Tom McLaughlin: Marshmallow Eaters

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Wed, 02/29/2012 - 7:01am

Causes of success or of failure are the same for nations as they are for people: self discipline or lack thereof.

They’re the same for students too, which I was for eighteen years. Then, for thirty-six years I was a teacher, during which time I read hundreds, perhaps thousands of academic studies. I’ve learned that two things are necessary for student success: hard work and intelligence - in that order. In the vast majority of cases, much work and less intelligence overcomes much intelligence and less work.

Intelligent students find school a breeze in the early grades. They seldom have to work in order to learn. As the work gets harder in later grades, their innate intelligence becomes insufficient by itself. Unless they learn to work, they begin to fail. I’ve seen it over and over.

Of the myriad educational studies that have passed before my eyes, by far the best was begun in 1968 and is still going on. Some call it the “Stanford Marshmallow Study,” summarized in a New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer. Psychologist Walter Mischel experimented with hundreds of four-year-olds by telling them he would give them one marshmallow immediately or, if they could wait, he would give them two marshmallows fifteen minutes later. Most who were able to discipline themselves enough to wait not only did well in school; they went on to lead successful lives as adults. Most who couldn’t wait didn’t do either.

We all know people with the self-discipline to postpone gratification. They work hard and save first, and then enjoy themselves. We also know those who lack that self-discipline. They indulge themselves at every opportunity and seldom, if ever, work hard unless it’s forced upon them. Those people inevitably become dependent on the first group. When the undisciplined get so numerous that they threaten to outnumber the disciplined, everything starts to unravel. That’s true for families as well as towns, cities, states, and nations.

The rest is here.

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