Delayed Gratification

Karlin and I were talking today, and she mentioned that I need to be better at delayed gratification; i.e. I need a better work ethic; i.e. I need to be better at doing stuff that I don’t enjoy. She finds that quality admirable. I agreed with her at the time, but giving it more thought, I realize that I don’t agree. A certain skill in delayed gratification is powerful (Namaste might disagree for pure philosophical reasons), but as a life philosophy it is dangerous.

Allow me to demonstrate with an example: Joe, a typical American, goes to college because he knows that it will pay off with a good, high-paying job in the future. Even though to Joe, college is a lot of unrewarding, pointless work, he perseveres and finishes. He graduates and goes to get a good job, but he is a lowly engineer, and he would like to be management because it is easier and pays better. So he works hard, doing a job which he finds unrewarding, because he knows that it will pay off with a promotion in the future. Ad infinitum….

Now let’s bring it back to me. I don’t find college to be a lot of unrewarding, pointless work, and I am not going to college in order to get a high-paying job in the future. I am going to college because I want to know why the continuum hypothesis is independent of set theory, and I want to understand the Riemann hypothesis! Every math class I take brings me closer to those goals, and more importantly, I enjoy learning about it (not an admirable quality to Karlin). So I am enjoying myself and bringing myself closer to my goals at the same time: that is perpetual gratification, so I am not very good at delayed gratification.

At the end of last semester, I was feeling fatigued, so I figure if I went in the spring, I would start the semester feeling that way and it would just go downhill from there. I would do poorly and not enjoy myself. Instead, I decided to take a break in order to focus on music. A goal of mine is to become a well-known, accomplished musician. And I will enjoy focusing on music so intently to boot. Again, that is perpetual gratification, not delayed.

So what is the admirable quality again? Doing something you don’t enjoy in order to get closer to a future goal as opposed to doing something you do enjoy in order to get closer to a future goal? Okay, I feel better. Such hard-working delayed gratification bullshit is just some misguided ideal image into which I don’t fit, not any real personal flaw of mine.

I think it really comes down to a world view issue. If you train yourself all your life to work hard and put up with bullshit in order to achieve something in the future, what happens when you finally achieve that thing? All you know is how to work hard and put up with bullshit in order to achieve something, so that’s what you do. And at the end of your life, you realize that your whole life was spent putting up with bullshit. I’d rather do something I enjoy for my whole life.

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2 thoughts on “Delayed Gratification

  1. Hallelujah! What a great blog. And it couldn’t have been better timed. I’ll tell you the details later.

  2. Some comments and corrections…

    First, I never said it wasn’t admirable to do what you love or what you’re passionate about. That’s what I’m all about, after all. I think if you aren’t involved in anything that you’re fundamentally passionate about, you need to re-evaluate your life and aims.

    My point was, even if you’re generally doing stuff you like or care about, and you have big dreams for the future, you will always, always have to do a few things that are boring, seemingly pointless at the time, or irritating. If you don’t do those things, you may get into serious trouble somehow, or find that you’ve missed out on the chance to do other stuff that you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it.

    I love college, for the most part, but I have had to take some classes that were totally boring and pointless, and I’ve had to do assignments here and there that I didn’t want to do. But, if I hadn’t slogged through them, I would’ve had to deal with a lot of regrets, extra work, and problems after the fact. In the end, it was worth it.

    Going to the doctor or dentist is usually boring or uncomfortable, but it beats getting an expensive, painful disease or cavity that could’ve been prevented. Taking GUR classes might be boring, but it beats being told that your poor performance or lack of credits has resulted in you being put on academic probation, or will prevent you from getting your degree. Taking in the car for tune-ups is a hassle, but it’s less of a hassle, long-term, than having a car whose hidden problems gradually increase in number and severity. Cleaning the house is annoying, but it’s easier to do little frequent clean-ups than one major clean-up on a special occasion. And so on. Sometimes, you gotta tolerate a little temporary inconvenience or pain, to prevent huge problems and pains.

    The point is not to proudly heap arbitrary bullshit on yourself to prove you’re “strong” or “virtuous.” The point is not to stress yourself out so that you can’t perform well or enjoy life. The point is not just to work for the sake of doing work. The point is to think in terms of long-term satisfaction, and realize that, in the short-term, there may be icky bumps in the road, but they have to be dealt with if you want to truly succeed in terms of the bigger picture.

    Joe’s philosophy isn’t “delayed gratification,” it’s “no gratification!” Joe doesn’t know what he actually, truly wants or cares about, and he doesn’t seem to know when he’s headed for a headache or a dead end. Joe also doesn’t seem to find his line of work to be generally purposeful or rewarding, and that’s a problem.

    Just wanted to clarify these issues for your readers, so they don’t misunderstand my stance.

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