The room is empty. Well, nearly empty, except for one wooden table in the center and the white, plastic chair sitting behind it. Five-year-old Anna opens the door, walks in, and sits down, her little feet not quite touching the floor. Mr. Mischel follows her and puts a plate on the table, with one marshmallow on top of it.
“You can eat this one now,” he tells her, “or if you can wait until I come back in 20 minutes to eat it, I’ll give you another marshmallow, and then you can have two. Okay?”
She nods. He closes the door behind him. Then, silence. 20. She pushes the marshmallow to the other side of the table. 19. She covers her eyes. 18. She tugs on her ponytail. 17. She smells the marshmallow. 16. Rolls it on the plate. 15. Closes eyes again. 14. Tugs ponytail again. 13. Sings to herself. 12. Bites her lip. 11. Covers her eyes with the ponytail. 10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. She counts to herself. 2. She groans. 1. Finally. Mr. Mischel knocks quietly, opens the door, and smiles, handing Anna her prize.
It’s 1971. Anna is a kindergartener at the Bing Nursery School in Palo Alto, California, one of 600 children who were studied in Prof. Walter Mischel’s Stanford Marshmallow Experiment on delayed gratification. Her ability to wait those twenty minutes didn’t just give her another marshmallow, it set her up for a lifetime of success. At 18, she became valedictorian at Gunn High School. At 21, she was elected Student Body President of Stanford University, where her office sat less than a mile from her former elementary school. She would become the first female partner at McKinsey Consulting’s New York City office, before winning a seat as state senator. In the real world, of course, there’s no need to stop at two marshmallows. If you keep waiting, you can get another, and another, and another…
Anna is a compilation of the 28% of children who chose to wait for the second marshmallow during that 1970s experiment. She is, in some significant ways, a reflection of me and every person I go to school with. I have friends who worry they’ll have fertility issues because “I’ll be at least 37 by the time I’ll be established enough as a lawyer to have kids.” Another described his future like a game plan: “I’ll meet my wife in business school so I don’t have to worry about that now, then I’m looking to make partner by 30, and hopefully be a senator by 45.” I was at dinner with a friend last month who had an anxiety attack over pizza because he was worried he wouldn’t get a final-round consulting interview. A classmate once described Stanford’s culture like this, “Yes, we relax under palm trees some days, but we time ourselves.”
And it starts way before we get to college. I get eight-year-olds on my tours. Moms who ask me if their fifth graders should drop guitar, so it’s not a distraction from them becoming the best at piano by the time they’re in high school.
high-strung baby kinsey before my tour of stanford in 2011.
This may sound judgmental, but I don’t mean it that way, because for most of my life, this was me, too. In my senior year of high school, I spent my entire winter break almost manically applying for scholarships and recognitions that I thought would help me go to Stanford. When this January, I decided I didn’t want to go to law school, I couldn’t sleep for days because it ruined my plan. That’s where I was going to meet my husband!! (Just kidding, sort of.)
And then, I got really sick. The life-threatening blood disorder I’d had as a kid (aplastic anemia) came back last spring -- not quite as severely as before, but my counts dropped low enough that my doctor warned me I might have to miss my senior year of college so I could get a bone-marrow transplant. A few months before, I’d been diagnosed with the BRCA1 gene, which drastically increases my risk of breast and ovarian cancer; my grandmother died from the latter at 44. Fortunately, my blood counts stabilized enough that as of now, I don’t need a transplant and get to graduate in June. There are preventative surgeries I could get in my 30s to lower the BRCA1 gene mutation risks. So I’m okay. I could still live to be 100, and plan to. ;)
But there’s not a single day when I don’t think about my own death; there’s not a single year of my future that I see as guaranteed. I have really low platelets (cells that stop bleeding) so my arms are constantly bruised, I always have to wear a helmet when I bike, and I’m particularly terrified of car accidents and mass shootings. I used to brag about how little I slept; now I have to get in eight hours of sleep, because I’ve seen even one all-nighter crash my immune system. I started CrossFit in June to improve my health (despite how clutzy you all KNOW I look doing a handstand push-up), and I dropped to 12 academic units this fall so I could spend more time with my friends. I missed them, and I'd learned that the strength of your relationships is the most important predictor of the length of your life. (The length!! Not just the quality! Isn’t that crazy? That gets its own post later.)
I don’t live like I’m dying -- if I did, I’d probably spend every day skydiving or cuddling my dog, and I’d eat nothing but ice cream. Instead, I still work really hard in school, still want an amazing career, still plan to get married and have kids and live a long life, and I have even bigger dreams now than I did when I started college.
But I do eat the damn marshmallow. I give myself actual free time. I work hard for the next thing, but as much as possible, only do the work that I truly enjoy, even when it’s difficult. And I try to do very little of it alone, even if that just means sitting next to a friend while we work without talking. I am ambitious, but I will no longer sacrifice my right now for my later, because none of us are promised a later. College is not our preparation for life. It is part of our life.
I write this to all my classmates, but especially seniors, because we only have seven months left here. We all worked our asses off for at least seven years to get to this point. So as much as we can, let’s stop getting ready for what comes after this, and let's start being where our feet are -- enjoying whatever it is we’ll miss next year. Because at every step of our lives, the real marshmallows aren’t the goals we’re dreaming of and working toward. They’re the people who are dreaming and working with us.