Updated on 06.28.11

Why Care About the Long Term?

Trent Hamm

Mark sent me an email regarding my recent article, Some Thoughts on the Long Term, in which he asked the following question:

I still don’t see any compelling reason to worry about my future more than about five years down the road. I can think about where I’d like to be in ten years, but life shifts so rapidly that no matter what I think of it won’t happen. Why should I even think for a second about anything beyond five years or so?

It’s a good question and Mark does make a good point. I think there are a few pieces, though, that he’s missing.

Unless you unexpectedly die at an unnaturally young age, you will grow old. It doesn’t matter where your path leads you. Eventually, you will grow old. Eventually, you won’t be able to keep up with the levels of productivity that you have right now. Eventually, you will be less employable.

Retirement is a long-term savings goal that makes a lot of sense to participate in for those reasons. It’s preparation for a situation that you know will happen down the road. Unlike many long-term goals, aging will happen and it’s worth your while to be prepared for it.

Most other worthwhile long term goals are centered around the accumulation of flexible skills and resources. Many people set goals in the five to ten year range in many areas: career advancement, business building, personal growth, a house down payment, and so on.

The vast majority of these goals have results that are incredibly flexible.

For example, if you’re saving for a down payment and your life path changes so that home ownership is no longer a goal you’re interested in, you still have a significant amount of financial resources saved up that you can apply toward whatever direction your life is now headed.

Another example: if you’ve set a long-term goal of heading the IT department at your company and you spend years building an appropriate resume and skill set, only to see your company fold up, you’ve still got a great resume and skill set to shop elsewhere and help your career.

I can go on and on with such examples. The core principle holds throughout all of them: a great long-term goal usually creates resources and skills that are still valuable even if the goal changes.

Many people are motivated by having goals of all terms. I find a big, ambitious long term goal to be really exciting and invigorating. The vision of doing something that leaves a major mark in my life and the lives of others keeps me wanting to move forward on that goal.

Short term goals motivate me as well, but in a different way. They often feel very reachable, as though it’s almost inevitable that I get there.

I can describe the difference as if you were a person standing on a hilltop in Seattle. There’s a street sign nearby and you could reach it quite quickly. It’s easy to see yourself walking half a block to get there.

On the other hand, you can see Mount Rainier off in the distance, about fifty miles away. Reaching it on foot is a long journey, but the idea of going there often seems exciting (particularly if you’re new to Seattle).

Long term goals are like Mount Rainier. They feel almost impossibly far away, but they look enormous and inviting in the distance. The idea of journeying there excites you and you can’t wait to get going.

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  1. David says:

    In places where it is legal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk, there is no point whatsoever in caring about the long term. You are most unlikely to reach it.

  2. lurker carl says:

    By the time Mark realizes he needs to care about the long term, it will be too late. Perhaps volunteering at a senior center or emergency services shelter would be a wake up call.

  3. Mister E says:

    What an odd thing to say, this sounds like it’s coming from a very young person.

    Certainly in most cases your 10, 15, 20 year+ goals should be a little more fluid and changeable but unless you have legitimate reason to believe you won’t live that long then you need to have some sort of target.

    My 85 year old Grandparents are still making 10 year plans. In reality they probably won’t live that long, but what if they do?

  4. TLS says:

    LMAO – thanks.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    If you don’t have anything definite you want to plan 10 years out for, go more generic. You may not be ready to plan on being at X point in your career, or living in Y type of house. But you can plan more generally, say, to be debt free, have goals to reach for retirement or general savings, hone skills in your current interests, etc. (These are generic suggestions, but you need to brainstorm depending on your situation.) Sounds like you’re one of those living goal-less people referenced over at Zen Habits that Trent linked to in his earlier post today!

    As an example, we set our 5-year plan, several years ago, fairly generically at wanting to relocate. So we’ve been exploring different parts of the country, clarifying what type of living situation we want to be in, saving up $ toward the move, fixing up our current house, etc. Based on the current economy & some of our decisions along the way, we’ve extended that time span anoather couple of years but are still moving forward.

  6. Nate says:

    I agree with Trent 100%. If you plan to be alive in X years, you should probably think about where you want to be in X years. That’s not to say that you need to have every point between then and now mapped out in detail. But it doesn’t hurt to put aside money for the future.

    Those who fail to plan, plan to fail (as they say).

  7. Johanna says:

    Of course it makes sense to plan for the future in very general terms. I know I’m going to grow old (or at least I hope I am, since it’s better than the alternative) and I strongly suspect there’ll come a time when I’ll want to (or have to) stop working for money. Other than that? Who knows.

    Sometimes Trent talks as if you have to have a picture-perfect vision of what you want your life to be like in five or 10 years before you can do *anything*. If that’s what Mark is objecting to (it looks like we’re missing a lot of context from his letter), then I do agree with him. So often, life is just too unpredictable. If you’d asked 23-year-old Johanna what she thought (or hoped) life would be like for 33-year-old Johanna, she would have given you a story very different from what actually ended up happening. The most exciting thing in my life right now is something that wasn’t even on my radar six months ago, let alone five years or 10 years, and I have no reason to think that there won’t be more exciting twists and turns in the years ahead.

    I can tell you for a fact that 43-year-old Johanna will be 43 years old. I hope she’ll be alive and in good health. Other than that, the best I can do for her is to give her as many options as possible: Save some money for her in case she needs it, build skills and relationships as the opportunity arises, and don’t burn too many bridges. And wait and see what she makes of it all.

  8. Sarah says:

    I must admit that I didn’t plan for my future more than five years in advance until I passed 35 years old. I know it’s ridiculous but somehow it was impossible to visualize actually getting old! Now my priorities are changing and hopefully it’s not too late to get on the right track.

  9. jim says:

    You don’t have to have a 10 year plan. You may not need a specific plan for x years from now. But you certainly should have some sort of short term and long term goals. Maybe your 20 years old and your immediate goal is to graduate college and get a job, thats cool and you don’t necessarily need to have your life mapped out for now till forever. Of course it helps to keep the long term in mind. Even if you don’t have specific goals for the long term then some reasonable planning like saving money and investing for your retirement is a good idea and you could file that as ‘save for future’, cause hopefully you at least plan to live longer than 5 years.

  10. Sarah says:

    I admit I have very little goals plans beyond 1-2 years out. I have ideas, but they depend a lot on many many unknowns in the next year or two, and I have about 10 different ideas of where i might want to be.

    But I save a lot for retirement and a lot of cash, because no matter what happens, money will give me the most options

  11. Gerald says:

    I know alot of folks who sold there 401k at the bottom in 2008, but was that unwise, so glad I focused on the long term and now i’ve got everything back and then some.!! Keep the faith.

  12. leslie says:

    My uncle assumed he would be dead by age 55 (not sure why exactly)so he didn’t really worry about planning for retirement. Well, now he is 70 and I can’t tell you how many problems that lack of planning has caused.

    You really don’t need to have specific goals in mind that far out (life will probably make a mockery of them anyway) but you really should have saved some money to support yourself with whatever you are doing.

  13. Telephus44 says:

    I don’t think it’s so much about long term goals as keeping your options open. I don’t need to have an exact plan or goal of where to be when I’m 70, I just need to make sure I have enough resources (money and skills) to be able to do what I want to when I’m 70.

  14. When thinking about a long term goal, such as saving for retirement it can be overwhelming. As a young adult, it can be tough to know what you are shooting for and the uncertainty can lead to inaction. As I continue to save for retirement, I try to look at it as buying myself options for down the road. If I continue to be financially responsible while saving for retirement, its possible I could retire comfortably at a much earlier age than originally anticipated. If I refuse to attempt to anticipate a future need for retirement funds and plan for it, I have no options when it arrives. At this point I become completely dependant on other people. I think its important to have options.

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