4 Essential Ideas

  • We often make choices that lead us away from where we want to end up.
  • If we say yes to one thing, we are saying no to everything else for that period of time
  • We must become better at saying no in order to reach our potential. We can start by saying no to the conditions of the invitation instead of saying no outright.  
  • One of the secrets of a successful long-term strategy is to think infinitely and act minutely.

1 Essential Action 

  • Try downgrading an invitation from someone in order to free up time for strategic thinking. Downgrade a lunch to coffee, coffee to a phone call, a phone call to an email.

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Why Dorie’s new book The Long Game is important right now (5:07)
  • Why we choose to pursue choices that are in opposition to how we want to live (11:39)
  • Why it is important to be a long-term thinker (14:45)
  • The questions Dorie uses personally to evaluate opportunities when making decisions (20:34)
  • What saying yes to something really means (22:40)
  • 3 types of networking (24:48)
  • How to create more space for strategic thinking (28:19)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

The Long Game: How to be a long-term thinker in a short-term world by Dorie Clark

Connect with Dorie Clark

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Greg McKeown, Dorie Clark

Greg McKeown  0:03  

Come with me on an exploration of self-discovery. On this podcast, we decipher what really matters, and unravel all of the chaos and complexity of day-to-day living. In order to learn how to build an essential life, I have often advocated that what matters most lasts longest. Or in other words, that you have to be thinking really long term if you want to even decipher the essential few from the trivial many. But more often than not recently, I have found that I feel like I’m just reacting and responding to the last thing on my calendar, the last thing that I’m doing and that there isn’t enough time, for really thinking about the longer-term strategy and how it all fits together. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, I am confident that you experienced this as well. That in a zoom, eat, sleep, repeat world, that it’s just too easy to get pulled into the minutiae of this moment. And so for this reason, I have invited my friend Dorie Clark, who has done so many great things, including being one of the world’s 50 Most Influential management thinkers, she teaches all over the place. She’s in universities all the time, and she’s written a new book, which I was in love with. From the moment I saw its cover The Long Game, how to be a long term thinker in a short term world. Dorie Clark, welcome to the what’s essential podcast.


Dorie Clark  1:43  

Greg, I’m so glad to be here. Thank you so much. 


Greg McKeown  1:47  

Before we get into how this research and writing can help us immediately to, to do what it says on the cover, would you mind sharing a little more about let’s call it a Reader’s Digest version of your life from birth till this moment,


Dorie Clark  2:04  

I can absolutely digest it for you. So I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, it was basically a Golf Resort, kind of a retirement resort. So a little bit of a weird place for a kid to grow up. But there, it was a place that was tiny enough that it really made me want to get out and to do other things. And so I spent a lot of my childhood just being frustrated.


Greg McKeown  2:32  

That’s so interesting. I mean, that’s like a scene from a TV show that I’ve seen where you are, you are living with basically all the people. And it gave you impetus to not be here anywhere, but here.


Dorie Clark  2:47  

Pretty much yeah, and as an only child, as well, you know, with older parents, and then this Golf Resort, so I decided that I was going to hatch a plan to get out. So I left Pinehurst when I was 14, I entered an early college program at Mary Baldwin University in Virginia and did a couple of years of college there, transferred to Smith College and Massachusetts, finished when I was 18. went to Harvard Divinity School and got a master’s degree in theology, and then spent a lot of my 20s just failing. And what does that mean? Well, when I had a lot of good, good jobs, and I was I was trying hard. But sometimes this is one of the this is one of the themes that I actually talked about in The Long Game, you really need a lot of at bats, because even if you are a good talented person, statistically, sometimes there are going to be things that don’t break your way. And so my first job out of graduate school was as a newspaper reporter, which was a career that I really loved. And I still I still write tons and enjoy writing. But I got laid off about a year into it because the newspaper industry really had started its precipitous collapse. So I couldn’t find another job in journalism. And I ended up switching over I’d been a political reporter. So I ended up switching over into working in politics. And I first worked on a governor’s race and then on a presidential campaign, and they both lost. So I had to find new jobs after both of those. And eventually I became a nonprofit executive director. I was running a small bicycling advocacy, nonprofit. And it was kind of bizarrely through running this bicycle nonprofit, that I actually realized that in many ways, running a nonprofit is exactly the same thing as running a business. And I had this revelation one night, I’m like, Oh, I could, well, I could do my own business. And so 15 years ago, I started my own consultancy, And since then have been doing a variety of executive coaching and consulting and Keynote, speaking and writing and teaching.


Greg McKeown  5:07  

And now all of that experience has grown up into your magnum opus. So far, The Long Game helped me set the context for why this book, right now,


Dorie Clark  5:26  

in the early days of my business, you know, I was starting it in 2006. And I think for anybody who changes careers are especially who goes out on their own as an entrepreneur, all of a sudden, you are just face to face with this question of, Oh, my goodness, how do I get business? How do I actually differentiate myself in the marketplace? And you’re sort of overtaken with, with this feeling like, oh, my gosh, why didn’t I realize this before? Everybody does what I do. And you know, people would come you know, that I knew people who were friends and wanted to be helpful, they would come to me, they’d be like, Oh, hey, so what do you specialize in? You know, where’s what’s, what’s your niche. And whenever they did, that, they were trying to be helpful. They wanted to send people my way, I would freeze, I felt, I felt like they were somehow taunting me, because I number one, I didn’t know. And number two, I just realized that it somehow I had to get myself known if my business was going to be successful. But it just seemed so impossibly hard, that there’s so much noise in the world, and there was a lot less, you know, 15 years ago, but there were so many competitors. And I thought, you know, how, how am I going to make this work? And so I had to become a student in order to make my business succeed, I had to become a student of the process of how do you actually get your message heard. And I realized that in the moment, when you are striving towards something, when you’re striving toward a goal, it is really almost impossibly hard to tell the difference between when something is not working, and when something is not working yet. And I had to go through some of those challenges in dark times in terms of setbacks and getting rejected. And, you know, no, we don’t want to publish your article. No, we don’t want to publish your book, etc. But muscling through that, I really came to analyze and understand the process, because it frustrates me so much, Greg, that in our society so often, it seems like it’s the loudest voices that are the ones that win. And I really want instead, for it to be the best people and the best ideas that win. But it’s, it’s hard because people don’t necessarily know what that process takes or what that process looks like. And there’s a long arc between coming up with goals and dreams for yourself in your career in your life, and actually accomplishing some of those big long-term goals. So in The Long Game, I basically wanted to try to create a framework, starting with what I learned initially and analyzing it could be able to persevere to get done the things that matter most.


Greg McKeown  8:16  

At the very beginning of The Long Game, you begin a story by saying I bolted out of bed at the sound, sharp and insistent. Can you tell us what follows?


Dorie Clark  8:29  

I can. One of the moments that I flashback to as I was starting to write The Long Game when I was thinking about critical moments that shaped my experience in the way that I think about some of these questions. You know, how do we become long-term thinkers was a moment where it was kind of a bit of a miserable moment, although not uncommon one, where it was 330 in the morning, my alarm was ringing and I was so disoriented. I had only gone to bed a few hours earlier because I’d been packing. And I had a 5 am flight to catch at JFK. And I was racing to the airport. You know, it was one of those days that I think a lot of us probably experienced pretty COVID I caught a flight to California from New York. So you know, six-hour flight, slept a little bit, worked an entire full workday in California with clients. Fell into bed, worked another full workday in California. I was able to leave just in time to catch a flight to Atlanta, had dinner with clients in Atlanta, and then gave a keynote in Atlanta the next day. And all of that worked that week. But there are a lot of times it doesn’t work. And there’s a lot of times that if you keep doing it, you realize this is not how I want to live my life. And yet we are making choices that you know at least pre COVID We made We made the choices. But now we have our own variation of it, it might be on Zoom. But we are making choices that oftentimes are leading us away from where we actually want to end up.


Greg McKeown  10:14  

So want to get to that point, you said something really beautifully. In this story, he said, I knew I could do it all I had to, and that we could all went off without a hitch. But speeding across the Brooklyn Bridge, I felt a quick, sharp step. For just a moment before I could tamp it down. It felt like loneliness. For just a moment, I wondered why I decided my life should be this way. I really felt something when I read that because I have sometimes felt that same sensation of like you’re choosing the life you have. Now, I’m not saying everybody really is fully choosing the life they currently have. There are so many responsibilities built-in. There are lots of limits and boundaries and challenges that people have that may make the path they’re on the best option for now, but not entirely of their own choosing. But in my life right now, I feel like the vast majority of my choices are really of my choosing. So whenever I feel this is a bit out of control, this is a bit too much. I really do wonder, well, why are you choosing it? Why are we choosing to follow a strategy that we don’t mean to pursue? In other words, a short-term strategy over a long term one? What’s your thoughts?


Dorie Clark  11:48  

There are so many reasons. And the interesting part is that a lot of them are hidden. We can all point to the surface reasons. Oh, it’s it’s all the emails, it’s all the meetings? Well, I you know, I have to keep going. Part of it is that, you know, of course, for many of us, we have just been shoving 120% of activities into 100% of our time. And that really doesn’t work that effectively. But there’s something else at play. One of the most interesting statistics that I came across as I was researching The Long Game was a few years ago, there was a study done by the management research group, it was a very wide-ranging study 10,000 executives they surveyed 97% said that strategic thinking was key to their organization’s success. And yet another study that was done 96% said that they didn’t have time for strategic thinking, which is a little crazy. So we know, you know, that’s our clue. That’s the tell. It’s not just the meetings, it’s not just the email, there’s something more. And one of the crucial reasons is actually, we are doing it to ourselves. There’s been some super interesting research done by Sylvia Bledsoe at Columbia Business School, which has shown that in many Western countries, America chief among them, we equate busyness with status. And so there’s often this push that if we, if we don’t have a full calendar, sometimes we actually might worry subconsciously about ourselves, that we’re not as essential as we are. Also, work can be a form of anesthetic, we sometimes don’t want to be asking those questions about am I really doing what I should be doing? Do I really want to be here? What do I want my life to look like? It’s a lot easier, Greg, to just hunker down and do more of what you’re already doing than to ask some of those questions.


Greg McKeown  14:07  

You’re saying it’s really more of a psychological phenomenon than just a cultural one?


Dorie Clark  14:14  

That’s exactly right. You know, I, I’ve said this to myself a million times, I’m sure many of us have, oh, if I could just get caught up. All I need is just like one more day, and I’ll get caught up. And then I’ll keep it in check. But those are stories that we’re telling ourselves. Ultimately, there’s a reason that we never get caught up. And that’s that we keep making choices that prevent that from happening.


Greg McKeown  14:41  

Tried to lay this out for us. Why should we be long term thinkers?


Dorie Clark  14:48  

It doesn’t matter much if it doesn’t matter to you where you end up. But I think for most of us, we have more aspirations than that we have some kind of a vision, it might not be the clearest vision, there’s, there’s blurry parts. But we know that we want to make some kind of an impact, we know that we want to have some kind of family life or relationships, we know that we would like to have success. However, we might define that you need short-term thinking, to change when you need to, but you need long-term thinking in order to set the agenda. Now, is the path going to be perfectly serene? From here to there? No, no, absolutely not. Things will change. There’ll be detours, you’ll have to adjust. But you want to have a direction there that you’re aiming toward because that’s what enables you to get there. Or if not there, at least closer to there. You can’t do that if you’re constantly and only reacting to external stimuli.


Greg McKeown  15:59  

And it also makes me think that what we need in life is the biggest, highest single thing we can imagine. So that guides us. And, bluntly speaking also judges us because it, as soon as we have any sense of ideal, we then compare ourselves against it. And maybe that’s one reason we don’t like to think long term. Because as soon as you do that, you say, Oh, well, I’m, I’m not doing the things I need to be doing to achieve that objective. And that’s quite an uncomfortable feeling. It seems to me that in The Long Game, you’re advocating not just for six months, or a year or five-year plans, but even more long-term than that. Am I reading it? Right? Yeah,


Dorie Clark  16:51  

That’s exactly right. I think there’s actually something surprisingly liberating about having truly long-term plans, which I’ll call 10 plus years, and part of the magic is that you don’t have to know how you’ll achieve them. Sometimes people hesitate to say, oh, but you know, I just wouldn’t know I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t know how to get there. Of course, you don’t. If it’s a 10-year plan, a 20-year plan, there’s probably 27,000 steps between here and there, you are not expected to know how to do it. You keep the horizon in your sightline. And all you really need to worry about right now is well, what’s the next step? What is the next step that can at least move me in that direction, so I am directionally correct? And if you keep doing that, you know, we can if you if you’re driving in the fog, you can get where you need to go three feet at a time.


Greg McKeown  17:45  

A professor friend of mine in Scotland, Ian Finley, once coined a term he shared with me, he said, think eternally, act daily.


Dorie Clark  17:56  

That’s great.


Greg McKeown  17:58  

I love that as I think about your work, and this new book, because it’s really about how, how infinitely Can I think? And then how minutely  Can I execute?


Dorie Clark  18:14  

Yeah, I think you raise a really important point, Greg, because one of the themes that I talk about in The Long Game as well, is failure, which, of course, is the thing that holds a lot of people back, if you are acting on big goals, if you are trying to do meaningful things. People are concerned about failing. And it’s true, you know, if we, if we don’t know how to do something, if we have never done something, then definitionally it, it probably won’t work 100% of the time. But when we think about acting in small ways, the small consistent effort, the small steps forward, what I think is really powerful. And this is a philosophy that guides me in a lot of ways. If you are taking small steps, if you are taking steps that are small enough, failure literally is an inappropriate way to characterize them.


Greg McKeown  19:10  

Something that you’ve shared with me is that you don’t believe it takes a lot of time to do long-term thinking. But it does take some it requires creating mental space. And in order to gain mental space, you need to say no to some good things and even decide what you’re going to be bad at. I still struggle with saying no. For all that I’ve done with it, practiced it taught it I still have such a hunger to experience and to have an adventure. I think the closer you get to actually saying no. The more heightened your awareness is of what you’re losing? And then as soon as you’ve said, No, that consciousness falls away and you start to feel all the benefits of having said no. But I think that’s the test is that there’s a term for it, the endowment effect is strongest. The closer we get to eliminating something, if we can get over the hump, then we immediately start to feel the payoff. Your thoughts?


Dorie Clark  20:31  

I think that’s, that’s really well put, and it’s exactly right. This ties in with a series of questions that I share in The Long Game that I use personally, to help evaluate opportunities because sometimes it is so hard, we’re, we’re torn about all of them. And so one of them, which I think is especially useful, is would I feel bad about this in a year, if I didn’t do it, there are some things that really are meaningful. And when you look back, you wish you had been there, you wish you had been part of it. But most things are the equivalent of, you know, going to your friend’s house for a barbecue, there will be other barbecues, it’s okay, if you miss this one, there will be another chance to do it. But some of the other ones that I think are useful to ask ourselves. Number one, what is the total commitment? We often forget? Sometimes we say, oh, you know, I could do that webinar. It’s only an hour. And we forget about the hour of preparation, and the two hours of planning calls and things like that. So we need the total picture. A second question is what is the physical and emotional cost? Because sometimes, especially when it comes to travel, or certain other onerous things, like going on the trip that my friend invited me on, I would have been away for three consecutive weeks, and just all the flights and living out of a suitcase and eating airport food. I realized, even if it was a fun trip, it wouldn’t be that fun, because my health would be rundown. And finally, it’s always important to remind ourselves of the opportunity cost, because so often we frame it in our heads is, oh, well, should I take this international trip or shouldn’t die. But actually, what we need to be saying is, Should I take these five days and do this trip? Or should I spend five days literally doing anything else in the world? And when we realize that that’s the alternative? It often changes the picture.


Greg McKeown  22:37  

I think this gets right to the heart of the matter about trade-offs. It’s when people say yes to something, when I say yes to something, it is the strangest mental trick, that I think I’m just weighing up whether this thing is good. Yeah, could this thing be useful in some way? Right? That’s like the thought process. And then if you extend it a bit, and you say, well, there’s trade offs, where people’s heads seem to go as well if I say yes to one thing that I can see, I’m saying no to something else, that is a trade-off. Right? Like That seems fair, and people can get their heads around that quite quickly. That isn’t it at all. If you say yes to one thing, you’re saying no to everything else. It’s not you’re not saying no to 10 things or 100 things, or 1000 things, you’re saying no to a million things, everything else you could possibly do is being said no to for that period of time. Is this the best possible use of this time? Because that could stress everybody out. But that’s really the question, because that’s what a yes means. I’m choosing this above everything else I could be doing. And that’s a much higher standard for what you say yes to? 


Dorie Clark  24:05  

That’s exactly right. I love that.


Greg McKeown  24:10  

One of my favorite sections of your book is about what long-term thinking will do to the way that you network. It’s in a chapter called the right people, the right rooms. And you have a summary at the end of the book. This is page 153, in which you share a series of points. I thought they were also good, I’d love to go through them. At first, you said there are three types of networking. Can you talk about those three kinds?


Dorie Clark  24:44  

I can Yes. So the three kinds of networking the first one which I call short-term networking is basically the networking that gives networking a bad name. That is all the people who want to do something right away, you are networking because I need a job, or you’re networking because I need funding, or whatever that is. And what Adam Grant would call the takers. Exactly. There’s a sense of desperation, where you’re treating other people like an instrument rather than like a person. And that’s the kind that I really discourage.


Greg McKeown  25:23  

Contrast that with the second type of long term networking. 


Dorie Clark  25:26  

So long-term networking is the kind that I would say most, quote-unquote, good networkers do. And that is, hey, here’s an interesting person, they’re related to my industry, somehow, I don’t know how they can help me in the future. I don’t know how I can help them. But I’m sure that somehow we can, and I want to get to know them because our paths are gonna cross. And it seems like they’re doing good things, it’s going to be relevant for me to know this person. I think that’s a perfectly great approach. And a lot of good people pursue long term networking, that’s, that’s awesome. The third kind of networking is what I feel is the underappreciated resource. Because a lot of people who are in fact, good networkers, nonetheless write this off, because it doesn’t seem immediately useful. And by immediately, it even could be, you know, over five years, 10 years, it seems like it would never be useful. And that is what I call Infinite Horizon networking, it is networking with people who on the surface, you are never going to have anything in common with them or a professional interest. You are an accountant, they are an astronaut, whatever it is. 


Greg McKeown  26:48  

But those are the wildcards. Fascinating people in diverse fields that on the surface, probably can’t help you at all, you’re building the connection out of pure interest in them as a person. And over time, who knows, your paths may converge in surprising ways.


Dorie Clark  27:02  

That’s exactly it, they in getting to know them. Number one, it’s just interesting, which there is real value in that. Number two, your pads may converge. It’s actually very surprising how sometimes over an arc of years, you end up entering a world that you didn’t expect or vice versa. And number three, frankly, they may shape your trajectory, they may introduce you to people or ideas or opportunities that never would have come to you otherwise, and nonetheless are transformative.


Greg McKeown  27:38  

One of the reasons that I wanted to have you come on Dory is because of this feeling that there just isn’t enough space, to think strategically to plan thoughtfully long term, even planning the calendar three months, six months, nine months a year in advance, and pushing out this reactive meeting to meeting experience. What specific things can I do? Can the people listening to this do to be able to create and clear more whitespace for this type of thinking?


Dorie Clark  28:14  

Well, creating more whitespace is absolutely the starting point. Because we all know that we can’t pour more water into a glass that’s already full. So the question is, how can we remove things? This is the key to essentialism. Right, that the disciplined pursuit of less, let’s get some less so that we can add the right things. So one strategy that I’ll share, Greg, which I think is quite powerful, I think so often, it’s a little easy. It’s a little glib to just, you know, tell people Oh, we’ll just say no more often. And they’re like, yeah, how we have, we have obligations, we have people that we feel like we really need to do things. And, of course, it is important, it’s really important to learn how to say no, but I want to propose an interim measure for people who are struggling with that, which is that we can realize that even if we have trouble feeling like we can say no in a given situation. One tool that we have in our arsenal, is that we don’t necessarily have to accept the terms on which a particular offer is made. And so you know, I think for many of us, somebody says, Oh, hey, could we have lunch? Could we have that coffee? And we feel like oh, goodness, I don’t really have time. I don’t really want to but this person, maybe I should it would be politically bad if I didn’t, whatever it is. And so we say yes to the lunch we say yes to the coffee. And if we think about the total time, the coffee sounds like it’s going to be an hour. It’s actually going to be two and a half hours. If we count getting there. Waiting, running late going back all of those things. And so ultimately, one of the strategies that I suggest for people just to get a little bit more margin is unless the offer is something that you are genuinely excited about, in which case, by all means, do it. You can take that suggestion that they make and find a way to downgrade it could say, Well, Greg, you know, I’d love to get together with you. My schedule is crazy right now. But I know you mentioned you had some questions for me. I would love to find a way to help. Why don’t we schedule a call instead, if we can even downgrade the lunches to coffees, the coffees to calls the calls to emails, you’re actually oftentimes buying yourself multiple hours a week, and it’s a pathway to get you started on tightening the criteria and being able to say no more effectively.


Greg McKeown  30:56  

I love that idea of just downgrading so that you in a sense, if you’re doing it skillfully, you’re figuring out what the person really wants anyway, which, you know, it’s not about the coffee. So if you can, in the process, decipher that, sometimes you can maybe whittle it all the way down to a five minute favor, where you can just actually take that move, do that thing, help that person in a way that’s meaningful to them, but isn’t so burdensome for your own schedule. The book is The Long Game, how to be a long term thinker in a short term world, the author, and my guest today is Dorie Clark. Thank you for being on the water central podcast.


Dorie Clark  31:44  

Thank you so much, Greg. Great to be here.


Greg McKeown  31:48  

When you combine essentialism and effortless together, you will inevitably find your way to very long term thinking or especially the idea of thinking eternally and acting daily, of connecting the tiny action in this moment, what’s important now with what’s going to matter for the longest down the road. Thank you for joining me for this conversation with Dorie Clark.

Greg McKeown


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