The Marshmallow Experiment

A lesson on doing a project or business, or confronting a challenge, can be learned from Peter Skillman’s Marshmallow Experiment.

He gathered 4 groups of people. 1st group are business graduates, the 2nd group are lawyers, the 3rd group are CEO’s and lastly, a group of kindergartners.

He provided each of the teams, 20 pieces spaghetti sticks, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string, and a marshmallow. Using these, each team had to assemble a tower with the marshmallow on top within 20 minutes. The tallest tower wins.


The teams went to work. Each of the first 3 teams, the business grads, lawyers, and CEO’s, discussed strategy, brainstormed, planned, elected a leader before they launched to work. Overheard were words like strategic objective, center of gravity, tension, efficiency, etc. In contrast, the kindergartners launched to work at once, attempting new ways every time they fail which happened many times. While the first 3 teams sounded like board meetings, all that was heard from kinders were sounds like oops, try this, oh no, yes!

Guess who won? Here is the ranking. The business graduates landed at 4th. The lawyers, 3rd while the CEO’s got 2nd place. The kindergartners won 1st place.

How is this possible? All the teams except for the kindergartners are highly educated and knew more. Here is what happened.

The debates among the first 3 teams consumed time. A lot of things discussed were irrelevant. They wanted the best plan before making the first step. They executed with no failed step. However, they had no flexibility during execution, because everything was planned well and the leader called all the shots. They missed out on the best solution, that which can only be derived through trial and error and teamwork. The towers they came up with were much shorter than that of the kids.

The kindergartners failed many times but learned the best way of doing it in the process of trying and failing. They maximized the value of teamwork. As a result, they quickly discovered the best way that will work while doing it. They made the tallest tower, 3 inches taller than the tower made by the CEO’s.

While this experience may never happen if at all, in real life challenges, valuable lessons can be learned from this experiment.

1. Learn by doing. Some of us spend too much time studying and waiting for the perfect time before making the first step. Most of the time, we can never learn everything about step 1 to 10. We will know how step 2 should look like when we have made step 1. There is no complete data for the future. Sometimes, relevant learning comes only after we make the first step.

2. Create a safe environment where everyone can work as a team. In a group, there is a tendency for the majority to take a passive stance and just follow when they see that the leader or the loudest in the group knows what to do. As a result, the best idea do not come out. In the winning team, each child remained transparent and vulnerable and was never afraid to make mistakes because no one appeared to be the expert.

3. Work on several iterations. Keep on trying and improving as you progress.

4. Instead of going into “analysis paralysis”, trying to figure out everything perfectly before stepping out, we can start by harnessing our strength and collaborating with others in areas where are weak.

5. Move by faith. We forget that when we are walking with God, each step we make is a step of faith. We may fail many times but the Lord picks us up. Failure comes as an opportunity for learning.

These do not mean that we remove structures and organizational discipline. They are important. But we must be aware of the limitations they tend to impose on team members.

Proverbs 24:7   The godly may trip seven times, but they will get up again.

Exodus 4:1-3  Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?” Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied.

Hebrews 11:6   And without faith it is impossible to please God because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Make a step of faith and walk with God. Be amazed by how he opens the “Red Sea” for you.