Doing what’s easy is, well, easy. Certainly a lot easier – and usually a lot more fun – than doing what’s hard, which goes a long way to explaining why so many of us spend so much time prevaricating, procrastinating and generally goofing off instead of cracking on with what we know we ought to do.
The ability to delay gratification – to put off what will bring us immediate pleasure until later – is the master skill. To achieve anything of any note we have to make sacrifices. We have to be prepared to forego what is in our own immediate interest and work to accomplish something in the future. To delay gratification is to sacrifice the present to improve the future.
Young children are often unable to do this; they can’t imagine themselves forward in time far enough. But those who can – those able to refrain from eating a marshmallow now in order to get two later, tend to go on to achieve more than those who can’t. Walter Mischel’s iconic ‘Marshmallow Test‘ – in which children were given a choice between eating a treat now, or waiting and having two later – tracked children who participated in the original study in the 1960s and found that the longer a child was able to wait, the better they would fare later in life at numerous measures of what is commonly referred to as ‘executive function’. Children who deferred gratification were rated as better able to handle stress, engage in planning, and exhibit self-control when adolescents 10 years later, and went on to obtain higher SAT scores. These differences still appeared to be apparent even when participants were in their forties.
It may not be immediately obvious why some children can ‘self-regulate’ while others can’t, and do, in this study, Ray Baumeister suggested three components that make up an effective feedback loop. They are: setting clear standards, effective monitoring of mood and thoughts, and the ability to take corrective action to get mood and thoughts back on track. However, understanding all this hasn’t led to us being able to magically improve children’s ability to self-regulate. With the freedom to act comes the freedom to fail. It appears that if we are capable of being able to trade off our present happiness against our future happiness we’re just better able to take on the mantle of adult responsibility.
This essential difference between adults and children is why adults need to have authority over children. Few parents – no matter how permissive – would want to give their children complete freedom to fail; we stop them putting their hands in the fire, playing with sharp objects, and talking to strangers. We do all this because we recognise that not doing what we want in the here and now will often benefit us elsewhere and later. We curtail children’s freedom in order that they might become successful adults. We tell them what to do in order that they might learn to think for themselves.
As Peterson points out, willing ourselves to be better doesn’t work:
I cannot merely order myself to action, and neither can you. “I will stop procrastinating,” I say, but I don’t. “I will eat properly,” I say, but I don’t. “I will end my drunken misbehaviour,” I say, but I don’t. I cannot merely make myself over in the image constructed by my intellect (particularly if that intellect is possessed by an ideology). I have a nature, and so do you, so do we all. We must discover that nature, and contend with it, before making peace with ourselves. (p. 192)
As we grow up, we are increasingly free to discover and contend with our nature. And we are increasingly free to fail. One way to minimise the risk of catastrophic failure is to think through the consequences of a potential action before we take it:
We can produce an idea in the theatre of our imagination. We can test it out against our other ideas, the ideas of others, or the world itself. If it falls short, we can let it go. We can … let our ideas die in our stead. (p. 195)
In this way, we can strive to pursue meaning over expedience. For Peterson, meaning is expressed like this:
Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility. … Become aware of your own insufficiency – your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. … And above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. …
Consider then that the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering is a good. Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. (p.198)
Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. it will make everything matter. It will make everything better. (p. 199)
Stirring stuff, but what place does it have in schools? I think there are a number of principles will can extrapolate from all this. First, being an adult means taking responsibility for the children in our care. It means valuing the roles of our miniature societies. It means being fair and trustworthy, so that the children in our care recognise that we’re not just exerting our will for the sake of expediency, but are preparing them to be as successful as they can possibly be in the adult world.
It also means explicitly valuing meaning, and giving meaning to our values. Schools typically have a bunch of well-meaning slogans pasted around their buildings. We talk about valuing trust, honesty, fair play, resilience, determination, kindness and compassion. But are these merely breath? Do they have tangible meaning for all members of the school community? Do teachers feel loved by their headteacher and senior leaders? Do they feel trusted, supported, and held to account in a way which is fair and compassionate? Do students feel this of their teachers? Do parents feel it of the school? If you can answer these questions with an unambiguous “Yes!” then good for you. But be humble and check with everyone else. Do they agree? Are they able to articulate what the schools’ values actually mean? In practice?
Lastly, we could consciously use Baumeister’s feedback loop to help students learn to self-regulate. We could be clear and explicit about the standards required for success, model them, and encourage them when we see students embodying them. Then we could remind students that these standards need careful monitoring. We could talk them through the steps required to recognise whether our thoughts are helpful, and to track whether our mood might be weakening our will. Then we need to give them a toolkit of strategies to bring to bear on the turbulence they’ll experience at times. We need to tell them how we manage to overcome our impulses, and check with them that they’ve exhausted all appropriate steps to keep themselves on track. And to do all this within specific domains; generic strategies are usually less successfully implemented than specific ones.
This might not work for all. Maybe some of us will never truly become adults, able to purse what’s meaningful over what’s expedient, but we can all try, and we can all do better.