Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Escape From Tactical Hell

[looking at the Grand Canyon, you learn] The most important lesson of Darwinism: Weak forces, operating over long periods of time, create large and dramatic change.
—Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True

When frustrated, I often think I need a different attitude or more energy in pursuing my goals. This is a mistake. What yields results for me is endurance, planning for the long term. This best course of action is also the most difficult. It's far too easy, too human, to be distracted by the present irritations.  Television and the internet feed this short, nervous attention span by setting off emotional firecrackers, describing every momentary event as a cataclysm. Our instinct for self-preservation keeps us glued to the screen, while summer passes away and we get old.  

In contrast, consider this story: Directly after Japan's catastrophic defeat in World War II, a group of business executives met to plan the future of their company. John W. Dower  in his book, Embracing Defeat, records their approach: We must make a one hundred year plan, and not be disturbed by the difficulties of the moment.  On that basis, these leaders built up a ruined land into the second largest economy on earth.

Wired Magazine published a wonderful article in their December, 2001 issue on Jeff Bezos of Amazon.  He says:

Our first shareholder letter, in 1997, was entitled, “It’s all about the long term.” If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. . . . In some cases, things are inevitable. The hard part is that you don’t know how long it might take, but you know it will happen if you’re patient enough. Ebooks had to happen. Infrastructure web services had to happen. So you can do these things with conviction if you are long-term-oriented and patient.

My hero, Robert Greene expounds further on this topic:

According to the cosmology of the ancient Greeks, the gods were thought to have complete vision into the future. They saw everything to come, right down to the intricate details. Men, on the other hand, were seen as victims of fate, trapped in the moment and their emotions, unable to see beyond immediate dangers. Those heroes, such as Odysseus, who were able to look beyond the present and plan several steps ahead, seemed to defy fate, to approximate the gods in their ability to determine the future. The comparison is still valid—those among us who think further ahead and patiently bring their plans to fruition seem to have a godlike power. 

Because most people are too imprisoned in the moment to plan with this kind of foresight, the ability to ignore immediate dangers and pleasures translates into power. It is the power of being able to overcome the natural human tendency to react to things as they happen, and instead to train oneself to step back, imagining the larger things taking shape beyond one’s immediate vision. Most people believe that they are in fact aware of the future, that they are planning and thinking ahead. They are usually deluded: What they are really doing is succumbing to their desires, to what they want the future to be. Their plans are vague, on their imaginations rather than their reality. They may believe they are thinking all the way to the end, but they are really only focusing on the happy ending, and deluding themselves by the strength of their desire. —The 48 Laws of Power

Long term planning is no more natural for me than for anyone else. Fortunately, circumstances force me to stretch my timeline, almost every day. I'm working on two projects that have been going for more than four years. I'm also helping to raise a child, an effort that has no identifiable endpoint. Take heart, fellow travelers. Keep to your path.