There are certain things that will come to define our era when we look back in years to come.
Greater access to information — we have near real-time insight into what’s going on around the world, both the factual data that’s shared in real-time, and the meticulously curated highlight-reels that dominate social media. While this should be a positive, giving unfettered access to information and opportunities to enrich our lives and heighten our connection and belonging with others, instead:
- Depression and anxiety are common side-effects along with sleeplessness, distraction and a shortened attention span.
- Society is more-divided than ever with the information being used, misconstrued and manipulated to deepen gulfs and escalate arguments.
- Information is distorted to suit political agendas and to confuse the populace. Fake news is rife, the term used on a whim by anyone wanting to cast doubt over those with whom they disagree.
Proliferation of connected technology — It has continued to advance at a geometric rate to the extent that most of us in the so-called developed work have more computing power in our pockets than was used putting humans into space. With an internet connection and access to money, anyone can get anything they want delivered to their doorstep on a whim. Instead of this bringing a sense of satisfaction, opulence and possibility, instead:
- The gap between rich and poor is bigger than ever before, and growing rapidly.
- Our appetite for fast-fashion and cutting-edge technology is destroying our ailing environment and ravaging the human-rights of those working in sweatshop conditions to make it.
- Consumers are unfulfilled and miserable as they learn that they cannot buy and shop their way to happiness.
A global pandemic — A chance incident that enabled the transition between bats and humans resulted of a world-crippling virus. While medical science has astounded in demonstrating humankind’s ability to respond to and beat such incidents, the battle is far from won. The selfishness and misplaced priorities of humanity have kept Covid-19 on the agenda for far longer than it needed to be:
- We’re too precious about our civil liberties to wear a facemask to protect ourselves and others.
- We’re too selfish to care about our elderly and most-vulnerable citizens and curtail our freedoms in their interests — far better to let it take it’s course and allow the fittest to survive.
- We prize getting back to the shopping malls, bars and restaurants more highly than beating this thing once and for all. In the UK, the government even offered subsidies last summer to encourage people to ‘eat out to help out’ pubs and restaurants, rather than prolonging lockdown and actually beating the virus to zero.
All of these trends seem to point to one basic trait that exists in us humans today — a preference for focusing on the short-term, on immediate satisfaction and gratification in the now, at the expense of the long-term consequences.
We want it all. We want it right now. We’re not prepared to wait for anything and the idea of even delaying gratification is a nonsense to contemplate.
No appetite for pain, no chance of gain
I write this on what is apparently known as Blue Monday — the third Monday of January.
It’s the day when many have lost their excitement and optimism for the new year. It follows the third Sunday in January — ‘Quitters Day’ when many new years resolutions have failed (you can learn more in this excellent story by my friend Rosalind Pagan).
After the champagne corks have been popped and the fireworks let off, many resolve to lose weight, cut back on their alcohol intake, quit smoking, be more attentive partners or more conscientious about managing their money.
That such worthy goals are abandoned after just three weeks shows how little enthusiasm many of us can muster for a long-term commitment, no matter how much good it might do us to commit and to succeed.
We’re more prone to embracing crash diets, cleanses, diet pills and radical exercise programs rather than opting for modest lifestyle changes and moderate measures that we can sustain for the long-term. We don’t want to contemplate that weight loss and fitness gains might take time to achieve or sustain — we want results now.
Get rich quick schemes, short-term faddish business models that promise maximum return for minimum effort are preferable to slowly building a sustainable income. Day-trading in stocks is embraced by the masses who want immediate profit and double-digit growth, not gradual but reliable compounding returns from investments of time and money.
When positive results are slow to materialise or when boom and bust cycles quickly destroy all profits, we quit and move onto the next thing.
We stake our hopes for happiness on a new relationship. When lust and romance have worn off and things settle into the more mundane with the inevitable ups and downs of life in a partnership, many find their devotion and commitment waning. They feel demoralised, they worry that they’ve settled too early in life and maybe feel trapped. They imagine life will be better with someone else.
This short-term approach leads to breakups and likely contributes to the prevalence of divorce that we see in modern society. As a veteran of one divorce and one failed-engagement (who is now happily married I might add), I’m all too familiar with such sentiments and experiences.
We have little appetite for committing to much of anything if it won’t pay off in the short-term.
Low Time Preference Versus High Time Preference
Early in 2021, largely driven by FOMO I started out as a small-scale investor in Bitcoin. In typical style I went in at the deep-end and made the investment without doing the research first, but have since tried to correct for my impetuousness by studying the topic from grass roots.
Essential reading for anyone looking to do the same, is the outstanding book ‘The Bitcoin Standard’ by Saifedean Ammous.
The author spends a great deal of time describing the facets of money and economics — I’m onto chapter 8 and Bitcoin has barely been mentioned so far.
Most interesting has been the description of how we as a society have come to default to a high time preference where we used to accept a low time preference. The author describes time preference as:
“… the ratio at which individuals value the present compared to the future”
The principle is that the lower our time preference the more we are willing to embrace that good things take time — in an economic sense that savings and investments take time to deliver value and benefit us in our lives. When we save money, we are sacrificing purchasing power now so as to benefit our future selves. Conversely, high time preference is typified by spending now for instant gratification.
Ammous is particularly damning of this trait of humanity, and blames the economist John Maynard-Keynes and the many international governments who’ve adopted and applied his economic principles to manage inflation and escape recessions. Keynesian economics encourages citizens that spending and borrowing are good and saving is bad — essentially by encouraging a high-time preference and instant gratification as a means of stimulating the economy.
As Ammous puts it:
“The twentieth century’s binge on conspicuous consumption cannot be understood separately from the destruction of sound money and the outbreak of Keynesian high-time-preference thinking, in vilifying savings and deifying consumption as the key to economic prosperity.”
After discovering this concept and reflecting upon it both in terms of its economic consequences and more widely in life, it’s plain to me that we 21st century humans are wholeheartedly committed to a high time preference — we don’t care to think about what the future holds and few of us consider our future-selves in the decisions we take and how we act.
If the payoff of something isn’t within easy reach and attainable in the short term, we struggle to muster the enthusiasm for it.
Art Imitates Reality
In ‘The Bitcoin Standard’, Ammous describes the world of art in the last few centuries as a further example where we’ve become conditioned towards high time preference — believing that great things can come about without investment of time.
Some of the greatest works of art created by humankind are a testament to the adage that “good things take time”.
The Monolith is the most striking of the pieces displayed in Frogner Park in Oslo, Norway. Conceived by 20th century sculptor Gustav Vigeland, The Monolith is 46 feet high and features 121 human figures in its design. It was carved from a single block of granite and took 14 years for 3 stonemasons to complete it.
Michelangelo painted the fresco ‘Creation of Adam’ which adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It was commissioned in 1508 by Pope Julius II and is probably one of the most widely known and greatly-admired pieces of art in the world. It took four years to complete.
Both examples demonstrate that time is necessary for the production of things that move, inspire and impress.
In the 1940s, Jackson Pollock covered numerous large-scale canvases with spatters of paint, which were later revered as masterpieces. In the 1950s, Mark Rothko created numerous paintings that are for the most part, a variety of block-colour canvases. Many of these have sold for millions of dollars.
I’m not informed or opinionated enough to debate the relative merits of modern art versus classical art. But I think there’s more to art than it being in the eye of the beholder.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that something is worthy of the label ‘art’ just because the artist themselves tells us it is, nor because academics in the field proclaim it to be. Like most parents, I’ve struggled to see much difference in the quality and artistic merit of many acclaimed pieces of modern art and the messy swirls of paint that my kids produced en-masse in kindergarten.
It seems that in relation to our views on art as in our views towards money, we favour outcomes and output that can come about quickly and without investment of time or genuine skill.
The fresco in the Sistine Chapel took 4 years, and was only embarked upon after many years of study, practice and the creation of sufficient other works that earned Michelangelo the commission in the first place.
In even the most charitable assessment of Rothko’s №1 (Royal, Red, Blue), I doubt that it represents more than a few hours work — including buying the paint and washing the brushes afterwards.
In the world of art just as in the world of money, those in positions of power and influence have persuaded the public that-that which can be attained in the short term with minimal effort is of genuine value.
We’ve lost sight of the fact that many good things take time, investment of effort and patience. Genuine value comes about through sacrifice now in favour of returns that will come later. Value is a by-product of hard work and the passing of time. It’s seductive to believe that greatness will come quickly and without an investment of effort. We want the payoff now.
We think we deserve things to come easily and quickly to us, and we’re led to believe that it will by those in power — the governments, authority figures and influencers.
Learning to Think Long-Term Again
In December 2020 I thought seriously about quitting writing.
I know that such existential doubts plague many writers and I’m not ashamed to admit this wasn’t even the first time I’d had such thoughts. My creative malaise was borne out of a misguided perception that I hadn’t achieved the results I thought I was due.
I took a month off, and now have renewed vigour and energy for writing. I’m far from convinced though that I won’t experience such doubts again in future.
I had allowed fear and impatience to mix within me, in a dangerous and toxic blend. Even from my vantage point, with four years and 300+ stories on Medium, I still found myself frustrated and demoralised by others sharing their tales of ‘How I made $4,321 in my first month as a Medium Writer’.
Such stories are no doubt true, and reflect the experience of those who hit upon a winning formula in their first month. But they’re not representative of the experiences of most.
The danger comes when, with our finely-honed preference for results achieved quickly, we latch onto such edge-cases as the norm and then feel bad about not achieving the same.
It has taken personal reflection and recalibration to reach clarity on what I realistically hope and expect to achieve going forwards. That process has been useful in getting back to writing for the right reasons, but also for revising my approach to other aspects of life too.
I have a more moderate and long-term outlook towards health and fitness, relationships and my finances. I’m not holding myself to impossible personal standards and I’m trying to be more pragmatic about the illusions and false-comfort that can come from buying into the rhetoric that’s commonplace in the wider world — that everything should come quickly, easily and in return for gung-ho, all-out efforts.
It feels good to be realistic with myself. I’m playing the long game.
There is of course a time and a place for urgency, seizing opportunities and taking calculated risks for short-term gain. Sometimes we need to do what seems smart for the short-term and put the long-term future in the hands of fate.
Right now though, it feels as though we all tend to default to the short term and allow ourselves to believe that if we get that right and it feels good, then it’ll likely set us on the right path.
What I’m advocating for right now, is that we make more decisions in favour of our future selves over ourselves here and now.
That we make financial investments today that will provide for our futures rather than buying more plastic crap that give us joy for five minutes.
That we invest in ourselves to build the skills and expertise that will ultimately create masterpieces that are worthy of the label, not that we seek out hacks and shortcuts.
That we take decisions for our health, wellbeing and relationships that brings sustainable and lasting joy and resilience, not just a temporary boost or lift.