Takeaways for musicians from the marshmallow experiment
The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment is highly relevant to musicians as well. The experiment emphasizes on a few critical skills such as delayed gratification, self-control, and willpower for success in the long term.
Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business, has quoted several examples related to the concept of willpower. Some of them are as follows:
At the core of that education is an intense focus on an important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.
And the best way to strengthen willpower and give students a leg up, studies indicate, is to make it into a habit. “Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard—but that’s because they’ve made it automatic,” Angela Duckworth, one of the University of Pennsylvania researchers told me. “Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it.
And of course, here is a quote related to the marshmallow experiment.
They discovered that the four-year-olds who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average, than everyone else. They were more popular and did fewer drugs. It was as if the marshmallow-ignoring kids had self-regulatory skills that gave them an advantage throughout their lives.
Apparently, willpower is something that can be cultivated. However, it's important to keep polishing the willpower muscle to keep that up in several aspects of life.
Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do the math and say “thank you.” WHEN KIDS LEARN HABITS FOR DELAYING THEIR CRAVINGS...That HABITS SPILL OVER TO OTHER PARTS OF LIFE. A skill, after all, is something that remains constant from day to day. Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
Researchers have built on this finding to explain all sorts of phenomena. Some have suggested it helps clarify why otherwise successful people succumb to extramarital affairs (which are most likely to start late at night after a long day of using willpower at work) or why good physicians make dumb mistakes (which most often occur after a doctor has finished a long, complicated task that requires intense focus). “If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and annoying expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.
One way to strengthen the willpower muscle is to engage in activities right from childhood that provides opportunities to exercise this muscle. One of those activities is enrolling ourselves in music lessons or sports. The author has said it better than anyone else in the following quotes:
But how far does this analogy extend? Will exercising willpower muscles make them stronger the same way using dumbbells strengthen biceps? As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.”
“That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star,” said Heatherton. “When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who starts his homework on time.
This willpower exercise habit has been practiced at an organizational level as well.
We’re not in the coffee business serving people,” Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks, told me. “We’re in the people business serving coffee. Our entire business model is based on fantastic customer service. Without that, we’re toast.” The solution, Starbucks discovered, was turning self-discipline into an organizational habit.
We hope these are reasons good enough for you to take that old dusty guitar and start playing again. Let us hope the benefits spill over, both intrinsically and extrinsically, to other parts of our lives as well.
For similar relevant book recommendations and ideas for musicians, sign up below for our weekly newsletter.