Play a Long Game: Nelson Mandela’s Advice for Students and New Graduates

Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and former president of South Africa, spent 27 years in prison, so he knows a thing or two about patience, planning and most importantly, how to make decisions while maintaining a long-term perspective. In the book Nelson Mandela: Portrait of an Extraordinary Man, Richard Stengel, TIME magazine’s managing editor, outlines about 15 sweeping life lessons that can be gleaned from an assessment of Mandela’s life and wisdom.

The piece of advice most applicable to graduates and young professionals, in my opinion, is that we should “play a long game.” Mandela was in prison for nearly three decades, so he knows how to play the long game. For Mandela, this meant not letting an illusion of urgency force him to make decisions before he was ready. It meant putting extra consideration into the direction of his decisions, not the velocity. Stengel noted that Mandela liked to “marinate in ideas,” and he believed that “short- and long-term goals should be pointing in the same direction.” What does this mean for today’s young people though?

Considering that you will perhaps work until you are 65, you will likely live over 80 years, you will almost certainly have multiple careers, and the industries you know now may not exist when you enter the fourth decade of your life, you have to not only think long-term, but act long-term. This doesn’t mean try to predict the future; it means that in the present, you must take steps to ensure a flourishing future, one where you are employed, so long as you are both mentally and physically employable. Ensuring this reality does not happen effortlessly. Not only is the job market volatile, but as Sir Ken Robinson noted in a remarkable TED talk in 2000, we have no idea what the future holds: “Children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065; nobody has a clue… what the world will look like in five years time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it.”

Below I present a few practical ways to play the long game, to ensure that you’re ready for whatever seismic shifts society may encounter as the world changes at an unprecedented rate.

Seek advice when making big life decisions

As a millennial, you are privileged, yet cursed, if we consider when you were born. Brought into a world with ubiquitous technology and hyper-connectedness, you’re very lucky, but your perspective is extremely limited. You haven’t really witnessed how things like the industrial revolution or the invention of the Internet affect society—you have simply been born into a world already significantly affected by both. You need to talk to people—perhaps your parents, grandparents or anyone a generation or two older than you—who understand what real societal change is and how it can affect life trajectories.

Take every opportunity to learn new knowledge and skills

If you haven’t already noticed, the 21st century has brought about a knowledge-economy bursting with hyper-specialization. Because we can transfer information anywhere in the world very quickly, it is common to have individuals with expert knowledge contributing to multiple projects and working for many businesses all over the world. However, just because this is possible, doesn’t mean that this is the only way things can be done. Yes, the specialized worker is valuable, but the worker with knowledge in a breadth of areas, a diverse skillset, and insight derived from many distinct experiences—what I would call an exceptional perspective—has an opportunity to be his organization’s linchpin; someone who is particularly unique, if not indispensable.

Act with the second half of your life in mind

In Peter Drucker’s seminal Harvard Business Review article titled Managing Oneself, he introduces the concept of “the second half of your life.” It follows the point in your career where you’ve been working for 20-plus years, you’re good at what you do, but you “are not learning or contributing or deriving challenge and satisfaction from the job.” This is where having a parallel career—something that you find both meaningful and challenging outside of your current day-to-day—becomes extremely important. The essential point Drucker offers regarding this point in your life is that you must start planning for it before you arrive there. Long before you’ve been in the workforce for two decades, you need to establish what it is that you can pivot towards when your current direction is uninspiring; you’re not quite finding success; you realize that you’re never going to get that promotion; or you’re just bored. Think about what your parallel career might be.

Intentionally craft your digital footprint

With the amount of content that’s generated online everyday—200 million tweets and 72 million Tumblr posts per day, for example—it’s easy to forget that all of it gets stored somewhere. It’s easy to forget that what happens on the Internet, stays on the Internet—forever. This reality has the potential to be positive or negative for young people, depending on your digital behaviour and the footprints you leave behind. With all of the web tools currently available, such as easy-to-use publishing platforms and sites like LinkedIn, you have the opportunity to tactfully design what your online personal brand looks like. If you’re playing the long game, you’re going to want use the web to tell your story, describe your extra-curricular involvement and chronicle the development of skills and knowledge over a long period of time—and fortunately, the easiness of these tasks becomes easier with every day.

Do the most important things first

Any successful CEO or productivity guru will tell you that in order to have a really productive day, you must complete your most important task first. They would tell a professional like me to ignore my email and work on whatever I think is the most important thing on my to-do for at least an hour. They would say that this would ultimately result in me getting more done. And they would be right. When you start your day, you have the most energy, the fewest distractions and peak mental stamina, which allows you to not only be efficient, but more importantly, extra effective. This advice is certainly relevant for a professional’s day-job, but it is especially applicable to life itself. Do the most important things first. For you this may be large things like starting a family, traveling the world, buying a house or writing a book; or the most important things could simply be playing a sport, seeing your favourite band, hiking a mountain or learning how to cook. Whatever you think is important in life, do it now. This will set you up to do more great things later on down the road. And think about this: You’re going to be working full-time for 45 to 50 years with the assumption that you’ll retire with a good pension and enough money to do nothing less than relax. This is what I would hope to happen to you; but that is a long time from now. Do your most important things first. Playing a long game sometimes means playing a short game too.

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