Apple, Marshmallows, and Self-Control

Here’s a very interesting story…

Mark Stephens, aka Cringley, was a self-described geek back in 1977. Sometime during that year he helped his two bosses (both of whom were named Steve) move out of a garage and into an office. Cringley had become the 12th employee of a young, unknown start-up company in Northern California.

Oh yeah…the two bosses happened to be Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and the company eventually came to be known as Apple.

At some point during this time Cringley made a decision that would most certainly haunt him for the rest of his life.

“Steve Jobs didn’t have much cash, so he tried to pay people like me in stock” Cringley says. “But I held out for cash—I think $6 per hour at the time. It was, uh, a big mistake.”


A big mistake is a bit of an understatement. Cringley gave up what ended up being worth millions or tens of millions of dollars in Apple stock because he wanted something now…$6 per hour.

Does this sound familiar…taking something now instead of waiting for something later? Has your teen ever done that? Better yet, have you ever done that?

I think we all have, but some people seem to have much more willpower than others. Is it inherent in each of us? Can we change?

The ability to give up an immediate reward for something possibly better in the future is called delayed gratification.

Many, if not most, of the teenagers we work with here at KW Legacy Ranch struggle with delayed gratification. They are very impulsive and want things now (at least when they first arrive at the ranch).

Like Cringley, many of our students seem to lack the ability to look into the future to see what consequences their decisions may have…and the result is that they give up future opportunities in order to have or do something right now.

You may remember hearing or reading about a study that took place back in the late 1960’s that involved preschoolers and marshmallows?

Walter Mischel, a Stanford professor of psychology, designed an experiment where he or a member of his team would invite a preschooler into a room and offer him or her a treat (a marshmallow, cookie, pretzel stick, etc.)

Then the researcher would make the child an offer: they could either eat the treat now or if they were willing to wait while the researcher left the room for a few minutes they could have two treats when the researcher returned.

The interesting part about this study is that Mischel continued to collect data from the kids who participated in the study throughout their lives and found some fascinating information.

He found that the low delayers (those who ate the treat right away) “seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships.”

Other similar studies have been performed with adults and have found that the low delaying adults tend to have a significantly higher body mass index and are more likely to have issues with drugs.

Wow! All this from eating a marshmallow now instead of waiting for two later?

What we’re talking about is self-control, willpower, delayed gratification. These are traits that help make people into successful teenagers and adults.

We’re talking about the ability to study for a test instead of watch t.v. Or the self-control to exercise instead of eat a snack. Or the capacity to say no to drugs. Or the capability to save money instead of buying something right now.

Now don’t get too worried if you’re thinking, “I know my child would eat the first marshmallow and not wait for the second. He’s so impulsive and can’t wait for anything.”

That doesn’t mean your son or daughter is destined to a life of failure and disappointment. There’s much more involved in a study like this than just those who can or can’t wait to eat a treat. We have no idea how all the other factors of life may have affected the outcomes of this particular study.

However, we do know that children and teenagers who learn to delay gratification and increase self-control are much more likely to be successful, productive adults.

So can you teach your children self-control? If so, how do you help your daughter learn to wait for the second marshmallow? How can you help your son increase his willpower?

The answer to the first question, “Is it possible to teach your child self-control and to increase willpower?” is YES! Absolutely.

We do it every day with our students here at the ranch.

The question of HOW is a topic I will address in my next blog post…so stay tuned.


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