Tom Butler-Bowdon's new book, Never Too Late To Be Great: The Power of Thinking Long, has just been released on Virgin Books. In the following article, he tells us about the power of thinking long-term.
An understanding of how long it generally takes to master something, and the span of time we may have at our disposal to put in that effort, is fundamental to our understanding of what it takes to succeed. Most people’s mental images of time are drawn from fear, but in seeing time as a help, not a hindrance, in a speed-obsessed world we give ourselves an unusual advantage. The motivational field does not like to talk about how long real achievement takes because it thinks people will be turned off. Yet by looking unflinchingly at the timescales of success, surely it has a greater chance of actually happening when our decisions and actions are grounded in truth, not mere wishes.
Our culture that glorifies instant success (cue The X-Factor) when, particularly given the facts around increasing longevity, it makes a lot more sense to start thinking long...to see our lives in terms of ripening or unfolding. People tend to overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade, and if we do start to think in longer timeframes, suddenly a lot more becomes possible.
In my research I discovered that: Mother Teresa didn’t found her Missionaries of Charity order until she was 40, after having spent 19 years as a schoolteacher; Ray Kroc was 52 by the time he purchased the original McDonald’s restaurant to turn it into the famous chain; Daniel Libeskind, lead architect of the new World Trade Center, did not see his first building erected until he was in his 50s; E. Annie Proulx, author of Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News, did not find commercial success as a writer until her mid-50s, having spent years as a struggling journalist bringing up two sons; Momofuku Ando was 49 when, after countless experiments in a back yard kitchen, he perfected his recipe for the instant noodle. And Emily Kngwarreye, the first Aboriginal artist to sell a painting for over $1 million, did not even pick up a brush until she was 79.
These examples don’t refute the fact that some people do achieve great things when young, but their visibility blinds us to the way that most people do, in fact, succeed – over decades, and by taking a long view of their lives. The irony is that this more realistic approach, precisely because it factors in obstacles, changes of mind and unexpected events, makes genuine success more likely.
And with the increasing lifespans that most of us now enjoy, thinking long is not a luxury, but makes practical sense.