Short-Termism is Killing Us: It’s Time for Longpath: Ari Wallach at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Ari Wallach – Founder and CEO of Synthesis Corp

October 16, 1993, 1:17am. The phone rang at my parents’ home. I answered on the second ring. I pretty much knew who was calling. The voice on the other end spoke for maybe 10 seconds. My reply was even shorter. “Do not resuscitate.” I was 18 years old when I lost my father.

Several years later, I was reading the book by Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death.” He won the Pulitzer prize for it in 1972. And I’ll paraphrase an entire book in three sentences. Man is the only sentient species, who, at a very early point in his life, knows that he will cease to exist, and that he does everything he can to run, shield and hide himself from that inevitable truth. And so, now you know how I became a futurist. That was my running. So I’ve been “futuring,” which is a term I made up — about three seconds ago. I’ve been futuring for about 20 years, and when I first started, I would sit down with people, and say, “Hey, let’s talk 10, 20 years out.” And they’d say, “Great.”

And I’ve been seeing that time horizon get shorter and shorter and shorter, so much so that I met with a CEO two months ago and I said — we started our initial conversation. He goes, “I love what you do. I want to talk about the next six months.” We have a lot of problems that we are facing. These are civilizational-scale problems. The issue though is, we can’t solve them using the mental models that we use right now to try and solve these problems.

Yes, a lot of great technical work is being done, but there is a problem that we need to solve for a priori, before, if we want to really move the needle on those big problems. “Short-termism.” Right? There’s no marches. There’s no bracelets. There’s no petitions that you can sign to be against short-termism. I tried to put one up, and no one signed. It was weird.

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But it prevents us from doing so much. And, by the way, this is on policy, this is at home, this is on the major issues. Short-termism, for many reasons, has pervaded every nook and cranny of our reality, yet it’s something that we don’t actually talk about, but it prevents us from doing so much. I just want you to take a second and just think about an issue that you’re thinking, working on. It could be personal, it could be at work or it could be move-the-needle world stuff, and think about how far out you tend to think about the solution set for that.

Because short-termism prevents the CEO from buying really expensive safety equipment. It’ll hurt the bottom line. So we get the Deepwater Horizon. Short-termism prevents teachers from spending quality one-on-one time with their students. So right now in America, a high school student drops out every 26 seconds. Short-termism prevents Congress — sorry if there’s anyone in here from Congress — or not really that sorry — from putting money into a real infrastructure bill. So what we get is the I-35W bridge collapse over the Mississippi a few years ago, 13 killed. It wasn’t always like this.

We did the Panama Canal. We pretty much have eradicated global polio. We did the transcontinental railroad, the Marshall Plan. And it’s not just big, physical infrastructure problems and issues. Women’s suffrage, the right to vote. But in our short-termist time, where everything seems to happen right now and we can only think out past the next tweet or timeline post, we get hyper-reactionary.

So what do we do? We take people who are fleeing their war-torn country, and we go after them. We take low-level drug offenders, and we put them away for life. And then we build McMansions without even thinking about how people are going to get between them and their job. It’s a quick buck.

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Now, the reality is, for a lot of these problems, there are some technical fixes, a lot of them. I call these technical fixes sandbag strategies. So you know there’s a storm coming, the levee is broken, no one’s put any money into it, you surround your home with sandbags. And guess what? It works. Storm goes away, the water level goes down, you get rid of the sandbags, and you do this storm after storm after storm. And here’s the insidious thing. A sandbag strategy can get you reelected. A sandbag strategy can help you make your quarterly numbers.

Now, if we want to move forward into a different future than the one we have right now, because I don’t think we’ve hit — 2016 is not peak civilization. There’s some more we can do. For the issue of short-termism, yeah, there’s a lot of technical fixes. I could spend the next four hours going down a list of tax policy, insurance, just a litany of things that we could do to tackle short-termism. But my argument is that unless we shift our mental models and our mental maps on how we think about the short, it’s not going to happen.

So what I’ve developed is something called “longpath,” and it’s a practice. And longpath isn’t a kind of one-and-done exercise. I’m sure everyone here at some point has done an off-site with a lot of Post-It notes and whiteboards, and you do — no offense to the consultants in here who do that — and you do a long-term plan, and then two weeks later, everyone forgets about it. Right? Or a week later. If you’re lucky, three months. It’s a practice because it’s not necessarily a thing that you do. It’s a process where you have to revisit different ways of thinking for every major decision that you’re working on. So I want to go through those three ways of thinking.

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