M&Ms and Balancing

“Congratulations!  Today is your day!”

So begins the Dr. Suess classic Oh The Places You’ll Go!, which has undoubtedly enjoyed its annual spike in sales during the recent graduation season.  It is a book which congratulates people who have achieved a milestone and offers them some excellent wisdom in the process.

I am confident that during the addresses which were given in many of this year’s ceremonies, the concept of “delayed gratification” was touched upon in some fashion.  The idea of delayed gratification is that we succeed in life when we put off what is immediately most pleasing and sacrifice for a better tomorrow.  Whether the new graduates know it or not, education is perhaps one of the most powerful examples of delayed gratification.  Sometimes a student would rather watch a television program or socialize than prepare for tomorrow’s math test.  The students who learn to master this habit are the ones who increase their chances for a more productive and enjoyable life.

Scientists and researchers have done a number of studies looking at not only our ability to delay gratification, but also if a person’s inclination to exercise this self-discipline can be predicted at an early age.  In one study I saw a number of years ago, a hidden camera was trained on young children who were in a playroom with an adult, who was actually a researcher.  The adult would make an excuse for why they needed to step out for a few minutes, but before leaving, would place one colorful M&M candy in front of the child, and would tell the child they had a choice:  they could eat the M&M while the adult was out of the room, or if the child waited and did not eat the M&M, then the adult would give the child a second M&M upon their return.  The ensuing video from a number of different children was, to say the least, entertaining.  Naturally there were some who simply busied themselves with other activities and left the M&M, thus setting themselves up for a minor M&M windfall in a few minutes.  Others immediately tossed the M&M into their mouths, perhaps believing in the mantra that life is uncertain and you should eat dessert first.   The funniest kids however were the ones who stared at the M&M after the adult left and were visibly anguished about what to do.  Some succumbed to the temptation and popped the single M&M into their mouth, while others succeeded in waiting a few extra minutes and soon doubled their M&M inventory.

A quick survey of current news stories indicates that not all adults have mastered the skill of delayed gratification; however when you’re an adult there is quite a bit more at stake than a second M&M.  The recent ease with which people could access easy debt caused them to enjoy immediate gratification. The result of all this is apparent, as overloaded credit cards and poor real estate borrowing decisions are causing bankruptcies and foreclosures.  I read an article a couple weeks ago about a man who repossesses boats.  Let’s just say that if you live in certain parts of the country and you’re in the boat repo business, business these days is very good.  One of the boat owners who lost his boat said that he had taken a $125,000 loan to buy a $175,000 boat, which had declined in value (as new boats tend to do) as fast as the interest rate on his loan increased.  The inevitable result of his immediate gratification is a lousy credit rating and a bank which now finds itself owning a boat.

One of the things I have always liked about the midwest is the sense that most people have a grounded sense of how to sacrifice, save, and invest wisely.  I think there is still some truth to that, but a quick look around shows it is perhaps not as true as it used to be.  The immediate access to easy credit is one of many reasons for higher local bankruptcies and foreclosures.  Our national debt, and continued deficit spending, shows us that the national implications of this desire to “have it all” will be significant for future generations

I hope we all coach our young people about delayed gratification, and point out to them that those who practice this habit today enjoy a more productive and enjoyable life tomorrow.  I also hope, like Dr. Suess says, we “step with care and great tact, and remember that life’s a great balancing act”.

Enjoy your M&Ms.