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Michele Willens Headshot

Can We Think Long-Term in a Short-Term World?

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I asked my son why he hasn't been watching professional basketball games as much as he used to. He explained that the NBA season was far too long and that "all that matters is when the playoffs start." That got me wondering: do we live in a time when cutting to the chase is more important than the initial pursuit? Everyone assumes that the Miami Heat are the ones to beat this year, what with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade playing on the same sizzling side. If we do not watch until the final rounds, however, we will miss these three masters learning to cohere as a team.

Okay, that's the last sports metaphor, I promise. But I have to ask: does anyone have the patience for anything long-term, and can anyone who thinks and plans beyond tweet-time succeed today? Starting at the top, Barack Obama has been called aloof, dispassionate, intellectual, academic, etc. This may, in fact, be code for being a long-term thinker in a short-term world. I agree that his administration has not communicated its legislative successes well enough; nor did it frame the first fixes in an understandable and palatable way. (Healthcare really can be about jobs and saving money as well as lives.) True, he acted quickly on his big ticket items, but the emergencies he inherited called for immediate measures.

Since then, his penchant for long-term ruminating has become obvious, most particularly with his decision on Afghanistan. Part of me wishes he had gone with a short-term gut and said, "The issue is unsolvable, it is turning into Vietnam, and we need the money at home." But that is not the way this deliberative man thinks, and I choose to trust that he listened carefully to the pros and cons and remains open to switching gears. The question is whether Americans will allow for a timetable that considers the big picture. Furiously peddling his book, George W. Bush claims that his legacy will be written after he is gone, and he is fairly confident that a longer view will treat him kindly. That is about revisionism and hindsight. I doubt it will, and largely due to reckless short-term thinking: 9/11? Find someone to attack now! Saddam gone? Mission accomplished!

Politics this past season presented some embarrassing short-term thinking. Christine O'Donnell and Linda McMahon seemed to think that they could go for the big offices without a minute of political service and with seemingly scant knowledge. Out in California, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman assumed that they could parlay huge earnings from the world of business into the top jobs of that state. Whatever happened to running for the School Board? Gratefully, the voters were thinking longer term, which gives me hope that maybe the people are smarter and more willing than we're given credit for.

In the cultural realm, producers in every medium worry that no one will sit past an intermission or through a commercial anymore. Yet a seven-hour theatrical production that entails the reading of the entire "Great Gatsby" has sold out its New York run.

Viewers have also proven that they will wait a full week, not to mention months, to watch the continuation of television programs that don't offer a tidy short-term conclusion. I, for one, am suffering serious "Mad Men" withdrawal, which has only slightly been alleviated by Jon Hamm's appearances on every program except "Glee." Attention spans are about the ability to sit still, but they are closely related to our ability to think beyond the immediate future.

When my generation was entering the working world, we assumed that we had a long road ahead and embraced the experiences and challenges. Going to smaller towns to learn a craft, or land work, was not unusual. I started as a copy girl for a small paper. When's the last time you even heard the words copy girl or mail room?

Today, young people often expect the plum jobs without doing the groundwork, and they grow restless at an alarming rate. Been here a year and a half already and haven't been promoted yet. With the economy being what it is, they had better get a new system for a new game plan.

Our generation, eager to get on a fast track eventually, was nothing compared to the one before. My aunt, for example, had several jobs in the writing world, including newspaper work in Minneapolis, then onto journalism and advertising in New York. Now in her 80s, she remains someone who sees life in terms of acts, and allows each one to breathe. When her longtime companion got ill, she put herself on a waiting list at a beautiful assisted living facility not far from where her son and his family live. She also picked a spot that was near a college, Princeton, so the facility was filled with retired professors and the like. I love going to visit (when she has time; her schedule there is jam-packed) and meeting others who have every reason to be thinking short-term but still refuse to.

I also think of a man, well in his 90s, whom I saw many years ago working in a Beijing factory. He was painting tiny little characters on some kind of enamel or glass piece. We were told that he had been working on that particular piece for years and still had a few to go. Talk about long term optimism. And where would research and science be without patience and a belief that sometimes the best answers come from the hardest questions. I once interviewed a man who had been working in a California lab for 25 years trying to find the solution for bottling nuclear fusion. When I walked in to his office, he was gazing at a combination of numbers on the blackboard. "Is this an equation you have never thought of yet?" I asked, half joking. He smiled quizzically and said that yes, this was a new one.

The truth is, we can all benefit from some long-term thinking because we are going to live a lot longer. This fact brings me (as most things do these days) to beauty and the loss of youth. How do we live with faces that are necessarily going to be with us for many years, and not be shamed when they show the lines of experience and character? Cosmetics and procedures are rapidly increasing and are, of course, short-term solutions for long-term issues. Hey, whatever works, but getting older is the ultimate long-term problem.

This might be as good a moment as any to think past it.