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As a Chinese-American immigrant, my parents ingrained upon me the idea of sacrifice. They sacrificed so much to uproot their lives and raise me in a foreign country where they knew no one. They both worked two jobs for a long time so we could live in a town that had great public schools. If I forgot my lunch, my mom would literally drive my lunch to school to make sure I ate, so I wouldn’t be tired and starving at gymnastics practice.
I appreciated my parent’s dedication, but at times it wore on me. Because their sacrifice meant I, too, had to make sacrifices. There was a path I had to follow and it went something like this:
- Because my parents sacrificed for me, I would bust my ass to get good grades and get into a good college.
Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in college to get a good job.
Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in my job to rise through the ranks and increase my salary.
Then I could enjoy life. Then I would have children and bust my ass so they could have a better and brighter future than I did.
At some point I realized there didn’t seem to be a real payoff. It was some living version of MC Escher’s eternal stairs — always climbing and never reaching the top. I knew I had to get off the staircase.
Beware of the eternal staircase of delayed gratification
The ability to delay gratification is an essential willpower skill, and children who are better able to delay gratification score higher on their SATs and are more socially well adjusted as teens.
But delayed gratification can go too far. Here’s a refrain that many-an-entrepreneur has said:
“Once we launch our product, I’ll be able to rest and appreciate the success I’ve achieved Until then, I’m basically failing and need to bust my ass like mad.”
Once the product launches, the goal posts get moved to hiring an important team member, raising another round of financing, getting profitable, getting acquired, etc. I fell into this trap and I often see a lot of other founders do the same. And of course, this mindset applies to not just entrepreneurs but ambitious people of all stripes.
The game never ends
When discussing this topic with a friend, (specifically in regards to personal growth), he asked: “When is enough, enough?”
I’m not sure this is the right question. There will always be more work ahead. There will always be more challenges to overcome. You will never be completely satisfied (for more than a very brief period).
Living is about growing, conquering, stumbling, recovering, reflecting, learning and so on. Delayed gratification is important because most big projects require sustained commitment over a long period. But you have to learn to appreciate each and every day too.
Maybe a better question to ask would be: “How can I work towards the future while enjoying what I have?”
It’s definitely possible to be busting your butt for a big future win, and appreciating and enjoying your life on a moment-to-moment basis. It may not be easy, but it’s possible.
Partly inspired by my friend Kevin Gao, I started jotting down little score cards for each day. Over time, I’ve figured out that my daily happiness is more or less governed by four things:
- How healthy I felt (eating well, working out, feeling energized)
- How productive I felt (getting worthwhile things done)
- How much I got to socialize (hang out with cool people, talk to friends over Skype, spend time with my girlfriend)
- How excited I am for tomorrow (Life is good if you’re looking forward to the next day)
Just tracking these stats makes me more cognizant of opportunities to eat healthier or see someone I like. Trends have emerged: I should to plan fun activities so I can look forward to them. These things help me be happy.
Happiness Makes You More Productive
I think that ultimately, giving yourself the space to enjoy the day to day actually allows you to work harder. I’ve sometimes seen my work as a burden — something I’m resentful of, because it’s the ugly crap I have to overcome to get to the perceived gratification that lies on the other side. Thinking of work that way doesn’t make me want to keep trying harder.
But alternatively, if I give myself a little room to read a book, work on a side project, exercise, and see friends, then I feel fresh and alive and ready to drive harder on that long-term challenge that will bring the big, distant payoff.
That’s my take — I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you deal with delayed gratification?