The power of delayed gratification

What do these three people have in common?

— A photographer whose work so eloquently captures the sheer majesty of creation that her pictures are used in publications like National Geographic;

— A violinist who can make the instrument cry and sing like it’s alive;

— A professor who has a waiting list for all his classes and regularly appears on TV as a subject-matter expert in his field.

Know what it is? Each one never gave up. It’s as simple as that.

You might think you have to be born special or be connected or have some other fantastic act of luck to reach the top of your field. Maybe with something like setting a marathon running record, this is true; you really do need to be born with the right mix of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers to excel at distance running.

But with just about everything else, it is sheer hard work, determination, and simply refusing to give up that will get you there, if you want it badly enough.

The world-renowned photographer, the concert violinist, and the top professor all got there by working relentlessly and by making every mistake there is to make in their field. If you work so hard that you make, and then learn from, all the mistakes in your field, you will reach the top.

A lot of becoming the best at something requires delayed gratification. This is where you hold off on immediate pleasure as you pursue a long-term goal.

Many, many people have trouble with this. I still remember one Monday night a long time ago. It was the night of the college football bowl game that would decide the national championship.

This was a year when Miami had at least a dozen players who would go on to be exceptional pros. I wanted to watch that game badly, but the next day I had to go to work, followed by night school. I knew if I stayed up I’d be worth nothing the next day.

I skipped the game, and of course it was a game for the ages, but I was able to go to work and go to school the next day with no problem. So there you go.

At some point, if you want to succeed, making proper choices like this is key. Believe me when I say this, because I’ve made enough bad choices in my life to know the difference, yes siree.

Not many can throw away a full scholarship to a top college like I did and still graduate and have a good career, but I was able to do just that. At some point, the “light” went on for me. Skipping that championship game was a big part of it.

There is a very famous psychology experiment that has been repeated over and over and perfectly exemplifies what I’m getting at. They put a small kid in a room with a hidden camera. There is a cookie on the table.

The moderator explains that the kid can eat the cookie now, but if she waits a few minutes while the moderator leaves, the kid can have a second cookie upon his return. When the moderator leaves the room, some kids immediately gobble down the cookie. Others look at it longingly, but hold off because they’d rather wait to get the second cookie.

They have gone on to track these kids over their entire lives, and over and over, the kids who waited for the second cookie have much better outcomes: health, success, happiness, etc. That is the power of delayed gratification.

I think a big problem we have is that, due to being saturated in media, we see all the very best at everything all the time. Then, when we try something and see how hard it is, we just give up because there is no way, we think, we can ever be that good.

Think about how many guitars go unplayed, how many golf clubs sit in garages, and how many rusted hulks of former classic cars sit in fields or barns, waiting to be restored. Doing anything that is non-trivial requires the big three: drive, determination, and tenacity.

You can’t buy these, either; you have to have them inside you. The good news is they are always waiting around for you to discover them.

As I write this in August, I have now lost 26 pounds and 2 inches off my waist since February, and am continuing to lose. This requires quite a bit of discipline on my part. Who doesn’t like huge ice cream sundaes, fresh crusty bread, and going back for seconds and sometimes thirds?

But I have made up my mind that nothing tastes as good as losing weight, period. It’s amazing what you can do when you set your mind to something. Too bad you can’t bottle and sell it.

Some of us have been fortunate to join payroll-deduction programs at work. This is where a small amount of your pay goes into some kind of long-term investment for retirement.

I call this kind of thing “paying yourself.” If you let them deduct it for you, you don’t even feel it. Then, when you retire, it’s something there to help with whatever pension and Social Security you might have earned.

Yet many people choose to live paycheck to paycheck, and have little or no savings at all. In fact, the Social Security Administration estimates that 21 percent of married couples and 45 percent of single people rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income. This is really sad.

Social Security was created to give our seniors some dignity in their retirement years. It was never intended to be their only income. Yet delaying gratification — saving now to have for later — seems just to be so hard for so many.

It’s difficult to promote saving for oneself when the country is trillions of dollars in debt and looking to borrow even more. Yes, the proposed programs are all great and much needed, but I know if I owed anybody anything I’d be canceling cable and eating rice and beans until I caught up.

It’s a shame we as a country don’t see how powerful that is. I’m no economist, and I know they say borrowing promotes spending, which creates more revenue, but crushing debt is crushing debt no matter how you look at it. What a message it would send if we as a county could show some fiscal restraint for once.

Learning how to delay gratification means learning about discipline, or about controlling yourself. Eating, spending, swearing, and many other behaviors are all waiting for you to exercise control over them. Can you do it? You’ll never know if you don’t try.