Creating the Life Skill of Delayed Gratification
By Shane Trotter. Originally published on www.breakingmuscle.com
Training is a microcosm of life, teaching us persistence, tenacity, a sense of discipline, and the patience required to achieve any great goal. The toughness we achieve through training is essential to do great things, and the love and connection we develop with our bodies will serve us throughout our lives.
The coaches on this site may write about training, but there are far deeper themes that guide them. We all crave growth because it is the essence of life, and training is our method to cultivate that growth. We also all have the drive to contribute to the growth to others, and as such, we are all teachers and coaches. The essential lessons of growth and contribution can be learned in any physical discipline, and applied to our lives and passions.
As an educator, I see a deep gulf between the essential lessons and attitudes necessary for success, and the culture we model and expect of our students. There is no more powerful tool than public education to intentionally develop the life skills, knowledge, and mindset we find in training.
Delayed Gratification and Success
"It's not that I'm so smart. It's just that I stay with problems longer." -Albert Einstein
Perhaps no skill is more significant and essential to long-term success as learning to delay gratification. As leaders of youth, we must intentionally coach in ways that optimize the development of willpower and a growth mindset.
Delayed gratification is at the root of every individual and team success story. It is the key that unlocks good grades, great relationships, and even saving money. Truly it is the essence of success. Yet, our education system does not work to create it. Teachers are rarely given strategies to develop this in their students, nor explicitly taught the value themselves. There are no district initiatives to target greater delayed gratification, and no classes that present its benefits to students. The only areas where youth are exposed to delayed gratification are sports and the arts.
What is needed is a vision for what skills in life are essential for students. Our schools must become the authority in child and adolescent development to create a strong, heroic generation.
Removing Challenge Creates Mediocrity
"Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they're yours." -Richard Bach
The monikers used to describe the newest generation to reach adulthood speak to the failure of educators and parents to develop delayed gratification. The most common descriptor for centennials and millennials is “entitled.” Entitlement is the polar opposite of delayed gratification. That an entire generation has embodied the mindset of entitlement means that the culture itself has shifted. The norm has become giving what is not earned.
A side effect of this is learned helplessness. Youth are taught they cannot do things that they clearly can, because other people are so eager to either reduce the challenge or solve it for them.
At a recent superintendents’ conference, an educator from New York discussed how widespread the lowering of expectations has become. She asserted that “football may be the best taught subject in American high schools, because it may be the only subject that we haven’t tried to make easy.” That statement is a testament to the power of training and athletics to teach lessons, while also a spotlight on what we can improve across the world of youth development.
If challenge is required for growth, then it must be the central focus of all education.
Creating Early Expectations
"It is not the young people that degenerate; they are not spoiled until those of mature age are already sunk into corruption." -Charles de Montesquieu
Success in training, education, or work is built upon work habits that are rarely taught outside the home. Most who struggle with anything from addiction to lack of effort are dealing with some degree of lacking impulse control. For those without self-control, the potential for endless procrastination abounds.
Thanks to social media, every kid sees every nice gift and cool experience that their friends have, and perceive themselves deprived if they do not get the same. This constant exposure to their entire network’s highlight film creates a sense of missing out. Compounding this “deprivation” is a trend towards providing an overabundance. The parenting pendulum has swung more towards providing and protection, and away from developing strong, independent children. Providing comfort is seen as the top priority of most parents. Yet we’ve all seen the Venn diagram which shows the lack of overlap between awesomeness and our comfort zones.
We perpetuate these trends everywhere. You can’t go to a restaurant, movie, or grocery store without seeing 4 year olds being pacified by the iPad or iPhone. We’ve all watched atrocious behavior from kids be rewarded with the toy of their choosing. The cars in the student parking lot at some high schools would amaze you. Brand new big trucks, Audis, BMWs, Mercedes—all are seen flying through the parking lot with far more regularity than Dad’s old Honda Accord.
What a blow to their understanding of delayed gratification. Will they be inclined to spend wisely in 10 years when they get their next car and are only making $40,000 a year? Isn’t it odd that their first car might be the best they can afford for another 30 years?
Discipline Beats Coddling
"The things that hurt, instruct." -Benjamin Franklin
Lessons in independence and delayed gratification must supersede our desire to give, shelter, and excessively provide for the children we love so much. Protection is not the best gift we can give this generation. Learned helplessness is the most debilitating quality they could have. It’s like paralyzing someone by convincing them they do not have legs.
Most great cultures work hard to prepare youth for some right of passage that signifies their adulthood. There is a societal understanding that youth are being prepared for self-sufficiency, and to lead lives that contribute to society. Lessons that create growth not be harsh, just firmly rooted in standards that ensure development.
The first step of teaching delayed gratification is to set expectations, and then hold them accountable, because we love them. Ask that they do all their homework as soon as they get home from school each day. Give them chores that allow them to earn an allowance, but explain the allowance is contingent upon chores well done.
Many parents will say to me, “maybe you can help, because I just don’t know what to do.” It isn’t that complicated! Take their phone, then take their car. You provide them everything, which means you have absolute control. Give it back when their attitude and effort meet your standard.
Trust me I want your kids to get out and play as much as you do. These expectations need not be stifling and should be appropriate to their age. I’m not saying to run your home like a farm, and have them work from sunup to sundown. But responsibility is a great teacher of delayed gratification. Their understanding of earning privileges should come at an early age to help them build work skills, and establish the expectation that they will be a contributing member of society.
This is not a diatribe against this new generation, their technology, and how they “just don’t get it.” My intent is that we begin to teach values that will create the most empowered, happy generation possible. How can we incline youth to greater discipline later in life, if they perceive work as punishment and lack the tools to chase their dreams?
Think of willpower as a muscle. It can grow fatigued, which we’ve all noticed after a hard day at work, when eating a healthy dinner just isn’t a priority anymore. Also, like a muscle, we can make our willpower stronger by practice. Parents must put their youth in situations that require them to grow willpower.
Be Careful What You Praise
"And the trouble is, if you don't risk anything, you risk even more." -Erica Jong
Another essential ingredient in creating youth who will persist through challenge and delay gratification is to praise the right things. Renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck came to the startling conclusion in her studies that some praise creates mediocrity by inducing a fear of failure.
Dweck examined over 400 students in 6 studies to find the differences between being praised for intelligence, versus being praised for effort. Students were given a puzzle that was a challenge, but easy enough for them to figure out. One third of the students were praised for how intelligent they were to complete this task; another third were praised for their effort; and the final third were simply praised for the outcome. Then, each group was asked whether they would like their next task to be a more challenging one or an easier task. The majority of those praised for effort chose the more challenging task, while the majority of those praised for intelligence chose the easier task.
Even more startling was the next challenge. Students were given a more challenging set of problems and told to work on them. The group who’d been praised for intelligence reported not liking the increased challenge. They were far less likely to take the problems home to work on, and felt they were no longer smart. This group had learned to measure themselves based on what people said about their performance. The challenge was a threat to their intelligence. Conversely, the group praised for effort overwhelmingly reported liking the harder problems just as much if not more than the previous task. They were eager to take the problems home to practice. They had seen that effort was the determining factor, and concluded that with more challenge, there was simply a need for more effort, like taking the problems home.
The relationship between how we praise youth and their willingness to work and sacrifice is clear. If we wish to train people to delay gratification, we must intentionally praise that skill and the controllable effort—not things beyond their control like intelligence and outcome.
This concept can be applied in training programs with athletes, and parents teaching their children new chores. Make them feel valued for the great effort they are giving, not inadequate because they don’t measure up to some arbitrary standard.
That doesn’t mean we should tell them not to try because they struggle, or keep the level of difficulty stagnant to preserve their self-esteem. This is the difference between training a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset leads to a victim mentality, where one is at the mercy of their circumstances. A growth mindset makes one an active driver, and the person most responsible for their own lives. A growth mindset recasts obstacles as challenges for you to overcome, not problems that always seem to afflict you. In that mindset, you’re more likely to delay gratification in your efforts to accomplish goals, because you realize that your response matters.
Delayed Gratification and Self-Belief
"Genius is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind." -F. Scott Fitzgerald
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have consistently been the best coach and player combination in professional football for over a decade. Since Brady became the starter in New England, they’ve won 4 Super Bowls, gone to 6, and had 14 playoff appearances. All this in an era of salary caps, where the idea of a dynasty was thought to be extinct.
The commonality between both men is the faith they put in their abilities and effort when no one else did. After being forced to split snaps the early part of his senior year, Brady entered the NFL draft without much fanfare. His 5.28 40-yard dash and 24.5 inch vertical had no one drooling. He was finally picked in the 6th round, #199 overall, in the 2000 NFL draft, by the New England Patriots.
The Patriots had just awarded Drew Bledsoe the richest contract in NFL history. Bledsoe was the face of the franchise—a pro-bowler who had taken the Patriots to a Super Bowl a few years earlier. Any logical person would resign themselves to just making the team and being an adequate back-up. Brady was different. He told friends early on that he was going to become the starter. They just laughed, but Brady was unrelenting. He had a vision for who he could be, and chased it tenaciously. Now he has four Super Bowl rings, and will be chasing a fifth in a couple weeks.
Belichick had a similar ability to see a grand vision of what could be, even while those around him were convinced of his limitations. Belichick made a name for himself under Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells as the defensive coordinator for the attacking Giants defenses of the late 80s and early 90s. However, his first time as head coach of the Cleveland Browns was marked by an inability to win the big ones. By many accounts, his philosophy and scouting system was just taking root when the Browns fired him on Valentine’s Day, 1996.
Giving him the condescending nickname “Little Bill,” many were convinced Belichick was best suited to coordinate for Bill Parcells, who he’d returned to after parting with the Browns. Indeed, most of us would not be willing or able to endure the length of delayed gratification Belichick did, all while maintaining that steadfast confidence in our own vision. When he did finally get the chance to coach the Patriots, he created the greatest dynasty of the modern era.
Had a younger Brady or Belichick concluded that they were what others thought of them, the NFL would be a very different place indeed. They are models of success, shaped by strong willpower and the confidence that comes from understanding the value of effort and delayed gratification.
This generation faces many problems; an extremely unhealthy culture and its epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and health-related illness; crippling debt, dwindling resources, and enemies abroad, just to name a few. All of them are just challenges that require a different approach, not the same one that got us here. They require the same ability to think outside the box and tenaciously persist that we saw in Belichick and Brady.
Youthful idealism is often shot down, replaced by the belief in a hopeless status quo that is considered a sign of maturity. The intense mistrust this generation has of authority, politics, and modern systems is an asset, in that most our issues come from the stagnation of old systems and dogmas gone unchallenged. This generation will fix these systems if we develop in them the delayed gratification necessary to tackle challenges. It’s time we give students that advantage.
You Will Not Grow if You Can Not Wait
"In about the same degree as you are helpful, you are happy." -Karl Reiland
We are all teachers of each other. Culture is the backbone of what we do. Delaying gratification is a lesson we all must learn, but it is not often explicitly taught. As a nation, we must clarify its importance in schools so that we can reverse the trend against it. When we fail to teach this lesson, we are not simply acting on some benign alternative view. We are handicapping our students.
We can’t just vaguely understand this need. We should be stirred to action and to reexamine how our coaching, teaching, and parenting strategies develop or don’t develop discipline. It is our responsibility to do everything we can to create a great, inspired generation. Mediocrity is a clear sign that we aren’t reaching our potential.
At the root of a successful, growth-minded generation must be a clear understanding of the need for delayed gratification. Our daily lives are full of opportunities to develop willpower. From a young age, children should take pride in responsibility. Even just cleaning up after themselves, whether it’s the dishes, the trash, or in the weight room. Because as every trainer knows, the greatest indicator of human decency is a person who puts their weights away when they are done with them.