I’ve been talking about The Long Game for a bit now, but today I’m going to get into it.
There are two “games” we can play as creative-types: The Short Game and The Long Game. And we always, always, always start out playing The Short Game. So I’ll start by talking about that.
The Short Game
When you were a child, you didn’t have the emotional context to understand that there would be a future and that your decisions impact that. So, when you’re hungry, you’ll just eat whatever’s easy and tasty. When you want attention, you’ll just throw a tantrum. You’ll do whatever it takes to fulfill a short-term need — which may or may not impact the future.
Fast forward to being a teenager. You have this intellectual understanding of the future, but no real emotional context for it. (All high school drama is about the moment and the about-to-happen social event.) Actually, that parenthetical (which I’ll leave as-is) points out where the emotional context lies: the future is weeks away. So planning takes place on that level. Yes, some people plan for college and the like, but that’s done with the accepted help of others who have a further sense of future.
If you’re in your mid-twenties or older, you probably see the vast difference between your emotional context for the future now and what it was back then, and how long you naturally plan ahead for. With the groundwork laid, here’s how it relates to being a writer, artist, or whatever that’s starting to get exposure: it’s pretty much the same thing.
As someone who is starting to get exposure, much like life is constantly new for the child, getting recognition for this thing you’re doing is new for you. That first short story sale or that first little RPG hit you have makes this thing you’re doing Real. And with that, another thing sets in:
Holy shit, this could go away at any moment.
Without the context I’ll get into later, the idea that this good feeling you have at accomplishing something you’ve been wanting could go away at any moment — it’s like being hungry. You want another cookie. You want to keep Doing This Thing, so you keep creating cookies for yourself, often far too many. Here are the mistakes people playing The Short Game make because they’re trying to take on too many cookies:
- They assume the short burst of passion they had is sustainable, and they can always work at that capacity. I call this “mental bandwidth,” and working at over 100% for a short period is possible. But if you treat yourself like that’s normal rather than peak, you’re playing The Short Game.
- They take on too many projects. This is partly because of New Project Energy, partly because of fear that saying “no” to a project means this magical thing we’re doing will suddenly dry up.
- They try cramming all of their self-perceived good ideas into one thing. (I used to say “fuck you, are you only going to make one game?” to people doing this.)
- They don’t say “no” enough, if at all. This is worth double-scoring. They don’t recognize their limits and they fear that saying “no” means they’ll be blacklisted from projects or push away interest or however they mentally justify “saying no is the worst thing I can do evar” to themselves.
- Every cool project they get offered must be taken because OMG COOL PROJECT!
- They take on too much, piss off people they’re working with or for by being overstretched, and otherwise fucking up their reputation and potentially also their love for this thing.
- They rush to produce, not taking their time to produce well.
- There are other hallmarks of The Short Game. This is not an exhaustive list.
(Yes, I’m talking about myself here.)
The reason we play The Short Game is actually simple: we don’t think The Long Game exists. At least, not emotionally. And we can’t play a game we don’t see.
The Long Game
At some point, the realization occurs that you can say “no” to something. Not only that, but that saying “no” is smarter that saying “yes.” This is based on a new emotional understanding: there is a long future, I’ll be doing this for years, and that’s okay.
I keep using “emotional context” and similar phrases for a reason. Intellectually we can get things, but many of our life decisions are based on what we understand not just intellectually. We make decisions based on what feels good, feels comfortable, and well, whatever other “feels” you want to say. It’s rare the person who “feels” intellectually. We’re meatbags of emotions, sometimes tempered by intellect (which is why we’re capable of, say, losing weight), but that’s effort. And for The Long Game to actually work, the effort has to lessen over time until it becomes negligible and later nil.
What people who play The Long Game know & do:
- They know the difference between running at peak bandwidth and normal bandwidth, and give themselves the space to run at their normal pace.
- They know that saying “no” to an opportunity (provided done gracefully) is an ally, not a threat to their creative existence. It makes it so the things you say “yes” to are given rightful attention. It also, as a side effect, turns you into a coveted commodity. (At least, for me it’s a side effect. For others, it make be an intentional play.)
- They know, emotionally, they’re going to do this for years, and make decisions accordingly.
- They make smarter business decisions because they’re playing The Long Game in other arenas in their lives.
- They know there’s another cool project around the corner. “Cool,” it turns out, is not a scarce resource.
- They shelve neat ideas for appropriate projects, and treat each project as something that shouldn’t be a grab bag of everything they’ve ever thought of.
- They read, watch TV & movies, hang out with friends, and other things that allow them to unwind so that they’re better at thing thing we’re all doing. That goes back to bandwidth above — bandwidth is something that needs recharging (which makes the bandwidth analogy go sideways, but whatevs).
- The see the value of taking a few more weeks on a project, and can better weigh the costs & benefits of taking that time without the emotional need to rush.
- They finish more projects.
And hopefully they forgive the Short Gamers they work with for the mistakes of youth. Some do. Some don’t.
The Professional & The Mortgage
There’s a space where this changes, and that’s when you depend on this thing for your livelihood. Even so, the Long Game is played in order to secure that livelihood for years to come, rather than getting some money for a few months and burning out. There is a difference in how this is played when the money gained from this venture is important to your rent or mortgage, but I believe the points still stand.
After all, I’m pretty sure folks who play The Long Game have more desirable qualities from the perspective of folks actually worth working with.
I’m Not Actually Saying Play The Long Game
I’m not sure if this sucks or not, but as time goes on I grow convinced that you have to play The Short Game for a bit. You have to come to the emotional context yourself, though there are many ways to go about that — as many ways as there are individuals trying this thing. It’s a path of experience. So I can’t just say “play The Long Game,” no more than you can just tell a kid about planning for the future and expect it to stick.
That, and The Short Game is a hell of an education, school of hard knocks-style.
Instead, I offer this as a mantra to people who are in that transition period, like I am. I tell myself “it’s okay, Mack, you’re playing The Long Game.” I still need to tell myself that in order to keep myself from making stupid Short Game mistakes. And I’m still dealing with Short Game mistakes from yesteryear, lessons that sting. So to all of you who are starting to see The Long Game, keep that realization close to your heart.
Let’s not be awesome for just today. Let’s be awesome for motherfucking years to come.
P.S. There’s another class of people who play the Short Game: folks who do not believe themselves to have years — the elderly, the terminally ill, folks with mental degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and suicidal people. People for whom the emotional context for “future” has eroded. It’s something I think about if I see a Long Gamer suddenly go Short Game. And I feel for them all.