November 6

Patience is a virtue

That patience is a virtue is a lesson we've all been taught. Unfortunately, our current cultural context makes it difficult to practice patience. Try surfing the internet on a dial-up modem, if you don't believe me. And if you haven't seen a dial-up modem in your life or don't understand what that is, you probably will benefit the most from reading this post and learn how patience is a virtue.

Cart and the horse

Years ago, when my daughter was probably around five, she made a rather astute observation. I was typing away on my keyboard, probably catching up on some work emails. As she watched me type, she pointed to the keyboard's backspace key and told me I used that particular key a lot. I guess the pattern of letters appearing and disappearing on the screen was fascinating for a five-year-old.

That made me sit up and take notice. What my child had told me then, though she was unable to articulate it the way adults do, was that I was trying to rush my words before forming my thoughts. I didn't have the horse ready before my cart started to go on its merry way. In other words, I was impatient. I knew patience is a virtue but didn't know how to cultivate the practice of patience.

The opposite of patience - Instant Gratification

Most of you are probably familiar with the Stanford Marshmallow test from the 1970s that studied the effect of delayed gratification, aka patience. In this test, kids are offered a choice between an immediate small reward (say, one marshmallow) or, if they waited for a while, a larger reward (maybe two marshmallows).

The first reward (one marshmallow) is set right in front of the kids, while the testers force them to wait agonizingly. So, it's hard for the kids not to think about eating the marshmallow. Surprisingly, some of the kids display extraordinary patience and willpower. I encourage everyone to watch one of these marshmallow tests videos online if you haven't seen them before.

Researchers then continued to follow these kids as adults later in life. Those kids who delayed their gratification and waited patiently grew up to be more successful and did better in life in various areas (such as SAT scores) than kids who did not wait for the larger reward. In other words, patience is a virtue.

More recent research has questioned the correlation between delayed gratification and better outcomes in life. Nevertheless, there are various benefits to cultivating the practice of patience, as we'll see further.

Culture and patience

Admittedly patience is NOT one of my virtues. I wish it were. I'm not in the minority here; I have plenty of like-minded people to keep me company. Unfortunately, our culture is working hard to reinforce this behavior.

For instance, you'll agree with me that we are now a population of binge-watchers. You may remember (unless you're less than ten) having to wait for a week to watch the next episode of your favorite TV series. And that was the situation less than a decade ago. Netflix pioneered the concept of releasing entire seasons instead of episodes at once, leaving us, the audience, to be judicious in terms of how we stagger that content over multiple days. Yeah. Right.

I know what some of you are thinking. So, what? If you were going to watch all these episodes anyway, eventually, how does it matter if you just did it in one go or spread it over days? I've even heard the argument that it's efficient (no kidding) to watch it one go so that you can keep the plot and characters straight in your head.

The need for patience

Here's why such behavior is a tad problematic. We can view binge-watching as a euphemism for a variety of other impatient and impulsive actions. By engaging in these behaviors, we weaken our ability to exercise judgment and self-control when it matters. And that can have relatively severe and far-reaching physiological and mental consequences.

Let's break down how impatience registers in the body. It all starts with the need to achieve the desired result. The outcome you so desperately want is your' reward,' the motivation, for your action. These rewards can be two types – guaranteed or variable.

Reward types

Think of the oft-cited lab rat, literally. Let's say you reward a rat with a little bit of food every time it presses a lever. Now, the rat will keep pressing that lever until either the reward stops or the rat is full.

Now, assume that the experiment is changed, so the rat only gets food sometimes when it presses the lever and not at other times. In other words, the rewards are random and variable. How do you think the rat will respond? If you guessed the rats would keep trying, you're right. If you also believe this may make the rats go a little crazy, you're right again. Rats haven't been taught the lesson that patience is a virtue.

The reward theory above is based loosely on psychologist BF Skinner's famous experiments. The concept of variable rewards – not knowing when or in what sequence you'll get the desired reward, is a surefire way to keep the behavior going. Unfortunately, you become as jumpy as the rat gets when pressing the lever in the experiments' process.

Let's look at how these rewards influence your patience.

Patience and guaranteed rewards

Let's say you're at the local park and want to get home in time for a 7 pm TV show. The distance between the park and your home is about 3 miles, and you run at an average pace of 10 mph. You could leave the park at 6:20 pm and safely assume you'll get home in time to watch your show, barring unforeseen circumstances.

Everything seems under control; you're not stressed. You even stop by on your way to help a person on the road pick up some oranges they dropped. You embody the saying patience is a virtue. Because the reward is guaranteed, you are a model citizen; kindness personified.

Moral: It is effortless to be patient when there is an element of certainty in your reward.

Patience and variable rewards

Now, let's take another example. I stop by my local store at 5:15 pm to pick up a few ingredients I need to make dinner. I plan to finish shopping, get home and put together a quick meal before my TV show starts at 7 pm. By 5:30 pm. my cart is filled, and I head to the checkout lines. Here is where it gets interesting.

It looks like pretty much the rest of the city also decided to shop for groceries simultaneously. So now, I make some snap judgments about which grocery checkout line will move the fastest. I look at the number of people in each line, whether they seem too friendly (to avoid standing behind such friendly folks, because they may chat up the checkout person), quickly assess the number of items in their carts, etc. before making my choice.

As Murphy predicted through his laws, the line I'm standing in is the slowest to move. Then I see the person ahead in my line pull out a hundred coupons from her bag and hand it over to the checkout clerk to scan. I go from being mildly irritated to thoroughly annoyed. By the time I leave the store at 6.15 pm, I have elevated blood pressure. As I wait at the crosswalk, a car buzzes through without stopping to let me cross. I'm ready to burst. Let's say that feeling then ripples through dinner and my whole evening.

Moral: In pursuing rewards in the face of uncertainty – a variable reward scenario - it is easy to lose patience, but that comes at a high cost, as we'll see.

The cost of Impatience

Impatience causes people to be easily annoyed, perturbed, and irritated. Trust me - no one wants to hang out with annoyed, perturbed, or irritated people.  

Multiple scientific studies have shown a direct correlation between impatience and stress. Patience is a virtue. Consistently subjecting your body and mind to stress like the one I described above constantly keeps your cortisol and adrenaline levels elevated, leading ultimately to coronary distress.

Being impatient may turn out to be penny-wise, pound foolish. Yes, you may save some time but lose your life in the process.

So how do we cultivate patience?

Like ab muscles that need to be worked on to prevent your middle from turning into a bread basket, patience requires consistent training. There are a few proven ways to develop patience.

Prevention better than cure

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There are going to be plenty of opportunities to test and cultivate patience. So, it's worth taking some downtime from all that testing, as much as you can, which, of course, requires some planning.

Suppose you have an appointment in a part of town that takes 25 minutes to get to; scheduling to leave your house half hour before the meeting is a great idea. Giving yourself just 15 minutes to cover a distance that takes 25 minutes and then blaming every traffic light and motorist on the road doesn't just make you impatient. It questions your understanding of physics (time = distance/speed).  

Ironically, as I've alluded to before, being punctual is something I'm still working on.

Big picture/ Small stuff view

You can choose to take the big picture view of life. The one that says we come from nothing and go back to nothingness. So, why lose patience and get all worked up simply to get to one appointment on time?

If this is too morbid and heartless, then try the more tender and heartfelt way of saying the same thing

As Prof Richard Carlson, author of the popular book 'Don't sweat the small stuff,' says, it's all small stuff. Don't lose patience and worry yourself over small issues, instead focus on all the things that are going well for you in life.

Frame your choices

To cultivate patience, trick your brain by reframing your choices. Use your vivid imagination to envisage the result instead of trying to use self-control in your immediate surroundings, similar to the marshmallow test we discussed earlier. Keep repeating the mantra 'patience is a virtue.'

Instead of focusing on the one marshmallow in front, imagine the joy you'll experience when you stuff two marshmallows in your mouth as a reward for waiting patiently.  Recent studies have proven this indeed works.

Meditate, Meditate, Meditate

At least you cannot accuse me of inconsistent messaging on this one. I harp about this always. All roads lead to Rome. I'll stop with the cliches if you seriously consider meditation.

The most significant benefit of cultivating a meditation practice is learning to stay present. Patience is a problem when the present collides with the future. You'll learn how to stay in the present through meditation, which negates any impatient behaviors automatically.

Train with tedium

A fascinating development in the past few years is a massive boom in coloring books FOR ADULTS. Johanna Basford, one of the industry's pioneers, in an interview with the popular radio show, All Things Considered on NPR explained that you don't find stressed 7-year old kids because they doodle and color all the time.

Finding a non-threatening, non-stressful, time-consuming activity that you enjoy doing is one of the best ways to build patience.

Head in the sand

I wouldn't have listed this as an approach, but I've seen how it can sometimes work for some lucky folks. If you're one of them, do try this. Pretend there is no problem to get worried or impatient about and wait it out. If you are lucky and do nothing long enough, the problem will sometimes resolve itself (an optimist's view), or someone else will take care of it.

I have family members who never lose their patience when it comes to cleaning chores because they use this approach. They pretend there is no cleaning needed and are immune to all nags and taunts. Eventually, I pick up their slack.

As I said, you need luck on your side for this to work and some equally unlucky people around you.


I get it. We wish not just for good things. But for good things to happen this very minute.

But as the politically incorrect saying goes, nine women cannot make a baby in one month.

Good things take time. Patience is a virtue worth cultivating if you want friends in your life or, for that matter, if you wish to stay alive.

So, stop refreshing your browser screen every two seconds or yelling and screaming at the automated prompts when you make a phone call to your warranty company's customer service.

Slow web page load times and automated customer service prompts are simply ninja training for patience, in disguise.



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