Every introductory psychology class talks about this thing called “The Skinner Box.” It sounds like something out of a Saw movie, but it’s actually a famous psychological method from the golden days of research, back when pregnant women still drank and torturing rats for science was cool.
A Skinner Box works like this: A rat or some other unsuspecting small animal is placed in this box which has a lever and a little feeding bowl. The rat sniffs around the box, and not knowing what the hell is going on (on so many levels) it will, eventually, push the lever by chance. A sugary little treat is then delivered into the bowl.
If you learned anything from Pixar movies, it’s that rats really love to fucking eat. The Skinner Box is no different. The rats quickly figure out that pushing the lever = getting a delicious snack, so they keep doing it. Over and over and over.
But then, at some point, you stop giving the rat the treat. And this pisses off the rat. It will hit the lever over and over and over, frantically trying to get the treat it feels it so desperately deserves, until finally, after exhausting itself, it will give up and resign itself to fate. That life is shit. The treats are shit. Everything is a lie. The rat will then smoke cigarettes and write bad French philosophy about its terrible disappointment with its own existence.1
The Skinner Box demonstrated something fundamental in animal behavior: if something feels good, we will do it again and again and again, and we eventually grow a sense of entitlement to that pleasurable thing. We deserve to feel that pleasure. We deserve to be rewarded. And when the reward is taken from us, we throw a total hissy fit.
Today, life is full of Skinner Boxes. Your phone is a Skinner Box. Your television is a Skinner Box. Your wife’s vagina is a–okay, I better stop there.
The point is, every day in the modern world, we, too, get little packets of pleasure delivered to us with a push of a button. And the more packets of pleasure, the more impatient we get when we don’t get our desired reward. Next thing you know, we’re complaining about Uber drivers taking a wrong turn and too many unwanted emails on Monday morning2 and what the fuck, the pizza guy was supposed to be here eight minutes ago! I’m triggered!
I think the last time I was admonished to shut up and be patient, I was young enough that I pulled my pants all the way down and lifted my shirt to pee. Parents are always wagging their finger at their children to practice patience, to wait a little longer, to delay gratification and focus on long-term consequences instead of short-term rewards.
Yet, as adults, we celebrate impatience. I’m so fucking busy! I don’t have time for this shit! Everyone’s doing eight things at the same time and doing all eight things poorly. Why? Because it can’t wait! Nothing can wait! We need results, NOW!
Patience is a virtue. And a virtue the world is sorely lacking at the moment. Being more patient in our daily lives can do wonders for our mental health, our economic prosperity,3 and can perhaps make the world seem like slightly less of a hemorrhoid-riddled asshole.
Waiting vs Waiting Patiently
A lot of people mistake patience for the ability to wait for something. But this isn’t quite true. Patience isn’t simply being able to wait for a reward, it’s our attitude towards waiting.
For example, I might be able to wait for the pizza I ordered an hour-and-a-half ago, but I can do so in one of two ways:
- Patiently—calmly working on this draft, reading a book, and just enjoying my time alone before my large jalapeño-pepperoni pie with extra garlic sauce arrives;
- Impatiently—pacing around my apartment, calling the restaurant (again!), and chewing on my t-shirt to soothe my hunger pangs.
Obviously, one of these options is better than the other—better for me, better for the delivery guy, better for my T-shirt.
But the evidence suggests that we’re becoming worse at this. We’re becoming more impatient.4
You see, modern society has become its own slightly more complicated Skinner box. Instead of levers, we push buttons—some real, many virtual, others imagined. And instead of those buttons delivering sugary pellets with which to stuff our gullets, they deliver endless streaming entertainment options, digital proxies for social interaction, porn, same-day shipping on yet another new bedroom set… oh, and sugary, overly-stimulating, tasty food for our rapacious gullets.
And it’s all literally at our fingertips, 24/7.
In the name of convenience, the market continues to promise a world where we no longer have to wait patiently, that whatever we want, we should have it as quickly as possible. These services and devices then act on us as our own little virtual Skinner Box, making us less patient and more irritable when things don’t quite go our way. #FirstWorldProblems
The problem with this is that upgrading convenience, psychologically speaking, has diminishing returns. For instance, discovering Uber was exciting the first three or four times I used it. Now, I find myself perpetually annoyed that my car is going to take three minutes longer than I expected. Three minutes! This driver must be an idiot! This incredible service that I couldn’t have even imagined existing a few years ago, is now pissing me off on an-almost daily basis. And for what?
For three minutes…
Examples like this are all around us. Some are just stupid, like more than half of people won’t wait more than three seconds for a web page to load before closing it. Others are horrifying. Road rage, for instance, is on the rise.
The point is: The upside of convenience is short-lived. The downside is constant and perpetual. And when we’re optimizing our lives for convenience, we’re setting ourselves up for a near-constant sense of irritation and entitlement.
Sound familiar? Welcome to the 21st century.
Patience Wins in an Impatient World
Look, the modern world is great. I love having toilet paper delivered to me while I scroll through 800 movies and watch none of them. Who doesn’t love that? It’s great!
But there’s a dark side to our constant stimulation. All of these low-value distractions in our lives have conditioned us to think that patience is for suckers; that we must “move fast and break things;” that if we’re not up-to-date on everything, all the time, we’re going to get left in the dust.
Human behavior is driven primarily by avoiding risk.5 And all of these low-dose, pleasure-laced experiences are delivered on-demand and on-time (or your money back, guaranteed!) with such regularity that we’ve been conditioned to think they carry zero-risk and all reward. Without realizing it, we’ve been lulled into a sort of psychological complacency, believing that everything good should be easy and convenient, even though it’s not.
Meanwhile, the truly valuable experiences in life—the ones that require the most patience—well, those definitely aren’t guaranteed. They come at a risk. So, why risk it?
Why struggle with questioning your own values when there are funny memes on Instagram to share with all your friends?
Why reach for a better career when there’s a new Netflix murder documentary to binge-watch?
Why do the hard work of building a better relationship when we can just swipe right on the next person?
And why engage in uncomfortable but necessary dialogue with people you disagree with when you already have that angry tweet typed out and ready to send?
Well, I’ll tell you why: it’s these very discomforts that thrust us towards the true rewards in life. But those true rewards require one thing: patience.
All the best things in life—the things with the biggest payoff that give our lives the most meaning—they all require a certain threshold for the kind of discomfort that comes with waiting patiently.
Anyone who has read my work for a while knows that one of the core tenets of my philosophy is that humans suck. And because humans suck, you’re usually at a major advantage when you do the exact thing most other people are not doing. In the case of the 21st century, the thing most people are not doing is being patient. The less people are willing to wait patiently for long-term rewards, the better those long-term rewards become.
Because it’s the ability to sit with your boredom that creates the greatest sparks of creativity. It’s the ability to slog through hours and hours of grueling work that eventually gets you noticed and promoted at your job. It’s the ability to work through days, weeks, or months of struggle with your partner that allows you to foster a deeper intimacy in your relationship. It’s the ability to wait and hear out the political craziness in your country that allows democracy to function.
Patience wins in an impatient world. When everyone else is in a hurry and distracted by the latest Tweetstorm, sitting back and merely observing the planet’s slow, arcing trajectory–and noticing it has been unmoved by almost anything that has happened lately–is the supreme advantage, both in terms of getting ahead, but also just in becoming a stable and non-insane person.
How to Be More Patient
1. Learn to be still
My friend Ryan Holiday just wrote a book called Stillness Is the Key about all of the unexpected and non-obvious benefits of developing the ability to sit quietly with ourselves and our own thoughts. Aside from reducing stress and anxiety, finding moments of stillness in our lives increases creativity, makes us more productive, and also helps us stay grounded in our emotions.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And no, Pascal wasn’t a disenfranchised lab rat.
The secret to being still is to, well, block out time to be still. The best time for me is either first thing in the morning or last thing before I go to bed. Try it. Block out 10-15 minutes where there’s no phone. No television. No nothing. Just you and your thoughts and maybe a book (at most).
Walks can be good for this as well. Schedule an afternoon walk for 15 minutes. Again, no phone. No texting. No nothing. Block out time for it. You’ll be surprised the clarity of thinking you’ll be able to produce.
And then there’s the ultimate stillness: sleep. Research shows that when we are underslept and exhausted, we become impatient and irritable, we make poor decisions, we become selfish and entitled. Put another way, not sleeping makes us more like the lab rats in the box and less like fully-functioning, rational humans. I choose human.
2. Develop better self-awareness around your impatience
Are you actually upset that the kid at the cash register didn’t double bag your kombucha? Or is it really because you feel like you don’t have much control in your life and so you only assert yourself in situations in which you feel like you have control?
Are you actually pissed off at your partner for not cleaning the crumbs off the counter? Or are you feeling a little disregarded and lashing out?
Do you actually think the poor guy who’s driving slow in the fast lane is a brain-dead dipshit? Or could it be that you hate your job and the stupid fucking commute you have every day and so you take it out on him?
Developing the ability to be still with your own thoughts should start to open up “gaps” in your mind between your Feeling Brain’s automatic responses, and your Thinking Brain’s more skeptical analysis.6
Most of your impatience is driven by some deeply-rooted sense of entitlement. You don’t know what’s going on with other people. Maybe the pizza guy got in a car accident. Maybe your partner didn’t sleep last night because they’re so anxious about an important work meeting. Maybe the slow driver in front of you is a 90-year-old World War II veteran who risked his life, conquered fascism, liberated concentration camps and saved thousands of people from regimented, systematic mass murder.
And what the fuck have you done lately, bucko?
3. Understand the Real Value of Time
What is waiting? It’s essentially just experiencing a certain period of time without any reward.
But what is a reward? Ah, we’ve now arrived at the root of the issue.
If what we find rewarding is something external—something exciting and flashy and fun—then yes, our attitude towards waiting will suck. We will hate it and hate the world for not rewarding us like the little rats we are.
But if our rewards are internal, if we take pleasure in our own thoughts, our own presence, in the simple act of experiencing the world as it is, then we can theoretically feel rewarded in any place, and in any moment.
The true rewards in life are the ones that bring us the most meaning, and meaning can be found, well, anywhere. But it is most often found in the slow, methodical plod towards some great long-term destination–and the greater the destination, the less noticeable the hiccups along the way.
- This is actually not true. As far as I know, no rodents have ever written French philosophy… well, except for Jacques Derrida. That dude was a total weasel.↵
- Speaking of too many emails on Monday morning, I just started doing a weekly newsletter called “Mindf*ck Mondays.” You can sign up to receive it here.↵
- Hübner, M., & Vannoorenberghe, G. (2015). Patience and long-run growth. Economics Letters, 137, 163–167.↵
- This is happening along a few dimensions. We are less patient for websites to load. We save less money and wait shorter times for services and hold onto our investments for a shorter period of time.↵
- See: Loss Aversion.↵
- For a deep understanding of what I call “The Feeling Brain” and “The Thinking Brain,” check out Chapter 2 of my book, Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope.↵