30 Year Thinking

By Nat Eliason in Life

Published or Updated on Jul 22, 2020

What do you want to be doing in 30 years?

Each of us has work that energizes us and work that drains us. Writing energizes me. Sales drains me. A good test to figure this out is: how do you feel when you see a type of work on your tasks for the day? Or when you're doing one kind of work, is there another kind you wish you were doing?

Developing a sense of what energizes or drains you is essential for long term productivity. If you force yourself into doing draining work all day, you're unlikely to accomplish anything meaningful for yourself or the field. But even an hour a day of energizing work can create huge long term benefits.

Finding energizing work is more beneficial than setting long term goals. A goal might be fulfilling for a moment as it's reached, but that sense of contentment quickly fades. If you don't enjoy the process, checking off goal after goal becomes tiresome.

Great progress comes from compound interest. This is certainly true for building wealth, but also for skill development and completing great work. I touched on this in my starting a blog article, but the more you work on a project, the easier it gets to do better at it. By finding energizing work you create a flywheel effect: the work is self-sustaining and compounds upon itself.

But you only get compounding interest from your work by sticking with it. If you jump from project to project, or skill to skill, you might get that "20% that gets you 80% of the results," but there's a second order effect to pareto optimality. If you can quickly learn 80% of a skill, so can anyone else. It's not impressive that you learned the first 80%, and if you jump between a bunch of skills getting to 80% in them, you haven't gone anywhere. You've chosen optionality over investing in something.

Which brings us back to the question: what do you want to be doing in 30 years? And is that reflected in how you spend your time?

The skill I'm most sure I want to be doing in 30 years is writing. But my schedule hasn't reflected that. Writing has been squashed into my day among the myriad other tasks instead of being prioritized above them. If an outsider had to guess my 30-year skills based on where my time goes, writing would not top the list.

This 30-year idea extends beyond skills, too. It's worth asking if the people you spend time with are 30 year friends. Are they the kinds of people who will grow alongside you, challenge you, inspire you, and be the ones you want to build a family with? Or do you spend most of your time with friends of convenience, the people you went to school with or work with who are fun to grab some drinks with during happy hour?

Your lifestyle also demands examination. What rituals do you want to be doing in 30 years? And how much of that life can you create now? Exercise is a particularly important one. You can still get in shape if you start exercising later, but it's easier to run a marathon at 70 if you also ran one at 60.

One thing I've learned more during quarantine is how much joy comes from cooking and hosting. Those are, without a doubt, 30 year rituals. A modest investment in improving your cooking pays back in droves (even just reading Salt Fat Acid Heat might change your life). And the experience of gathering at someone's home is far superior to going to a restaurant.

The challenge with 30 year thinking is it requires making difficult choices in the short term so you can move towards the life you want in the long term. Time for writing has to come from somewhere. You might get FOMO from skipping happy hour. Friends whose 30 year trajectories don't excite you may need to go. The changes aren’t easy, but a little pain now is better than a life of regret. 

30 year thinking can provide clarity you didn't realize you had about how you should spend your time:

  • Is this work something I want to improve at for the next 30 years?
  • Is this person someone I want to see weekly for the next 30 years?
  • Is this habit or ritual something I want to do for the next 30 years?
  • Is this how I want to spend my money for the next 30 years?
  • Is this a topic I want to read about for the next 30 years?
  • Is this how I want my body to look, or feel, for the next 30 years?

Perhaps you'll ask yourself these questions and realize everything is how you want it to be. But I suspect in some areas, you'll discover your short term decisions are not in line with your long term desires.

It's easy to fall in the "one day" trap. Believing that once you make more money, have more time, finish this project, you'll suddenly be free of the obligations standing between you and your ideal self.

But "one day" never comes. We have to start creating that day now. 


Header image is of Jiro Ono. If you haven't watched "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," you must. It's the ultimate example of 30 year thinking.

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