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#1 - The allure & ignorance of "now"
Have you heard about the Marshmallow experiment? If you haven’t, let me briefly explain it to you.
A bunch of scientists gathered a group of kids.
Each kid is escorted by one of the scientists to a room containing a marshmallow.
The scientist would then lay out 2 choices in front of the kid - they could either have the marshmallow instantly or have 2 marshmallows if they waited for some time.
The scientist would then leave the room for 15 minutes.
Think back to when you were a kid. What would you have done? I know I couldn’t care less for marshmallows. But depending on the phase I’m in, if you put a hide ‘n’ seek biscuit or a Good day Chocochip cookie or Nutties or Gems (“Ah, we get the point Aman”) instead, then we’re talking. My brother would probably be the best person to answer this (so sorry for eating those chocolates and icecreams all these years but how can you not eat them for a whole week)!
But, what was the point of conducting this experiment? Well, the experimenters kept a note of the children who gave in to their immediate craving and those who were able to wait (and hence, receive another marshmallow). They followed the life trajectories of all those students and found that those who were able to delay the instant gratification of having the marshmallow in front of them went on to have “better life outcomes” as measured by SAT scores, educational achievements, etc. (see maa, this is why I am not giving the GRE).
Now, you might be wondering, why did I mention this? For our ancestors, sugary foods - tastier and, perhaps most importantly, a rich source of calories (and hence, energy) - were scarce. So, if they came across one, it would be the optimal behavior, for them, to pounce on it and have as much of it as possible (Source: Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari). Hence, we inherited that behavior, even though sugar is no longer scarce in the world we live in today. Thus, there is an evolutionary basis for our cravings for sweets.
However, I want to talk about a different kind of craving that has become synonymous with our generation - the need to have everything now. Instantly. Hungry? Order food. Bored? Watch an episode on Netflix. Want to find love? Just swipe right. Before you start imagining me as that angry uncle who is always lamenting and downplaying the newer generation, let me clarify that I actively partake (or have partaken) in most of the activities I’ve mentioned above.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of them. What I am worried about is how it affects our brain and its reward system in the long term along with how we feel about ourselves. Today, our brain constantly seeks rewards in one form or the other. And why shouldn’t it? There are so many sources to get it from. I will be the first to admit that even though my 10 years younger self would have found it unbelievable to imagine everything I have in my life now, I have felt as if I’m just a failure in so many moments, until as recently as December. I am extremely grateful for all my close friends and family members who’ve constantly reassured me that that is not the case, reminded me of everything that I have gained in the process, and celebrated my small victories.
However, unfortunately, that awareness still doesn’t change the fact that I haven’t “succeeded” as per what I have considered “success” so far in my life. And what is that, really? What do I consider success, you might ask? As much as I would like to believe that I don’t feel burdened by societal pressures, the truth, I’ve realized, is that my definition of “success” has been, simply, if others consider me successful. Some examples of what that could look like:
Earning an insane amount of money
Building something that a lot of people use on a regular basis and is a well-known company/product
Creating a large-scale social impact
Thankfully, though, the month of December has been one of reflection and introspection. Not just on the last year but also on my values, revisiting my definition of “success”. I realized that, in the past, everytime I ended up meeting a goal that seemed audacious to me at the time I set it, I simply sought a bigger goal. The goalpost just shifted. And it keeps shifting every time a goal is achieved. And it will keep shifting. I realized that I’m playing a game that has no end. A game that is designed to make the player lose. Again and again. Again and again. Yet, so many of us are still playing it. Day after day. Day after day.
It became clear to me that a major source of my dissatisfaction has been a need to have “success” RIGHT NOW. However, when I asked myself, “What happens after I’m successful?”, this was the answer that came back: “The same thing I did yesterday. And the day before that”. I get so caught up in imagining how I might feel after achieving a particular milestone that I sometimes lose sight of the fact that it is just one stop in the train of life. And for the train to keep running, a lot of things have to be taken care of. The train should be properly maintained on a regular basis. The tracks should be laid out correctly. There must be proper communication with other trains. It shouldn’t take on more load than it can carry. And whatnot.
And even when people do become “successful”, their lives don’t stop having problems (e.g. so many “celebrity couples” end up divorcing, even a couple as powerful as Bill & Melinda Gates chose to divorce). Some “successful” people did not even remain so for a long time (e.g. Elizabeth Thomas, founder of Theranos, once heralded as the “new Steve Jobs” and the youngest female self-made billionaire, is now behind bars for fraud, Sam Bankman-Fried, the billionaire poster-boy of crypto has been arrested from his home in the Bahamas for running one of the largest scams in crypto).
So, what’s the rush for becoming “successful”?
In the allure of wanting everything right now, we often forget that the only thing we truly have with us and the only thing we have any control over is “now”, the present moment. How easily do we undermine the importance and beauty of the current moment. How often are we fully present, today? Now?
One of my close friends reminded me of this quote last week:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives
- Annie Dillard
I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder as well.
What does “success” mean to you?
What would you do after you’re successful?
Are you truly present, today? If not, what is one thing you can do to be more present?