Leverage The Power Of Compounding Time
As machines become increasingly accurate and intelligent, we humans will need to sharpen our cognitive skills. One of your primary responsibilities as a Learning & Development leader is to ensure that you empower the workforce to develop the four sets of skills that are critical to thriving in 2030. A series of articles, eLearning Skills 2030, explores all the skills to make your job easier. This article explores playing the long game, why it is a critical skill, and how to sharpen it.
What Is The Long Game?
According to the Urban Dictionary, the long game is a long-term strategy. Playing the long-term game means that you consider the future implications of current choices deliberately and patiently. In terms of an actual time frame, a long-term strategy lasts about 5-7 years and no more than ten. The volume, velocity, and complexity of change make it difficult to see beyond the ten-year horizon, whether from an organizational or individual vantage point. As opposed to the short game, which focuses on immediate results and rewards and can be quite exhilarating, the long game focuses on continuous, incremental improvement that compounds over time which can be quite boring. In his article “Play the Long Game: Delay gratification now to get more later,” Thomas Waschenfelder posits that compound interest is the key to the long game “whether you are compounding resources like money or skills, time is the most significant force multiplier.” 
Why Is Playing The Long Game Important?
Playing the long game changes your perspective and gives you control over the goals you want to achieve, whether for your organizational or individual growth. As Dorie Clark discusses in her book The Long Game: How to be a long-term thinker in a short-term world, long-term thinking offers protection from downturns because it keeps us moving toward our most important goals. The long game is essential because it forces us to zoom out and see the forest while tending to individual trees daily. The compounding element means that you put effort for two or three years in a row without much to show for it, and by years four and five, you suddenly clear the hurdle, and you can demonstrate growth.
In business, exponential growth takes place once you hit the threshold. Peter Diamandis explains the exponential growth in a simple way: if you give someone $1 each day for 30 days, on day 30, they will end up with $30. If you give them 1 penny on day one, 2 pennies on day two, and four pennies on day three, by day 30, they will end up with $10 million . This is the power of exponential growth, and it applies in 3-D printing, AI, quantum, and other exponential technologies.
How Do You Play The Long Game?
Playing the long game requires a change in mindset to focus on foregoing immediate gratification, defining your goal, working daily on your goal, and practicing patience.
Forego Immediate Gratification
This implies sacrificing short-term results and patiently working towards long-term outcomes. A classic example of the impact of avoiding immediate gratification is the 1972 marshmallow experiment at Stanford. In this experiment, 92 children aged 3-5 years were offered a choice between one small but immediate reward or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time. During this time, the researcher left the room for about 15 minutes and then returned. The reward was either a marshmallow or pretzel, depending on the child’s preference. In follow-up studies conducted in later years as the children grew, the researchers found that children who could wait longer for the preferred rewards also had better life outcomes, including higher SAT scores, better educational track record, and lower body mass index .
Define Your Goal
The first step to playing the long game is to become crystal clear on your long-term goal and eliminate anything that does not add value to it. Planning means thinking in five- or ten-year increments. Dorie Clark posits that crystallizing your goal, which she calls defining your “north star,” will give you as a leader the advantage and, in turn, benefit your organization. If you plan ahead, the general direction you need to take becomes clearer. Planning does not mean you set everything in stone but rather that you stay focused on the long-term plan while being able to pivot as needed in the short term to get there.
Work On Your Goal Daily
Just as you cannot build a six-pack tomorrow nor run a marathon without prior practice, you cannot play the long game if you don’t consistently strive towards your goal. You have to put in the work day after day and remain patient until you hit the threshold of exponential growth. Rushing the process will not yield favorable results. Conversely, by working on your goals daily, you are playing the long game: as you embrace the power of daily progress, you leverage the power of compound growth for long-term success.
Practicing patience is the hard part of playing the long game, especially because you are not seeing results until after several years. To tackle this challenge, Dorie Clark recommends thinking and working in waves of “heads up” and “heads down” modes. In the “heads up” mode, you are exploring new ideas, asking questions, and pivoting. In the “heads down” mode, you are focusing and executing .
As Simon Sinek highlights in his book The Infinite Game, leaders learn to play the long game by embracing an infinite mindset. Consequently, they build stronger, more innovative, and enduring organizations. As a Learning & Development leader, you have a responsibility to empower your team and guide your organization to embrace and play the long game. Doing so will help strengthen the resilience of your team and your organization, providing a stronger position in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment of today, leading to 2030 and beyond.