Success is Like a Marshmallow

By Christos Tsolkas

At one stage in my career I was stuck in the same level for 8 years

in an organization where most people around me were promoted almost every other year. I was not lucky at all with corporate developments.t was hard to feel I was missing out on two or three promotions over a number of years. Actually it was more than hard; it was frustrating and demoralizing, and at times I felt like quitting.

I didn’t give up, however. I whispered to myself from time to time, “Hey, you decided to follow this path so you need to stick with it and do it consistently.” So I kept driving forward and eventually got noticed. Then opportunities and recognition started to flow quicker.

When people ask me for career advice today, I remember and share openly that difficult time and others like it. With that in mind, I often say to them, you need to be patient and you need to believe in what you are doing and stick to your dreams and passions. If you are good at what you do and you believe in yourself, good things will happen. Maybe success will be delayed, but definitely it will happen. Delayed success is after all the net difference between performance and luck.

Here are five simple things I think make a difference in our ability to succeed in the long-term.

1. Don’t eat the marshmallow

Recently, I thought about the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Children were put in a room by themselves with a plate of marshmallows or cookies in front of them and told not to eat the treats until the researcher returned. Some children resisted, while others happily snuck some food. Studying those children over years, the researchers discovered that those who resisted eating the treats did better in school, relationships, and work than those who didn’t.

Patience is a virtue. The ability to resist immediate gratification for the possibility of larger future benefits is strongly correlated to success. I’ve seen a lot of people prove that concept over the long haul, especially in their careers.

2. Put on blinders

Horses wear blinders so they are not distracted by things happening around them and stay the course. There are times in life when you just need to put your head down, put on your blinders, and stick to your business objectives and personal milestones. The danger is that you will look up and compare yourself to others. It’s easy to think,

“Why am I not getting the recognition or rewards I deserve? Why is so-and-so getting all the breaks?”

First, this not a statistically valid way to judge your success or the success of others. If you are good at your job, you are probably already surrounded by people who are relatively successful, so that means you are judging yourself by the standards of an elite group not the whole population. As humans we also have a tendency toward seeing success in others in a funny way. David McRaney calls this “survivorship bias” and describes it as the inclination to think that those who succeed or win must have all the answers without taking into consideration the ones who failed to enrich our perspective with true insights. The best person to compare yourself to is, YOU. Just focus.

Are you improving over time? What can you do better?

Second, comparing yourself to others doesn’t help you to be resilient or positive. In fact, this kind of thinking can have a toxic effect on your attitude, outlook, and energy. You don’t know what other people have gone through. You don’t know their stories or why things have happened to them. You don’t know what their next step is. There’s always a reason, and your reason will come.

3. Create your own Board of Directors

Comparing yourself to others doesn’t help but getting feedback and advice can be a great boost – mentally, spiritually, and strategically. I tell people to form their own Board of Directors ASAP. A CEO of a company has a Board of Directors to help him develop strategy, make connections, make difficult decisions, and face confusing challenges. Their experience, insight, and diversity of knowledge is an asset to his success.

Select a group of people who care about you and are willing and able to give you candid advice and tough answers when needed. They can “understand” you professionally as they have passed through similar experiences. They don’t need to do the same job as you or be in the same industry, but seniority, experience and similar values matters for obvious reasons. Such people, being unbiased, can usually see the long view easier than you can. They can clean your signals from “noise” and provide valuable perspective and even comfort when you are troubled, confused, worn out or lonely.

A coach can do this, too, and can go deeper, in a systematic way. However, a coach can be expensive and may not possess the breadth of experiences of the executives on your board.

4. Follow your purpose

Purpose is the glue that connects all our parts together. In life we are always making choices, but sometimes those choices are true to our purpose and other times they contradict our purpose. Which choices do you regret or do you feel led you down the wrong path? I believe the chances are strong the “wrong” choices were simply the ones that didn’t reinforce or contribute to your purpose. Purpose is strongly connected with meaning , the set of coordinates that helps us moving ahead. Often, when I make a choice that isn’t right, a bell in my head rings to remind me I need to come back to my purpose or line it up again before I continue. Purpose gives you a sense of balance and keeps you connected with yourself and others.

Purpose evolves, too, so you need to be thinking about it a lot, and it’s especially challenging in organizations and relationships. I have found that the most thrilling organizations or the best relationships I’ve been involved in were based on a sense of shared purpose.

Why is purpose important to success? Because if you don’t have passion for something, you’ll just be faking it. An understanding of your purpose allows you to judge what you are doing by how well it supports what matters to you.

5. Enjoy building the tower

Finally, it’s also important to have “fun” by which I mean enjoy what you are doing for the sake of doing it, without needing external rewards or affirmation at every stage. There should be pleasure or satisfaction in doing a job well, even if no one notices. That’s your way of rewarding yourself. Even if you don’t succeed, you should feel that the effort and the journey was worth it. Ithaca, a famous poem from a Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933), epitomizes the pleasure of the journey over the final destination.

I think of the way kids enjoy activities with total absorption and passion. They don’t give up or lose focus when they love doing something. Picture them playing with Legos or kicking a soccer ball for hours. In a different marshmallow experiment, I recently saw this TedTalk challenging groups of people to build a tower of marshmallows. Engineers and architects did best, but children beat MBA students, and that says a lot!

In “The Good Ten”, I talked about how I was never the best in anything growing up, yet natural curiosity and an inability to accept the word “no” as an answer made me almost unstoppable when it came to accomplishing things and getting my way.

I think the urge to stay the course and resist temptation is similar to my difficulty with “no.” Internal discipline and a focus on what you want – even when you are tempted by distractions or personal desires – seems fundamental to achieving success over life. The more you are equipped with such psychological muscles, the better you can handle the low feelings of defeat or lack of progress.

They say that much of success is just showing up. We just need to think long-term and beat bad luck with focus, belief, patience, relevant advice and passion.

Don’t eat the marshmallow now. Save it for later!

Photo Alaa rashid / Flickr
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