The Myth of the Immediate Payoff

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Wherever you look in the founder community, people talk about “how to hack SEO” or “how to hack Twitter Ads.”

I’m not a fan.

Hacks are focused on instant gratification. Those looking for hacks play finite games; they expect to “win” at something incredibly complex and opaque that it’s very hard to make out who wins and who loses.

To me, business is an infinite game, and the biggest success stories are those who play the game the longest, not those who “win.” You can’t win at business. You might be able to win a client or get that promotion —and leave your competitors in the dust— but that is a very self-centered view of winning. Building meaningful relationships with your team, your partners, and your customers alike — now, that is an infinite game: the longer you keep playing the game, the better. That is the true nature of enduring success.

It’s not surprising we are so focused on those little finite wins. Notifications constantly bombard us. The little red badges with the white numbers all over our smartphone home screens try to grab our attention at all times. Lucky are those who can suppress the constant urge to check “what’s going on right now.”

If we are focused on “the next thing,” we lose sight of the bigger picture.

In fact, if we’re waiting for something to happen, we lose our ability to focus in the first place. With a loss of focus comes an inability to delay gratification: to ignore the quick wins, you need to know that more considerable riches lie in the future.

Now, I know that, as founders, we are bombarded with challenges on a daily basis. Many of those problems have to be solved quickly. That mindset often leads us to look for the bandaids that we can just slap on a problem right now and think about the real fix later when the emergency has passed. But then, more problems show up, and we struggle to keep up with solving both new and old issues at the same time.

So, how can we deal with that? How can we keep ourselves from looking for the hacks and the shortcuts?

There are two things that I have found helpful for this: visualizing the journey ahead and understanding that it involves iteration.

Visualizing the Journey Ahead

When we start out on the entrepreneurial path, we usually have goals. Whether it’s financial independence, early retirement, Twitter fame, or just ownership of the value we create: all valid goals, all equally solid reasons to start a business.

Then, we jump into the work, and the day-to-day keeps us from refining and maintaining our vision. It’s hard to context-switch, and going from short-term to long-term is particularly cumbersome.

What I recommend is to visualize and write down your long-term vision every few months. Consider it a little goal-setting retreat: write down why you’re doing all of this. Take note of who you’re doing this for, and what matters to serve those people the best you can.

Once you remind yourself every now and then that your goal is building meaningful long-term relationships, you become immune to the allure of the quick hack.

When I see a “Facebook ads hack,” I don’t see a chance for a quick influx in cash. I see people who click a shiny ad only to feel somewhat tricked after they clicked on it. That’s not what I want my customers to feel when they think about my business.

Now, not all ads are deceitful. On the contrary: there is incredible value in an honest and customer-centric ad campaign. But those are not hacks. They’re long-term strategies, building an equally permanent relationship between a valued customer and your business.

That’s the difference you will be able to make out much clearer when you regularly remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Understand that Infinite Games Involve Iteration

And where there’s a why, there is also a how. Here’s the central rule of running a business: it’s never perfect, and it’s never finished. If you go into entrepreneurship thinking that you can write a business plan and then just execute it to success, you’ll quickly find that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

And that’s alright.

The business world is a dynamic place, an ever-shift maelstrom of individual actors trying to build the best business they can. Change is the name of the game, and it means that you will constantly have to adapt to varying circumstances.

That means that what worked for you yesterday might stop working tomorrow. And what didn’t work last month might be a great idea today. The only way to see if things work out is by running experiments and using the results to iterate on your strategies and tactics.

Iteration is the process of making small improvements intentionally. This is different from playing finite games. Finite games have limited outcomes, as they happen within well-defined constraints. Iterating on a long-term project is part of the infinite game of “keeping playing the game” — you position your business so that it sticks around in its competitive landscape.

You make sure that you can keep playing. That means that your business, your product, and even your vision might need alterations over time. If you start your journey understanding that things will change, your whole outlook on what you’re building will be different.

You’re not building a race car that accelerates quickly. You first build a donkey, then a slightly faster donkey, then a bike, then a car, and maybe a race car someday. At every step, you learn how to build that particular iteration. You don’t get to build the race car engine on day one when you don’t even know how your donkey can be made to walk forward.

Learnings compound. It’s to important know that from the start, as the day-to-day often feels like a quagmire. We want to celebrate our wins — and we should celebrate them — but often forget that making progress, however little, is a big requirement of being able to accomplish the “big success” later down the road. So start celebrating those little signs of progress. They’re the foundation. They are the wins.

Trust in visualizing your future and that iterating on your business will allow you to play the game for as long as you need. Think infinite.

And stop looking for the quick hacks.

If you’re into learning more about finite and infinite games, I highly recommend reading Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game. It’s a revelation.

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