I’m an avid believer in the value of ‘playing the long game’ – that is, the concept that it’s worth foregoing short-term benefits, or indeed enduring short-term pain, in pursuit of a more significant long-term gain. This kind of thinking is a basic requirement of anyone who has chosen to run their own business at some point, because it’s always easier and more immediately financially beneficial to take a ‘safe’ job offer rather than to leap into the unknown, a place of short-term cash flow issues and uncertain future gains. I certainly turned down some attractive looking job offers while building a business because I believed long term it wasn’t the right option, and I’m sure most people in that position do too.
At the same time, I’ve also blogged before about how I think making 5-year plans is futile and ultimately limiting. So here, I’m advocating only short-term planning – aren’t these two positions contradictory? Well, actually no, and I’ll try to explain why not…
When you play the long game, you’re making a set of high-level, strategic goals for yourself. These should be completely devoid of any specifics of how you intend to achieve them, but they will be the yardstick against which you will measure your more detailed, short-term decisions. So while I think it’s silly to make specific plans for a period as long as 5 years, for example wanting to get a specific job or be making a specific product in 5 years time, I think you should be making high-level statements of intent. For example: “I want complete freedom to work on projects of my own choosing”, or “I want to be able to take off on a round the world trip with my family whenever I want”. These might sound like fanciful pie-in-the-sky things, and probably some people around you might say you’re crazy for considering them. That’s because the world is full of short-term thinkers who unconsciously extrapolate from what is possible to achieve in the short term into artificially restrictive, often rather dull (and far too specific and rigid) long term plans. You really don’t have to be constrained by this thinking. Don’t extrapolate from the short-term, interpolate from the long-term
When you have a long-term but very high-level goal in your mind like that, making decisions on short-term things often becomes a lot easier. For example, a while back I started taking a Masters degree in my spare time. It was kind of interesting and I passed a few modules, but then I realised that while I appreciated the learning, in the context of what I wanted to do long term – to work on my own products and not just look for jobs – additional formal qualifications were actually pretty worthless. No-one cares what your qualifications are when they buy your product, they only care how good the product is. Even when you’re a freelancer, which I used as a conduit, clients are far more interested in your portfolio and track record than the letters after your name. I was spending a lot of time conforming to a pre-set syllabus which didn’t adapt to my interests and the demands of the projects I wanted to work on; sure there’s some overlap, but I found I could learn just as much or more on my own anyway. So, I dropped that part way through and I’ve never regretted doing so; not surprising really because it wasn’t aligned with my long-term, high-level goals. If I’d wanted to stay a regular employee long-term then it might have still been useful (although even then, less so as you get older, but sometimes good for getting past dumb HR pre-filters), but that wasn’t my goal.
So in summary, my approach is to play the short and the long game at the same time, staying flexible and open to opportunities (by not planning the long term in detail) while still making all my short-term decisions in the wider context of very high-level long term goals. Sometimes those short-term decisions lead in a direction which might seem unintuitive to others (and might give you second thoughts) unless taken in the context of those wider principles. If those long term goals really do speak to you personally, they will be worth pursuing even if the route takes a few twists along the way. In fact, those twists can be fun too, if you’re willing to roll with them.