By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Originally published by Forbes.
You may have a long-term goal like writing a book, becoming a highly sought after (and highly paid) speaker, starting a successful company, or perhaps a more personal goal, like buying and apartment in Paris or retiring early. Anyone who has done any of these things will tell you that they do not happen overnight — achieving these goals, and other significant personal or professional objectives, requires playing the long game.
I recently had a chance to speak with Dorie Clark, whose latest book, The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World outlines what is required to keep our focus on these long-term goals when everyone around us is thinking in terms of weeks or months, not years or even decades. She said, “There is a reason that most people are not playing the long game. That reason is that you often look like an idiot for long periods of time because it’s not paying off. And also it’s often not profitable for a really long time and, thus you look even more like an idiot. But the truth is, when it does pan out, people get it, and you look like a genius. But most people are not willing to wait that long.” Clark continued, “Too often, people are looking for the big score.”
Successfully achieving long-term goals involves engaging in several strategies:
Clark shared that, a decade ago, as she sought to build her career, “I very deliberately made a choice, and reallocated a significant portion of my time to what I will call brand building activities, to writing articles, to interviewing people. I was building my network, and I was building my base of content. And those were things that I believed — I took an educated guess — that would be beneficial to my business over the long term.” Her investment in these brand-building (and relationship-building) activities did not necessarily yield immediate benefits, but were longer-term investments that laid the foundation and set her up for the success she has achieved today as an accomplished author, speaker, coach and consultant.
Planting the seeds for future success also requires that we make short-term sacrifices. When we say ‘yes’ to something, by definition, we say ‘no’ to something else. Clark said about her investment in the above-mentioned activities, “It was certainly not beneficial in the short term because it meant that I had to turn down client work. And my income took a significant dip — a six figure dip — because I chose to do that. But it is what enabled me.”
While not everybody has to make such an extreme choice, asking the question “What should I be doing today that will set me up for exponential growth, not incremental growth, in the long-term?” is an important reflective and thoughtful element in playing the long game. It may be as simple as saying no to a meeting request or social engagement to set aside time to think or write, or not taking as extravagant of a vacation so you can save for early retirement, if that’s the goal you’re working towards. Clark suggests that the amount you sacrifice should reflect what you are willing to risk on setting yourself up for future success.
As the saying goes, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Small, regular efforts add up. You can think of it as compound interest accruing towards your long-term goals. This is true not only for financial savings but also for a job search and other career or personal goals. Dorie gave the example of Google’s 20% time practice to pursue more speculative or longer-term projects. She said, “I think 20% is a powerful number because it is significant enough that, if you are doing it for a period of time, you really can gain traction in something. It’s enough that, after a while, it adds up.” It’s part of making a strategic bet that can pay back in multiples years from now.
When success doesn’t happen as soon as we want, it can be frustrating. Success requires patience and persistence. J.K Rowling’s pitch for Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers. Yet, many people let one rejection stop them, which Clark says is preposterous. She shared, “A really common problem is that people are far too quick to give up because they know — everyone knows — that success is not overnight. But no one tells you what ‘not overnight’ means. That could be a month. That could be a year. That could be 10 years. People often have no idea. And so they don’t don’t know how to calibrate their journey and it can get really frustrating.”
It’s for this reason that it’s really important to have knowledgeable people around you, what Clark refers to as “a mentor board of directors.” She said, “You need to have people who care about you and have enough insight into your field to be able to give you high quality advice about ‘this is good, this isn’t good, keep going, don’t keep going, etc.’ In those moments, it’s very hard to trust ourselves because of our emotions.” If you are getting consistent data or feedback from a variety of different sources, then that is something to listen to that can help redirect or refocus your efforts in more productive ways.
Success doesn’t come all at once. As our regular efforts accumulate, we start to see what Clark refers to as “raindrops.” She said, “We have to be willing to appreciate and recognize and get excited about the small wins so that we understand that we’re making progress.” Maybe you’re not doing a keynote at Dreamforce just yet, but perhaps you’re getting more inbound inquiries asking you to speak to smaller groups of professionals or starting to see other signs of getting noticed for your work. Recognize these small victories and use it as fuel to keep going.
Building towards success takes time. Anyone who is thought to have become an “overnight success” will tell you that they’ve been working at their craft for years. Dorie Clark, herself, is not only an example of how to play the long game, but she has coached many others (myself included) on this journey. Check out The Long Game to read about many other relevant and relatable anecdotes of other people playing the long game to success.