Everything about the society we live in is targeted toward instant gratification.
We have instant meals, instant money and instant messaging. We have get-rich quick schemes and lose-weight fast programs. We have one night stands to dull the ache of long-term loneliness and ecstasy pills for when the nights when the agony sets in. We are a nation of quick fixes, easy answers and overnight solutions. And as a result, it’s all too easy to forget about what we want long-term.
We know how to get everything we want in the moment. Every teenager knows how to open up Tinder or Instagram and receive a hefty dose of validation. But very few can tell you what makes them feel the most fulfilled. Where they hope to be in twenty-five years. What makes them feel good on the days where quick fixes just aren’t enough.
And it’s not just a teenage epidemic. As a nation, we’re forgetting that our lives are so much more than what’s happening this evening or this weekend or this year. That our sense of wellbeing isn’t just a matter of how we’re perceived or how well we can distract ourselves from our own lack of direction. We’re forgetting to play the long game with our life – the one that leaves us feeling fulfilled and accomplished, even on the bad days. The one that gives us an underlying sense of meaning when the shortcuts just can’t take us to where we want to be. The one that provides us with a healthy sense of self that doesn’t depend on external validation.
We need to stop letting our short-term desires cloud our long-term visions. We have to remember, from time to time, to move a little slower, show a little patience and let our lives take form in a meaningful way – instead of mindlessly consuming and then assigning our experiences meaning afterwards. We need to remember to play the long game with our lives. And here’s how we do exactly that.
1. Develop a long-term vision.
If you don’t have an overarching “Why” that governs your life, you’re going to have trouble navigating every who, what, where and when that pops up along the way.
It doesn’t need to be a detailed ten-year plan or a specific, concrete vision of the future, but it’s important to have – at the least – an idea of what you’re searching for in life. Is it love? Is it knowledge? Is it accomplishment? When you become conscious of your prime motivations, it becomes easier to make big-picture decisions. Ask yourself what makes you feel energized, inspired and alive. And then start catering every choice toward that vision.
2. Stop assigning purposes to people.
We have infinite options when it comes to people nowadays. If we want a hookup, we have bars to frequent. If we want friends, we have our jobs and our communities to reach out to. If we want to meet a potential partner, we have dating websites to sign up for. And as a result, we’ve begun to compartmentalize people – dating material, friend material, husband or wife material. If they don’t fit into a pre-designed compartment, we abandon them. Because we’re looking at the hole to be filled first and the potential candidates second.
We forget that the most meaningful candidates are usually those who started off in no category at all. That it’s often that co-worker we didn’t think much of who ends up becoming a close friend. That it’s often our friends who surprise us years down the road with the realization that they could make incredible partners for us. That when we get to know the person first and their position in our lives second, they may end up fitting into categories we would never have initially put them in. And we’re able to develop deep, meaningful relationships with people – rather than looking at them as a series of points on a checklist.
3. Start saying ‘Yes’ more often.
As a society, we have gotten damn good at saying no. It’s now perfectly acceptable to stay in whenever we want to stay in, bail on any plans we aren’t feeling and ignore any input that we are not feeling partial to from our external environment.
But we forget that life happens on the other side of ‘Yes.’ It’s tempting to skip that party that you don’t think will be fun. It’s tempting to not go to that job fair where the prospects don’t look promising. But the more we get into the habit of saying ‘Yes’ to our lives, the more we put ourselves on the radar for bigger things. The more connections we make, the more obstacles we overcome, the more we learn about ourselves and the world around us, because we took a few hours from a day to try something that may not have paid off immediately.
But it pays off in the long run. Because when we say ‘Yes’ regularly to life, our resources and networks grow immensely. And eventually, life starts telling us ‘Yes’ right back.
4. Focus on giving, not receiving.
Most of what we do in life is motivated toward acquisition. We work jobs to get money. We schmooze people to get favors. We throw ourselves tirelessly into work because we want the respect or the advancement that we glean from being productive.
And on the days when our work’s not validated, we feel empty. When are angry when our efforts go unnoticed. We are bitter when our help is unappreciated. We work for the payoff and when the does not reach us, our work seems to have all been for nothing.
Perhaps we ought to start designing our lives in such a way that the giving and the working and the trying is the part that’s intrinsically rewarding. If we are constantly just working for the next reward, we’re never going to find ourselves satisfied. But if we are working for a cause that we care about, producing content that we’re inspired by or connecting with people who matter to us, there is no room left for feeling empty or unaccomplished. We are providing our own sense of purpose, rather than endlessly hustling for it. And that provides a long-lasting sense of validation.
5. Be smart about delayed gratification.
Looking at our lives from a long-term perspective is wonderful, enriching and clarifying. But we also can’t get too caught up in our visions of a grandiose future that we forget about our lives as they’re happening. Squirrelling all of our money away for retirement will be awfully disappointing if we never make it there. Spending our lives locked up indoors working on our art – if we’d rather be out making friends – is ultimately going to leave us lonely and unfulfilled even if we do become bestselling artists.
But the beautiful truth about living authentically is that what makes us happy long-term is usually also what makes us happy in the short-term – and if it’s not, we may have some serious misconceptions about the future.
Striving to play the long game with your life means striving to be mindful and deliberate about your undertakings – but not to altogether abandon pleasure. If you can figure out what makes you feel purposeful, energized and fulfilled on a daily basis, chances are you’re going to feel fulfilled in the long-term as well. If when the stakes are down and the going gets tough, you still know what you’re fighting for, chances are you’re going to be just fine.
6. Think less about what you want to do, and more about who you want to become.
If there’s a single trick for living life in a fulfilling manner, it may just be this: Make every decision based not on obtaining the outcome you want but on becoming the person you want to be.
Netflix for the tenth night in a row may sound fantastic in the moment, but do you want to be the person who never leaves the comfort of their home and takes a chance on something? Or do you want to be the person who tries? Do you want to be the person who stays at their dead end job because the work is easy and the paycheque is sufficient? Or do you want to be the person who does meaningful work in their career?
At the end of the day, every choice we make is underlined with the simple, inarguable question: What kind of person does this choice make me into?
And if the answer is a person I’m proud of, then you’re playing the long game right.