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 does 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 in success and underestimate the importance of investing in success every single day. Too often, we convince ourselves that success is 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.
Here’s the thing about the long game: It’s simpler to win than the short game. Simple but not easy. It requires repeatedly doing hard things today that make tomorrow easier.
We play the short game because we lack patience. Everyone wants to win, but there is a difference between trying to win the moment and trying to win the decade. As I’ve said before, a lack of patience changes the outcome.
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 Short Game
Immediate and visible benefits seduce you into the short game. You win today but lose tomorrow. The short game is taking advantage of your counterparties. The short game is spending more than you earn. The short game is not sleeping as much as you need to. The short game is not investing in your relationships when you don’t need them.
The longer you play the short game, the harder things get.
Just as the accumulation of tiny advantages makes the future easier, the accumulation of tiny disadvantages makes the future harder.
If you take advantage of people, they won’t want to work with you. If you follow a get-rich-quick scheme, you end up back at zero. If you over-charge your customers, they will leave. If you don’t invest in your relationship, you will come home to an empty house.
I like to explain it to my kids like this: Think of playing pool. Your goal is to run the table. The short game sinks the first shot but doesn’t care where the ball goes next. You have the illusion of winning, but when you go to line up the next shot, you realize it’s harder than it needs to be.
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. You have to think about where the ball ends up next.
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 knows; to get rich, we should spend less than we make and invest the difference and wait a long time. The formula isn’t debatable. It just requires patience. The lack of patience changes the outcome.
The first step in the long game is the hardest. You have to be willing to suffer a little today in order to make tomorrow just a little bit easier. And you have to be smart enough to know that just because you can’t see the tiny advantage you created doesn’t mean it’s not there.
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 strategies that work in the short term and ones that work in the long term.
The long game allows you to compound results. The longer you play, the bigger the rewards. The question 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.