We overestimate what we can do in a year, but vastly underestimate what we’re capable of in a decade. Thanks to our inability to play the long game, we get disillusioned and quit before we start to see results.
I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better. Maya Angelou
We are already two months into the year. How are you faring on your New Year’s resolutions? What’s that? You don’t even remember what they were? Or, just thinking about them gives you PTSD? No worries. You are not alone by any means.
Research has shown that over 80% of resolutions are forgotten by mid-February and that a mere 8% last the whole year. While we may assume that the reason for such abject failure is our lack of self-discipline and willpower, there is a simpler (and less guilt-inducing) explanation for why we cannot keep up commitments, especially the ones we make to ourselves. It’s because we often don’t recognize that we need to play the long game.
Most of us aim to do too much, too soon. In the process, when our progress doesn’t keep pace with our expectations, we lose motivation and soon throw the baby (self-improvement habit) out with the bathwater (short-term goal).
As Bill Gates famously said (or paraphrased someone else’s words),
Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.
“The long game” case study
In July 1995, a hitherto unknown company launched online with an ostentatious claim of being the “world’s biggest bookstore.” Cut to today, Amazon isn’t just the world’s largest bookstore. It is probably the largest store. Period.
The company’s comparative growth and profit figures over the years are nothing short of spectacular.
While Amazon’s revenue has risen to stratospheric heights the last couple of decades, the orange line (profit) in the above graphic seems steadier and more down-to-earth. For good reason.
Bucking the industry trend of needing to show record profit milestones quarter after quarter, Amazon took the less-traveled route. Instead of choosing to cash out their profits, the company increased their costs by investing in infrastructure methodically, year after year, to the consternation of skeptics.
The results speak for themselves. Amazon is a trillion-dollar business today because the company eschewed short-term profits and instead played the long game.
What’s true for Amazon is also true for us—both in our personal and professional lives. The game of life is long. We just need to figure out how best to play it.
Here are three key ideas that may help.
Get started. Already.
In his seminal book, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield says,
Don’t prepare. Begin. Our enemy is not lack of preparation. The enemy is Resistance, our chattering brain producing excuses. Start before you are ready.
If you are an aspiring writer, “Start before you are ready” means typing words on the page even if you think they suck. Nobody needs to see it. But you.
If you wait to be struck by a brilliant idea before you begin your entrepreneurship journey, or wait for the muse to inspire you with perfect prose before you sit down to write, you’ll keep waiting forever.
It may take a couple of years of throwaway work before we begin to see the results we hope for. There’s no way to short-circuit that process because that is where the learning happens. So, embrace the suck. Play the long game. The results will come.
Use the power of Momentum
Seinfeld famously wrote every day regardless of how he felt, whether or not he was inspired. On a printed calendar, he’d mark each day he wrote with a big red X. Soon, a chain of X’s formed on the calendar. The growing chain would become his motivation. Even when stuck in a slump, just seeing the chain of Xs would be enough to get him motivated to write because he didn’t want to break the chain.
Habit streaks are useful because they keep the momentum going. And when you have momentum, you tend not to care about short-term wins or losses.
Allow the power of compounding to do its magic
Let’s say you put $5000 into a savings account earning 5% annual interest. With simple interest, in ten years, your account would be worth $7500. With compounding (letting the interest earn additional interest), however, you would end up with $8238 in the account—$700 additional money just through the magic of compounding.
No wonder Einstein remarked,
Compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it. He who doesn’t, pays it.
The principle of compounding works on self-improvement as well. When you make minor improvements and continue to build upon those consistently, you end up much further than you’d have without the tiny, consistent improvements.
But the first step is to pare your goal down into really tiny, manageable chunks to make it less daunting and consequently more doable.
If you can’t bear the thought of flossing all your teeth, commit to flossing just one tooth every night. It’s just a matter of when, not if, before you floss them all.
Artists, writers and pretty much all creatives experience what is commonly known as the “blank page syndrome”. It’s the anxiety and overwhelm that sets in when a creator embarks on a new project. A blank page, or canvas, can be intimidating for many reasons: not knowing where to start, the pressure to create the perfect story or drawing, or simply the fear of failure.
The way around the blank page syndrome is to simply get started. Sounds counterintuitive, but typing rubbish is better than not typing at all. And when you consistently type away, at some point, it won’t be rubbish anymore. Results are inevitable when you decided to stick it out and play the long game.