There was a willpower test involving small children and marshmallows. In the test, children are told that they can eat a marshmallow, but not right away. The marshmallow sits in front of them and then the tester leaves the room. Once alone, some of the kids eat the marshmallow right away, some closely examine the marshmallow, and some ignore it. Years later there is a follow up study that shows the kids who delayed gratification were much more successful in life and the kids who couldn’t wait, had a good deal less success.
There’s nothing new here. After all, Aesop wrote down the Grasshopper and The Ant some 2500 years ago and who knows how long the tale was in circulation before that. Of course, Aesop wasn’t given a grant to do research, so he is only mentioned in passing.
In Willpower we are told about this study and countless others having to do with willpower and the fatigue that comes from making too many decisions or even from taking too long to make a decision. It seems that once our willpower is used up, it will remain depleted for some time and we will drift through life in a fog of muddled thought and poor choices.
Willpower tells a number of stories about famous and semi-famous people and their use of willpower to do such things as stand still for hours on end, quit drinking, trek across Africa, and hang in a plastic box in London. Many of these tales are interesting, in an OK, but what has it got to do with me? kind of way. I eventually gave up on the chapter about the heroic adventures of Henry Stanley in Africa, there are only so many stories about death, disease, and starvation I feel like reading.
The point of all the studies, personal histories, and explanations, is to teach us how these people did the things that we seem to be unable to do. The closing chapter recaps the lessons the grasshopper never got a chance to learn. These include things like know your limits, use a to-do list or a not to-do list, learn how to delay gratification-not eliminate it, stop procrastinating, and get enough sleep.
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength has a few dry passages and a great love of experiments. I’m not sure it will help turn this grasshopper into an ant, but I am willing to give a few of the techniques a shot.
I’ll start on them first thing tomorrow. . .