This South Bronx kid would have failed the marshmallow test. So how did he get into Yale?
Editor’s Note: George Ramirez is a senior at Yale. He’s majoring in physics and history. He’s come a long way from the mediocre student he was as a youngster in the South Bronx. What changed in his life? When he was nine, he won the lottery. No, not for a check. But for a spot at his local KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school.
Almost all KIPP students meet federal poverty guidelines, and yet an overwhelming majority — 82 percent — go to college, with nearly half completing a four-year degree. That’s nearly five times the rate for the average low-income student. Ramirez, who wants to be a teacher, got into a better school, yes. But it’s one particular skill Ramirez learned that’s gotten him so far — farther even than most of his KIPP peers.
The marshmallow test is the famous experiment designed by psychologist Walter Mischel. It’s been around for 50 years. But for too long, Mischel says in his new book, it has been misunderstood. Give a child one marshmallow, and if they can wait 10 minutes before eating it, they’ll get a second. The kids who waited have been found to have higher SAT scores and more economic success later in life, presumably because of their self-control. But the ability to delay gratification, Mischel insists, is not a have-it or you-don’t skill: it can be taught.
In this extended conversation with Paul Solman, Ramirez explains how his experience at KIPP taught him to delay gratification and start conceptualizing, and planning, for his future self.
Watch Paul’s story on mastering self-control below. It’s the second of a two-part series with Mischel. Watch the first conversation, about keeping New Year’s resolutions, at the bottom of this post.
— Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor
PS: Do you think that delaying gratification is the reason you’re here [at Yale], as opposed to still stuck back in the Bronx?
GR: Well, I would say that it’s one of the many different reasons, but I think it’s one of the most important ones. One thing that I learned is that a lot of your effort doesn’t reap any success until way later in the future. So, you know, when KIPP taught me about self-control and grit and optimism – those are all different aspects and specific parts of character that definitely…help[ed] me to get to this place today. But I think delayed gratification definitely plays a major role among all these other character traits.
GR: Well, I think that in order for you to be a somewhat successful person, you need to be able to identify the things that you’re good at, but you also need to be aware of what you need to work on. So, for example, I learned about self-control from a very early age when I was a kid, but I also needed to be a little more optimistic and realize that there is more to look forward to in the long term. Just because I’m good at one thing doesn’t mean that that’s the only thing that I need to be successful. I need to be aware of all the other things that I need to work on, and I feel like that’s probably the most important part of becoming someone who could get a place like this today.
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PS: How old were you when you started at KIPP and what were you like, in terms of immediate gratification as opposed to delaying it?
GR: Well, I first entered KIPP Academy when I was nine or 10. I was pretty apathetic about life in general as a nine year old. Nothing really exciting had happened to me; nobody really cared about where I was or where I was going. So there wasn’t anything to really look forward to in terms of getting rewards. You know, it was like if I’d been told to do something at that very moment and it had no consequence in the future or it did have a consequence in the future, it wouldn’t have made a difference to me. But that’s something that I definitely changed over time.
When I stepped into KIPP for the first time, that was the first moment that I realized that delayed gratification played a very significant role in the way that I needed to approach life in order to get to where I wanted.
How KIPP Was Different
PS: And how did they teach it? I mean, what actually happened?
GR: Well, I think the most important thing that they do at KIPP is identify all the character strengths that are necessary in order for you to be a successful person. So rather than telling you, “Be quiet” or “Stand in line,” they’ll tell you, “Oh, I need you to display some leadership and tell your other teammates what they have to do.” Or: “I need you to assign yourself and keep doing your work.”
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Rather than commanding different things for no reason, they would tell you to follow certain directions because they displayed some sort of character trait. And once you were able to identify what those things were, you were able to realize that you were really good at certain things and that you needed to continue working on others. And especially focusing on the latter, that would help you get more rewards and help you do better in school and make you be liked better by your teachers.
I think my first memory of delayed gratification had to be on the first day of KIPP. We were being assigned our seats in class and I remember being really upset because of the seat that I received.
PS: What was wrong with it?
GR: Objectively, there was nothing wrong with it. I had to sit all the way in the back of the classroom and I was just not happy with that. My immediate reaction was just to suck my teeth and make some upsetting noise to show that I was upset, and the way that my teacher responded to that was, “Alright, George. I’m going to have to ask you to display some self-control and stand in the back of the classroom until everybody gets their seat, and then you can take your seat.”
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So it was at that moment that I was just like, “Oh. I need to be more aware of the way I react to certain tasks because the way that I react right now will have a consequence on the way that I will be perceived by my teachers later in the future.”
PS: So did a light bulb go off in your head? Didn’t anybody ever say to you before, “Hey, there are consequences to what you’re doing?”
GR: It was the first time that anybody had told me that there are consequences to every single action you partake in. At my previous schools no one had really paid attention to those things. You came in and you came out, but this was the first time that I’d really been told that there was something wrong with what I was doing and that I needed to be aware of what I did at all times.
PS: But if you’d been a problem child before, someone would have meted out punishment, no?
GR: Well, yes, but I don’t think they would have done it in such a constructive way. I think a lot of teachers and sometimes even parents tend to just scream at their kids, get very upset and when you’re eight, nine, 10 years old, you’re not really going to understand why someone’s upset, unless they tell you what you need to do better. So I’d gotten in trouble previous times and I had misbehaved at other times, like any other kid would, but I’d never been told what I had done specifically that I needed to work on.
PS: So was it public shaming?
GR: Being told that in front of other people did help, but it was more the reminder of the specific thing that you had done wrong and what you needed to improve. The simple act of just telling me that I needed to display more self-control, and that I needed to be more grateful for my seat — that helped me out. That would have been just as effective as if someone had told me in the hallway in private or if someone had told me in front of other people. It sparked something in me that would help me understand what I needed to do better and what I had done wrong, as opposed to just being upset.
Learning to Pass the Marshmallow Test
PS: Walter Mischel is dedicated to the proposition that almost anybody can learn to pass the marshmallow test – to delay gratification. Is it true?
GR: I absolutely think so. Honestly speaking, looking back on my life, I would have been the person to take the marshmallow at the first instance. It wasn’t until later that I understood what consequences were and their effect on the rest of my life.
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PS: You seem so amiable it doesn’t seem like you would have a problem in life in any case.
GR: It wasn’t until later in my life that I understood the importance of being nice to other people and being considerate of the way that they perceive me. I don’t think that I had been that way prior to being nine or 10 years old. It was then that I started understanding that I needed to look out for other people and that being nice to people helped them like you and you get farther in life, and reap all those benefits.
PS: Be the pre-KIPP George Ramirez for a moment. You’re nine years old; I’m interviewing you and I say: What are you going to do with your life?
GR: I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.
PS: So that’s not angry, that’s more clueless.
GR: Well, I don’t think I was an angry child. Clueless is definitely the right word to describe what I was then. I wouldn’t have even tried to give you an answer and I wouldn’t have understood what you were even asking.
PS: So that’s you as a nine year old. What would you have been like today (had you not gone to KIPP) if I said to you: what are you going to do with your life?
GR: “I’ll find the job that I think I can find as quickly as possible. I’ll find something that I can do and provide in the best way I can.” That’s probably what I would have said. I just would have been very honest with you and told you that I needed to find something to do and something that would get me through the next day. There would have been very little aspiration.
PS: And your answer now to the question, “What are you going to do with your life?”
GR: Well, one day I will be a teacher. I aspire to teach history or science at the high school level, and hopefully, in the long term, I’ll be able to go into education policy, in order to help improve the public education system in the United States.
PS: What’s happening to the kids you grew up with who never went to a KIPP school?
GR: Well, out of the few people that I still keep in contact with, that I see when I’m at home, they’re not in school; they’re working; they probably have their own kids at this point. They’re living a very hard life. They’re probably trying really hard to do their best, but I know that they understand that they don’t have this world of opportunity and that they are kind of stuck. No one’s ever really told them that they can do better than where they’re at.
As I would be had I not gone to a KIPP school, I would be trying to look for a job and trying to provide. That’s exactly what I think a lot of my peers from back home are doing right now.
PS: This is an impossible question for you to answer, but I’ll ask it anyway. Take all the kids you knew at KIPP. Would they have been able to pass the marshmallow test when they got out of KIPP in a dramatically different way than had they not been in KIPP?
GR: I would say that is completely the case. Obviously this is a hypothetical situation, but after four years of learning about the importance of delayed gratification, there is no way that any of us would have immediately eaten the marshmallow as we were leaving middle school. Even for the kids that did get in trouble all the time and were always missing their homework and all that stuff, it was something that started getting so ingrained into our minds that we would have at least waited longer than we would have before we entered KIPP.
PS: And that’s true for everyone in the program, you’re saying.
GR: I would say, for the people that I know, for the kids that I went to school with and became my team and my family, they all would have waited.
PS: What techniques did you learn – you and your fellow students – that allow you to resist the temptation?
GR: I think the most important technique that I’ve learned is to look into the future; to have that sort of optimism and understand that there’s another marshmallow in the future if you wait just a little bit longer. That’s something that applies to everything in life. You know, if you just wait a little bit longer, work a little bit harder, you’re going to get a bigger benefit out of it in the future.
PS: But we all have this problem, right, of being detached from our future selves. So how do you bridge that gap? Do you visualize the future George Ramirez?
GR: When I look to my future self, I don’t look at myself with the possibility of having more marshmallows. When I see my future self, there is no other option. I will have the extra marshmallows; I imagine myself as I am, in the future, with all the benefits there. I have to make sure that I have very little doubt in my future self in order to get the future benefits of that.
PS: You’re a physics major at Yale. Could the kids you grew up with have become physics majors at Yale, even if they went to KIPP?
GR: Absolutely. I think that, of course, some of us are born with the ability to do math a little better, to read a little bit better, to write a little better. But I think there are definitely people in my home town that did or didn’t get to go to KIPP that would have been perfectly capable physics majors here too. It’s just, again, a matter of being able to hone and control those abilities and use them in the future.
PS: So are you now a compulsive gratification delayer?
GR: I think so. It’s just my first instinct whenever I have to make a decision – how it will affect my future self.
Paul Solman talks to Walter Mischel about how to keep your New Year’s resolutions.
And watch Paul administer the marshmallow test to some Sesame Street friends.