It was an intimidating bunch, especially for me: a shy journalism major from Australia. Outside of my small pond on the other side of the planet, I had found myself constantly awkwardly explaining that I was Australian, but originally migrated from Bahrain - how actually my parents were Filipino-Chinese, and no, I didn’t surf or have a pet koala.
That year was a crucial time for many of us. It was my first time living out of the family home, not having to work part-time and living in a big cosmopolitan city that felt like the artistic and cultural centre of the world. All the plans I had about where I thought my life was heading were thrown out the window and suddenly anything was possible.
“There is no marshmallow,” became one of the comforting catchphrases Cynthia and I exchanged frequently. We’d laugh and yell during late night dorm visits. “Remember: no marshmallow”. We’d sign off on emails, returned with a “what marshmallow? [winky face]”. The “no marshmallow” message was even exchanged without words, in knowing smiling glances as we passed each other in the hallway.
The “marshmallow” in our seemingly insane in-ranting referred, of course, to the Stanford University Marshmallow experiment. In this test young children are seated alone in a room and presented with tasty marshmallows (or equally delicious treats) and given two options. Have one treat now, or, patiently wait 15 minutes and get to have two treats.
Researchers found that, later in life, those who had more self-control with the marshmallow were better behaved, less prone to addiction, and scored higher on the SAT.
The take home? If you’re disciplined and have the ability to delay gratification, you’re more likely to achieve your goals in a variety of areas in life. Better test scores, fitter bodies, lower divorce rates -- you name it. So much of our successes can come down to our ability to distance ourselves from temptation and keep a higher goal in mind.
For young kids in this test, those who were able to win two treats instead of one used a variety of distracting techniques. These included pushing the plate away, playing under the table, walking away to do something else, talking to themselves, and, our favourite - clapping and singing “There is no marshmallow! There is no marshmallow! There is no, marshy-marshy-marsh malllowwww!”
Now, for a 5 year-old, clapping and singing about the non-existence of marshmallows is totally acceptable. But for a young professional in the office? Not so much.
And here’s the problem. As we get older, the marshmallows don’t stop coming. They may not take the form of squishy puffs of coloured sugar, but they may be:
- Toxic friendships or relationships that aren’t going anywhere
- Parties you shouldn’t go to
- Lying in bed a little longer
- Staying put when you know your future lies elsewhere
- The comforting risk-free path
- Keeping quiet when you’re stepped on
- Not keeping quiet when you should
For every phase of our lives there are new ‘marshmallows’ that will challenge and test our self-control in different ways.
Sometimes, the marshmallow isn’t a marshmallow at all. Sometimes, it is a good and true carrot leading you in another new and better direction – and the only way to distinguish between the two is seeking advice from people who know you and maybe know better, and meditating damn hard on the whole thing over a good period of time, which is what I did when I was caught between major life decisions.
When I was in London, I had known that my passion lay in journalism. After completing my Masters, I had originally planned to go back to Sydney to apply for a role that would launch my career.
But in London, there was a guy. There was also unprecedented freedom and excitement.
And although I was on track career-wise, I also wanted to have my cake (or marshmallow) and eat it too, despite the fact things with the guy clearly had no future, and the novelty of being in a new city (which was amazing but offered limited opportunities at the time) would fade.
In the end, I avoided the marshmallow and walked the path that had been right all along.
That was more than five years ago. Today the marshmallows are still there, but I’m getting better at recognizing them for what they are. Meanwhile I’m working as the Asia Correspondent for the network that gave me my first break when I returned to Sydney after London, and I’m also living in Beijing - the most exciting city I have experienced yet.
And in case you’re wondering, I’m also in a pretty great relationship with someone who’s on the same page as I am.
I guess that’s the best thing about the marshmallow experiment. If you work really hard and wait it out, somehow, sometime, somewhere - you get double the sweetness. You just gotta trust the process.