John Y’s Musings from the Middle: The Marshmallow Test

jyb_musingsThe “Marshmallow Test,” Batman, and law school (and life) lessons.

Ever since my sophomore year in college, after renting the movie the Paper Chase (about life at Harvard law school) and watching it three consecutive times (the third time as the sun was rising the next morning), I knew I wanted to go to law school.

25 years ago this fall I started law school at the University of Kentucky. Law school, for me, was one of those transitional and transformational experiences. The experience has a way of introducing a student to him or herself. During law school one has to come to grips with realities about himself or herself that can be both humbling and heartening. In my case, law school proved to me that I wasn’t nearly as smart as I had secretly hoped; but proved to others that I was considerably smarter than they had assumed. The experience also proved to me I could work much harder than I thought I could. And proved to my parents that I not only could –but would –work much harder than they thought I ever was capable. It was an important and defining time for me.

A few weeks before heading from Louisville to Lexington for law school a wise mentor took me to lunch and asked me what I hoped to achieve there. I told him I wanted to finish in the top 10% of my class (or Order of the Coif, as it is known in most law schools). He was unimpressed and said he only hoped -–and believed—that after law school he could say that “I was a fine young man.” And that is what was really important. He was right, of course, and over the next 3 years I never forgot his response. But I also never forgot my goal.

Over the past week, I have been texting a friend and law school classmate from a quarter decade ago about our law school experience. What has been most striking is the detail with which we each remember the many facets of our experience, but most especially the detail with which we recall grades and class rank. We each noted if we had had a single class where our grade increased by a single increment (from a B+ to an A – or a B to a B+) we would have graduated law school with a notably higher honor than we did. In my case, I pointed out to my friend, I would have graduated “Order of the Coif.”

And this is where the “Marshmallow Test” comes into play. That test was made famous for demonstrating that young children who could delay gratification (by saying “no” to the tempting offer of a single marshmallow now in favor of being rewarded with two marshmallows 15 minutes later) was a better predictor of life success than any other test devised for young children. What does this have to do with law school? Well, the night before one of my final law school exams, I got invited, cajoled, and ultimately persuaded to scrap studying for several important hours to go see the movie Batman. Prior to that night, I never—ever—had compromised on studying during law school exams. My first year I had no cable TV and would only see and go on dates with my now wife once a week. I missed an aunt’s funeral during first year finals and spent Thanksgivings alone so I could get a possible studying edge on my classmates. But this one time—when I knew I was on the bubble for Order of the Coif and that anything lower than a B would probably drop me below Coif—I went for the “instant” rather than the “delayed” gratification.

I got a “B –“ and didn’t achieve my long held goal of making Order of the Coif. And I had only myself to blame. My former classmate and I, while texting about our “near misses,” concluded that we both took it all too seriously back then and that now, fortunately, we were much less competitive than our younger selves and how that was a good thing.

That is all true. I even added that “Life with our competitive tendencies kept in check,” is much more rewarding, both personally and professionally. But I also had to confess that despite my 25 years of additional maturity and, supposedly, wisdom, I would never have anything nice to say about the Batman movie franchise.

I was joking, of course. But not entirely. The texting conversation made me realize that 25 years later I still know—and can relive— every detail about how I botched my shot at graduating law school with that distinguised honor. But what I can’t do is recall with even the slightest detail any of the movie Batman, which I chose instead that night. In other words, I have no memory of the single marshmallow I chose 25 years ago. But a vivid recall about not holding out for just 15 more metaphorical, and perhaps literal, minutes for the bigger and longer lasting prize I sacrificed.

I like to think I still graduated as a “fine young man” as my mentor friend had hoped for me—and that, in many respects, my goal of wanting to graduate “Order of the Coif,” was just an extra marshmallow I missed out on, so to speak, but nothing much more than that. But the lesson I really learned –and am quite sure I’ll never forget—is that when faced as an adult with the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test, I will remember that the second marshmallow is always much sweeter and more satisfying than the first. If for no other reason, the second marshmallow is worth much more because of the sacrifice required to earn it.

Marshmallows, like life, are like that


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