Apr 5, 2023 6 min read

Thinking Long-Term in Work: Careers as Practice and Art

Our culture is obsessed with speed. Success is often measured in how fast you get somewhere, rather than where you end up, how you got there, or who you become in the process. But this default criteria of speed is detrimental to our development, especially in careers. Instead, thinking of it as a life-long practice can be a useful reframe.

Why long-term thinking is hard

Most of us intellectually understand the importance of thinking long-term, except it’s hard to do it in practice. Why? Because everything around us is designed to make us think otherwise. It takes a proactive approach to train ourselves to think for the long haul vs what will happen in the next week, or the next quarter.

This expectation of speed manifests itself in expectations of how fast our careers should evolve. Rather than putting our heads down and focusing on the current role, we start plotting for the next job, never really “inhabiting” the current one we are in, and not giving it everything. And this makes sense. Since this is not my “ultimate” job/role, there’s no reason to give it our all, and so on.

Careers and lives are rarely linear, although that’s how we want them to be. The challenges and underlying dynamics of creative work is a rich source to understand some of the mechanics.

Mechanical vs human time

Rather than being an anomaly, downtimes when things are not going our way can lay the groundwork for explosive spurts in the future. Except we abhor it when it’s slow-going, and try to jumpstart our evolution prematurely in the quest for more linear growth.

In his book Keep Going, the third in a trilogy, Austin Kleon captures the ebbs and tides of creative work:

Like a tree, creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season you’re in, and act accordingly. In winter, “the tree looks dead, but we know it is beginning a very deep process, out of which will come spring and summer.”

The comedian George Carlin lamented how obsessed we all are with the notion of forward, visible progress. “It’s the American view that everything has to keep climbing: productivity, profits, even comedy.” 

He felt we made no time for reflection. “No time to contract before another expansion. No time to grow up,” he said. “No time to learn from your mistakes. But that notion goes against nature, which is cyclical.”

Culture programs us to think in mechanical, clock time. We think in terms of days, weeks, quarterly reports, and annual objectives. Some of the more ambitious ones amongst us, even have 10-year plans.

Language, and the terms we use, influence how we think about work and life, and our experience itself. Consider the following contrasting words that Kleon highlights:

Seconds vs Heartbeats

Days vs Sunrises

Weeks, Months vs Moon phases

Quarters vs Seasons

Years vs The return of spring

Notice how the boundaries of mechanical time are fixed and defined, whereas that of “lived time” are nuanced and transitionary. The trouble starts when we expect transitions, happening in human time, to follow the requirements of mechanical time.

When expectations outlined in the language of mechanical time, don’t pan out in the reality of lived time, it causes unnecessary frustration or to quit on projects prematurely.

While your manager might not agree with your seasonal metric instead of quarterly, internally you can realign yourself. After all, managers come and go, but it’s always you who’s moving from the perspective of your career.

Kleon advises:

You have to pay attention to the rhythms and cycles of your creative output and learn to be patient in the off-seasons. You have to give yourself time to change and observe your own patterns.

“Live in each season as it passes,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “and resign yourself to the influences of each.” 

One way to get in touch with your own seasons is to follow Kent and Thoreau’s leads and observe the seasons in nature.

... Try to get a feel for nonmechanical time, and see if it recalibrates you and changes how you feel about your progress.

These ideas are applicable to the entire arc of a career and life:

Our lives, too, have different seasons. Some of us blossom at a young age; others don’t blossom until old age. Our culture mostly celebrates early successes, the people who bloom fast. But those people often wither as quickly as they bloom. It’s for this reason that I ignore every “35 under 35” list published. I’m not interested in annuals. I’m interested in perennials. ...

I don’t want to know how a thirty-year-old became rich and famous; I want to hear how an eighty-year-old spent her life in obscurity, kept making art, and lived a happy life. …I want to know how in his nineties, Pablo Casals still got up every morning and practiced his cello.

These are the people I look to for inspiration. The people who found the thing that made them feel alive and who kept themselves alive by doing it. The people who planted their seeds, tended to themselves, and grew into something lasting. 

I want to be one of them.

I want to make octogenarian painter David Hockney’s words my personal motto: “I’ll go on until I fall over.”

Kleon’s writing is an important reminder that successful careers, and lives, are a marathon rather than a sprint. Often, what speeds us up in the interim slows us down long-term. In contrast, slowing down can speed us up, even though in the moment, it doesn’t feel that way.

Your career as a practice

Thinking of our careers as a life-long practice and our role as an evolving artist is a helpful one.

There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. 

It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!

—Rainer Maria Rilke

But this patient approach is anything but easy. You have to constantly remind yourself of it. Here are some questions worth asking regularly:

  • Are you making progress internally, regardless of what the external “metrics” might be showing?
  • Is that movement forward or backward? Paradoxically, progress in external metrics can also mean going backward internally, when we are out of alignment with what we truly care about.
  • Do you have the patience to “let” your project ripen and eventually grow, or are you too impatient?
  • Whatever time metric you've assigned to your project, how did you come with it?

Your career as art

Kleon’s articulation of the creative life is applicable to any career when seen from a zoomed out, life-long view:

The creative life is not linear. It’s not a straight line from point A to point B. It’s more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really “arrive.”

Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person. “Even after you have achieved greatness,” writes musician Ian Svenonius, “the infinitesimal cadre who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’”

The truly prolific artists I know always have that question answered, because they have figured out a daily practice—a repeatable way of working that insulates them from success, failure, and the chaos of the outside world. They have all identified what they want to spend their time on, and they work at it every day, no matter what. Whether their latest thing is universally rejected, ignored, or acclaimed, they know they’ll still get up tomorrow and do their work.

Developing your daily practice — whether you are an individual contributor, a division head, or a VP of a key function — is a key requirement for a flourishing, and more importantly engaged, career.

Doing your verbs

Kleon’s words towards the end of his book are iconic and worth keeping nearby at all times:

Whenever life gets overwhelming,…think about your days. Try your best to fill them in ways that get you a little closer to where you want to be. Go easy on yourself and take your time. 

Worry less about getting things done. Worry more about things worth doing.

Worry less about being a great artist. Worry more about being a good human being who makes art. 

Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them.

Keep working. Keep playing. Keep drawing. Keep looking. Keep listening. Keep thinking. Keep dreaming. ...

Keep doing your verbs, whatever they may be.

Keep going.

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  1. Keep Going by Austin Kleon
  2. Kleon's trilogy of books are short reads, but deep in wisdom and well worth rereading regularly
Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
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