Personal Long-Term Thinking

Dorie Clark is the author of The Long Game, a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, and teaches executive education at Duke’s University Fuqua School of Business and at Columbia Business School.

On April 2022, in a talk at The Long Now Foundation titled The Long Game: How to be a long-term thinker in a short-term world, Clark proposes 7 strategies to apply long-term thinking to reshape our own future.

Strategy #1: Whitespace

“It doesn’t take a huge amount of time to have brilliant ideas. But what it takes is space. What enables it to come is having the space to make the connections. We will never get that space if we are constantly put down by details, by worries, by ruminations, by back-to-back meetings that are so intense we feel we will never catch up. We need whitespace if we are going to have the mental bandwidth to be able to even begin to engage in long-term thinking.”

White space is lacking in our lives if we optimize our day so that every hour is taken up by meetings and work. We need to learn to protect our time. Four questions can help us decide whether we should answer yes or no when a request comes through:

  1. What is the actual cost involved in saying yes?
  2. What is the physical and emotional cost of the request?
  3. What is the opportunity cost? Should I do this, or should I do literally anything else that takes that amount of time?
  4. How will you feel about this a year from now? Will you feel bad that you said no? Or will have you even forgotten what it was about.

Strategy #2: Decide what you will be bad at

If we are ever to truly excel at something, if we are willing to take what’s necessary to be great, then we have to decide what we will be bad at, “what are we willing to give up to get there.”

Most of us refuse to choose, and by not choosing, remain average. That’s were I learned that long-term thinking is, in a way, a test of character, a test of the courage to make choices.

Strategy #3: Balance your time-portfolio

The compound value of one’s time, one’s energy, one’s effort are remarkably similar to financial investments. We need to balance our time-portfolios. It’s a bad idea to put all eggs in one basket. It’s necessary to deal with the short-term, but you should give yourself enough time for your long-term pursuits.

I want to urge you to thinking about carving out time (…) to think about what your speculative long-term activity is. What is your learning edge. Where are you rowing to.

You’ve probably heard the saying: We tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in one day, and we tend to underestimate what we can accomplish in one year. I want to suggest that it’s even more true when we get to two years, five years, ten years… You can go from a zero start to actually becoming quite accomplished at something if you give yourself enough time.

Strategy #4: Endure the Deception Phase

Sometimes we ask ourselves when and whether to quit. We may wonder: is this really moving onward? Clark’s answer is that “if you are someone who is close to the process, you’ll know it.”

In the early stages of any endeavor, the progress may be invisible to the naked eye.

The world around you, unless they are looking very closely, they can’t tell the difference. But you know–you hope, you think you know–that you’re making progress. (…) It’s sometimes very, very hard to drawn out the voices of all the people around you saying, ‘Nah! So overblown!’ That’s the Deception Phase.

“Once we make enough progress to get from one, to two, to four, to sixteen… all of a sudden, people start to say: ‘Wow! Where did that come from!’ It’s been doubling all along. You just couldn’t see it.”

Strategy #5: Strategic patience

Sometimes things do take a while, and that can be exceptionally annoying. (…) But being mad at the seed does not make the seed grow faster. It takes however long it takes. We recognize that.

But it is also true that we don’t have to be passive in the face of it. (…) We can come up with hypothesis. We can be doing things. We can be testing things. We can be trying things that will hasten what we’re doing. (…) We have to be thoughtful about recognizing what it takes to get there. That it may take longer that we want. But we are willing to make that bet, we are willing to make that investment."

“If we are willing to make choices to defer the gratification (…), if we can be willing to outweigh and outlast the people around us. If we are willing to endure the Deception Phase for longer… it enables us to tackle bigger, harder, more meaningful, more strategic problems.”

Strategy #6: Fail fast

Failure in many places is stigmatized. However, from a personal point of view, something isn’t a failure until you call it a failure.

It may feel sometimes that a door is shut forever. But it’s pretty rare that a door is actually shut forever.

Strategy #7. Ask yourself what kind of person do you want to be

“As we think about our own long term future, our own long term vision, in a lot of ways the north star that we can look to is a very simple question: what kind of person do you want to be, what are you optimizing for.”

Cover photo by Aswin on Unsplash
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