There’s a Chinese proverb that goes as follows:
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”
Twenty years from now, you should be glad you’ve decided to plant that tree today. Yet, the biggest problem for most of us is that we don’t want to be happy about our work in 20 years. We want to reap the rewards now — not necessarily because we’re anxious, but because most of us are short-term thinkers and short-term achievers.
We crave instant validation to prove to ourselves (and others) that we’re doing the right thing at the right time. The distant future doesn’t look appealing when we struggle to make it through the week.
What’s more, so many people find it impossible to envision their lives in 20 years. The results from a 2006 web-based survey show that respondents think about an average of 10 years ahead of time when they hear the word “future.” According to the study, their ability to envision their future goes “dark” if it goes past 15 to 20 years. On top of that, their thoughts become more pessimistic about the longer term.
That’s understandable, in a way. Just three years ago, we didn’t expect a full-blown pandemic to ruin the long-term plans for 2020 and 2021. After all, what’s the point of planning 20 years when things could worsen in just a few months?
But still, we managed to make things work. We adapted because that’s what humans are wired to do. And here we are.
Some people also owe the lack of long-term ambition to not knowing what they truly want for their future. They have no idea where they want to be, much less what they want to be doing. This may result in procrastination or an outright dismissal of one’s plans.
Whatever your current excuses may be, here’s why thinking long-term is one of the best decisions you can make, starting right now.
Why Should You Think Long-Term, Even During Ever-Changing Circumstances?
Dorie Clark, the author of the new book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, offers what’s probably the most straightforward explanation of what long-term thinking entails:
“(The long game) is about being willing to make sacrifices in the short term and persevere, even when things are difficult or challenging, or it’s unclear that you’re making progress in getting to the other side.”
However, the most pressing question is: why should you sacrifice your safe, easily-achievable short-term goals for what Clark calls “the long game”?
According to a 2022 issue from Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania, long-term thinking is your best strategy. Here’s the reason why according to one of the best think long-term quotes available out there:
“There is growing evidence that long-term thinking pays off much better in the long run. Solid long-term strategies executed well help businesses leapfrog the competition, create jobs, build public trust, improve the environment, and richly reward shareholders.”
That’s not all: a recent 2017 research by a team from McKinsey Global Institute found that companies performing with a consistent long-term mindset have exceeded their industry peers for 21 years (since 2001) across almost every relevant financial measure.
The team assessed firms known for their long-term focus as part of the research. Not surprisingly, these firms had their average revenue and earnings growth higher than their short-term counterparts by 47% and 36%.
Let’s not lie: even with mind-blowing statistics to prove its efficacy, the long game can be excruciating, and immediately having nothing to show for your hard work can be discouraging. The first step to being a long-term thinker is to accept that it won’t be easy and trust that your diligence will pay off.
Thinking long-term is what will give you a breath of fresh air after so many years of hard work. It’s what will ensure your business prospers in times of adversity. Finally, it’s what you’ll be grateful for once you start seeing results.
The best part? Long-term thinking is a skill that can be mastered, just like any other.
Six Ways to Think Long Term
When it comes to applying long-term thinking to your daily life, here are six ways you can start incorporating it:
Stop looking for external validation. One of the main reasons we crave instant results is the concrete proof that what we’re doing isn’t a waste of time. And although we’re trying to prove that to ourselves, we care most about being patted in the back by others — be it our boss, our spouse, or anyone we’re so desperately trying to impress. To think long-term, you’ll need to start playing the long game no matter if people think you’re not making any progress. It’s never been about them! It’s your journey and only yours.
Don’t give up when you face the first roadblock. Or the fifth. Or the tenth. It’s easy to admit defeat when things don’t go your way. We tend to connect obstacles to failure, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Please start thinking about it this way: roadblocks are simply a chance for you to change the course. Regardless of how often they appear, you’ll always leave them more intelligent, more experienced, and knowing what to avoid.
Don’t victimize yourself. The easiest decision to make is the decision to do nothing at all. Accepting your fate — whether you believe in fate or not — is simply an excuse not to take responsibility for your actions. No matter how inexperienced, all of us can become long-term thinkers if we’re willing to take full responsibility for our futures.
Practice patience. Patience can be the hardest virtue to master, primarily if used for short-term gratification. The more you focus on working hard for goals that won’t bring you immediate rewards, the more you’ll exercise your patience skills. Being patient is all about accepting challenging waiting periods without losing your ambition.
Be curious, and don’t be afraid to envision your distant future. Where would you like to be ten years from now? 30 years from now? Even though it seems too far away from where you currently stand, you’re allowed and even encouraged to think about this. For example, you could be giving your older self the gift of a great retirement just by knowing what you want to do when you get there. You’ll get there eventually — and if you start putting in the effort right now, you won’t even have to think about working when the time comes.
Accept that things may change, and do the work anyway. Granted, there’s no telling what could happen tomorrow, let alone in 20 years. As long as you keep using this as an excuse, you won’t even have a reason to get up for work tomorrow. So do the job. You’re a human being, making you adapt to whatever challenges come your way.
Of course, you won’t master long-term thinking right after reading this blog post. After all…
Thinking Long-Term Requires a Mindset Shift
This mindset can be a lot different from the mindset you’ve been cultivating all along. And that’s fine, as long as you’re willing to work on shifting it.
If you’d like to master the long game, remember that acceptance, trust, and patience should become a part of your skillset. And the sooner you accept that life-changing goals are impossible in the long-term, the better.
Speaking of trees: it can take six months to several years for a germinated seed to become a sapling and several years for a sapling to become a full-grown tree. Until then, it’s a long process before significant changes start to manifest.
So long as you work to keep it alive and thriving, it will bear fruit with time. It just will.
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