“Play the Long Game”

Prepared Remarkes by Dr. Marcus Fila, Associate Professor of Management

Sunday, May 8, 2022
Ray and Sue Smith Stadium
Holland, Michigan

“What really irritates you?”

“Think about that will you? I’ll come back to that in a minute.”

But first, hello class of 2022. When I heard that you had asked me to be your speaker, my immediate thought after all those lectures was “So you want one more? Well, be careful what you wish for!”. Of course, you’ve done your junior colleagues a solid favor, because as I was telling them: there are very few guarantees in life — but your senior colleagues have at least given you the stonewall guarantee that I won’t be your commencement speaker next year!

“So why did I ask what irritates you?  Because President Scogin has a mantra that the place in life you should make a difference is where you see something that irritates you. So I have two calls to action for you today. The first is to think about that aspect of life that irritates you, and how you can make a difference there. The second is going to come at the end of my talk today about something that irritates me; and that is short-termism. Short-termism is defined as “the tendency to focus attention on short-term gains — and here’s key part — often at the expense of long-term success or stability” (dictionary.com).

Short-termism can be rife in individuals (including myself at times), in all kinds of systems, and even countries. Now, there are short-term goals which cannot be ignored. For example, day-to-day demands for your classes. At work, there are always pressing goals for today, or even this hour. We can’t always be looking misty-eyed into a future which hopefully awaits us. Even the Bible gives a clear nod to the short-term goals in life, when it says in Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

However, it’s not having these short-term goals that is the problem. It’s the second part of the definition that can be damaging: “the tendency to focus attention on short-term gains, often at the expense of long-term success or stability.” Put simply, short-term decisions are made either with only short-term goals in mind, or with thought to today and for a time longer than this moment. I firmly believe that what Jesus is telling us in Matthew 6:34 is to trust Him with our tomorrow, rather than relying only on ourselves to make it right. But trusting Him with tomorrow is different from ignoring tomorrow, or sacrificing tomorrow for today’s gain. That’s the short game.

Playing the short-game is to misinterpret that verse in Matthew Six as meaning that because I am covered by the love of Christ, I have no reason, no responsibility, and no incentive to look beyond this very moment in my decision making. If we take this path, it is almost inevitable that our choices, our decisions, will damage the long-term for ourselves, for the people around us, and the society we operate within. What does that look like?

  • The short game is putting off anything that seems hard.
  • The short game is taking advantage of your counterparties for immediate gains, like taking every last penny you can from a customer, or burning out your employees. 
  • The short game is spending more than you earn.
  • The short game is not taking care of your health or relationships
  • The short game is having an opinion on something, or someone you don’t know anything about
  • The short game is ignoring your faith, because you take your salvation for granted

Here’s the thing: Most people in the world play the short game, at least in some areas of life. But the longer you play the short game, the harder things get. On any given day the impact may be small; but the accumulation of tiny disadvantages makes the future harder. Only when the costs become too large to ignore, do people realize that they have been playing the wrong game. Now, I’ve been guilty of this myself at times, so none of this is supposed to be sanctimonious. But, I’ve learned that there is not always the chance for redemption.

Conversely, making decisions with tomorrow in mind is…. you guessed it… playing the long-game. Playing the long game means paying a small price today to make tomorrow easier, and better, for you, for the people and the society around you. You compound results, but this time in a positive way! The long game isn’t particularly notable. It usually doesn’t attract a lot of attention. In fact, it looks pretty boring. But, the most successful people in any field all play the long game. In fact, here’s a challenge for you: go find someone you consider to be successful, be it in business, family, faith, work, or sport, or anything else; and ask them how playing the long game helped them to reach success. I bet they will have an answer for you.

Let’s look at just a few examples of playing the long game. Now, for each of these, there will be real and present temptations to be short-termistic. But let’s get real about the benefits, even though I will make only a few points about each.

Let’s begin with one you are probably thinking a lot about right now…. Your Career. The short game is to think of the next “job” and to judge it by nothing more than what it pays. Now I understand the real and present need to find paid employment. However, not taking the time to get into the right field early on can cost you dearly in terms of time, frustration, and finance; and can cause you to play catch up later on. I have some experience of that.

The long game with your career is to put time and thought into what you are really called to do. If that’s difficult to figure out, then seek counsel from those around you who know you well and can offer sage advice. The long game is to ask — and see answers to — questions like “What are the values of this company?”, “How connected are they to the community around them?” “Can I flourish in a career here, or is it a dead-end role?” What qualities should you have to show employers you are playing the long game? Everyone seems to value inquisitiveness, confidence paired with humility, a willingness to learn, and someone who is invested in the greater good of the company.

Last point on this: Today is all about you, but next year it will be all about someone else. It will be the same at work when you’re the new young thing, and before you know it, someone else is. That’s going to happen, but there’s no need to be troubled by it if you are playing the long game with your career.

Now let’s look at something you are probably not thinking about right now: your education. Yes! Daft as it may sound, education has probably never been further from your thoughts than it is today! Hey, you’ve worked hard to be sitting here today, and congratulations! The short game is to take the credential and forget what got you to it. This might get you into a job, and possibly another job after that, and maybe even the outset of a career; but it’s an insult to yourself, and to your field, to throw everything off and treat the game as “done.” Again, the long-game looks different. The commencement speaker at my MBA graduation in London said something quite profound, which has never left me. She told us not to expect the benefit of our entire education to reveal itself on our first day at work. Instead, to realize that the benefits of education build over time, and that some of what you have learned will come to — that is, be relevant and come alive — even years from now. Moreover, supplement what you have learned, and stay engaged with it. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself interested in more education, in line with your passions and career choices. Today is the end of something, but it’s not the end of learning.

Third, how about your faith? The short game is to ignore God, to just do your own thing, and to expect Him to pick up the pieces. This is, of course, not what He intended; and my experience of God is that he’ll sit back and observe you playing the short game, for a time. After all, once your salvation is assured, what else matters, right? Well, I’m not here to preach to you today, but I’ve found that the life of a Christian looks very different when you play the long game with God. He wants a relationship with you, and to guide — and to walk beside you — through every part of your life. That means, interact with Him, to not be afraid of this world, and to love the people He has made — even, or perhaps especially, the people who are not like you. Also to be around others who share your faith — to be connected. Perhaps most poignantly, remember that He has a long game for you! It’s the firmest ground you’ll ever walk on.

Finally, your friendships and relationships. In life, people come and people go. We all know that already; but beware playing the short game with people, even if, at times, people are playing it with you. The short game is using people for your own ends. We see this all the time in politics, organizations, so-called friendships, and in skewed versions of what loving relationships should be. But there’s also a more passive short game here. That is, to only keep up with people with whom you have an immediate reason to. Yes, realistically it’s hard to keep in touch with everyone. If you have 500 social media “friends,” how many friendships do you really have? I know it’s hard to keep in touch, I get it. But, assess who your real friends are — who's got your back in life, and keep up with those people. Don’t dismiss them if you rise to what you believe is a higher situation than you were in when you were their friend. Equally, don’t drop a friendship based on intimidation over the other person’s newfound success.

One positive for me during the pandemic has been to reconnect with some people I’d lost track of - some from eons ago. But as fun and as joyous as reconnecting has been, better not to lose good people in the first place. Don’t chase after people who don’t want you anymore, but keep hold of your friendships even as distance and different situations move you apart.

There are countless other examples. In each of these areas, the first step is the hardest. You have to be willing to give something up today in order to have something better tomorrow — and this is why so few people bother to play the long game. But if done well (and I’m a work in progress on this myself), there can be many immediate pleasures and rewards of playing the long game, in the knowledge that you are setting the foundations for long-term flourishing.

So my second and final call to action is this: As soon as this commencement ceremony concludes, be the agents of change, and of stability, that this world needs, by playing the long game in life. You won’t regret it, and neither will the world around you.