To start the new year, I’ve been thinking a lot about playing for the long term. About applying strategic thinking to both my life, projects and my blog for the first time ever.
I’ve learned a lot over the past year. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned (that I touched on in Reification) is just how much stuff is fluff, and is guided by poor, short-term thinking. I’m talking about media’s reaction to startup launches, “new” SEO/marketing tactics that read like the newest flavor of the month, anyone calling themselves an entrepreneur, and the hundreds of people starting a blog working towards passive income.
I finished the book Mastery last week. In the book, Robert Greene examines the lives of some of the greatest individuals in human history: thinkers and doers like Ben Franklin, Charles Darwin and Leonardo DaVinci. One of the biggest takeaways from the book was realizing just how long their accomplishments took, and how much work it took for them to achieve any level of success. For example, Paul Graham was bouncing around, painting and doing consulting until he was 30, and didn’t start YC until he was 41! That means for 10+ after college years he was hacking, painting and developing his creative skills. Then, for 11 more years he was applying that creativity towards his own startup and thinking about them in general. Only after all of this did he have his breakthrough idea about how startups worked and started YC – a full 7 years after he sold Viaweb. 20 years after he graduated college.
20 years. That’s a timeframe I can’t begin to comprehend right now. 10 years ago I didn’t even know what a startup was, much less how one worked. Unfortunately, I think a lot of startup thinking is focused on the short-term. People forgo their health, friendships, relationships and happiness chasing a short-term financial payoff. I’ve felt myself falling into this before. It’s easy to do: every time you see a story about a 26 year-old worth $x million, it’s easy to think “that guy has it all”. This type of thinking seems too common in the Hacker News/TechCrunch driven startup culture of funding, disruption potential and acquisitions. This type of news can even make it seem smart to play for the short-term: raise a big round, hire celebrities, etc.
What Robert talks about in Mastery is different. His big point is that to succeed, you must subsume your ego to strategy. Let your goals dictate your actions, rather than the latest emotion you’re reacting to. This is the difference between copying a competitor’s latest feature, dropping other priorities in the process, and focusing solely on executing your company strategy. This is playing for the long term.
I’ve thought about it in the context of this blog lately. I could probably focus on writing better headlines, blogging more often and covering prominent topics to boost readership. I’ve decided I don’t want to go that route. I figure no matter what happens, if I keep writing 20-30 posts a year for the next 10 years of my life, my audience will grow no matter what I do. I’ll become a better writer and hopefully have things to say that others will respond to.
This approach brings with it a sense of calm. I don’t have to worry about traffic stats, subscribers or tweets. It allows me to let go and focus on the hard work of improvement, less on the shallow results. I can let go of the short-term, the daily worries about success, the ups-and-downs of vanity metrics, and focus on the long-term hard work. At the very least, I can try.1