Patience is more than a virtue – it's a superpower

AttentionWhen you take a class with the Harvard University art historian Jennifer Roberts, your first task is always to choose a work of art, then go and look at it, wherever it’s displayed, for three full hours. Three hours! If that notion doesn’t horrify you at least a little, I suspect you’re atypical: in our impatient, accelerated age, the mere thought of it is sufficient to trigger an irritable jumpiness. (Stick me in front of a painting for three hours and I’d soon be swiping my thumb on it downwards, to see if there had been any updates.) Roberts knows this: the whole point, she writes, is that it’s “a painfully long time”. She doesn’t expect her students to spend it all in rapt attention; rather, the goal is to experience that jumpiness, tolerate it, and get through it – whereupon they see things in the artwork they’d never have imagined were there.

Increasingly, it feels as if impatience dominates our lives – by which I suppose I mean my life – in subtle and troubling ways. Take a newly published study by the management scholar Ernesto Reuben and colleagues, in which participants were offered a choice between a cheque today, or a larger cheque in two weeks’ time. In keeping with past research, about two-thirds chose the smaller, sooner reward. But here’s the twist: more than half of those people then waited more than two weeks to cash the cheque, even when the amounts involved were more than £100. They might as well have waited for more money.

At first glance, it seems odd that impatience (wanting the smaller cheque immediately) might coexist with procrastination (failing to cash it promptly). But it makes perfect sense. Both are manifestations of what psychologists call “present bias”, a preference for getting rewards and pleasurable emotions now, rather than later. The impatient cheque-grabber can’t bear waiting for a bigger payout; the dawdling cheque-casher can’t bear the tedium of schlepping to the bank.

And it’s hard to believe this inability to endure discomfort isn’t growing worse, as technology speeds up our lives. It’s more aggravating to wait 30 seconds for a microwave than an hour for an oven – just as it’s worse when a web page takes 10 seconds to load than when the reference librarian tells you it will take three weeks to track down a book. Perhaps it’s because in a world of almost-instant gratification, truly instant gratification starts to seem like our birthright.

Historically speaking, as Roberts points out, patience was a matter of “conforming yourself to the need to wait for things”; it was a way of accepting one’s lack of control over the world. But now we don’t need to wait for most things, patience has become a form of control over the world and, as she puts it, “over the tempo of contemporary life that otherwise controls us”. In this new environment, there’s nothing remotely passive about standing in front of a painting for three hours. On the contrary, it’s a subversive act. On the other side of impatience – if you can learn to wait out that jitteriness – lies power.

(First published in Guardian Weekend magazine. Photo by Lux & Jourik on Flickr.)

Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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