A Workable Secret to Success

Through fairly tales, social studies and a lot of conditioning we encounter in life, we have often been taught to be brave, that if we are to succeed in life and love, we ought to face up to our problems and challenges. That is generally logical advice. Most problems don’t go away if you simply ignore them: you’ll remain overweight if you do nothing to change your lifestyle; and as unprepared for an examination if you resolutely not think about it, instead of hunkering down to study.

But “problems and challenges” aren’t the only obstacles in life, neither are they always the most formidable ones. Some of the greatest enemies of success, keeping us from being the best that we can be, can loosely be classified as “temptations and distractions”. If we can be mindful of them, and not respond to them as we would our problems, we can have a much greater chance against sidestepping from our goals at critical turning points, or being mired in addictions with which we are powerless against. The key, instead of resisting temptation, is to recognise our powerlessness in the face of temptation. Then the proper cause of action is not to confront or wrestle with temptation as we would our problems, but to hurriedly turn the other way, and flee!

This is gleaned from This Will Make You Smarter, a collection of essays by scientists and eminent thinkers from various disciplines centred around the theme of thinking. Briefly:

In the late 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel began a simple experiment with four-year-olds. In a tiny room with furnished with just a desk and chair, he asked the children to pick from a tray of treats – marshmallows, cookies, etc. The kids were then told they could either eat one treat immediately; or if they could wait while he stepped out a few minutes, have two when he returned.

At that time, psychologists assumed that the ability to wait out for the second depended on willpower. Some have it more than others. Some people just have more patience, endurance than others, able to resist the temptation for instant gratification, hence sticking with wiser choices in life. Seems a reasonable theory.

However, after watching hundreds of kids go through this experiment, Mischel came to a different conclusion: our willpower is actually very weak! Many of the children who simply tried to wait it out for the second treat, soon lost the battle, often within 30 seconds. Of the tiny fraction that succeeded, all, without exception, relied on the same strategy: they found a way to not think about the treat at all. Some covered their eyes to not look at the treat, others played hide-and-seek, sang songs, some even repeatedly tied their shoelaces: anything to take their focus and attention from the immediate temptation on hand.

Here then is the answer to resisting the many temptations that life throws our way: if we labour over it, wrestle with it, high chances are, we’re going to lose. To win, we have to look away. It’s about picking battles we can win; and our innate desire for immediate gratification is a very hard opponent to face head-on.