The #1 Thing You Need to Be Successful in Life (That Nobody Talks About)

by Darwin on November 11, 2012

The world abounds with experts purporting to hold the “secret” to success (yes, pun intended for that horrible video The Secret). The thing is, it’s often tied to a gimmick or some program they want you to buy. The reality is that there is one single behavior that I’ve found is instrumental in EVERY aspect of my life – from career success to my health to my relationships to my finances. It impacts EVERYTHING and it is relatively easy to do, yet so few of us exercise the discipline to do so. Want to know what it is?

Deferral Of Instant Gratification

OK, that might sound lame and boring. But it isn’t. The implications are profound. Don’t believe me that this is the key to all success in life? Here are a few key categories that matter in people’s lives and where deferral of instant gratification yields innumerable benefits:

  • Financial Success – From the time our kids were about 4 and started to really understand money, saving vs. spending and have been bombarded with all the materialism the world has to offer, I’ve been trying to teach them how deferral of instant gratification is a virtue. With no coaching whatsoever, a typical kid would gladly take the $10 in their piggybank and blow it immediately on whatever they first came across. I’ve taught my kids about bank accounts, earning interest (even though rates stink right now) and I’m currently using some future Disney trip (not date in mind, but certainly not next year) as a savings goal for their piggybanks. They’re reacting beautifully. When my wife’s out shopping with them, they could, if they really wanted, blow some of their money on gumballs or a Wii game. But they’re not. They’re being patient. They know that if they’re good, maybe they’ll get it for Christmas or a birthday and that they are really saving for a cool Lego from the Lego store near Disney. They are deferring instant gratification in buying something they’ll later regret, for a future goal (which they’ll probably regret a little too, but perhaps not as much since it will have been planned and built up for a while).
  • Retirement/Legacy – There’s a real retirement crisis brewing in this country. People went for years tapping their home equity like a MAC machine and pissed away every extra dollar they made in income through each and every year. Sure, the “forced” savings into 401(k) funds helped prevent some people from blowing through that, but the typical 401(k) balance at retirement is nowhere near what is needed to sustain someone in retirement. It seems tough when you see what everyone else around you is doing, but you really need to defer that gratification for decades – decades! … and sock away money in our 401(k), outside your 401(k) and save until it hurts – if you want to live the life you expect to down the road. Most of our friends aren’t putting away a dime for their kids’ college funds but they sure have nice cars and large homes. What are they going to tell their kids when they can’t afford to send them to college? I realize not everyone even has excess funds to save, but do something! Even if it’s a $25 check once a month. At least you can say you tried and not live in regret. Having pissed away a few homes’ worth or a few degrees’ worth of money over a lifetime is sure to result in some regret when looking back.
  • College Degree – Basically, the harder the major and the more schooling you undertake, the more you’ll make during your peak earning years.  There’s plenty of dialogue right now about whether everyone should really go to college (probably 50% or more of Americans would be better off not and instead focusing on skills/jobs that are more suited to them…and save a bundle while they’re at it. For instance, my electrician makes more than a doctor).  If you want to go off and pick an easy major and live it up for 4 years, chances are (of course, there are exceptions), you won’t make a lot of money or even end up in the type of job you imagined.  Conversely, get into a good school, plow through an advanced degree (Law, Medical School, etc.) and you’ll end up at the other end of the spectrum.  Deferring both earning an income and also sacrificing the “easy” gig at college will pay off with millions of dollars more earned during a lifetime.
  • Cars – Is 22 just out of college with $50K in student debt a good time to buy a new car? An expensive new car? At first glance, this seems like an obvious answer, but how many young people do you know have done exactly that? It blows my mind how someone with that hanging over their head can add debt on top of debt for a simple vehicle when the world is full of perfectly practical used cars. This is a problem of instant gratification! The young professional thinks they “deserve” the new car, they’ll earn their way into it, it’s something they’d have later in their lifetime anyway, so why wait?!
  • Homes – We could live in a much larger home. If I recall, I think we were approved to borrow something like $700K+ and then I could have even tapped investments and 401(k) funds if I were really crazy to buy something approaching a million dollar home. Some of our friends have them. And most of our friends have houses bigger than ours. But we opted for something more practical. We have a typical 15 year old 4 bedroom home that works for us and rental property instead. This deferral of gratification will save us hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime (and I’m still waiting on that rental property income LOL [backstory here]). Would we enjoy better “status” with a larger home? Would I have liked a bigger yard? Sure, but there’s more to life – and we have a long life ahead of us.
  • Retirement Plans – Living off 10-15% less than your paycheck each month sounds daunting. How nice would it be to have that kind of extra money to spend each month? But by auto-enrolling in retirement plans, it’s income you never even saw to begin with from day 1 of employment. This is the quintessential deferral of instant gratification. So many people make the crucial mistake of failing to put money aside each and every year, presumably assuming they’ll make more money in the future and invest it then. Well, aside from the fact that they probably won’t change their behavior much, they’re also missing out on the power of compound growth. And people that don’t even invest up to a company match if offered? That just boggles my mind. That’s passing up a guaranteed return of 50%-100% depending on the company.  Many should, and do, go above and beyond the basic 401(k) contributions and also set aside money each month for a Roth IRA (see the benefits of a self-direct Roth IRA) or kids’ college saves, etc.
  • Career – Just like corporate executives are accused of short-term thinking in how them manage quarterly earnings announcements, the typical entry level and mid-level employee is often a short-term thinker as well. If you invest in your career and sacrifice early on, it will yield a lifetime of dividends. Many young people today want to maintain the vibrant social life they had in college and many 20-30-40-somethings want to have that great work-life balance which is a wee-bit too far on the life side. It’s great spending a lot of time outside of work pursuing your other passions, spending time with friends and family, and having a relaxing lifestyle, but that’s easy. What’s hard is taking on challenges at work that your peers don’t want (which often entails more hours at the office).Getting more certifications, like a BS in finance, an  MBA/MS or a masters in organizational leadership while working in the challenge. Taking a job that requires some travel or even a move every few years. Those things are hard. But they all yield substantial dividends both with your current employer or with future employers during the interview process (see how to cut through the red tape and get access to only 6-Figure Jobs for free). You’re only as good as your past performance and if your past performance looks like a cakewalk, not only are you leaving future promotions and job offers on the table, but you might be viewed as dead weight when the next headcount reduction initiative is brewing.
  • Your Health – There are profound implications here for so many facets of your health. Let’s start with diet. I’m not one who has “struggled with my weight” all my life, but I will say that I’d reached a point where I wasn’t satisfied with my weight and the implications down the road for my overall health related to development of chronic diseases and a shortened lifespan. Just adding a pound a year post-college is, well, about 15 pounds above my old “great shape” weight. So, with losing weight and maintaining a suitable balance in mind, simple deferral of instant gratification is key. What is eating all about? It’s VERY RARELY because we are truly hungry, but rather, out of habit or to appease chemical signals in the brain that that make us feel good when we eat, especially fatty and sugary foods. By simply deferring some of the intake I used to partake in (i.e. doing a 2 week low-carb diet South Beach (great recipes and ideas to make it easy) to get into a great zone, etc., skipping the ice cream altogether, pushing off that dessert urge until the weekend, etc.), I saw the pounds melting right off. Each day on the scale was crazy, like 1 pound, then 2 pounds, then 1.5 pounds, where after the first week alone, I’d lost 8 pounds! I’m just moving into week 2 and I don’t even craze sweets anymore – at all! (btw, this was with NO exercise because I was pretty sick – actually a decent time to start a change since I never have much of an appetite when I’m sick anyway). This isn’t a diet post, but I’m just highlighting that by pushing off or deferring some of the gratification I was deriving from food, the benefits were tremendous. Sure, someday down the road, I will have ice cream again, and come Thanksgiving, you can bet I’ll eat some pumpkin cheesecake. But do I need that cookie in the cafeteria each day with lunch? No!
  • Delving further into this theme is muscular and cardiovascular health. What’s the first thing many of us want to do after work? Go home, perhaps eat (common theme), and then relax. That might entail surfing the web/social networking or watching TV. Well, how about deferring those activities until later that night by working out in between. I usually have a night or two a week where I try to end work a little early and get to the gym so we can still eat a late family dinner all together. I also hit it once on a weekend at least. So, I’m no fanatic and family comes first, but I find a schedule that works for me, that allows me to have some combination of gym and running about 3-4 total slots per week. Sure, the gym does sit between me and what I might want to do that night (including sleep), but by deferring those activities and sacrificing a bit, I feel much better physically, feel better about how I’m perceived (I think people treat you different depending on your build, many studies show this), and I’m hopefully extending my lifespan a bit as well.
  • Relationships – Forging good relationships takes effort. This goes for everyone – friends, significant others, and especially children. What are some examples? Sometimes a friend is dealing with a particular issue. It might be easy to ignore them give them some lame advice. What takes effort is to listen and try to help them. With kids, it’s much easier to sit on the couch watching football all day Saturday and Sunday if that’s what you’re into, but how about getting up and throwing the football with them instead? Or whatever THEY want to do. By pushing off what you want and spending time doing what they like you’ll forge a much better relationship which has numerous benefits down the road from happiness to financial implications (really bad kids or freeloaders can become very expensive vs. ambitions, good kids).  When you’re having a conversation with someone and want to express your point or score a “gotcha” during a debate, just blurting out what’s on your mind might be your instinct.  But just sitting there to listen goes a long way.  Deferral of instant gratification at work.
  • Sex – Yes, even sex! Can you believe it? But if you think of it, without getting into the nitty gritty details, aren’t both (or more) parties more satisfied when it’s not a 1 minute sprint? Sure, there’s the urge for gratification early on, but that’s no fun! I don’t normally cover that topic here, but I want to reiterate that this concept is REALLY applicable to virtually all facets of life, and for many, this is a very important one, often ranked in the top 2 or 3 key facets of someone’s life.

The list goes on. I can’t really think of any topics where this doesn’t apply. Can you? So, the premise here is that for virtually every one of the thousands of decisions you make in a day, if you allow your brain to just question, “Am I deferring instant gratification?”, you’ll probably get your answer. It’s either a good decision or bad decision. That’s not to say it’s not OK to make some “bad” decisions now and then. But you can’t make it a habit and you can’t make the big ones. If you don’t feel right about missing out on certain gratifying objects, experiences or behaviors, at least DEFER them. You’ll be a much happier, healthier and wealthier person for it.   What Are Your Thoughts on Deferral of Instant Gratification?

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