The title says “Learning the Skill of Delayed Gratification.” But is delayed gratification a skill? Webster defines “skill” as expertise that comes from training, practice, etc. It also defines it as knowledge, understanding or judgment. So, I ask you, is delayed gratification a skill?
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday we live in a society where people want everything now. The concept of delayed gratification has been relegated to the back in favor of a “Why wait?” attitude. In the years before easy credit, delayed gratification was more of a standard than a learned skill. It didn’t take training or practice to know that if you didn’t have the money or goods to trade for what you wanted, you waited until you did. It wasn’t until the advent of credit that delayed gratification became a skill that had to be learned.
Gratification is the reward you receive for services or benefits. Delayed gratification comes from delivering services or benefits first and then allowing the gratification to accumulate long enough for it to become meaningful. Farmers understand this when they clear fields, till the soil, plant seeds, wait for them to sprout, then tend the growing plants until finally they produce a crop that can be enjoyed. I guess you could say this is also a learned skill because in years gone by if they didn’t see the process through to a successful conclusion, they might starve to death.
Instant gratification comes from receiving the reward first in exchange for a promise of services or benefits later. While receiving the reward first may give you a great feeling in the beginning, as time passes and the promise of services or benefits must be fulfilled, the joy of receiving the reward diminishes rapidly. Often it turns into anguish as you realize you aren’t able to reap the rewards of today’s effort because you have already pledged them for yesterday’s pleasure.
As co-author of the Weekend Millionaire book series (McGraw-Hill Publishing), I have encountered thousands of people who were disappointed because our real estate investing books did not offer a get-rich-quick method of investing with the promise that you could quit your job in six months and become a millionaire. The book series does, however, provide classic examples of how delayed gratification can, over time, allow you to build wealth and retire early with a growing stream of income. A properly purchased income property may take 10-15 years to mature, but then it can provide an income for the rest of your life and your children’s lives. But, that’s a topic for another time and it depends on you learning the skill of delayed gratification.
Retirement plans like 401Ks and IRAs are other examples of delayed gratification. You have to work today, set aside part of your compensation and wait years to realize the rewards, which come in the form of better and more secure golden years. The reason I refer to delayed gratification as a skill is because these types of investments are voluntary rather than life sustaining. You have to train yourself to forgo immediate rewards in anticipation of greater ones in the future. The government even tries to encourage you by allowing you to defer paying taxes on income you set aside for retirement.
There are many other forms of delayed gratification that can’t be measured monetarily, but they all have one thing in common, they all involve deferring today’s rewards for the expectation of greater ones in the future. In education, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals put in years of school work in anticipation of better careers in the future. In sports, athletes put in years of training in anticipation of excelling in their particular athletic endeavor. Musicians and actors put in hours of rehearsal and training in anticipation of outstanding performance when in front of audiences. If people are willing to study, train and rehearse in anticipation of delayed gratification, why is saving and investing money so hard to comprehend?
What separates man from beast is his ability to think and reason. Instead of roaming through fields and woodlands each day foraging for sustenance like other animals, man learned to acquire and store goods to carry him through the lean times. He learned to barter excess inventory in exchange for items of which he was in need. Eventually he established common units of exchange that could be used to acquire items from others who were not in direct need of his excess inventory. Today we call this unit of exchange money.
My theory is that because today’s efforts can be rewarded monetarily, it requires a learned skill to invest money and wait for delayed gratification. Since money is the common means of exchange used to acquire what we want, the temptation to get it now, overrides the restraint required to obtain even greater rewards through delayed gratification. The “I-want-it-now” attitude that has been fostered by easy credit has turned the concept of delayed gratification on its head.[quote float=”right”]What separates man from beast is his ability to think and reason. [/quote] People no longer ask, can I afford the purchase, they ask, can I afford the payments. They fail to take into consideration the impact of interest. Since interest has to be paid on borrowed money, it requires more earnings to pay for a financed purchase than it does for one paid for in cash. In addition, many times you can get significant discounts when you are able to pay cash for purchases. The problem is it requires developing the skill of delayed gratification to save the money for large purchases rather than financing them. This is a skill fewer and fewer parents are teaching. When they buy toys or gifts for their children without expecting them to do anything in return or don’t require them to wait a while to before getting what they want, they deny them the opportunity to learn the skill of delayed gratification.
Since money can be exchanged for almost anything, the temptation to spend it now readily overshadows the discipline to save it and invest. Dealing with these competing emotions is a learned skill. It’s a skill that requires forward thinking and goal setting. It’s the skill of delayed gratification. Planning and dreaming of spending a week in the Bahamas makes it much easier to forgo a few weekend get-a-ways in order to save the money to do so. The goal of spending your golden years leisurely playing golf, fishing, traveling or whatever else you really like to do is supposed to make saving for retirement more attractive and easier to do. The problem is, in today’s society, people are so bombarded with enticing ways to enjoy life during their earning years that they lose sight of their long term goals and end up struggling through what should be their golden years. As a result, the skill of delayed gratification is slowly being eroded.
I have written many times about the three D’s of success. Desire, Discipline and Dedication! These three D’s are like the legs of a three legged stool. With all three in place you have the good balance which is critical to learning the skill of delayed gratification. First, you must have Desire. That’s where goal setting originates. Unless you have a strong enough Desire for something, what you call goals are merely wishes and hopes. Goals established as the result of a strong Desire form the basis of the process required to learn the skill of delayed gratification. When true goals are established, the second D comes into play. To reach goals, you must have the Discipline necessary to take actions that move you toward the goals. And finally, once you begin moving toward your goals, you must have the Dedication to stick with it long enough to achieve them. This is not a difficult concept to understand, but it is one that many people fail to achieve because they become distracted by other enticements that steer them off course.
Here’s a good way to learn the skill of delayed gratification. Pick something that you really want; something you intensely Desire. It doesn’t have to be a big item, but it should be something that costs at least a few hundred dollars. Let this be your initial goal. Then create a plan to get it. Your plan may be as simple as putting $25 from each paycheck into an envelope with the intent of saving enough to pay cash for the purchase. Once you get started, see if you have the Discipline to religiously put aside the money each time you get paid. As you watch the money accumulate, you will be able to project how long it will take you to reach the goal. The closer you get the more your anticipation will intensify. Finally, see if you have the Dedication to keep at it long enough to accumulate the money required to make the purchase. Getting it earlier by going in debt doesn’t count.
If you can follow this process with a small goal, once you make the purchase, you will experience the joy that comes from knowing you set a goal and accomplished it. By doing this on a small scale you will have done everything you need to do to achieve larger goals. This is how you learn the skill of delayed gratification. The good feelings you get by setting and achieving small goals will make setting and reaching larger goals easier. As you continue achieving larger goals, the process will become even more rewarding and before long you will understand that with patience and persistence, and following the three D’s, anything is possible, even exceeding your wildest dreams.