Lesson 3 — Deferring Satisfaction
A ready-made wonderful life is rarely just handed to us. It is something we work to create. It is something we painstakingly build, element by element. Some of these efforts extend over long periods of time. And because of this, an important skill that we need to develop is the ability to work now, and for a sustained period, even though the reward will be a long time in coming. How do we develop this ability?
For me it all began one autumn day when I was nine years old. My mother, in a casual voice, asked, “Coppie, if you were going to play a musical instrument, what kind of instrument would you want to play?”
I didn’t really know, but I remembered that Jimmy, the kid who used to live next door, had played the clarinet. “The clarinet,” I said, and went back to my fun.
Christmas morning the consequences of my casual reply became apparent, and a great weight descended. Under the tree, on my side, was a shiny metal clarinet. The instant I saw it I felt horribly trapped. This was an extravagant gift that my parents couldn’t really afford, and now they expected me to learn to play it.
My body and mind were soon engaged in music lessons and half-hour practice sessions, but my heart wasn’t. I had no gift for the whole business, and no enthusiasm. Despite that, my playing slowly improved. Eventually, moments of fun and feelings of accomplishment began to arise from this musical drudgery. Although I never became a highly skilled clarinet player, I did get into the school orchestra and band, and that was fun. Marching band in high school was the most fun — trips away, being on the field during half time at the big game, all that. I began to be glad that I had developed at least some skill at this — enough skill, anyway, to open the door to these new kinds of fun.
This was my first experience with long-deferred satisfaction, my first experience at working hard now, with little immediate pleasure, to gain something worthwhile way down the road. At age nine I had absolutely no faith that anything good would ever come out of music lessons and practice — and I had no self-discipline to speak of, no way to keep myself at it. I kept at it because of the external discipline imposed on me by parents, music teacher, and the daily practice sessions.
Looking back, I see now that learning to play the clarinet was the least important thing I got out of this experience. The thing of lasting importance was coming to understand in a direct, personal way that sometimes the payoff comes only after a long period of hard, unrewarding work. I suspect that this is one of those things you truly believe only after you experience it for yourself. Once developed, however, this belief emboldens us to try other long-term experiments, and perhaps even an occasional great adventure.
One way we can help our children develop self-discipline is to provide them with tools for exploration, and enough structure to keep them at it for a while. It might not be music, of course; it might be skiing, programming computers, getting a ham radio license, learning to type, or a hundred other things.
“But kids’ interests are so transient,” you say.
Yes, they often are. Still, it is sometimes possible to sift out the winning interests from the rest before putting out really big bucks. Conditional support is one approach: sharing the burden, and getting some level of commitment from the child. If the interest is skiing, the parent might propose something like: “You want to learn to ski. Terrific. It’s going to take money to start, and a lot of hard work to get good at it. I’ll make you a deal. If you save up for the equipment and agree to take a lesson each time you go skiing, I’ll pay for a winter’s worth of lessons and lift tickets.”
An extended period of hard work followed by some sort of significant payoff is what we’re talking about here. If a person experiences that, then self-confidence soars and the foundations of self-discipline become established. Where parents are involved, they can sometimes structure the situation in ways that maximize the chances of that happening. If the process does not reach the payoff stage the opposite could happen, so it’s important to help a youngster select a first-time long-term project that has a reasonable likelihood of success.
In situations having much externally applied structure, situations where one’s nose is held to the grindstone by someone else, motivation may not matter much. Talent or no talent, motivation or no motivation, almost anyone who takes music lessons for three years and practices for half an hour a day will develop enough musical skill to play in school musical organizations. And almost anyone who takes a year-long high school typing course will know how to touch type when that year is over. Sustained motivation becomes important when this kind of external structure is not there.
When there is little or no external structure to prod, guide, channel, or force us to continue, what does it take to carry us through to the end of a long term project? Sustained motivation is one of those things. If every day we wake up enthusiastic about the project and are eager to get on with it, there is no problem. But our motivation rarely stays at a high level. We usually go through periods of diminished interest, diverted attention, and interfering priorities. When motivation wanes we must fall back on a belief that despite the draggy quality of the present, continued effort will eventually bring results.
This is where that magic something called self-discipline comes in. Self-discipline means going ahead even when enthusiasm wanes, even when the result seems distant, even when doubts arise about whether the result is worth the effort. Self-discipline involves visualizing the goal and turning repeatedly to that end-point vision — keeping it real and tangible and out in front throughout the project.
Self-discipline also involves seeing clearly that there is no evasive tactic that will get us to our goal. That procrastination won’t work. That it is only by putting in the necessary hours of effort that we will eventually reach our goal.
Finally, self-discipline involves maintaining confidence that we are up to the task. This need not be an absolute confidence that we can reach the goal. It’s more a perception that the likelihood of success is compatible with the level of effort. And where does this magic self-discipline stuff come from? I strongly suspect that it comes from having discovered for ourselves, at least once in our lives, that sustained effort with no immediate reward really can lead to important rewards later.
Having said all that, it sometimes makes sense to abandon a project. Perhaps, in the beginning, we underestimated the difficulty of the task or overestimated our ability. Perhaps some unanticipated “fatal flaw” appears along the way. In such cases dropping the project and moving on to something else may be the most sensible thing to do.
It is important when we abandon a project to avoid the temptation to slip into the I-have-failed mindset. Each of us is an experiment of nature, and each of us chooses an additional series of experiments that together constitute our life. Simply continuing to survive is a great accomplishment, and for most people, during most of human history, simply surviving absorbed all their time and energy. For many people that is still the case. If you have the luxury of extra time and extra energy to devote to activities beyond pure survival, does it make sense to waste that bounty on blue funks about things that failed to work out as you’d hoped? Grieve a bit, if need be, and then pour that excess energy into the next experiment.
We can take a lesson from toddlers. They reject the whole idea of failure. Life for them is one series of joyous experiments. They simply keep trying stuff. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. If it’s important, they keep trying, and most of the time they eventually do get it right. If they conclude that the task really is impossible, they feel frustrated and disappointed and perhaps cry for a while — and then turn their attention to some other fun thing to do.
Perhaps you were one of those deprived kids who weren’t forced to take music lessons, and now would like to raise your self-discipline level. Take heart. It’s never too late to learn to play an instrument, and if music isn’t your thing, there is probably some other set of skills you’ve always hankered for. Sign up, submit yourself to a big dose of externally applied discipline, and go through with it. Do it to get over that “Oh, I could never do that” feeling. Do it to expand your own sense of personal capability. Do it to convince yourself that long-term projects really can reach successful conclusions if you just keep making the effort.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
What best example do you have from your own experience of deferred satisfaction, of working long before reaping any reward?
Or, to put it another way: “[S]ometimes the payoff comes only after a long period of hard, unrewarding work.” Illustrate this assertion by describing something from your own experience.
What success(es) have you had so far in learning self-discipline? What failures? Write about your experiences.
Write about your crucial experiences with motivation and procrastination. How do you motivate yourself?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
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Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.