Playing the Long-Term Game

Most people are playing short-term games — they are more interested in immediate feedback than compounding effects. The prospects of a quick reward for their work — a bonus, new title, recognition, et cetera — are more important to them than what they may stand to gain if they play a long-term game, where those returns are in the distant future. I have heard a lot of people use the term “luck” in Silicon Valley to describe how they got to where they are today. I don’t believe this was luck, but rather the results of conscious decisions they have made in the past to adopt a long-term mindset. Indeed, serendipity may be a factor in success, but most of those serendipitous interactions were a by-product of something that someone has done in the past, that has compounded over time.

The short-term game is easier to play, hence why most people pursue the path. Most people would rather have a bonus now than a significantly higher salary in the distant future. The absence of a strong feedback loop in long-term decisions means that most people are reluctant to make these decisions — they don’t know if what they are doing is right for a long time. The lack of a feedback loop also makes it more difficult to stick to long-term decisions, because if one does not see measurable progress in your work, then they have an excuse to quit what they are doing and move back to the short-term game. Successful people are willing to sacrifice the prospects for an immediate gain, in exchange for the ability to realize an outsized gain in the future. Because most people choose the short-term path, they stand to gain more by taking the risk associated with playing the long game. If you are doing what everyone else is doing, then you should expect the same results that they realize.

Those who are playing the short-term game have a mindset focused on immediate — or closely imminent — rewards, rather than those which could be realized in the distant future. Short-term people are willing to put off the ability to earn a massive return in the future, in exchange for realizing a small return now. This type of thinking is encoded into our genetics. The earliest humans used to eat all the food they found as soon as they found it, because they were hungry and were interested more in survival. We now have access to better resources — and food, to refer back to the previous example — and so playing the long-term game is more viable, but is still difficult because human nature does not support the long-term game.

The short-term game is appealing to most people because they get an immediate reward. If someone does a great job on something and earns a promotion shortly after, they will be happy. The danger is that they may then start to work less because they are in a better position where they are not being monitored so closely, or their incentive to work hard has disappeared because they have reached their goal.

They were playing the short-term game. They wanted the position and got it, but the individual likely would have been able to realize a better return if their goal had been to work hard every day, rather than earn a promotion — they would be focused more on the process than the output. The short-term game is attractive, which is why most people play it over the long-term game. Why should you go to the gym when you can go grab a coffee and eat a muffin instead? Why should you spend more time with your family now when you can play video games and spend time with them another day? Why should you learn about something boring when you can learn about the life of a famous person and impress other people? Why should you read a research report when you can just read the conclusion and pretend you read the whole thing?

Short-term people are about taking shortcuts to realize a quick reward. Once that reward has been achieved, the individual will most onto the next thing, and the next thing, and the loop will continue. Long-term people adopt a different mindset. They recognize the fact that the longer you play a certain game, the more rewards you stand to yield. Playing the long-game may require immediate sacrifices, but will allow you to come out on top and will become easier to play over time as you enter into a routine and adopt a strong mindset focused on the long-term. For example, a long-term person would say that going to the gym is better than grabbing a coffee because going to the gym will allow them to become healthier. As they keep going to the gym, it will become easier for them to get into the mindset of going to the gym, and it will quickly become part of their identity. Their small effort to go to the gym will compound over time, and long-term thinkers are more interested in this compounding effect than immediate gratification.

Short-term people are fine with going to grab a coffee over going to the gym because they will not realize any significant negative effects by drinking the coffee. They will not become very unhealthy, and they will not become addicted to caffeine in the moment. The problem is that short-term people keep making these in-the-moment decisions until their effects reach a point where they cannot be ignored. The adverse is also true. Short-term thinkers believe that doing something good like going to the gym for one day will not help them, which they use as an excuse to justify not going at all. They don’t focus on the compound interest effect; they are only interested in the immediate gratification that would come from relaxing or going to grab a coffee, over going to the gym.

Going to the gym for one day will not make you healthy. Eating an apple over a chocolate bar will not make you healthy either. Reading a few pages of a book will not make you smart. Spending an extra ten minutes with a new friend will not make you best friends. Long-term people realize that over time, the benefits of these things will compound. Going to the gym for a month will make them more healthy, and put them on track to becoming as healthy as they desire. Reading a few pages of a book for a month will make them smarter, and put them on track to reaching their goal. Long-term people focus on the weeks, months, and years ahead, and realize that the benefits of compound interest stack up. The accumulation of all of the benefits to be realized by doing one specific thing provides them with the motivation they need to continue.

Playing the long-game, as aforementioned, requires you to make a small sacrifice in the name of becoming a better person. Rather than spending $5 on a coffee, you would put that money into your retirement fund to provide you with more financial security in the future. Rather than playing video games, you would go spend an extra ten minutes with your family so you can develop a closer relationship with them. Rather than watching television, you would go to the gym so that you can become healthier over the long-term. These compromises are not attractive, but they are an integral part of playing the long-term game.

The benefits of the long-term game are clear. Saving for the future is a good thing; being healthier is a good thing. Long-term players realize that small decisions in the moment are actually very significant in their life; short-term players do not recognize this fact. If you want to play a long-term game, then you should realize that every decision that may seem minor in the moment, will compound over time. Would you rather feel great after eating a chocolate bar now, or feel excellent when you are very healthy in a few months?

It can be difficult to transition over from the short-term game to the long-term game. It is important to note that we can make a decision at any time over our actions. If we want to become healthier, the first step is going to the gym for one day. Then you should try to go the next day, and the next day. You should adjust your mindset to focus on who you can be in the future and how great you will feel in the future, rather than the fact that you will realize small returns on the day that you went to the gym. Successful people realize that making short-term compromises positions them to realize massive returns in the future.

The concept of compound interest applies in almost every area of our life. Investing a few extra minutes into a relationship will not immediately strengthen the relationship, but over a period of a year, you will become significantly closer with that individual. Going to the gym for a day will not make you as healthy as you want to be on that day, but over the period of a year, you will likely be in the position that you aimed to reach. If you want to play the long-term game, focus not on what is going on right now, but who you want to be in the future. Realize the fact that successful people were willing to get up and work, instead of spending their time watching an hour of Netflix. Think about who you want to be, and think about the small steps you can take today to become that person.

Small actions compound over time; don’t eat a slice of cake, go to the gym. Play the long term game.