Originally appeared in Eureka Factory website, June 2014
“Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years? But that’s the thing that connects all of these great people — they played the long game.” Adam Westbrook, in the Long Game
For most of the centuries of human existence, we have known the truth of the sentiment, “good things come to those who wait,” or it’s 21st century manifestation, the 10,000 Hour Rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Or at least we’ve understood its implications: that success, expertise, skill, knowledge, mastery and understanding take time to fully develop, to be realized, to blossom, and come to fruition.
In an interesting look at the work of Leonardo DaVinci, in the second installment of Adam Westbrook’s video series, The Long Game, Westbrook focuses not on DaVinci’s successes, but on the time between those successes – at one point a 16 year long dry spell, which wasn’t really dry so much as it was a spell of patient, persistent exploration. And everyone’s familiar with Thomas Edison’s endless light bulb trials and his sentiment that he hadn’t failed a thousand times, but rather knew one thousand ways not to make a lightbulb.
In his book, Mastery, author Robert Greene calls these down times between personal successes “a self-directed apprenticeship” that can often last ten years or more but receives no historical or social attention because it often seems to lack stories of any significant discovery or achievement. The fact is, great people and their great discoveries, inventions, ideas, art and innovation don’t happen overnight.
“All of us have the brain, ” Westbrook notes. “and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?”
That’s a good question, and an important one, because to do or create anything of enduring value requires time and patience.
In the aptly named blog post, Change takes Time, Code for America Fellow Molly McLeod talks about efforts to improve services and resources for the homeless in Long Beach, CA, where resources exist but it’s hard to connect people with them.
“…to be successful, ” she says, “interventions often have to be very hands-on, personal, and sustained over time,” often requiring dozens of conversations over months or even years to connect people with services.
In our high speed culture, it’s easy to forget that it actually takes time to do things, time to achieve things, time, ironically, to change things – especially in a world that seems to change so quickly.
But we’re only seeing the high tech legacy of efforts, not the history that led to their conclusions. Sure, Moore’s Law says technology advances exponentially, but it requires a lot of exponential developments to create truly valuable outcomes. Most of the stuff in between is bread and circuses, trinkets to amuse us. Most of the gadgets in cars are just gadgets. But there’s been a couple hundred years between the development of the car, and the development of the *driverless* car.
Similarly, cultural change takes time. There’s a great TEDx talk by Derek Sivers on “How to Start a Movement.” A movement doesn’t happen when someone has an idea, he says, in this charming talk, but when the second person follows that first person with the idea, inspiring others to join in.
Real change requires community buy in, which usually starts with a small group of like-minded individuals and builds outward over time. And even Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours rule has been tempered by the observation that it’s not necessarily the the amount of time invested in learning or creating something, but the quality of that time.
Efforts to fast track the success of products, opportunities, or ideas working from the top down are more often than not a flash in the pan, if they spark at all, because they fail to take the quality time needed to nurture the relationships – personal, community, commercial and corporate – that lead to real and enduring success.
It takes patience to really succeed, but the time spent playing the long game can be well rewarded.