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The beauty of playing the long game

Projects that take decades to come to fruition are good for organizations — and ourselves.

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. Construction began in 1892 and was intended to last for centuries.Sarah Pullium Bailey/The Washington Post

Ralph McNutt, a veteran of NASA’s famed Voyager program, has a new project: He wants to launch an interstellar probe to venture beyond our solar system — measuring magnetic fields, dust clouds, and cosmic rays — on “a mission expected to last at least 50 years, requiring three or more generations of scientists.”

Three generations of scientists! Imagine planning a 50-year mission in 1972. You’re sitting in a conference room in front of a blackboard with your besuited colleagues, half of whom are smoking cigarettes. Outside, a VW Beetle chugs by, and you hear the intricate scales of the season’s newest hit song, “Stairway to Heaven.” As you map out the course of the project, you need to fashion a plan that will turn out to be resilient enough to survive “Star Wars,” the coming of the Internet, the end of the Cold War, avocado toast, multiple recessions, your death, doodles displacing all other dog breeds, COVID, and TikTok. After the meeting and right before you meet your date at the theater for the premiere of “The Godfather,” you collate your typewritten notes, wondering what life will be like when your mission finally reaches completion in 2022.

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I love projects with multi-decade timelines. They defy the limiting logic of quarterly earnings, KPIs, conversion rates, and all the other metrics that blind us even as they bind us to the status quo in a society where data is so often used as an excuse instead of a guiding light. Long-term projects require a different way of thinking, the shrugging off of constraints embedded in so many human incentive systems.

Cathedrals took centuries to build. Heliocentricity, evolution, and relativity took decades to earn widespread acceptance. Passing the Civil Rights Act took years and years and years of activism and political organizing in the face of state-sanctioned violence and seemingly insurmountable adversity. Important things take time.

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But long-term projects needn’t be institutional — they can be personal too.

When I started writing my first book in 2012, I committed to writing fiction for at least a decade. Looking back from 2022 — 10 years and 10 novels later — that long-term commitment freed me to focus on developing craft rather than agonizing over reviews or sales. Publishers could reject my books, but they couldn’t control my future. I just kept writing, publishing, and learning.

When I make big life decisions, I ask myself what choice I’d regret least when I look back 40 years later. When I invest my savings, I buy and hold for decades, freeing myself from the impossible burden of trying to time volatile markets in competition with professional money managers. And when I contribute my savings to causes I believe in, I donate to organizations like the Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes long-term thinking with ambitious projects like building a clock to last 10,000 years nestled in the heart of a remote mountain.

The present is where we eat, breathe, sleep, dream, change diapers, love, succeed, fail, live, and, ultimately, die. Making choices right now for the sake of right now is often the right thing to do. It’s vital to earn a living, feed your family, have fun, and make all those pretty numbers tick up and to the right, but beware: It’s easy to optimize for today at the expense of tomorrow.

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James P. Carse divided all human games into two categories: “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” Day-trading crypto? Finite game. You win or lose. Playing Roblox with a loved one every week as a way to cultivate human connection? Infinite game. Getting to play with them again is the reward.

Treating every problem you encounter as an infinite game is impractical. But there’s a spectrum between finite and infinite, and when confronted by a problem, you often need to solve it by choosing to play either short games or long games.

This is where the philosophical rubber meets the potholed road of real life. You don’t always need to race against time. Instead, you can get time on your side by playing long games. Negotiating a deal? Play the long game by seeking fairness instead of advantage so you can do more deals together later. Relationship trouble? Play the long game by being vulnerable about hard truths so you can grow together (or apart). The longer the game, the more steadfast of an ally time becomes. Playing long games is the only way to — like Ralph McNutt’s probe — reach for the stars.

Eliot Peper is the author of 10 novels, including “Veil,” “Bandwidth,” “Cumulus,” and, most recently, “Reap3r.” He also publishes a blog, sends a newsletter, consults on special projects, and tweets (@eliotpeper) more than he probably should.

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