Want to listen to more stuff like this? Check out my podcast!
The value of a thing sometimes lies not in what one attains with it but in what one pays for it— what it costs us.
Many years ago, the legendary golfer Gary Player was hitting balls on the range while enthusiasts looked on in awe.
“Man, I’d give anything to be able to hit a golf ball like you,” someone in the gallery called out.
Gary walked over to the man and calmly replied, “No, you wouldn’t.”
“Yes, I would. I’ve give anything to hit like that.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” the hall of famer repeated. “You wouldn’t be willing to do what it takes. You have to rise early in the morning and hit five hundred balls until your hands bleed. Then you stop, tape your hands, and hit five hundred more balls. The next morning you’re out there again with hands so raw you can barely hold your club, but you do it all over again. If you do that through enough years of pain, then you can hit a ball like that.”
The man was dumbfounded. Not only was Gary right–he certainly wasn’t going to do that–he couldn’t believe the pro had to work that hard to make it. He assumed, as many people do, that such an elite performer had ascended to the top of his profession on a graceful wave of inborn talent and divine providence.
American culture is particularly enamored of this myth. We scorn workaholism and love stories of mysterious prodigies that accomplish great things with apparently effortless grace. We thrill when Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting scoffs at mathematical proofs that stumped the brightest minds at MIT–“Do you know how easy this is for me!? This is a fucking joke!”–hiss when captains of industry ascribe their successes to sweat, blood, and toil, and dream of maybe one day stumbling into our own latent superpowers that will put us on the fast track to fame and fortune.
As much as we might want to believe this tale, it’s simply not true. While some people come better suited to certain activities than others, decades of research into human performance has made it abundantly clear that both innate talent (“nature”) and environmental factors (“nurture”) play backseat roles in the development of greatness.
For example, a striking number of legendary artists lived and worked in Renaissance Florence in the fifteenth century, including Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Verrocchio, Donatello, and others. Why? Genes alone can’t explain this phenomenon and neither can environmental considerations. How could so much natural talent accumulate in one place in just a couple of generations, and how were Florence’s tumultuous political and economic landscapes conducive to the practice and development of high art?
If the nature and nurture theory can’t account for this remarkable flowering, what might have caused it?
Well, in Renaissance Florence, it was common for young boys to begin apprenticeships in craft guilds, where they would work under the close supervision of skilled artists. Michelangelo, for example, began his apprenticeship at age six, starting with stone-cutting, and followed by sketching and creating frescoes. Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci didn’t get his “big break” as an artist until he was forty-six years old, with The Last Supper. The genius present in his work wasn’t inherited, it was forged through thousands of hours of deep, difficult work.
How many people marvel at Michelangelo’s David or Leonardo’s Mona Lisa today and mutter that they’d give anything to be able to sculpt or paint like that? How many people burn for a new body, job, partner, or life and proclaim that they’d do anything to grab that brass ring?
No, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t hammer until their hands bled and then hammer some more. They wouldn’t crawl out of bed every day into the cold, darkness of dawn to train. They wouldn’t burn the midnight oil to become the type of person that deserves the better job, partner, or life.
Instead, they actively avoid whatever is difficult and uncomfortable, live according to their feelings and impulses, and decry life’s challenges as unfair and people’s criticisms as hurtful. They don’t want processes and paradigms, they want shortcuts and “secrets.” They don’t want to plant in the spring and tend in the summer to earn a harvest in the fall, they want to shirk and slack and reap bounties they didn’t sow.
In short, they don’t have the discipline to continually trade today’s pleasure and gratification for tomorrow’s security and satisfaction, and if they consider their future prospects at all, they’re unrealistically optimistic in their forecasts, envisioning best-case scenarios and not most likely outcomes.
We can sympathize with this plight, though, because let’s face it–discipline is hard, maybe one of the hardest skills that we can cultivate. We are by nature flawed and fickle creatures that aren’t wired for scrupulous self-control, but for freewheeling novelty and stimulation. A powerful and primal part of us will blithely tell us exactly what we want to hear instead of showing us how far we still have to go. Don’t worry, it’ll coo, a cosmic force will deliver you from the pain, misery, and despair on the horizon. Keep going, it’ll counsel, the darkest hour is always before the dawn. And onward we go, marching calmly to our dooms.
What can we do to avoid the same fate? How can we outmaneuver and overcome this deep-seated programming?
Well, we can start by evaluating our relationship with sacrifice, because while we may say that we want many things in life, if we’re not willing to make the requisite sacrifices to get them, we’re just pretending.
Ingmar Bergman was a Swedish director and producer of over 60 films and documentaries and 170 plays, and is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential moviemakers of all time.
“Do you know what moviemaking is?” Bergman asked in a 1964 interview. “Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film. And during those eight hours there are maybe only ten or twelve minutes, if you’re lucky , of real creation. And maybe they don’t come. Then you have to gear yourself for another eight hours and pray you’re going to get your good ten minutes this time.”
Of his work, Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Miller said this: “I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and I write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine, really. Then, occasionally, something sticks. And then I follow that. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.”
James Joyce estimated that he spent nearly 20,000 hours writing Ulysses. 20,000 hours. That’s nearly 7 years working 8 hours per day, 7 days per week on one book–a book that would ultimately become the most acclaimed work of fiction ever created.
Frederic Chopin’s innovative, nuanced, and technically challenging compositions have established him as one of the greatest composers and pianists of all time, but his creative process was far less harmonious than his masterpieces.
Without foreseeing or seeking it, a melody or tune would come to his mind, and he would then lock himself up in a room for days and begin a desperate, heart-rending quest of trying to get what was in his head down on paper. He repeated bars hundreds of times, writing and rewriting everything. He once spent six weeks on a single page, only to finish with what he first produced. He wept, paced, broke pens, and struggled to find the motivation to get out of bed each day and persevere, and after finally completing a composition, often regretted that what was left wasn’t as clearly defined as what he had originally imagined.
So, you want a beautiful body, you say? Well, what are you willing to sacrifice for it? Are you willing to hit the gym every day instead of watching TV? Are you willing to stop eating so much of the foods that you know you shouldn’t be eating? Are you willing to give every workout everything you’ve got? In other words, do you have the discipline to not do the things you want to do and, instead, do the things you know you should do? To sacrifice the immediate benefits of the former for the prospective benefits of the latter?
If you can’t answer these questions with steely-eyed determination, then you don’t really want it, and until you can, you’ll never get it. Nothing fails as spectacularly as half measures.
Our culture seems to have forgotten this fundamental law of living. Instead, too many of us believe that everything in life should be pleasurable, so we constantly search for distractions, shortcuts, and loopholes that will enable us to escape any and all forms of physical and psychological pain and discomfort. Even our self-help books speak in soft, flattering tones, reassuring us that we’re just fine the way that we are, and that with enough positive self-talk, the universe will reward us with abundance and bliss.
This is in stark contrast to the times of old, when sacrifice was a sacred act that delighted the gods and earned blessings in return, whether in the form of plentiful harvests, success in war, or personal absolution. In Japan, for example, it was believed that sacrificing a woman at a rushing river would satisfy the spirit who lived there, allowing for the construction of bridges and the safe passage of boats. In the Bible, God sacrifices his only son for the sins of mankind. In Greek mythology, Agamemnon killed his own daughter in exchange for a favorable wind on the way to Troy. The great civilizations of Mesoamerica killed people, smashed food, and sank treasure to pay their debts to their gods.
Modernity looks upon such practices and stories as superstitious relics of our barbaric past, and while I wouldn’t argue that we should slit a sheep’s throat with next January’s New Year’s Resolutions, what do you think might happen if we did? How much more seriously might we take those vows? And how might society change if everyone else did the same?
Humans have been watching people succeed and fail for thousands of years and distilling and codifying our findings and observations, and here’s a lesson that we seem to have learned a long time ago: the people that win make the right sacrifices and the people that lose don’t.
That’s a powerful–and empowering–idea because it says that there’s no telling what you might be able to do and achieve if you’re willing to pay the price. It’s also a warning. Life is fraught with peril, tragedy, and suffering, and there are innumerable ways to court chaos and reap the whirlwind. If we want to steer clear of as much catastrophe as possible, we’d better get serious about making the necessary sacrifices now for the sake of our futures.
What kind of sacrifices, you might be wondering?
Well, we could start with the obvious: the things that we’re currently doing that we know we shouldn’t–the things that, if stopped, would immediately make our lives better. You know, things like eating too much sugar or fast food, watching too much TV, playing too much video games, spending too much time on the Internet or social media, spending too much money on things we don’t really need, going to bed too late, and drinking too much coffee and alcohol, to name a few of the more common sins.
Whatever your list is (and we all have one), take a moment to try to imagine how your life might change over the next year or two if you were to sacrifice these malignant parts of you. Now try to imagine what that future might look like if you were to also make the sacrifices of time, attention, and effort necessary to do the things that you know you should be doing–eating healthy, exercising regularly, working harder, educating yourself, budgeting and saving money, whatever they might be. Who might you become if you did all of that? To what heights might you rise?
I don’t think any of us know the real answers to these questions. We might have intimations of our true potential, but rest assured that we’re all capable of much more than we believe.
There’s abundant evidence of this in the scientific literature, but let’s look at the classic example: the “Marshmallow Test” that’s now synonymous with temptation, willpower, and grit.
It started in the 1960s at Stanford University, where Walter Mischel taught psychology. Mischel and his graduate students conducted an experiment wherein children were seated in a room and given the choice of their favorite treat, such as a marshmallow, mint, or pretzel, with the option to have one now or two later, after the researcher had left and come back. The colleague then left the child in the room alone with the goody and told him to speak up if he couldn’t wait any longer.
The research team then secretly observed the children to see how they’d handle themselves. Naturally, many ate the treats straight away, others waited a bit and then gave in, but some managed to hold out until the scientist returned. Each of the latter children used the same strategy to accomplish this, too: they distracted themselves by singing, playing with their chairs, and other similar activities.
Years later, Mischel and his team followed up with the children and found that those who had successfully waited for the second treat were faring markedly better in life than those who hadn’t. They had higher SAT scores and education levels and lower body mass indexes, and better personal relationships, and they rated higher in various life measures including persistence, creativity, foresight, and others.
This experiment has since been criticized as inadequate for supporting such sweeping conclusions, but I believe the the takeaway rings true: the willingness to sacrifice immediate gratification for future rewards is highly correlated with the ability to create a better life.
What most stands in our way of doing this, though?
Most people would say they just lack the willpower or self-control, but it’s not that simple. While our ability to tap into willpower and exert self-control is influenced by our genetics and upbringing, it’s not an immutable element of our biology. We can influence these things greatly through our mindset, decisions, and environment.
For example, if we choose to believe that our capacity for self-control is limitless, we’ll be far better at regulating our behavior than if we choose to believe it’s finite.
This has been illustrated in a number of studies, including one conducted by scientists at the University of Maastricht that gave participants a challenge of controlling their facial expressions when shown upsetting video clips. One group of participants was told that this exercise would be energizing, while the other were told that it would be draining. After viewing the videos, all participants squeezed a handgrip as hard as they could, and the former group performed markedly better.
Research conducted by scientists at Stanford University echoed these findings, demonstrating that students who believed that tough mental exertion didn’t deplete their mental energy didn’t show diminished levels of self-control after strenuous experiences and fared much better in their final exams. Students who believed that willpower is a limited resource, however, reported eating more unhealthy food, procrastinating more, and struggling more to prepare for their tests.
Research also shows that we can enhance our self-control by avoiding situations where we have to actively resist temptation.
For example, if you want to drink less and go to a party, you can choose to sit far from where drinks are being served. If you’re dieting and don’t want to eat too much while at a restaurant, you can ask the waiter to not bring the dessert menu or cart. If you want to focus on studying or working without being distracted by your phone, you can go to the library without it.
Tactics like these are all well and good, but chances are none of this is particularly striking to you. We instinctively know that if we were truly pushed to the wall, we could turn over a new leaf. We probably wouldn’t die on any of the hills that we’re currently struggling to climb.
What is it, then? What’s really holding us back?
Well, for many, it’s the fact that it’s easy to sacrifice uncertain rewards for certain ones, and as a corollary, hard to sacrifice the certain for the uncertain. In other words, one marshmallow in the hand is worth two in the bush.
That’s why we want to savor the junk food today rather than sacrifice it in hopes of a healthier tomorrow, choose the warm embrace of the couch over the austerity of the gym, and consume mindless media instead of meaningful literature. Our ancient ancestors had to obsessively chase immediate rewards just to survive–to them, a carrot you had to work years or even decades for was literally unthinkable–so it’s in our nature to discount future gains, and the further away they are, the higher the discount rate.
Most of us understand intellectually that such behavior is shortsighted but still struggle to change our ways. How do we escape this vicious circle? How do we attune ourselves to making the right sacrifices?
Let’s analyze this conundrum from a few different angles.
First, we do have a powerful element of human nature on our sides in this battle, and that’s the fact that the more we do something, whether helpful or harmful, the more we come to like it and want to continue doing it.
Evidence of this can be found in seminal research dating back several decades demonstrating that “mere exposure” to an arbitrary stimulus generates “mild affection” for it. This holds true with nonsense phrases, human faces, Chinese ideographs, and other visual stimuli, as well as sounds, tastes, ideas, and social stimuli of all kinds.
Marketers and politicians have known the power of repeated exposure for at least as long, and it explains why they spend vast sums of money to repeat simple slogans, jingles, and messages again and again. They know that the more you see and hear their statements, the more familiar and acceptable their products, services, and ideas will become to you. This is why GEICO spends over a billion dollars per year creating and propagating silly but memorable commercials that have little to do with the benefits of insurance, and why political parties are so adamant that their members stay “on message,” repeating the same talking points as publicly and frequently as possible.
What this means for our discussion is that while sacrificing immediate gratification may be difficult and awkward at first, the more we do it, the easier it becomes. In short, it’s a habit that we can establish like any other, and as such, it can take time to settle into. Specifically, studies show that new habits can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months or longer to stick, with most people needing about 66 days to internalize new behavior patterns.
The trick, then, is making it through the first two months, and there are several psychological “tricks” we can employ to increase our chances of success.
One effective way to dramatically reduce your discount rate when tempted to act against your long-term interests is to view the choice as giving up the long-term reward for whatever you find enticing. Take a moment to imagine what it would feel like to enjoy the ultimate payoff and bask in the fruits of your self-control. Then ask if you’re willing to throw all that away for the fleeting pleasure of whatever form of immediate gratification you’re faced with. How does that trade make you feel? Is it worth it?
For example, if you’re on a quest to lose fifteen pounds and staring down a plate of your favorite confections, close your eyes for a minute and imagine having reached your goal weight. Feel how your clothes fit, picture how your new body looks in the mirror, and hear the compliments from friends and loved ones. Now open your eyes and ask yourself: Do you want that or the temporary delight of sugar and fat? Chances are the desserts will look a lot less appetizing.
This line of thinking not only helps us negotiate moments of temptation, it also highlights the fact that every transgression has real-world ramifications and consequences. These penalties are rarely obvious or immediately felt, however. They accrue insidiously instead, like a growing thunderhead, until a predestined moment in the future, when they will unleash their pent-up fury upon us. Here is the smoker who receives the soul-shattering diagnosis, the glutton whose heart gives out, the cheater wracked by guilt, the ne’er-do-well devoid of self-respect.
Similarly, every time we act nobly, tangible benefits may not materialize immediately, but they too accrue, inevitably manifesting in all corners of our lives. There is always an immediate payoff in doing right by you, however, and it’s the emotional reward of feeling good about your choices.
Sophisticated marketers exploit this psychology with a technique known as laddering, which boils down to persuading people that buying a product or service will immediately make them feel the way they would like to feel. For example, to sell faster processing speed on a mobile device, it might go like this: a faster processor means less waiting, less waiting means accomplishing more, and accomplishing more means feeling more in charge and powerful. Advertisements, then, would be aimed at convincing you that the minute you buy the faster phone, you’ll enjoy the immediate, certain, and emotional reward of feeling more effective.
We can use this psychological tactic to our advantage because while the concrete rewards of actions may be delayed and uncertain, the emotional ones are always immediate and assured, and by focusing on the latter, we can gain tremendous power over our behavior. For example, we can consider how will it feel to smoke or drink less or stick to our diet or exercise routine instead of how will it benefit our physiology; how will it feel to save more money or eliminate debt, instead of how it will it impact our net worth or financial resilience; how will it feel to spend less time on social media or watching TV, instead of how will it free up time for other activities.
Another simple method of short-circuiting a momentary desire is putting whatever is tempting you out of sight.
This works because not being able to see the immediate reward makes it less exciting to your primal self, and thus easier to reject. For example, one study found that office workers who kept a jar of candy inside their desk drawer consumed considerably less than those who kept it on their desks. It’s not harder to reach into a drawer than across a desk, but putting the goodies out of sight helped put them out of mind.
You can also institute a mandatory ten-minute wait before allowing yourself to indulge in an undesirable activity.
This may not seem like much time, but research shows that it can make a big difference in how you perceive the situation. In short, the part of you that wants immediate gratification wants it now, and if you resolve to delay for just ten minutes, it no longer sees an instant reward but a future one, allowing you to cool off and make the wiser choice. If, after ten minutes of waiting (and visualizing the long-term reward at stake), you still desperately want to indulge, then allow yourself to, but not before.
(Flip this around and you have a powerful strategy for fighting procrastination, by the way. Decide to do whatever you’re dreading for just ten minutes, and once they’re up, allow yourself to stop. Chances are you’ll want to keep going!)
Yet another highly effective strategy for training your willpower is called “precommitment,” which entails taking action now to strengthen your position and commitment to a behavior and ward off any underhanded attempts at sabotage.
For example, if you have trouble with procrastinating on the Internet instead of working, you can download a program called Cold Turkey (www.getcoldturkey.com) that allows you to block specific websites and applications or turn your Internet off altogether for a set period of time.
If sticking to a diet is your struggle, you could pre-commit by throwing out every bit of tempting junk food in the house and not rebuying them, preparing a healthy lunch to bring to work every day, or putting money on the line on a website like www.dietbetter.com. If you want to pre-commit to exercising regularly, you could pay for an annual membership at your gym instead of going month-to-month.
Another good tool for pre-commitment is the website www.stickk.com, which was created by Yale economist Ian Aryes. Stickk allows you to set a goal and time frame, wager money and decide what happens with it if you fail (it could go to a charity, for example, or even an organization you don’t like, which can be a stronger incentive), designate a “referee” that will monitor your progress and confirm the truthfulness of your reports, and invite supporters to cheer you on.
In short, anything you can do upfront to make it difficult and uncomfortable to change your mind and give up on an undertaking constitutes a form of pre-commitment, and will help you reduce impulsivity and stay on course.
Every moment of every day, we’re making sacrifices of time, energy, and attention. Are they the right sacrifices though? The sacrifices that accrue rewards instead of retributions? The sacrifices needed to make things better?
Are we moving past listlessness and cravings for immediate pleasure and developing the discipline to focus our minds and efforts on future benefits, or are we still acting like children, succumbing to our shortsighted primitive instincts? In short, are we making the right bargain with the future or selling ourselves short?
These are the questions that we must reflect on regularly if we’re going to create a life worth living.