Playing the Long Game in a Short-Term World: An Interview with Dorie Clark
by Deborah Reuben, CLFP Jan/Feb 2022
Deborah Reuben, CLFP, CEO and founder of TomorrowZone, sits down with Dorie Clark, professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller, The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, to gain insight on practical actions you can take to regain vision and long-term thinking despite the current environment.
Deborah Reuben, CLFP , CEO and Founder, TomorrowZone
In our fast-paced and uncertain world, it’s easy to be so consumed with what is happening today that we don’t make time to deliberately think about the long term. Like it or not, COVID-19 has forced all of us into short-term thinking concerning many aspects of life because we simply can’t see what is around the corner. Now is a great time to step back and reflect on what we really want out of our lives, relationships or careers and to reignite the future of collective vision.
Recently, I sat down with Dorie Clark, professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller, The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, to gain insight on practical actions you can take to regain vision and long-term thinking despite this crazy environment. The following is our interview, which has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Playing the Long Game
Reuben: What does playing the long game mean now, especially when we’re surrounded by so much short-term thinking and action?
Clark: It might seem like long-term thinking doesn’t have a role anymore because the world is moving fast. The pandemic taught companies to be nimble and agile, and under certain circumstances, that’s great. If companies and leaders care about the outcomes, though, just responding is unsustainable.
Creating and working toward a goal ensures arriving much closer to that goal than merely “seeing how it turns out.” A big, meaningful project can’t be accomplished with only short-term thinking. There has to be long-term thinking in the mix.
Shift Your Mindset
Reuben: How do you shift your mindset from short-term thinking and the busyness of life and professional work to long-term thinking?
Clark: I’ve always been drawn to long-term thinking. But like many, I struggled to implement it. A study conducted a few years ago by The Management Research Group surveyed 10,000 senior leaders and 97% of them said long-term thinking was the key to their organization’s success. It was almost unanimous and that’s something we don’t often have in our society. Everyone thinks this is a good idea.
So why don’t most of us do it? Long-term thinking is not that much effort. The actual problem is day-to-day busyness. A constant challenge for any leader is toggling between and understanding the urgent versus the important and creating that whitespace necessary for long-term thinking.
So, I had to become rigorous.
The first third of my book, The Long Game, is about this very question: “How do we create the whitespace necessary so we can even begin to engage in long-term thinking?”
It’s about getting disciplined and understanding what your highest value activities are. It’s about learning to say “No” to things that may have been a “Yes” in the past and tightening up criteria so you are strategically protecting that space.
Deliberately Create Whitespace for Long-term Thinking
Reuben: How did that play out for you during a global pandemic?
Clark: During the pandemic, things got upended for a lot of people and we were living in the moment. But now that we are coming out of it, slowly, now is the time to recalibrate because it’s very easy to fall into habits or patterns of behavior that we now need to get a handle on. Now is the time to get back into the virtuous habits we had before and ask ourselves, “How do I want things to be?” I think most of us want to be more strategic and it’s time to take steps in that direction.
Reuben: I agree. As an example, my decision criteria have significantly changed for in-person meetings. It’s difficult to prove to me now that it’s necessary to gather in person as much as before, considering the environmental impact, opportunity cost and time. Although that used to be the norm, it’s not my default anymore. How have things like that changed for you?
Clark: I think a lot of times, even if we didn’t necessarily want to do something, we assumed that other people would insist on it. Like, I’d be fine with a Zoom meeting, but they would never accept it if I didn’t come in person. And now it’s proven, they would accept that.
One of the first things I did after COVID struck was raise my rates for speaking in person. I realized it was going to become rarer, and therefore, more special. Not only is this an example of supply and demand, but also about me personally. My criteria is higher for in-person events. Being rarer, it’s more special to them, which means that they’re presumably spending more on that event and focusing on high-quality talent.
Make Small Bets and Experiment Forward
Reuben: In your book, you said, “The lesson we can learn from Silicon Valley and the lean startup methodology is that we should, in the early days, treat everything as an experiment.” Can you share what experimentation means to you and how it fits into playing the long game in your career?
Clark: A decade ago, the hit book The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries, was popularizing a methodology developed by Steve Blank and others around the lean startup methodology. The basic idea is that people cooked up an idea, then put a lot of time, energy and money into creating a product, and then launched it on a wing and a prayer, “hoping everybody else thinks it’s great.” Sometimes they did, but many times they didn’t.
Instead, they suggested doing a minimum viable product — making a prototype and seeing if anyone is interested. Then spend the time to make it nice. If that goes well, then spend more time and create a legit product people can buy.
Similarly, with our lives and careers, we often hatch these ideas that are fully formed. Everyone is afraid of failure to some degree. But if the “thing” is small enough, you really can’t fail. So, the question is, how do we take that $10,000 or $100,000 bet and make it a
$1 bet so we hold it lightly? For instance, instead of writing a book proposal, write an article and see if anyone cares. If they do, keep at it. If not, you saved yourself 100 hours of writing that book proposal for no reason.
Strategically Balance Your Focus Modes
Reuben: In creating a long-game vision, it can be difficult to determine which goals to pursue. There are so many opportunities around us, it’s easy to get caught up in the shiny objects everywhere. In the book, you advise us to optimize for interesting and follow our curiosity. What are the advantages of doing that and why is it important?
Clark: There’s a concept known as focusing on heads up or heads down mode. Our life goes in cycles, and we need to know which part of the cycle we’re in. If we’re always in “heads up” mode, looking around at all the shiny objects, that’s a great place to get inspired and see what other people are doing. But you’ll never be executing because you’re not focused on anything long enough to show any results.
Similarly, if we are in “heads down” mode, we get a ton done and that’s fantastic. The problem is, if it’s been 20 years, and we haven’t lifted our heads, we’re going to become obsolete.
The key is balance. So often we fall into tendencies of just doing one thing because it feels comfortable. If we can master the skill of both heads up and heads down, then we can really move important things forward in a sustainable way.
Celebrate Success Along the Way
Reuben: You mention the importance of celebrating successes along the way and that if we wait until we finally make it to celebrate, we’ll likely be waiting forever. How does that show up in your life?
Clark: It is a very human tendency for overachieving people to just want to keep pushing forward and stay focused on the goal that remains at the other end of the horizon. We need to pace ourselves and recognize that accomplishments are worth celebrating.
Reuben: Well, I am so excited to celebrate your success on another bestseller book launch. It’s been great to talk with you about The Long Game. How can people learn more about you and your work?
Clark: The new book is called The Long Game: How to be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World. I also have a free, long-game strategic thinking self-assessment that helps you turn the lens on your own life and career and apply some of the principles of strategic thinking. You can download this resource for free at dorieclark.com/thelonggame.
Playing the long game in a short-term world takes intentionality, blending action and mindset. Even amidst the busyness of day to day, it’s important to deliberately create whitespace so you can engage in the long-term thinking process. Once you envision what you want for your life, getting there requires recalibrating some of our defaults, taking action to experiment forward through small bets and strategically balancing our modes of focus. Most importantly, don’t wait too long to celebrate success along the way.
Deborah Reuben, CLFP, is CEO and founder of TomorrowZone, a technology strategy consulting firm bringing forward-thinking insights and original ideas to help companies gain efficiencies and design roadmaps for the future. She holds many industry leadership positions and authored The Certified Lease and Finance Professionals’ Handbook sixth through eighth editions. Learn more at tomorrowzone.io.
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