The Marshmallow Test

marsh_200If someone set a marshmallow in front of you, would you eat it?

If that person told you that if you didn’t eat it, but watched it for 15 minutes, they’d give you another marshmallow. Would you eat it or wait?

Now imagine you’re a kid. Do you think you’d have the patience to wait 15 minutes? Think of how much longer 15 minutes seems like to a child than it does to us.

You’ve probably heard of the psychology experiment conducted by Stanford professor Walter Mischel in the 1960s. Mischel found that fewer than one-third of four-year-olds given the test actually waited for the second marshmallow. Those who waited, however, went on to exhibit greater self-control, higher educational outcomes and even better physical fitness than their peers who gobbled up the first marshmallow without waiting.

A recent article on the LinkedIn leadership blog by business author Don Peppers asked corporate leaders if their company could pass the marshmallow test. Peppers puts it in the perspective of whether a company can wait to build a long-term relationship with a customer that will pay much greater dividends than it can by extracting an immediate profit from that customer. Rampant, unchecked short-termism, as Peppers calls it, is afflicting the business world in a self-destructive manner and came very close to trashing the world economy.

We have a similar kind of short-termism that runs rampant in many troops. It’s the need for adult leaders to have perfection and instant gratification in the form of getting things done now, rather than allowing the cycle of youth leadership to run its course. The boy-led method of learning by doing, usually with imperfect results the first or fourth time, drives many adults batty. They’d rather have the troop meeting run on schedule, the groceries properly selected and purchased or the dishes washed and patrol boxes neatly put away after a campout, so they step in and take control away from the Scouts.

The problem with this approach (other than going against everything that Scouting is about) is similar to the lack of patience by corporate leaders – only our payback is not in the form of long-term increased sales. By letting boys try, fail, and do better next time, they’re not getting the job done perfectly, but the future adults that we’re mentoring will learn by doing. They’ll learn a skill, for sure, but they’ll also learn that through perseverance, they can accomplish what they set out to do, even if it seems insurmountable at the outset.

It’s vitally important that adult leaders not lose sight of the reason we are here in the first place. Sure, there are things that adults need to do, like obtaining camping permits and getting Scouts to and from events, but nearly everything else can and should be handled by the boys. So what if the troop meeting isn’t planned perfectly? Next time, it will be better. And if a patrol forgets to buy eggs for the camp breakfast they planned? They’ll remember when next month’s campout comes around. And just when the current crop of youth leaders “gets it,” along comes another one experiencing leadership for the first time. It can take an incredible amount of patience for those who are results-oriented to wait and suffer while boy leadership works its magic. But be patient we must, for unless we follow the methods of Scouting, our boys will be cheated out of the promise we are here to help them realize.

So yes, sit and stare at that marshmallow in front of you. If you wait, it will multiply.

Image by Flickr user sliceofchic / Creative Commons licence


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