“Remember to dream big, think long-term, underachieve on a daily basis, and take baby steps. That is the key to long-term success.”
Those 24 words by businessman and author Robert Kiyosaki provide a thumbnail tutorial on navigating your current job, your overall career, and your life in general.
Dorie Clark takes it even further in The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World.
Dorie, who teaches at both Duke and Columbia University, is a big thinker. In fact, she’s literally been named one of the top business thinkers in the world. The titles of her previous books—Entrepreneurial You, Stand Out and Reinventing You—provide clues to her primary orientation: helping people make the very most of their lives by leveraging the skills they already have while discovering and developing others to greatest advantage.
Do you sometimes have trouble making smart choices about how to invest your time and energy? Of course, you do. Who doesn’t? In The Long Game, Dorie teaches you how to create the “white space” that allows for less frenzied thinking.
Do you sometimes feel that you’re being held captive by your jam-packed calendar? Dorie shares some practical tools and specific ways to get more comfortable saying no.
She can even help you decide what to be bad at. No, that’s not a typo. Making that kind of strategic choice can be surprisingly liberating.
Listen in on my conversation with Dorie. My bet is that you’ll decide to challenge one or more of your mindsets. And you’ll be better for it.
Rodger Dean Duncan: It’s no secret that a lot of CEOs focus on quarterly profits at the expense of long-term growth. Why do many people seem to adopt that same short-sighted mindset in managing their personal lives?
Dorie Clark: Part of the challenge is human nature—of course it’s nicer to get immediate rewards!
But the problem is that many short-term rewards are shallow and illusory compared to the rewards that can be derived from long-term effort. We have to train ourselves to adopt this mindset.
A particular challenge these days is social media, which makes it easy and instantaneous to compare ourselves to others, both in our immediate social circles and far beyond. That’s useful up to a point because we can often be inspired and motivated by what others are doing. But when taken too far, it’s a problem, because we tend to wonder—”Why am I falling behind?” or “Why is success happening more/faster for others?” or “What am I missing?” And that can lead people to cut corners and make suboptimal choices.
Duncan: You note that a frequent complaint is the feeling of being rushed, overwhelmed, and perennially behind. How did that deadly combination become so common?
Clark: Many of us are trying—almost all the time—to stuff 120% of activities into 100% of our time, and the math simply doesn’t work. We inevitably feel rushed and pressured because we actually are behind.
We need to train ourselves to make more realistic estimates about the time involved in various commitments, and to be more aggressive about saying no to commitments and obligations that don’t align with our own strategic priorities. One good test is to ask ourselves of any given request, “Would I feel bad in a year if I didn’t do this?” That can often clarify whether it’s important or something that can be declined.
Duncan: The Covid pandemic has certainly forced a lot of people to make short-term adjustments in the way they live and work. What lessons can the pandemic teach about the value of long-term thinking?
Clark: The pandemic was a time that, of necessity, prioritized short-term thinking. We had to pivot, adjust, and adapt—right away. There’s nothing wrong with short-term thinking when we put it in the proper context. But it’s also true that short-term thinking is not a way to permanently live our lives, because it means we’d constantly be reacting and not shaping the agenda. We need to balance it out by reclaiming a long-term vision and determining proactively how we want to live and where we want to go.
Duncan: What is it about busyness that’s so compelling to people—including those who (ironically) complain about being too busy?
Clark: As many of us have intuited—and research by Silvia Bellezza of Columbia University and her colleagues has shown—busyness can be a form of performativity in our culture. “I’m so crazy busy!!!” can translate (subconsciously) to “I’m so in demand! I’m so incredibly essential and necessary at work!”
We complain about busyness because it’s a little (or a lot) miserable to race around all the time without a break. But in some cases, it fulfills a psychological need. So we need to be aware of that. If we keep trying and failing to curb our busyness, that may be one unconscious factor.
Duncan: What’s the key to saying no to things that have short-term allure but limited long-term value?
Clark: We all know we should say no to more things. But in practice, it’s hard. You don’t want to disappoint people, and it can be awkward to know what to say.
It’s even harder to say no to things that have some appealing attributes. I once turned down a free trip to speak in Grand Cayman because I realized I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it properly because I was scheduled to travel the week before and the week after—meaning, I’d be on the road for three consecutive weeks. It’s important to contextualize the offer and really look at the total cost (including physical and emotional) of committing to it.
Duncan: You suggest that it’s good for people to “decide what to be bad at.” What does that mean?
Clark: This is a concept that Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei and Anne Morris talk about in their book Uncommon Service. They studied service businesses, like banks or airlines, to see what made them great (or mediocre). They determined the key was recognizing that you have only so much energy and effort, and you have to both choose what to be great at and what to be bad at—because inevitably, there are trade-offs and you’ll have to give up something.
I make the case that the same is true in our own lives, whether it’s letting email slip while you’re working on a big project or deciding to order takeout all the time in order to focus on work, or whatever. We can’t be great at everything.
Duncan: People can make the most progress, you say, if they “strategically overindex.” Give us an example of what that looks like in actual practice.
Clark: In investing, “overindexing” on something means you make a choice to allocate your funds more aggressively in a certain area, or toward a certain stock. I believe we should do the same with our time—choosing what we want or need to focus on, and then going deep so we can gain traction.
In one example, I realized years ago as I was growing my business that I really needed to enhance my network, and I believed that participating in a certain conference would enable me to do that. So, I signed up to attend four iterations of the conference over a one-year period so I could get to know practically everyone and get comfortable and integrated into that community. Nowadays, I certainly don’t go nearly that often, but that’s because I put in the time to overindex early on and now I reap the benefit of having a strong connection to that community.
Duncan: “Thinking in Waves” is a productivity framework you recommend. How does that work?
Clark: The key insight here is that we often get in trouble and stagnate professionally when we try to just keep doing the same thing, over and over. We have to move forward and do new things!
I lay out a framework of four common waves in our career—
- Learning (immersing ourselves in a company or field, so we know what’s going on),
- Creating (so others can see that we have good ideas and value to share),
- Connecting (so we have a community to sharpen and amplify our ideas), and
- Reaping (enjoy the fruits of our labor).
We have to keep cycling between these so we can stay fresh and keep learning. And most importantly, Reaping isn’t a permanent stage. After a while, we need to proactively start the process again and go into Learning mode around a new topic or idea.
Duncan: What are some of the questions people can ask themselves to help sharpen their strategic approach to managing their lives?
Clark: Some of my favorite questions, which can be uncomfortable to ask and to answer, but are so valuable, include “Should I be doing this activity at all?” and “Are my day-to-day activities leading me toward my ultimate goals?” and—most critically of all—“What can I do today that will make my life better tomorrow?”
Keeping these questions in mind helps center us in a “long game mentality.”
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.