Many people have heard of the “Marshmallow Test,” Walter Mischel’s famous experiment testing the patience and self-control of preschoolers in the early 1960s. The children were seated next to a table with a marshmallow on a plate, and told if they could wait 15 minutes without eating it they would be able to get another marshmallow. The videos of these cute kids trying to resist the lure of a single marshmallow are as wonderful to watch as they are instructive in how difficult it is to defer gratification; only a third of the children were able to wait long enough to get the second marshmallow.
Interesting for sure but hardly earth-shaking information. The study would gradually fade into scholarly oblivion and that might have been the end of it for the Marshmallow Test. Then in 2006 Mischel published a follow-up study that tracked the original subjects 40 years later—and those results blew the cover off the ball.
The follow-up study revealed that the children who were able to wait for a second marshmallow ended up with dramatically higher SAT scores, higher GPAs in college, greater earnings during their working life—even lower body-mass indexes—than those children who could not wait. The attributes of patience and self-control were not merely useful in gaining an additional marshmallow, but rather harbingers of a better, richer and more fulfilling life. The Marshmallow Test became a common metaphor for that insight.
In retrospect the lessons seem obvious and self-evident. Given the fact they are ignored regularly by so many people, one would wonder which is more notable—the lessons or the irrational behavior? Of course I am not talking about 5-year-olds. I am talking about full grown adult investors who understand the value of patience and deferred gratification, but are simply incapable of putting into action what they know in their heads.
Being a patient investor does not mean you are absolutely certain about the future or that you have to ignore current events. Being a patient investor means that you are discerning enough and willing enough to accept the kinds of risks whose actualization and ultimate repair exist over time periods that exceed the patience of most other investors, and therefore can be exploited for substantial and recurring profit. Experienced investors commonly refer to this as “time arbitrage.”
Because of the growing popularity of behavioral economics, we now understand that we stand in the way of our own success far more often than we realize. Less well-known, but an equally persistent and powerful enemy to our patience, is a side effect of some of the impressive and useful technology most of us rely upon daily to connect to each other and the world; the same technology that has greatly improved our productivity and our lives.
I was an early adopter of technology. I bought my first PC in 1983, quickly saw the benefits of email, wireless and the Internet, was the first on my block to get a broadband connection, and became completely paperless before the end of the 20th century. I can say with total confidence that I could not run my business with anywhere close to the flexibility, efficiency or effectiveness that these incredible tools have afforded me—and without question my personal life is better as a result of advances that even to this day amaze me.
Yet with every benefit there’s always a cost—and this particular cost was one I could never have imagined.
I’ve always been an avid reader. About four years ago I noticed that my normal capacity to spend long hours of uninterrupted reading was just not there anymore. I assumed it was because I was getting older. About the same time I read Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows.” Carr related that his ability to concentrate wasn’t what it used to be and his long reading spells were becoming non-existent.