Top business thinker and Duke professor Dorie Clark’s latest book, The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, gives us strategies to break away from the relentless crush of short-term pressures.
I recently spoke with her about strategies and concepts for playing the career long game.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Karen Walker: Early in the book, you write, “Is the long-term even relevant anymore?” My response is, “Has it ever been more relevant?”
Dorie Clark: I received confirmation from my publisher that they would extend a book deal to me on February 28th, 2020 — which did not seem like a meaningful date at the time. Within less than a week, the entire world seemed like it was collapsing. Early on in my writing journey for The Long Game, I was writing about long-term thinking when the world, as we knew it, was collapsing. A colleague nagged me, saying, “What an irrelevant book to write right now.”
Of course, COVID showed that there’s clearly a place for short-term thinking. We all need to be adaptable. We all need to be flexible and get better at adjusting to rapid change.
That is 100 percent true, but I have come to believe that it is equally valid that we cannot live our entire lives that way. We will be doing ourselves a disservice if we never snap out of short-term thinking, just because it’s important to be reactive at the moment when significant things are happening.
If all we ever do is react to external stimuli, then we are hampered in our ability to create a forward-thinking vision for where we want to end up, rather than just ending up where the tides take us. At the end of the day, most of us don’t want to live that way.
We would much rather set an intention and work toward it, recognizing that things might change and we might need to adapt or create new strategies. Ultimately, we want to be the drivers, not just be jellyfish flapping around in the ocean.
Walker: So long-term thinking protects us “from downturns of all kinds because it keeps us moving towards our most important goals.” I always tell my clients to take control of their calendars. You have to look at your long-term goals first, because otherwise you’re just at the whim of whatever happens to show up on your schedule. How has that worked in your life?
Clark: In terms of carving out time for long-term activities, I am a big believer in what I call being “directionally correct.”
I live in Manhattan’s Financial District, which is the southernmost part of Manhattan. I will often take long walks and wander. It doesn’t matter where I go, because I know that as long as I am heading north, I will end up in Soho or Midtown at some point. I’m not too worried about which street or cutting over at a certain point.
I know that as long as I’m not stressing out too much, as long as I keep heading north, I will arrive where I need to go. Similarly, in our professional lives, it is helpful to see big picture goals for ourselves. The trick is that there can’t be too many. I’ve written about this before in some of my work. I have a policy that I try not to have more than three overarching goals at any given time, typically two professional and one personal.
The reason is that days are going to get filled with meetings, obligations and projects. Of course, we need to be responsible about fulfilling our commitments, but that will come to you as other people will drive those objectives.
Working toward essential goals as our north star enables us to progress towards the long game every day.
The important goals to us are not necessarily as essential to other people. We have to be the driving force. We have to be the one looking to the horizon and saying, “Okay, I am going to move this to the fore. And every day, I’m going to be doing something to continue to advance that goal.”
Walker: Another tenet in your book is the concept of strategic patience. You say that the payoff for patience isn’t linear; it’s exponential. What does that mean?
Clark: The first part of the equation is straightforward. In my experience, and in the experience of many people that I have coached, you’re working hard for two or three years. You feel like you’re doing all the right things, and yet you have almost nothing to show for it. There are little glimmers, but it is an inordinately frustrating time.
You have to operate on faith alone for a while. That’s very hard for a lot of people, and it is tough if you are not part of a community that’s supporting you or you don’t have a coach who is encouraging you.
What I have also seen is that after the point where you clear that hurdle, the growth is exponential in terms of your ability to succeed.
For instance, after a few years of building up a reputation as a recognized expert, your success snowballs. You are suddenly hitting a critical mass where people have heard your name. They’re familiar with you, and as a result, you are viewed differently. It takes time to build up, but when you do these things, it creates a compounding force and it’s very astounding.
The process is similar to the growth patterns of so-called exponential technologies like 3D printing, digital photography or artificial intelligence. Once you hit the threshold, it’s not that the progress has changed; it’s just that it’s become visible to the naked eye, and everyone is stunned by it.
Walker: I think of all of the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people that you’ve helped with their careers. You didn’t teach them how to do good work. You taught them how to expand their definition of what was necessary to be successful.
Clark: Ultimately, as you say, doing good work is necessary, but not sufficient. Most of us know someone who’s a talented artist, but she is only showing her work in the local coffee shop. Or someone else may be an amazing singer, but he is not singing on a Broadway stage. We understand that someone could be equally as talented as a world-famous star, but something is different.
What is that difference? The difference is the scale of people that they’re able to reach. We have to figure out how we get our ideas seen and heard by more people. What are the conditions that we can control that enable that to happen? This is where the Recognized Expert formula comes in. I developed a framework several years ago to understand and trace what enables your ideas to be heard more widely. The answer is content creation. You need to give people a way to hear about your ideas and know that you are good at what you do.
Walker: That’s certainly the foundation for the short-term goals that one would set to reach their long-term goals. For goal-setting, you have a terrific phrase, which is “optimize for interesting.”
Clark: We often polarize the discussion around what we should be optimizing. In many ways, the cultural conversation is either, “Optimize for money,” if you don’t know what to do, just make money.” Or, “Optimize for your passion.”
A lot of people are not sure what their passion is, and feel pressured.
One of my favorite answers to life’s problems is to lower the bar. A constructive way that we can lower the bar is to say, “Hey, don’t worry about your passion for now. Instead, optimize for interesting.”
Everybody can tell you what is interesting to them. Birds – interesting? Yes or no? People can tell you, whatever it is, wine, travel, baseball, there are a million things and it’s different for everyone.
Optimizing for interesting gives us the ability, number one, to do something pleasurable, which is good. We deserve that. And number two, it’s a way of getting more data because you’re doing something — you’re not just sitting there banging your head against a wall.
You’re gathering data by doing. It is the essence of the lean startup methodology, and it enables you to pivot as necessary.
Maybe someone says, “I don’t really like writing. I hate blogging. That sounds like torture to me, but you know what sounds like fun? Interviewing people. I could get behind that.” Well, maybe you should start a podcast that you’ll actually do as compared to coming up with a plan to blog, which you never do.
Optimizing for interesting is an excellent way of making choices to make life both more enjoyable and more effective because you’re motivated to do the work.
Walker: My initial response to the idea of interviewing was, “I don’t want to do that,” but the first one I did, I loved. So yes, pay attention to what you enjoy!
I often hear from mid-career and even traditionally late-career people, “Oh, I only have five or 10 more years to work. What’s the point?” which I find amazing. For me, it was helpful to pick a number. I chose 108 as my target age for departing the planet. That gives me a long horizon to anticipate and to pay attention to what resonates.
Clark: That’s exactly right. It’s so true, especially when people think about retirement. It’s strange because so many people limit themselves. The way that lifespans are advancing, most people in their fifties and sixties will probably live 20 to 30 more years, if not even longer. For people to write themselves off is so tragic.
Walker: What’s next for you? What’s your long game?
Clark: One of the concepts I talk about in The Long Game is thinking in waves — alternating between heads-up and heads-down mode. I have been in prolonged heads-down mode, working on the book and publicizing it, going full throttle with all of this.
These waves are almost like every natural cycle. For example, when you exercise, you do your weight training, and then you rest to let your muscles regenerate.
One of the things that I’m very excited about is I am planning to take two months off at the beginning of the new year. I know that to be effective, we need both marathon time and sprint time. So I am trying to live that out. Right now is very much the sprint time to make the book successful, and I want to give it every chance possible to succeed.
I’m looking forward to recalibrating and having a little marathon time to rest, relax, read books and think about my long game.