Playing the Long Game
"The two most powerful warriors are patience and time." ~ Leo Tolstoy
My mother used to tell me, "patience is a virtue!" cheerily beseeching me to calm down and wait two seconds for whatever my tiny heart momentarily desired. Often, this resulted in me pouting, my lower lip gradually protruding further and further as I sat, dissatisfied, waiting for her to finish mixing cookie dough before she turned her attention to me, silently offering me the spoon.
Waiting was never my strong suit, but humans are not natural waiters. Waiting feels passive, like relinquishing control and blindly trusting someone or something else. If time is money, wasted time is wasted money. If life is the accumulation of time, wasted time is wasted life. If time is an imperfect, meaningless construct meant to order and measure our lives, wasted time does nothing but make us feel even further behind in the ongoing race to order and measure ourselves against everyone and everything else.
Doing things and accomplishing tasks makes us feel productive and satisfied. Studies show that people perform better in their jobs when they have written down what they need to do. Similarly, humans feel better when we are in motion, both physically and metaphorically. When we feel that progress is being made on a project, we feel good about ourselves. When we run or walk or train our bodies, we can feel physical and psychological improvements with astounding immediacy. Humans are not sentient beings. We don't like to be motionless, and we sure as hell don't like to wait.
A mentor of mine once told me that I need to "play the long game." At the time, I associated playing the long game with waiting, but nothing could be further from the truth. Playing the long game is strategic, goal-oriented, and entirely not passive. The beautiful, frustrating things about goals are that we do not always accomplish them on our own time. Sometimes, if we set really big goals, we never accomplish them at all.
I have often felt that the path to accomplishing a goal is more rewarding that reaching the goal itself; the finality of achieving a goal can feel anti-climatic. A famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote pinpoints this sentiment, "Life is a journey, not a destination." You may have seen this plastered over cheap coffee mugs and novelty t-shirts, but Emerson strikes a chord of truth. When we do achieve a goal, we often set another because without something to work toward we feel unfettered and lost. Goals give us something to reach for, they give us something to take pride in and most importantly, goals give us purpose. High-level work does not spring from the ether, and those who rise to the top of any field have, intentionally or not, played the long game.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
Roosevelt identified something profound about the human spirit, which is: no one is proud or satisfied living an easy, purposeless life. Those we admire most have overcome great adversity and done it with grace, strength, and humility. Often, we don't recognize that those who overcome adversity have played the long game, the myth of overnight success seemingly buried in our collective conscience.
[Read more about the myth of overnight successes HERE.]
In her blog, Millennial Revolution, Kristy Shen writes that "privilege makes people soft" because those who are highly privileged have never had to work too much or fail too hard. There is a famous saying that "wealth only lasts 3 generations." Statistics show that 90% of wealthy families lose their wealth by the 3rd generation. The first generation starts with nothing, so they work hard to earn their wealth. The second generation watched their parents work hard to earn all they had and appreciated the value of their fortune. The third generation, however, doesn't see or feel the hard work that it took to grant them their privilege. Often, they squander exorbitant time and money, wafting through life on soft, purposeless clouds. If they have the foresight, those born rich should die richer, but that takes a great deal of work, and a great deal of patience.
Because I am an impatient person, I've often feel like I'm not doing enough. If I don't cross everything off my list (and then some) I feel "behind." Behind what, I'm not quite sure. Perhaps it took me 26 years to learn that patience is a virtue, even more so when married with hard work. Playing the long game requires patient hard work, which may be the most virtuous attribute of all, if not inexplicably difficult.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” He identified that, in the midst of the mad dash for success and the desire to be successful now, we miss out on life. Playing the long game allows us to do both--work toward huge goals and live fully in the moment. Realizing that everything cannot be accomplished in one day allows us to look around, put off an unimportant task and internalize a world outside ourselves. Ambition and appreciation can coincide beautifully, if we let them.
P.S. "The long game" is a buzzy internet search term right now, garnering over 2 billion search results in 0.45 seconds. Find Senator Mitch McConnell's Memoir, The Long Game, HERE. Read up on the long game on one of my favorite blogs, Farnam Street, HERE or on HuffPost HERE.