Reflections on the Marshmallow Experiment


Nice or not, my lao ya attempt to pose with my birthday present: my first bike shirt from decathlon at only $10.99 🙂

I know, I left my birthday on Facebook to trigger the world’s most impersonal algorithm. Birthdays doesn’t mean much to me anymore, even the Swensen discount I get from AIA has become more and more rigid over the years. You’re welcomed to wish me another year gone on this blog instead of that wall gardened pleasure prison.

My daughter has been rehearsing the Happy Birthday song ever since her birthday in May. She’s very good at cadences, always emphasising the last phrase right before the end. She does that to “all day long” on “wheels on the bus” as well.

Getting a bike shirt completes my apparel collection that started since 2004, when I invested in my first and only bike pants and bike gloves. The gloves seem unnecessary now but it was useful in Seattle. The pants, however, has given my butt extra years.

How many years can these last? Probably one life time at the rate I’m cycling. And that’s all we need isn’t it? Well this post isn’t going to be about my luxury investments anyway. I’m going to talk about the deferred gratification and age.

Background reading and video for the uninitiated

Groomed to wait

Like seriously, I’m one of those kids who were groomed to wait. Wait for everything: no play till homework’s done; no dates till graduation; no start-up till savings are good. And that patience does pay off as it correlates well with a good head-start in life, sort of what the experiment concluded, even though the form the experiment took continue to be argued so take the causation part with a pinch of salt.

Let’s abstract the principle of delayed gratification so that it’s not just a simple experiment. Let’s say, if we choose to live our lives as such (basically we’re now talking around the same level as, say, Buddhist teaching to relinquish all worldly desires). Whatever can wait, we wait, because the reward later, we’re told, is greater.

If we adopt that way of life, we develop self-control. Clearly, despite many religious teachings about letting go material things, this is the way we live our lives – hunting and foraging resources for every level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Being an economic man (Homo Economicus), we fill our Amazon carts slowly to accumulate enough for free shipping; we go for masters or professional certifications because we’re told it would pay better; we stayed pure till marriage.

Can’t wait forever

And here comes the grand problem with the experiment: we die. Given a limited time horizon for most things, we can’t always wait. There’s another school of thought that often get brought up on your social media feed: “Live everyday like it’s your last”. Taken literally, that’s a sure way to instantly die of anxiety, but normally it’s interpreted as basically focusing on the most important thing in our lives everyday.

Really? Everyday, only the most important thing in our lives? City dwellers like us often manage a spider web full of responsibilities. Just look at me. I’ve got calls and meetings and mentoring and coding, I’ve got wife and daughter and family and in-laws, I’ve got hobbies and classes and rehearsals and concerts. And I even have this blog which I refuse to let it die. Even with a well tuned priority queues managing all of it, it only takes a small emergency from any party to completely mess it up.

As a boy, I loved cycling, and it was the way I see the world. I waited till I was 24 before I bought my first road bike (only to be sold a year later as I moved back to hot country). I waited till 30 before I decided to get an interim NTUC Fairprice bike that has since lasted 6 years. Did I wait because there were higher priority stuff? Like spending the money on more important things, or, using the cycling time for work, etc. I wondered.

But my distant memories of my late grandfather gave me the shivers: putting me on the bike and riding me to town was one of my happiest childhood memories, but it was also extremely dangerous as I often feel that he was absolutely not in the right physical condition to cycle any more, what more bring me along. My cycling days are numbered, with each passing day the bike sits quietly in the basement.

Planning for the small things

So with this birthday, it actually became clear to me that I need to rejig the way the priority queue works. It’s not just a bucket list, it’s actually giving time to eat these marshmallows along the way, nibble them if that’s all I can afford.

Just like how I try my best not to miss every stage of my daughter’s precious childhood, I must give time to everything that matters, no matter how small, before being kept chin deep by the biggies. Every resolution is fake till it sits in the calendar and isn’t rescheduled too many times.

It’s also clearer to me now what “Life is a Journey” means. The journey doesn’t automatically get exciting. There will be climax moments but for the vast part, it will consist of a string such happy moments of introversion, and engaging with our on-the-side thing.

Onward to the 4th cycle (by Chinese zodiac standards) in life!

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