The Psychological Key To Beating A Challenge


Caroline Beaton

November 28, 2016

In a famous study first conducted in 1960, psychologist Walter Mischel put 4 to 6-year-old children alone in a room with a marshmallow. Before he left the room, he’d tell them they could eat it now; or, if they waited a few minutes until he came back, they’d get two. The kids usually devoured the marshmallow immediately.

Sometimes, however, Mischel told the children that one way to resist the marshmallow now and get two later is by pretending the marshmallow wasn’t there. By changing how he prepared them for the challenge, he dramatically changed their behavior: children could now wait 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow.

According to NPR, our culture decided, for decades, that the moral of this study was that personality traits are fixed from youth onward. A 4-year-old child’s self-control could predict the success or failure of her career and relationships at age 40, 50 and 90.

In truth, the opposite is true: what Mischel’s study actually shows is our success depends on how we choose to see our environment. The real finding of the marshmallow test is how flexible people are — “how easily changed if they simply reinterpret the way they frame the situation around them.”

You may think you’re too old for mind tricks, but a simple shift in how you perceive challenges can have significant effects on how you feel and what you do about it.

When my mom was first practicing law, she was intimated by the big buildings, huge expectations and hot shot lawyers. To combat her anxiety, she pretended to herself that she owned the high-rise building where she worked. She’d enter the lobby, pull her shoulders back and say hello to the guards with that kind of confidence. She took the elevator to the 16th floor like it was her own. Rather than feel intimated by where she was working, she changed how she thought about it so she felt in charge. Even now, she attributes some of her success to starting each day with that simple imagery.

Here’s another example: do we really think every time Hillary Clinton walked on stage and seemed surprised and excited to see someone in the front row she actually saw someone she knew? More likely, she was using a common speaker trick of imagining someone you know or love in the front row to calm stage nerves.

The psychological key to overcoming challenge is to change our minds about what’s around and ahead of us. This could mean a flip as simple as seeing “problem” as an “opportunity” (see Carol Dweck’s book on growth versus fixed mindsets). Or maybe you can find another way, like Mischel’s marshmallow kids, my mom and Hillary Clinton, to reimagine what you’re doing.

When something feels too big, too out of control or too hard, remember that your mind — not something external or inherent — is filtering and deciding this. In other words, the obstacle isn’t the challenge. It’s you seeing it as an obstacle. Transform its appearance in your mind and you may transpose a solution.


This article was written by Caroline Beaton from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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