8 min read

4 Steps to Playing the Long Game

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How was your 2020, overall? Mine was a nightmare, to be honest.


I worked so hard that I became an insufferable control freak, burnt out and temporarily hated everything. My first post-divorce relationship went up in a flaming pile of crap. My health fell in for a while, and a shoulder injury messed me up for months. One of my closest family members got a terminal cancer diagnosis. Oh, and, y’know, there was a global pandemic.

What a dick of a year.

But here’s the good news: 2021 probably won’t be any easier. COVID isn’t going anywhere, and the impacts are going to become more obvious and intense.

…Oh, wait, that’s not the good news. It’s just the news.

Here’s the actual good news: nothing matters as much as you think, in the long run.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at your calendar or to-do list from three months ago. Scroll through some of your messages with your best mate from a year ago.

The stuff that kept you awake at night, had you put in extra hours, or agonise over the right choice doesn’t seem such a big deal now, does it? If you simply hadn’t done a third of it, nothing much would have changed.

Now, think about some of the hardest things you’ve coped with. The stuff that felt unmanageable and you didn’t know how you’d get past. Odds are, it all worked out all right. In fact, you probably refer to that stuff now and appreciate how you changed, grew, or learned.

When you look back, you’ve got a long game lens.

It's like a wide-angle setting for your brain.

When the long game lens is on, you see how individual choices, events, and upsets fit into the bigger picture, and you work those into your narrative.

We can do that for the past, and often for the future too. That’s how we set goals and make plans. But we struggle to do it for the present. It's why there's such a disconnect between strategy sessions and workplace behaviour - we get the long game lens out in the meeting room, and put it away again when we got back to our desk.

When we can bring some of that long-game perspective into the present, we see our options, choices and daily events differently. We ask questions like:

"Does this take me closer to the end goal?"
"How will I talk about this in a year's time?"
"Is this the best use of my time?"
"What consequences will this have?"

 

I’ve been making a concerted effort to bring a long-game lens into my present, and I can feel the difference.

  • I increase my weights more slowly at the gym and pay more attention to my form now – because I want long-term strength and fitness, and another injury would mess with that.

  • I don’t take on work that I’m not excited about or pull all-nighters - because I need the space and energy to work on the projects that are building the future

  • I cancel meetings if I'm unwellbecause one meeting or client will be forgotten quickly, but shortchanging my recovery will have a ripple effect.

  • I don’t snap at my kids over their messy rooms as often* - because I want a lifelong relationship based on love and respect.

As a blackboard outside a coffee shop will probably tell you sometime soon, (but apparently John Lennon said first):

"Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end.”

That’s all well and good, but other than the fact that John Lennon was kind of a nutcase, it’s not helpful when you need to work out how to think differently now. If you didn’t feel like shit, you wouldn’t have stopped to read a quote like that in the first place.


 

Your long game toolkit

To get you started, here’s your top four tools in playing the long game:

  1. Perspective

  2. Purpose

  3. Patience

  4. Practice.


 

1 - Perspective will take care of your pain

The main reason things seem like such a big deal is because we’re too close to them. Daniel Kahneman* calls this WYSIATI (‘What You See Is All There Is’) but wise people have been telling us this for ages. You’ve probably said “you can’t see the wood for the trees” at some point.

Like most things, the Stoic philosophers had it nailed early on.

“Everything we see is a perspective. Not the truth.”

- Marcus Aurelius

The closer you are to something, the more important it seems. Our brains are wired to put immediate threats first, which makes sense from an evolutionary biology standpoint. We need to react to the threats in front of us, to stay alive. This is great when we’re staring down a woolly mammoth, but not so useful when we turn into reactive drama queens, panicking at every new email and catastrophising every relationship, project or meeting that doesn’t go to plan.

Given we’re so good at putting things into perspective in retrospect, it can be helpful to play Future You when everything seems unmanageable. Try thinking about your life as a book, and about this disaster or phase as an event or a chapter. How would it fit into the broader story, of what came before and what came next? What would this chapter be called?

If you’re not a reader (which seems unlikely, if you’ve read this far), try writing a list instead, titled something like ‘10 Reasons This Doesn’t Really Matter’ or ‘5 Reasons I’m Glad This Happened.’ For bonus points, read your list aloud. When we say things out loud, our brain believes us, and we’re naturally pretty good story tellers. Hack that annoying bias for good***.


 

2 - Purpose will give you perspective

It feels like our experiences are factual, because they’re tangible. If you can see, smell, hear or taste something, it must be real… right? Wrong. Our external world isn’t as objective as it seems. In short, most of what we experience is just a projection of our own shit.

Like Google, our mind runs on a series of filters, helpfully sorting through the metric tonne of sensory information available at any given time to present us with relevant results. This is great, if you’re a good Googler and you’re using the right search criteria. But if your criteria are unhelpful - or worse, if they’re unclear, the sorting function doesn’t really work. Some things seem more important than they really are, while the most critical stuff falls by the wayside.

It’s why you get to the end of a busy day, exhausted but wondering what you achieved. In Essentialism (my most-gifted client book) Greg McKeown calls this the ‘paradox of leadership’ - feeling overwhelmed and underutilised at the same time.

The thing is, perspective doesn’t work without purpose.

It’s hard to see things for what they really are,
if you don’t know who you are
or what you care about.

McKeown calls this your ‘highest point of contribution.’ Simon Sinek calls it your ‘why.’ Woke mindfulness teachers talk about your ‘calling.’ Call it what you like. The guts of it is: when you’ve got your eye on something bigger and more meaningful, the minutiae doesn’t seem so relevant.

Who cares if someone cut you off on the motorway, or if Ben in Accounting took the wrong tone in his email, when you’re focused on building something important?

I don’t know what your bigger purpose is – maybe it’s saving dolphins with autism. Maybe it’s bringing sustainability into the workplace. Maybe it’s being a present parent.

Like the bad stuff, it kind of doesn’t matter – at least, it doesn’t matter what it is. It just matters that you have one.

Your life is always going to fill up with stuff, because, secretly, you want it to. All those pressing concerns are a helpful distraction from spending any time with yourself. We avoid boredom, because we’d have to face the truth about our super-important work and life things and wonder… “is this all bullshit?” “what am I even doing this for?” And those are scary questions.

Taking the time to understand what you really value and the impact yo want to have on the world might be scary, but the evidence suggests it’s worthwhile. People that are motivated by a strong sense of purpose tend to live more meaningful lives, have more satisfying relationships and do better at work. These are nice things to have.


3 - Patience will find your purpose

How uncomfortable would you be if I asked you directly - ‘Hey Charlie, what’s YOUR purpose?’

Some of you might be enlightened already, and point straight to your LinkedIn tagline or Instagram bio. The rest of you would probably squirm awkwardly and make a bad joke, or stumble through a jumbled explanation, apologising as you went and secretly fearing that you might not have a purpose.

That’s OK. Most of us are banging around in the dark trying to work it out as we go. It’s a long game, remember? Your purpose probably won’t come to you in a bolt of lightning and it will morph and shift over time. You can read this blog post for some prompt questions, but for on-the-job learning, the first step is: do things and notice how they make you feel.

When I work with clients, I ask them to notice how their energy changes when they do different things and how they react in different situations.


What lights you up?

What do you love the most about your job?

What do you hate the most about your job?****

What do you get lost in?

What gets you all over-excited and annoying when it comes up at dinner?


Pay attention to those things, and you’ll start to work it out. If you’ve spent the last decade working too hard or getting lost in your kids and you don’t know what you like anymore, that’s cool. Just do some stuff, and see how it feels.

Maybe you’re an artist? Maybe you like gardening? Maybe you’re into social justice?

Maybe you don’t know yet.

Start noticing, keep track, and when you find something that works, do more of that. Over time, your criteria will get clearer - and your search results will too.


 

4 - Practice will give you patience

Once you’ve thrashed around for a while figuring out what you care about, and you can sum it up in an Instagram bio, you will then have a happy and fulfilling life, maintain useful perspective on everything and become a Zen master.

…Or not. Knowing your purpose isn’t enough. You have to do something about it.

Knowing your purpose and not living in alignment with it
will make you more miserable.

Now, you can see all the ways you’re wasting time and energy, but you’re still doing them. Ah, transition.

Unfortunately, having a long-term vision doesn’t make it magically appear (sorry, if you’ve read The Secret and thought it would.)

Everyone knows the guy that talks the big game about what they’re going to do ‘one day.’ One day, they’ll write a book. One day, they’ll start their own business. One day, they’ll run a marathon. Maybe you are that guy. But one day will come, and if you didn’t write anything, launch anything, or pick up a running habit, the odds are against you.

In this way, playing the long game is a bit of a paradox. One the one hand: nothing matters as much as you think it does. On the other hand: all your small choices add up to big change. James Clear writes about this in Atomic Habits, but every wealth expert has been preaching consistent, incremental deposits for exponential change forever. Compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world, and you can create compound payoffs in your life too.

 

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

– Annie Dillard


When we use our long-game lens in the present, we channel our purpose-filtered search results to create small choices, habits and behaviours that get us closer to the big picture… and we let the rest go.

To keep a healthy perspective on the present, do more of what lights you up - write that book, start that website, go to that class and take small steps to bring sustainability into your workplace and help autistic dolphins.

Do less of what gets in the way, and when something really pisses you off, push it through your filter. Ask questions like:


“Is this really worth my energy?”

“Does investing my time here take me closer to my long game?”

“What should I focus on instead?”

“How do I get rid of this from my life"?”

“Can I just let this go?


 

Watch your language

Your long game is ultimately defined by your short term. So check how you’re reacting, what you’re choosing and what you’re saying.

Above all:

  • Figure out what you really care about

  • Pace yourself while you make better choices

  • Let most of the other shit fall away. It doesn’t matter anyway.

Or, in the words of my daughter, scrawled on a post-it note on my fridge:

“Do something today that helps you tomorrow.” (Charlotte, 10)

- AM


————————-

*OK, I’m still working on this one.

** Daniel Kahneman is the MAN. He uses behavioural economics and cognitive science to explain why our brains are such assholes, and why we’re all totally biased. Check out Thinking Fast and Slow.

*** This is a psychology technique called positive reappraisal. The literature gets a bit ‘silver lining’ or ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ for my liking, but its a handy tool to have in your arsenal, even when you don’t believe it yet.

**** Like finding your values, sometimes the best way to work out a positive answer is to reverse the logic and start with the negative.


Want more help? Check out this free guide to playing the long game - packed full of free worksheets and templates to get you thinking.