering your favorite meal on uber eats, being forced to walk down to the restaurant each week and chat to the staff about weather and business and sports week after week, month after month. Well, it’s the aggregation of all of these little “inefficient” experiences that generate a sense of community and rootedness in one’s life. By introducing widespread “convenience,” at scale, you remove people’s opportunities to serendipitously engage with the people in their communities.
Obviously, there’s a fine line between the argument against convenience and being that old man shaking his fist at a cloud. But I think there’s something to it. And while I wouldn’t necessarily give up my Uber Eats or Amazon Prime memberships any time soon, it did make me stop and think that perhaps by obsessively optimising our lives for 30 extra seconds here, two extra minutes there, we’re making subtle and intangible sacrifices without even realising it.
So having to wait for the right time, be it in a relationship, a business opportunity or a career is paramount. Being able to delay gratification until the seasons align is key to having what you truly deserve but there is a glitch here too.
The inability to delay gratification is most commonly thought of as a self-control problem. And, unfortunately, we tend to morally judge self-control problems. You can’t resist the temptation of that chocolate cake? “Interesting,” people think, “You must definitely suck at life.”In order to gain what you need, are you willing to give up what you want? Tweet Me
Though self-control certainly plays a part in delaying gratification, using it to completely explain why people can’t stop themselves from face-planting into chocolate fun-time is both misguided and unhelpful.
For example, researchers found that if you broke children’s trust—i.e., promised something and then didn’t follow through—the kids were far less likely to wait for the second promise.
This makes sense: it’s only rational to delay gratification if and only if you believe you will receive that long-term reward. When you’re unsure of getting the results you’re holding out for, it can be rational to not wait and instead indulge. In these cases, immediate gratification isn’t so much a failure of willpower, it can also be a calculated choice—habituated over years and years of dealing with crappy, lying adults.
If you lived in a country like Zimbabwe with 500% inflation, would you save for your nest egg or go for the tequila fountain instead. If you lived in a downtrodden neighborhood with druggies threatening you at every street corner, would it be easier or harder to say “no” to a free hit?
Having self-control helps, but in these situations where your environment threatens you and causes you to feel insecure or uncertain, most of us go YOLO. But there are other factors that fuck with delayed gratification. Emotions, as you might expect, can do a number on our ability to resist temptation.
Research shows that when in emotional distress, our desire to feel better overrides our decision-making, resulting in immediate gratification and engaging in dumb shit, like calling your ex-girlfriend at 3 AM or buying a Maserati on credit. This is why I have long argued that developing strong self-discipline is less a question of willpower and more about developing the ability to manage our own emotions.
Believing the ability to delay gratification is all about self-control is misguided. It ignores the powerful roles of situational context and emotions which are often the ones responsible for our choice.
But worse, ascribing the failure to delay gratification to self-control is unhelpful. It leads us to point the finger and blame the individual for their apparent failure. You have poor self-control. You are at fault. And You are bad. Most people will internalise this narrative. Then they will come to believe that they are somehow inherently deficient and messed up and, oh, what’s the point?
If people who succumb to their emotions tend to indulge in the moment, then it makes sense that developing the ability to identify and manage our emotions will help prevent that indulgence. I believe that if self-discipline is difficult then you must be doing it wrong. (We can argue this in the comments section)
However, ultimately nothing worth having comes easy. You are going to have fight and persevere in order to attain it. You will have to jump through hoops and do cartwheels, it will require you to do somethings you never thought you would do. The key word here is sacrifice. In order to gain what you need, are you willing to give up what you want?
Hope you and yours are safe, as always get in touch via email or the comments section and lets chop it up.