Long-term versus short-term is something we all wrestle with. Imagine what would happen if there was a 96% tax on all investment returns unless you kept them for 10 or 20 years, how would that shift the way investors deal with the short term, investing in the future, building entities that last?
OK, so how do we do this, how do we engage with people who are focused like all of us are on the short run? Let’s first consider the case of Jan Brandt: When AOL was building out the first generation of the popular Internet they had a long-term vision and the long-term vision was a lot like life as we see it today; telematics, social networking, the idea that all this information would be available at everyone’s fingertips, that people would be connected, that the world would change.
But that’s not what they said to people when they showed up in front of them. Jan spent 300 million dollars mailing CDs and floppy disks to every person in America and the offer was simple. The offer was you can get online right now for free and find out what it’s like or else you can throw out this thing in your hands that feels sort of valuable. Don’t waste it, go go go!
That offer didn’t highlight what was going to happen in 10 years. If lots of people got on the Internet, it was about now, that moment they wanted to do something on it. Not tomorrow or what the internet could possibly become.
So what we do as leaders, as people who want to make change is we have to persuade ourselves that we’re on a long term mission. But what people are going to embrace, if they’re going to move forward now, is how that long-term vision makes them feel today. What will they tell their friends today. How will they go to sleep tonight. That feeling brings the future into the present.
That’s what behavioral economics has been studying and that’s how we’ve learned to help people with a retirement savings and social security funds. That if we can describe a story in action that in the long run is worth doing but in the short run is urgent, that increases our status, that connects us to the people we care about, that gives us a story we can share, that will lead people to take action right this minute.
One of my colleagues asked me this challenging question when I was discussing this in my office: Life is a series of games and if we program to naturally see the shortcut, what strategies have you found helpful in increasing discipline and commitment needed to pursue a long-term approach to a problem rather than the short term win?
Sometimes we get something big done, sometimes we do things that last more than a few minutes but it all points to the discipline you have in achieving your goals.
If you want to climb Mount Everest, first you gotta get on a plane and go all the way to Kathmandu, then somehow get yourself to the khumbu Valley, then you find yourself in a Tea house, then you find some people to climb with you, and then you find yourself at base camp. And every step along the way is annoying, difficult or expensive and yet some people make it all the way to Everest. So how do we explain a series of short term unpleasant steps on the way to a goal that’s important to us?
Well, I think what’s going on is this: even though it may be difficult to sit in a plane for 8 hours and coach in the back flying all the way to Nepal, that whole time we’re doing it we’re telling ourselves a story. And it’s a story about not quitting a story of doing something that matters to us a story of step by step. The stories are short term, the stories are the very lever that helps us keep going.
So what it takes to go on this long-term journey is the ability to tell ourselves and to tell others a story in which every day has progress in it. Where it is better to go to medical school to get the organic chemistry to do all of those things that take us to the deep than it is to say to people I quit. And that Belief that the steps are worth it, is why a long vision is important.