What is the long game?

I’ve been told by people over the years that I play the long game at work.  Sure, I try to plan things out.  I try to think about my future, both near and far.  I even try to anticipate problems before they arise, but none of those are what I do to make people say I “play the long game.”

To understand this, I like to think in terms of novels.  I enjoy reading, particularly science fiction and fantasy novels.  In my reading I get to see many characters and watch how their personalities and talents interact with the world around them.

In the books I read there are sometimes prophet-like characters, like Dorian from The Way of Shadows.  Done well, these don’t feel like a contrived way to make the characters do the author’s bidding, but they also don’t really play the long game.  They usually come off as mad because they do things that aren’t expected but which they know will produce the desired outcome.  I most definitely do not have that ability, and I think I don’t generally come off as mad.

I’m also not the brains character.  This is Dumbledore or Gandalf.  He knows far more than anyone else but lets them decide most things as long as he knows things won’t go horribly wrong in the end.  Usually, when things look like they’re going horribly wrong, he understands something that is missing for the reader but which would make the scene much less suspenseful.  I don’t generally withhold information just for the sake of drama, or for the sake of looking incredibly intelligent when the truth comes out.


In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series there are people who can perfectly anticipate what their opponent is going to do.  That would certainly be handy at times, but it gets increasingly difficult to anticipate someone and the problems they will cause the longer out you look.  I have enough trouble anticipating myself a year out, let alone others.

I think that playing the long game comes down to some pretty standard principles: be humble, be longsuffering, and always do what’s right.  I don’t demand to get the promotion right now because I don’t know what is going to be the biggest deciding factor for the person making the decision, and I know that I’m not the best at everything.  I continue to work at my problems because I know that it is next to impossible to fix longstanding issues in a day.  Most important, I make a point of thinking “what is RIGHT” instead of “what is BEST.”

The last point is the most important.  If you look for what is best then you assume that there is a judgement to be made.  You get to decide on your metric, then measure the options.  If you instead look for what is right then you assume that the metric is already set, you just have to measure accurately.  Facebook privacy settings illustrate this perfectly.  They have assumed that in the arena of privacy that they can pick the metric, so they often choose one that has a heavy element of profit.  “Best” to Facebook is whatever gives them the most money with the least public uproar.  If they looked at “right” first then they would say that first they need to make people feel safe in sharing sensitive information, then they could look for profit around that.

So the long game to me is a way of operating in the present instead of planning for and anticipating the future.  I know that if I do the right thing right now it will pay off in the future.  The long game is not some difficult thing that only the elite can do.  It’s what everyone should do, and doing it allows others to put their trust in me, in whatever situation I find myself.

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