Can a Marshmallow Define Your Future Success?


Think back to the five people in high school who you thought were going to prove the most successful.

What made you think that?

Was it their grades?
Perhaps it was because you knew their family was rich enough to support their every endeavour.
Or maybe they were your best friend, and you thought them capable of whatever they put their mind to.

Book smarts. Money. Respect. We hinge our idea of what makes someone successful on a range of indicators. The one that’s proven the most accurate though is probably not one you’d have ever considered:


Let me explain.

Beginning in the late 1960s, eminent Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel performed a series of studies on children between the ages of three and six to determine the correlation between the ability to delay gratification and a subject’s ‘success’ in later parts of their life.

The studies, now known as The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, saw a researcher take a tiny marshmallow from a clear container and place it in front of the child. They would explain that the marshmallow now belonged to the child, and they could eat it whenever they wanted to.

The researcher then went to leave the room for 15 minutes, but not before informing the child that if they had not eaten the marshmallow by the time they got back, they would also get the second marshmallow, which they could clearly see inside the clear container.

A minority chose to eat the marshmallow straight away, doing so in around 30 seconds.

The rest decided to wait, but only a third of this group waited long enough to get the second treat.

What set them apart?

Those that succumbed to temptation spent their time staring at the marshmallow. They tended to wait between eight and twelve minutes but, eventually, it proved too much. It was right there, after all!

The successful children, on the other hand, put their head down between their arms, or looked away at a wall. Even at that young age, they knew that acknowledging the marshmallow’s presence would beat them. So they turned their focus elsewhere.

In the decades following the initial tests, Mischel and his team discovered that this last group – the children who received the second marshmallow – got the best grades at school, had the healthiest bodies (on the BMI scale) and were generally happier in all aspects of their life. The correlation was astoundingly clear.

Of course, the marshmallow experiment doesn’t work with adults, but the same fundamentals apply when you’re working for success in the business world.

As Conor Neill reveals in his intriguing (if horribly mistitled) TEDx talk above, the key is not to stare at the marshmallow, but instead to focus on the process of attaining two of them.

Neill highlights three key traits that make this possible; the same traits that Buffett looks for in the people and companies he has made his billions investing in. They are:


Not knowledge, but adaptive intelligence. Adaptive intelligence is “describing the marshmallow”, i.e. reminding yourself of your goals, and combining all your experience to work out how to overcome the obstacles to get to it.

Neill suggests you write a diary to keep track of daily insights. Before long, you have a trove of wisdom which you can tap into at any time. Doing so means you can make decisions not based on a moment’s reaction, but by reflecting on a lifetime.


Energy is what keeps you motivated to take the next step, rather than making the mistake others do when they focus their eye on the finish line, and caving to despair when they decide they’re not making progress at the speed they want to.

Work in bursts – Neill suggests 15 minute bursts based on discussions with some of Spain’s best athletes – and take pride in minor victories. Love the process.


You know what happened when some of those kids were given a second marshmallow? They bundled them both up to take home and show their parents, because they wanted to say “it was tough, but I did it, and here’s the proof”.

Sticking to your values is the most important trait a truly successful person can embody. Without it, success means nothing.

Look in your diary. Reflect on those 15 minute bursts that spurred you to the finish line. Does how you’re spending your days reflect your values? Your goals?

If not, you won’t be successful. You can’t be.

The good news? It’s never too late to change.

Good luck.


Read the full Stanford Marshmallow Experiment findings here.

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