The OED defines ‘career’ as an ‘occupation undertaken for a significant period of time, usually with opportunities for progress’. Common synonyms include the career ladder and progress in a more general sense. So when we talk about careers, we are talking about continuous progress and increasing levels of success. According to a US study, known as the Marshmallow Experiment, the one factor that determines success more than any other is self-control.
The Marshmallow Test
The Marshmallow Test was carried out at Stanford University in the 1970s under the leadership of Professor Walter Mischel. Children between the ages of four and six were placed in an undisturbed and safe environment and were asked to make a choice: either have one marshmallow now or have two later. If they wanted two marshmallows they’d have to wait. Not an easy task for children.
When those same participants reached a certain age they were asked to return for further tests. Walter Mischel has now published a book outlining the results of the Stanford experiment (see below).
The experiment measured success in adulthood based on the following criteria: the participants’ SAT results (a standardised test used in America to measure people’s abilities and skills), their school-leaving qualifications, body mass index, and other criteria such as whether they were in a stable relationship. The children who were able to wait for two marshmallows in the study later achieved better results in the success categories as adults. Walter Mischel is convinced that self-control is one of the crucial skills that help people succeed.
The Marshmallow Experiment has since been repeated a number of times at various institutions.
Is success predetermined?
The Marshmallow Experiment shows that children who find it difficult to delay gratification and to exercise self-control are less successful in adulthood. However, in the Marshmallow Test success is defined based on categories that some might not regard as being the criteria of success.
Success means achieving a goal that you have set for yourself. The point is to have goals and to avoid impeding yourself as you work to achieve them. As is suggested in the TED video below, it can be a good idea to reward yourself when you achieve small goals. You should also always be honest with yourself if self-control is not one of your strongest characteristics.
Industriousness is also regarded as a prerequisite of success. But you can only be industrious if you are highly motivated to do your work. So the secret of success is to have a personal, internal sense of inspiration.
What is so objectionable about being average or taking a career break?
Society defines success for us. Success is also defined very precisely in scientific studies. But are you really less successful if your performance with regard to specific criteria is not so impressive? There may be a positive correlation between concepts such as self-control and delayed gratification. But what success ultimately means can be defined in a variety of ways.
Professional ‘downsizing’ in the form of a career break or a switch from a large company to the uncertain and potentially less successful world of freelancing is now less and less likely to be regarded in society as a career slump. Maybe the average is simply more comfortable and maybe a career break is what you need to be happy. So being average and having career breaks are not things to be afraid of – as long as they match your concept of what it means to be successful.
Walter Mischel’s book about the results of the Marshmallow Study was published in September 2014.
Incidentally, the title of this post borrows from a very wise quotation by Peter Drucker. He came up with the sentence: ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, reminding us that a success-oriented business strategy is nothing without the corporate culture and the people that ultimately execute that strategy. It is for exactly this reason that Apple Inc. has been celebrated as the world’s most valuable brand for many years. For millions of people around the world, Apple is not just a brand but a lifestyle that can be lived both within and outside the company. And this was certainly not achieved without a mixture of industriousness, motivation and self-control.
It is worth looking for your dream job and identify your own definition of success. You will be rewarded – I am quite sure – with success.