What's Your Marshmallow?

Ronald Gross


One of the most profitable lessons about self-management is best conveyed through "The Marshmallow Test." The lesson is about your capacity to achieve
your goals -- in your work and in your life.

As the audience takes their seats, they notice that at each of their places, there's a marshmallow.

And up front, on my podium, there's what looks like a giant marshmallow, as big as a TV set.

Imagine that you're 4 years old, and participating in a little experiment. A friendly adult welcomes you into a room and sits you in front of a marshmallow. "This is for you," she says. "Before we start , I have to do something down the hall. You can eat the marshmallow any time you like. But if you wait until I get back, I'll give you two marshmallows."

The researcher leaves the room. It's just you, and that marshmallow.

Children react differently to this situation. Some grab and gobble the marshmallow by the time the door closes behind the researcher. Others seem fixated on it -- looking, smelling, touching -- but hold back from eating it. Others take steps to distract themselves -- singing, walking around, listening by the door.

Black-out. Lights up -- fourteen years later. You and hundreds of other kids who took the marshmallow test are tracked down by psychologist Walter Mischel, who conducted the original experiment at Stanford and is now a colleague of mine at Columbia.

The findings are dramatic. The youngsters who, at four, had waited to win the second marshmallow, tended to be rate high on the skills that make for
success -- in school, at work, in life. They had many of the "habits of successful people" -- confidence, persistence, capacity to cope with frustration.

On the other hand, the one-third who had wolfed the marshmallow, had a different overall profile. They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals. When it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted into listening to a favorite TV programs.

The character traits highlighted by The Marshmallow Test persist in adult life. They effect our performance in every area. Once you start looking for them, it's easy to spot the "marshmallows" in our professional -- and personal -- lives. They are the activities which give us immediate gratification -- but undermine longer-range benefits.

The desire to please everyone is a "marshmallow" for the manager who let's herself be "interrupt-driven" . To get those immediate smiles or words of praise, she spends the better part of each day responding to random requests to do this or that, help this person or that one -- and never gets around to pursuing her own projects. She needs to occasionally shut the door, have the calls screened, and focus on the greater gratification of achieving long-range goals.

The current "cash cow" may be a "marshmallow" for the CEO who just wants to continue milking profits from "what's always worked and is still working for us." In failing to push his people to explore new products and services, he may undermine the organization's capacity to keep its edge in the future.

The question I like to raise with audiences is: "What's Your Marshmallow?"

It may be something even more commonplace than those mentioned above. For example, here's a "marshmallow" that almost all of us reach for occasionally, because it provides fast, fast, fast relief from anxiety. (At this point I reveal that the giant marshmallow on the podium is actually... a bed sheet-covered TV set.)

Successful people have developed habits which overcome the marshmallow temptation: Self-Restraint, Focus, Prioritizing, the Long-Range View. The marshmallow test is a telling way to catch people's attention for a presentation on these strategies, which are so essential to success.

"Your marshmallow has become part of our 'corporate culture,'" reports the meeting manager of a major association in the pharmaceutical industry.
"It reminds us to put first things first, to subordinate the immediately gratifying, to the longer range goal. I use it at least once a week to remind someone on my staff not to get distracted by the seemingly urgent but unimportant, and neglect what will really make a difference in our profitability."

Copyright © 1999 Ronald Gross