Passing the Marshmallow Test

I wish this were a post about s'mores.

I tend to fixate. When I have a goal, I focus sharply, usually to the detriment of other things. I drafted my dissertation in eight weeks during the summer of 2010, during which time I spoke to practically no one besides my husband and YMCA personnel. Reentry in August was difficult. I kept wondering where all those people came from.

Learning to balance has been a process of giving up things, where I'd measure my losses as collateral damage against what I hoped to achieve. Usually, it paid off. Taken whole, I've been the kind of 4 year old who would eat the marshmallow immediately, rationalizing that a marshmallow now is much superior to two marshmallows later.

Patience hasn't been my virtue: We moved to Ohio on a whim, a feather, and a promised scholarship. I put an offer on the first house we looked at in Raleigh. I will take off on a Friday without reservations or destinations (sometimes even remembering to feed the cats). I overcorrect with hyper-regimentation: We haven't taken a proper vacation in years. I'll drive my car until the repair exceeds the value (hail damage still intact). I'll schedule writing for a big project under deadline, and I'll hold to that schedule no matter how many "Coming home yet?" texts I get.


Self-control is my practice, since I don't have the patience to sit through a one-hour yoga class. And I achieve the most when I stop looking. When my goals are periphery, they stop being singular and all-encompassing. When I fixate on my weight, I stop thinking about it, simplify my diet, and I lose it. Same with writing, relationships, the minutia of cleaning or repairing (see also: writing, relationships). Put this way: Focus is important, but I think intermittent focus is far more productive.

I'll particularize the experience by connecting it to my scholarship: I have to read, write, and publish. It's my job. Lore says that Assistant Professors burn out keeping up with the Publish or Perish dictate. I've heard horror tales about all-night writing sessions that lasted for years. It's like Scared Straight for Professors: Live clean, kid, or you'll start collecting milkmaid figurines and querying journals about guest editing a special issue on Hummel Pedagogies.

I won't postulate about conspicuous consumerism and how it contributes to people not only eating the marshmallow but taking out second mortgages to buy cases of marshmallows (to then eat immediately, preferably rapidly, and usually in a dark room). But I do think that American culture supports this pervasive sense of instant gratification. I'm certainly working to detrain myself. The academic market actually helps with its ridiculously long time lines. I work consistently, not anxiously, knowing that effort over time has to be a more productive--and healthier--approach than burning fast and intense.

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