How to Gain Success in Life by Learning Wisdom
- I'm offered a bag of peanut butter M&Ms. What will I do?
- I have 15 free minutes. How will I use them?
- I received $200 in royalties. What will I do with it?
These and countless other situations arise every day, and we have to decide how to act. Actress Tracee Ellis Ross has said, "Wisdom means to choose now what will make sense later." And while we may often be able to understand what that choice should be, it can be hard to implement.
I know I should eat three, not three handfuls, of M&Ms. But should I take a walk, read a chapter, tidy the kitchen, write a few sentences, or scroll through social media? Should I save, spend, or donate extra money, or some combination of those actions?
It's hard to be wise, because we're all vulnerable to temptation. It's easier to veg out on Netflix than it is to read that classic novel we've been meaning to finally get to. It's easier to follow celebrity gossip than it is to take time for decluttering. And it's way easier to grab fast food than it is to wash and chop veggies for a healthy salad at home.
So to be wise means to resist temptation, especially the temptation to take the easy, lazy path.
Now, I'm not saying we should never rest. It's not wise to court illness and burnout. What makes sense later, remember?
But we do need to be mindful, and avoid operating on thoughtless auto-pilot. Wisdom is a choice. It's intentional.
The Marshmallow Experiment
In the 1960s, Stanford University professor Walter Mischel began a series of psychological studies which has become known as the Marshmallow Experiment.
With children 4 to 6 years old, Mischel and his team sat each one in a private room and placed a marshmallow (or other treat) on the table in front of him or her. Then the researcher offered the child a deal. While the grownup left the room to do some other work, the child was given the option of either eating the marshmallow or leaving it alone until the grownup returned, thereby earning a second marshmallow.
So the choice was simple: one treat right now, or two treats later.
Then the researcher left the room for 15 minutes.
Of course the children were filmed by a hidden camera, and some of that footage is rather entertaining. Some kids ate the marshmallow right away. Others wiggled and bounced and scooted in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually gave in to temptation after a few minutes. A few children managed to wait the entire time. (Subsequent questioning revealed that some of these distracted themselves by pretending the marshmallow wasn't there.)
Mischel and his team conducted follow-up studies and tracked each child's progress in a number of areas.
Maybe you've heard or read about what they discovered. The children who were able to delay gratification showed greater academic and social competence as teenagers. They were verbally fluent, logical, and better at making plans and dealing with stress. As they entered adulthood, they were less likely to have problems with obesity or substance abuse. Over many decades, the children who were able to exercise self-discipline were more successful in life.
Can we become more self-disciplined?
The question is, can you increase your ability to delay gratification? Can you learn to have better self-control? Because if you can't – if you're either born with internal discipline or not – many of us are screwed.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits,* suggests that we can train this ability, just like we can train our muscles in the gym. When we promise ourselves something small and then deliver on it, over and over again, our brains learn that we're capable of choosing and behaving the way we want to, and that those positive behaviors are worth the effort.
* This blog is reader-supported. If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.
The most important part of change is consistency. For that reason, your new habit should be so small that you can't say no to it. In fact, make your new behavior so easy that it's laughable.
- Want to build an exercise habit? Your goal is to do one pushup, or to walk/run for one minute every day.
- Want to eat more healthfully? Your goal is to add one vegetable to what you would normally eat today.
- Want to retire early? Your goal is to save and invest $1 every day.
- Want to write a dozen books in a little over three years? Your goal is to write one sentence every day.
It doesn't matter if you start small. Doing something impressive for a couple of days isn't going to make a bit of difference if you can't stick with it for the long run. Do something tiny every day for 30 days, and then think about increasing the difficulty.
Why does a tiny habit work?
The point is not the tiny habit, it's mastering the habit of showing up. You want to get good at making the right choice – the one that makes sense for the future.
The tiny habit strategy also reinforces the identity you want to create. If you write one sentence, or practice your guitar for one minute, or do three minutes on the treadmill, or eat vegetable soup and grilled chicken for lunch 30 days in a row, you're shaping the parameters for your new identity. The trick is not to worry about losing 80 pounds, but to focus on becoming the type of person who eats healthfully and sparingly. You're taking the smallest action that confirms the type of person you want to be.
This is powerful. If you change your identity (the type of person you believe you are), it becomes easier to change your actions. (Thank you for this insight, James Clear.)
This is the path toward choosing now what makes sense later. It's the path to wisdom. And it's the path to success.
Want to start the New Year with some new habits?
Experiment with habits that can simplify your life.
Experiments are fun. They're all about discovery and growth. When we experiment, we become willing to do something we might not otherwise do. And there's no real failure in an experiment because all results are data. If something doesn't work the way you hoped, that's simply data that lets you try another behavior to see if it works better.
The Minimalist Challenge: 36 Fun Experiments for a Simpler Life, has activities and projects for six life areas:
- physical clutter
- digital clutter
- your mindset
- your schedule
- your finances
- your personal well-being
Big changes come from tiny steps taken over and over. Let The Minimalist Challenge offer inspiration and encouragement to make a positive difference this year.