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Don’t Eat the Marshmallow (Why I NEVER Read the Buffer, EVER)

May 9, 2013

The Marshmallow Test” was a series of experiments conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960’s and 1970’s at Stanford University. You’re probably familiar with them. Mischel offered kids an immediate reward, like a marshmallow, or he promised them two treats if you would wait for 15 minutes. The hard part was the kids had to sit with the marshmallow in front of them for the 15 minutes, knowing they could eat it whenever they wanted.

I’ve often wondered if I were part of that experiment, would I be an “eat it now” or “wait and get double later” kind of guy?

When I was about five years old, I had a problem with my hearing. I don’t remember much about it, but I ended up at Washington State University with a set of headphones listening for tones. I think they had to train my ear. Anyway, when I corrected detected a tone I got an M&M. I distinctly remember deciding that rather than eat them as I got them, I was going to save them so that I could enjoy eating a bunch all at once. The flaw in my plan was evidenced the next time I missed a tone. The audiologist reached out and took one of the M&Ms out of my pile. I promptly ate the rest!

In follow up research, Mischel realized that kids who deferred and were able to wait for the second marshmallow did better later in life. They had higher SAT scores, lower body mass indexes, and did better in school. It’s not clear in the research whether it was their self control or their strategic thinking that aided them.

There have been other times in my life where I had a chance to “eat the marshmallow” first and chose not to.

Schlock Mercenary Buffer
I’ve talked in this column often about how much I enjoy Schlock Mercenary. One of the benefits of knowing the author is that I had access to the buffer. Howard tries to stay two to four weeks ahead. It allows him to go on vacation, or get sick, or take longer on a particular strip. However, I quickly realized that if I read the buffer, then I would miss the enjoyment of reading the strip each day. I avoided the buffer at all costs. The problem got worse when he released his Schlock Mercenary iPad app. 20130508-235230.jpg
It includes the current strip plus the next two days (or maybe three, I haven’t actually checked.)

Dilbert “Buffer”
Like most people in the tech field, I’m a fan of Scott Adam’s “Dilbert” strip. One of my engineers had one of those Dilbert desk calendars. When I was by his desk I’d pick it up and read the current day, but also read ahead. 20130508-233450.jpg

“Have you seen this one for next Thursday?”

“Oh, I never read ahead.”

I didn’t get it, until I received one for Christmas. Now, I get it. I don’t read ahead either.

I don’t consider myself as someone with great self-control. In fact, I tend to obsess over things at times. However, I think my motivation in avoiding reading the buffer is strategic rather than a result of willpower.

I’ve been in business long enough to know that success is a result of consistency. You don’t eat your seed corn. So, I’m forced to admit that I don’t read the buffer because I’m too selfish to deprive myself of the future enjoyment.

But, most of the successful people I know are “wait for it” type of people, so I’m in pretty good company.

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