November 16, 2021 11:20 PM EST

Americans have generally been working more hours, and doing so less efficiently over the past year-and-a-half, as remote working has led to an endless blurring of professional and personal activities. That’s a recipe for the busyness and distraction that Dorie Clark is trying to combat with her new book, The Long Game.

Clark teaches executive education at Duke and Columbia and speaks and writes prolifically about management and careers. Her latest book is a winningly earnest recounting of her own professional trajectory and those of her friends and acquaintances, many of them executive coaches. It’s also a step-by-step guide to setting long-term individual goals and going about pursuing them. That’s perhaps even more relevant in this moment where workers generally have more leverage to advance and be supported by employers in pursuing such ambitions.

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Clark’s recommendations center around three areas:

Creating the space to think about and pursue long-term goals. Part of this is being able to say no to things, so that your short-term work tasks don’t crowd out everything else.

  • Clark cites an expert who recommends using a daily calendar to plot out your work rather than a to-do list, since a calendar requires you to triage how you use your time.
  • She introduces the “hell yeah” test. “When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than ‘Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!’—then say ‘no,’” Clark quotes an entrepreneur as saying. (p. 35)
  • She suggests four questions for assessing requests and opportunities: What is the true time commitment? What is the opportunity cost? What’s the physical and emotional cost? Would I feel bad in a year if I didn’t do this?

Identifying the right goals and what helps us get there. Clark argues that if you don’t have a clear idea about what your long-term goals are, the best approach is to follow your curiosity and become good in one or more areas you’re drawn to.

  • “When you’re still figuring out what feels meaningful, or if you’re a Renaissance person drawn to many different things, I’ve found it’s helpful to optimize for interesting,” she writes. (p. 56)
  • Clark is also a proponent of “20% time,” the approach popularized by Google of devoting that portion of your time to exploring new areas. Even if the projects in your 20% time don’t work out, there’s lower risk and you can usually derive other benefits, such as useful connections to people in those areas. “With 20% time, we can experiment with no consequences, only learning,” Clark writes. (p. 92)
  • She proposes that there are waves in your career, where you’re learning, creating, connecting, and then reaping the benefits. You can cycle through these stages repeatedly to build your strengths in different areas.
  • When it comes to pursuing goals, Clark is a proponent of “infinite horizon networking,” where it’s “pure, no-agenda relationship building.” (p. 141) She notes that life is unpredictable and connections that might not seem relevant now could wind up becoming so.
  • Clark has a “no asks for a year” strategy, where she doesn’t ask anything requiring political capital of someone until she’s spent a year getting to know them. This stems from the belief that successful people constantly have others asking for things of them, and the better approach is to establish a foundation with them before doing so.

Persevering even when progress is slow and rejection is abundant.

  • Clark argues for “strategic patience,” or acknowledging that it requires work and time to advance toward a long-term goal. She suggests that as a rule of thumb it can take two or three years for you to gain notice in a field you’re pursuing, such as starting to see traction from publishing your ideas online in media outlets or your own newsletter.
  • When things seem bleak, Clark suggests asking yourself why you’re doing the thing that you’re struggling with, how it has worked for others, and what your trusted advisers are telling you.
  • She recommends a range of strategies, including giving yourself multiple chances to succeed, testing out concepts in a small way before going all-in, and giving yourself a deadline to make sure that you stay on track.

In something of a side note on page 117, describing a jetlag-fueled boost of inspiration, Clark notes some questions that can help you find your strategic direction. They’re worth considering on their own:

  • What should I spend my time doing?
  • What are the 20% of my activities that will yield 80% of the results?
  • What can I stop doing?
  • How can I use constraints to my advantage?
  • What are my hypotheses about the future—and how do they inform my actions today?

Clark explains the idea of “distance to empty,” which a time-management expert described to her. It’s how long you can step away from what you’re doing in the short-term for it to continue operating. “Have you put in place the systems you need so that your business doesn’t collapse if you’re not working 24/7?” Clark writes. (p. 197) The ideal is to structure work so that you can have “oases,” breaks in your week where you can reset and think. By planning ahead, you can also aspire to having “oases” in your year, extended periods of time off to recharge.

Clark concludes by suggesting that long-term thinking benefits from three aspects of character: courage to be different, openness to looking like a failure until results materialize, and strength to persevere.

To be sure:

  • It helps as a reader to have some level of interest in Clark’s own career and side activities and their eclectic turns, which include her decision to pursue writing her own musical without any prior training.
  • The exit of some millions of women from the US workforce since 2019 is one symptom of the reality that many people are finding work challenging, and don’t necessarily have the time and energy to be pursuing long-term professional goals. The long game, for them, can feel like something of a luxury.

Choice quotes:

  • “Everything takes longer than we want it to. Everything.” (p. 8)
  • “What I’ve come to love about patience is that, ultimately, it’s the truest test of merit: Are you willing to do the work, despite no guaranteed outcome?” (p. 11)
  • “Playing the long game—eschewing short-term gratification in order to work toward an uncertain but worthy future goal—isn’t easy. But it’s the surest path to meaningful and lasting success in a world that so often prioritizes what’s easy, quick, and ultimately shallow.” (p. 13)
  • “What few realize is that with small, methodical steps taken day after day, almost anything is attainable, and frequently sooner than you might imagine.” (p. 16)
  • “When you give yourself permission to work long hours, to work continuously, you allow these little systemic, strategic inefficiencies to crop up all over the palace.” —Dave Crenshaw, author and time management expert
  • “No matter how good you are, you can’t win any game by doing the same thing all the time.” (p. 112)

The bottom line is that The Long Game breezily presents very common sense advice about careers and business that’s likely especially useful for people starting out or looking to change fields, or feeling stuck and underachieving. For everyone else, it’s one of those business books that recounts things you probably already know, but which can be valuable in getting you thinking about them again.

You can order The Long Game at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you purchase a book.)

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