This is my third and final column on the topic, How Did I Get Here? This is a question that has been posed to me by college students seeking career guidance. I credit three personal characteristics, or skills, that have contributed to my success as the Founder and President of Bell Investment Advisors, now in its twentieth year:
I have already written about the first two, so this column is devoted to the practice of patience.
All of my life, my parents and relatives have told me that I was a remarkable little boy because I was so quiet and so patient. I was happy coloring or building things or cutting out paper figures for much longer periods of time than most kids.
As I reflect on this in the context of my personal and professional development, I can see that patience has served me well. I know others who I am sure are more intelligent than I but who have struggled with their careers and finances because they haven’t practiced the skill of patience. They get bored easily and keep moving from one pursuit to another. Patience and longevity are crucial to career identity and eventual success.
The Marshmallow Test
My son Forrest – also a financial planner and investment advisor at Bell – is an avid reader of The New Yorker. (This alone is a sign that he has developed the skill of patience!). Forrest is a great resource for me because he keeps me up-to-date on the most insightful articles that he reads. The May 18, 2009 issue of The New Yorker contains an article entitled, DON’T! The Secret of Self-Control, by Jonah Lehrer. This article summarizes the research performed by Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel who, in the late 1960’s, designed a simple marshmallow test for four-year-old children.
In this experiment, children could choose one treat from a tray of marshmallows, pretzel sticks, and cookies. Most children chose a marshmallow. The children were told that they could either eat the one marshmallow right away, or they could wait while the adult stepped out of the room, and when the adult returned they could have two marshmallows – as long as they waited and did not eat the first one. The adults would then leave for fifteen minutes, which must have seemed a lifetime to most four year olds. Only 30% of the children could wait for the adult to return before they ate the first marshmallow.
Patience Trumps Intelligence
Once the children in Dr. Mischel’s experiment reached high school, he began to observe a link between their academic achievement and their skill in waiting for the second marshmallow. On average, those who could wait had S.A.T. scores 210 points higher than those who could not. For so many years, psychologists have emphasized intelligence as the most important predictor of success; Dr. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of patience.
Patience Can Be Learned
Based on hundreds of hours of observation, Dr. Mischel concluded that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of obsessing about the marshmallow, the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, hiding under the desk, or singing songs. According to Mishcel, if you can deal with such “hot emotions” as the temptation of a marshmallow, “then later you might be able to study for the S.A.T., instead of watching television,” writes Mischel. “And,” he concludes, in a statement with particular relevance to our line of work, “maybe you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”
Mischel resists the idea that patience has a genetic origin. When he taught children some mental tricks, like pretending the marshmallow is really a cloud, he dramatically improved their patience. Mischel says, “Once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”
Forrest, and his wife Rose Lynn, began teaching our grand-daughter, Sofia, about patience as soon as she could speak. Most everyone knows how difficult it can be to keep a two year old at the dinner table while the adults finish their meal and conversation. When Sofia starts to get restless at the dinner table, Forrest asks her how much longer she is willing to eat with the adults: five minutes, eight minutes or nine minutes. Sofia chooses the number, and then Forrest’s sets the alarm on his watch. Now she is fine because she is learning how to distract herself from her immediate desire, and she receives appropriate praise when she reaches her goal.
As Sofia anticipated this last Christmas, she would hold her hand and arm out in front, palm down, and gesture up and down saying, “I have to wait. I have to be patient.” She also said this one time recently as we were waiting in a long line for a train ride at the Oakland Zoo.
It makes me feel good to know that at less than three years old, Sofia is already acquiring a skill that will serve her well as she begins to find her own path in life.
Jim Bell, CFP® is President and Founder of Bell Investment Advisors, Inc. 1111 Broadway, Suite 1630 in downtown Oakland where he co-manages the business with his wife Bonnie. The firm has been providing customized financial planning, investment management and life coaching services since 1991. www.bellinvest.com 510-433-1066
Published in Piedmont Post on May 26, 2010