One of the most misunderstood phrases, “Can’t have your cake and eat it too,” has been interpreted in various ways depending on personal perspective. For some, it reaches as deep as personal aspiration. You can have dreams and wants all you want, they observe, but don’t expect them to materialize. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, after all. Not exactly a sweet outlook for an expression that evokes such a sweet reward.
We are reminded of the famous Marshmallow Experiment. While it has been a viral YouTube sensation over the past few years, it was conducted for the first time in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel, of Stanford University. For this study, children were left alone at a table for an extended period of time with a single marshmallow on a dish in front of them. They were instructed to consume the treat if they so wished, but with the promise of an even better treat if chose to abstain; the notion of choice being most significant here.
Upon following the progress of each subject throughout the following years, it was determined that those who had indeed refrained from giving in to immediate gratification were distinctly more successful in their school life, work life and personal lives. From this it may be inferred that the ability to delay gratification is a life skill worthy of pursuit.
But what of one’s personal definition of success? Not everyone dreams of becoming an entrepreneur or building a house or having a family; or even a single, life-long career. Success is, in many ways, a subjective matter. And consider this: were not the children who did not wait for the “better reward” equipped with a clear sense of the value of opportunity? More than this, isn’t giving up the promise of a great prize courageous in some ways? It could be argued that a person who can seize an opportunity also understands and accepts responsibility for rejecting one course over another. Such individuals could be said to have innate resilience and trust. Not always, but certainly in many cases.
This brings us to the true significance of the phrase, “You can’t have your Cake and eat it too.” It embodies, with a single, tangible image, the realization that choosing between two outcomes necessarily entails giving up on the benefits of one over the other. Once the choice is made and acted upon, such as eating the cake, there is no going back. One has already changed circumstances in a manner that demand moving forward without regrets. More than this, if we are going to pursue the image of the cake, not eating it leaves in question a missed experience; eating it resolves this question but brings one into the next moment with no other option but to carry on.
The origin of this saying is not clear. It appears in its earliest form in a 1546 book titled “A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the english tongue,” by English playwright, writer and poet John Heywood. He writes, “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”
Given two conflicting choices, we can only pick one. Both demand an understanding of consequences and willing acceptance of the chosen course. It is no piece of cake!
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