In the years that followed, other researchers pointed out that Mischel’s results were about far more than just willpower; they also involved a child’s family background, socioeconomic circumstances, and other factors. But the implication remained: Good things come to those who wait—and work, and sacrifice, and maybe even suffer.
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The question for today’s graduates is not whether they could have passed Mischel’s marshmallow test; they just passed their own version of it by working and sacrificing to get their diplomas. The question is: What exactly is your marshmallow? Do you know what you sacrificed and suffered for? Do you have a professional calling that is worth having deferred your consumption and gratification all these years?
If you are scratching your head, don’t despair—you don’t have to find an answer immediately. Here, I offer four rules to keep in mind to guide your quest.
Rule 1. The work has to be the reward.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in their careers is to treat work primarily as a means to an end. Whether that end is money, power, or prestige, this instrumentalization of work leads to unhappiness. The psychologist Elliott Jaques—famous for inventing the term midlife crisis— once quoted a middle-aged patient as saying, “Up till now, life has seemed an endless upward slope, with nothing but the distant horizon in view. Now suddenly I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight.” Later, he admitted that he himself was this “patient,” and this was his own lament. He had worked away for years in his career to get some fabulous reward, and then realized that there wasn’t much reward ahead at all, just aging and death.
When your career is just a means to an end, the payoff, even if you get it, will be unsatisfying. Don’t make that mistake. Your work won’t give you joy and fulfillment every day, of course. Some days it will feel pretty unsatisfying. But with the right goals—earning your success and serving others—you can make the work itself your reward.
Rule 2. An interesting career is better than a fun career.
Over the years, I have endured many graduation ceremonies (although I’m sad that my son’s was canceled), and have observed that there are two basic types of speeches from commencement speakers. The first can be summarized as “Go find your purpose.” The second is “Find work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Which one is better advice? Should graduates seek purpose or fun?
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A group of German and American scholars sought to answer this question in 2017. They created what they called the “Work Passion Pursuit Questionnaire,” comparing the job satisfaction of people whose primary work goal was enjoyment with those whose primary goal was finding meaning in their work. Across 1,357 people in their sample, the researchers found that enjoyment seekers had less passion for their work and changed jobs more frequently than meaning seekers.