The Surprising Power of The Long Game

In a world where most people play the short game, playing the long game offers a huge advantage.

There is an old saying that I think of often, passed to me by my friend Peter Kaufman, “If you do what everyone else is doing, you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else is getting.” Unless you’re lucky, doing what everyone else is doing ensures average results. The problem is we don’t want the same outcomes as everyone else. We want different outcomes. Different outcomes come from doing different things or doing things differently.

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 playing a different game than you were. She was playing the long game.

The most successful people in any field all play the long game.

The long game isn’t particularly notable. It doesn’t attract a lot of attention. In fact, from the outside, the long game looks boring. The tiny advantages that accrue aren’t noticed until success becomes too obvious to ignore.

The short game is intermittent. It’s as if Sisyphus, pushes his huge boulder halfway up a steep hill, gets tired, lets it roll down the hill, and says to himself “I’ll come back and do this tomorrow.” This is the human condition.

The long game allows you to compound results. The longer you play the better the rewards.

The Short Game

The short game is putting off anything that seems hard. The short game is taking advantage of your counterparties. The short game is spending more than you earn.

The seduction of the short game is visible and immediate benefits.

Example of the short game include:

  • Spending more than you earn
  • Not taking care of your health or relationships
  • Taking every last penny you can from a customer
  • Having an opinion on something you don’t know anything about

The longer you play the short game, the harder things get. On any given day the impact is small but as days turn into months and years the result is enormous. Just as the accumulation of tiny advantages makes the future easier, the accumulation of tiny disadvantages makes the future harder. Only when the costs become too large to ignore, do people realize they played the wrong game.

The Long Game

The long game is the opposite of the short game. Playing the long game means paying a small price today to make tomorrow easier.

From the outside, the long game looks pretty boring:

  • Leaving the party early to make sure you get some sleep
  • Eating healthy when everyone else is eating junk
  • Investing your relationships every day so you have a foundation when something happens
  • Going for a walk rather than watching Netflix
  • Spending less than you make

… and countless other examples.

The long game isn’t really debatable. Everyone agrees, for example, we should spend less than we make and invest the difference. While you won’t become a millionaire overnight by spending less than you earn, you’ll never become one if you spend more than you earn.

The first step is the hardest. You have to be willing to suffer today in order to not suffer tomorrow. This is why so few people play the long game.

Conclusion

Every action is a step toward the short game or the long 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