The Real Social Dilemma is… Wait For It…

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Even if you haven’t, you can gather from the title that it’s about how destructive the mechanisms of digital interactions can be. As the New York Times points out, the film is “remarkably effective in sounding the alarm about the incursion of data mining and manipulative technology into our social lives and beyond.”

While I agree there are some nefarious implications in people’s personal lives, there’s a real dilemma that’s affecting our working lives, too.

The instant economy is rewiring our brains to think that everything is a click away. The easier it is to get our needs met, the more entitled we feel. We fail to see the hard work it takes to produce a quality experience.

Now, don’t get me wrong, AI and other technological advances power a potent speed-driven growth engine. It’s great that brands and businesses can save time, money, and resources while continuously evolving user experience.

But this also ends up giving people on both ends of the equation — from your staff to your clients — a built-in bias towards instant gratification.

To me, that is a serious existential threat to the fundamental tenets of quality branding, which include work ethic, craftsmanship, and patience.

It’s like that adage about the plumber who hits a pipe and charges you $300. You say, “$300 to hit a pipe?” And she replies, “Nope — a buck to hit the pipe and $299 to know where to hit it.”

The point is greatness is achievable, but it takes time and expertise to deliver real value.

The dilemma then becomes how to delay gratification long enough to do deep and meaningful work, but not so long as to compromise business prospects and performance.

I love my Peloton bike. I click a button, choose from a ton of class options, and get my sweat on.

Now, I’ve been working out for over twenty years. Do I know my way around a gym? Could I figure out new routines that would work even better than what I see on the screen to meet my fitness goals? Would it be worth it to pay an expert trainer to help me take it all to the next level?

The answer to all of those questions is yes. But ultimately, it comes down to the convenience of having a bunch of programs to choose from at my fingertips so I can cut to the chase in a quick 30-minute session.

This is the crux of the issue as I see it. In our pockets are tech-driven “personal trainers” that tell you what to do at the press of a button. We get rewarded with a blast of dopamine when we get our desires met quickly and conveniently.

Case in point: research shows that the first three results in Google search get 75% of the traffic. Almost nobody makes it to page two of search results.

My opinion is that the damage this does is that it trains people not to go deeper. And because we want everything so fast, I think we’re also seeing a worrying trend of people who quit when things get hard. Calling that laziness is oversimplifying the issue.

The illusion of instant says press a button, get results. The reality of life, famously illustrated by Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” of deliberate practice to achieve mastery, says great work takes elbow grease. (Although if you Google it, you can easily find that theory debunked. Still, you’re not going to have Lebron’s jump shot if you practice for a week or even a year. So there’s that.) There is an intrinsic value of experience both in terms of wisdom and customer experience.

In between those two extremes lies the answer to reconciling the digital dilemma in the workplace. And while the need for speed is a reality, it’s not mutually exclusive with investing time and effort for a better outcome.

When it comes to considering how to flip the switch from pushing a button for instant gratification to pressing forward by your own volition towards progress, I’m reminded of this Calvin Coolidge quote:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

In other words, embrace doing the work. Perseverance, by definition, involves delayed gratification.

Take, for example, Stanford University’s iconic “Marshmallow Experiment.” In the 1960s, professor Walter Mischel began testing the psychology of self-control with four- and five-year-olds. The way it worked is simple: a researcher tells the child he’ll leave the room, and if the child resists the temptation to eat the first marshmallow, he or she will get two to eat at the end. If the child eats the marshmallow before the researcher returns, they don’t get a second one. The time the researcher was gone wasn’t too long — just 15 minutes — but you can imagine that felt like an eternity to a child.

The study was published in 1972, and the results were remarkable — and are still incredible to this day, as the researchers continue to follow these children as adults. The study shows that those who accepted delayed gratification to get the second marshmallow had better stress responses and social skills, less substance abuse and childhood obesity, higher test scores, and many other indicators of being happier, healthier, and more successful.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Rochester replicated the experiment but added a twist: before offering the marshmallow, the researchers exposed a sample of the kids to uncertain situations. For example, they offered them a small box of crayons and promised to bring a bigger one, but then they didn’t. The control group got the same promise, which was fulfilled.

Understandably, the children who had an initial unreliable experience didn’t wait around to see if they would get a second marshmallow. They quickly gobbled up the first marshmallow. Those who were rewarded by waiting were fine holding off — they had learned that restraint is worth it.

The evidence from the marshmallow experiment speaks volumes about the importance of level-setting expectations in your workplace. This includes:

  • Start small, so the work is challenging but not overwhelming.
  • Understand that incremental progress is the point — not perfection.
  • Agree when things are possible and when they aren’t.
  • Keep things reliable and consistent.

There is no such thing as an overnight sensation. When you see Beyoncé on Instagram lounging on a beach at a five-star resort in an exotic location, you don’t see the hours, weeks, years, and decades she’s put into her craft. You don’t experience the sleepless nights and endless agonizing work she and her team put into delivering a perfect performance — which sells out in an instant.

Similarly, I think about my clients and how we work with them. I set expectations upfront: we’re not overhauling an entire brand in a four-week sprint (or what we call a “Delta”). But we will keep moving the marker forward by methodically improving every aspect of the brand experience and being as specific as possible about what progress looks like.

Persevering through challenges and learning how to overcome friction is essential for a better, stronger, and more productive workforce.

My advice is to keep in mind that how you do anything is how you do everything, so remember, excellence is a choice. And a little bit of delayed gratification goes a long way towards a fulfilling experience of a job well done.

What’s your view of the instant economy? I’m curious about your thoughts, so hit me up in the comments.

Founder and Force-multiplier @digitalsurgeons. &

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