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Persistence the Difference between Mediocrity and Greatness

“It’s not that I’m so smart,” Albert Einstein once said. “It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Einstein’s simple statement is a clarion call for all who seek greatness, for themselves and for their children. In the end, persistence is the difference between mediocrity and greatness.

Can persistence be taught?

The big question is, can it be taught? Can persistence be nurtured by parents and mentors? Boston College’s Ellen Winner insists not. Persistence, she argues, “must have an inborn, biological component.”

But the evidence indicates otherwise. The brain circuits that modulate a person’s level of persistence are plastic — they can be altered. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Robert Cloninger, a Washington University biologist. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

Stanford marshmallow experiment

This jibes well with a classic study by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, described in The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk, who in the early 1970s offered a group of four-year-olds a choice: they could have one marshmallow immediately or wait a short while (until the researcher got back from an “errand”) for two marshmallows. The results:

  • One-third of the kids immediately took the single marshmallow.
  • One-third waited a few minutes but then gave in and settled for the single marshmallow.
  • One-third patiently waited fifteen minutes for two marshmallows.

At the time, it impressed Mischel and his colleagues that so many young children had the self-discipline to wait indefinitely for a larger reward. But the real lesson came after fourteen years of Mischel’s own waiting — until his original subjects had taken the SATs and were finishing high school.

Comparing the SAT scores of the original nonwaiting (instant gratification) group to the waiting (delayed gratification) group, he found the latter scored an average of 210 points higher. Those with an early capacity for self–discipline and delayed gratification had gone on to much higher academic success. The delayed-gratification kids were also rated as much better able to cope with social and personal problems.

Strategies help delay gratification

The marshmallow study also demonstrated the ability to develop such skills. In side experiments, researchers transformed kids’ wait times by suggesting how to think of the rewards. When kids staring at real marshmallows were encouraged to imagine them as pictures of marshmallows — making them more abstract in their minds — it lengthened their ability to wait from six to eighteen minutes. (The reverse was also true — kids imagining pictures as real marshmallows had their waiting ability shortened.)

Strategies like these prove that a kid’s mode of gratification can be altered by parents and teachers. Overall, what emerges about the study of delayed gratification is that it is a skill set — and the skills can be acquired. Kids can learn to distract themselves from objects of desire, learn to abstract those desires, learn to monitor their own progress, and so on.

“Children will have a distinct advantage beginning early in life,” Mischel concluded, “if they use effective self-regulatory strategies to reduce frustration in situations in which self-imposed delay is required to attain desired goals.”

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