It’s easy to overestimate the importance of luck on success and underestimate the importance of investing in success every single day. Too often, we convince ourselves that success was just luck. We tell ourselves, the school teacher that left millions was just lucky. No. She wasn’t. She was just playing a different game than you were. She was playing the long game.
The long game isn’t particularly notable and sometimes it’s not even noticeable. It’s boring. But when someone chooses to play the long game from an early age, the results can be extraordinary. The long game changes how you conduct your personal and business affairs.
There is an old saying that I think of often, but I’m not sure where it comes from: If you do what everyone else is doing, you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else is getting.
Ignoring the effect of luck on outcomes — the proverbial lottery ticket —doing what everyone else is doing pretty much ensures that you’re going to be average. Not average in the world, but average to people in similar circumstances. There are a lot of ways not to be average, but one of them is the tradeoff between the long game and the short game.
What starts small compounds into something more. The longer you play the long game, the easier it is to play and the greater the rewards. The longer you play the short game the harder it becomes to change and the bigger the bill facing you when you do want to change.
The Short Game
The short game is putting off anything that seems hard for doing something that seems easy or fun. The short game offers visible and immediate benefits. The short game is seductive.
- Why do your homework when you can go out and play?
- Why wait to pay for a phone in cash, when you can put it on your credit card?
- Why go to the gym when you can go drinking with your friends?
- Why invest in your relationship with your partner today when you can work a little bit extra in the office?
- Why learn something boring that doesn’t change when you can learn something sexy that impresses people?
- Why bust your butt at work to do the work before the meeting when you can read the executive summary and pretend like everyone else?
The effects of the short game multiply the longer you play. On any given day the impact is small but as days turn into months and years the result is enormous. People who play the short game don’t realize the costs until they become too large to ignore.
The problem with the short game is that the costs are small and never seem to matter much on any given day. Doing your homework today won’t give you straight A’s. Saving $5 today won’t make you a millionaire. Going to the gym and eating healthy today won’t make you fit. Reading a book won’t make you smart. Going to sleep on time tonight won’t make you healthier tomorrow. Sure we might try these things when we’re motivated but since the results are not immediate we revert back to the short game.
As the weeks turn into months and the months into years, the short game compounds into disastrous results. It’s not the one day trade off that matters but it’s accumulation.
Playing the long game means suffering a little today. And why would we want to suffer today when we can suffer tomorrow. But if our intention is to always change tomorrow, then tomorrow never comes. All we have is today.
The Long Game
The long game is the opposite of the short game, it means paying a small price today to make tomorrow’s tomorrow easier. If we can do this long enough to see the results, it feeds on itself.
From the outside, the long game looks pretty boring:
- Saving money and investing it for tomorrow
- Leaving the party early to go get some sleep
- Investing time in your relationship today so you have a foundation when something happens
- Doing your homework before you go out to play
- Going to the gym rather than watching Netflix
… and countless other examples.
In its simplest form, the long game isn’t really debatable. Everyone agrees, for example, we should spend less than we make and invest the difference. Playing the long game is a slight change, one that seems insignificant at the moment, but one that becomes the difference between financial freedom and struggling to make next month’s rent.
The first step to the long game is the hardest. The first step is visibly negative. You have to be willing to suffer today in order to not suffer tomorrow. This is why the long game is hard to play. People rarely see the small steps when they’re looking for enormous outcomes, but deserving enormous outcomes is mostly the result of a series of small steps that culminate into something visible.
In everything you do, you’re either playing a short term or long term game. You can’t opt out and you can’t play a long-term game in everything, you need to pick what matters to you. But in everything you do time amplifies the difference between long and short-term games. The question you need to think about is when and where to play a long-term game. A good place to start is with things that compound: knowledge, relationships, and finances.
This article is an expansion of something I originally touched on here.