Where is concern limited? In the short-term; in the short-term what’s between the past and now and between now and the horizon consumes all concern. Those who live in the short-term see only two points of reference, now and the past. When the short-term defines the horizon, then anything that lies beyond is imperceptible and more importantly it is of no concern. It is a frame of reference where nothing else matters and shortsightedness abounds. We are concerned more about what is materially evident in our world than about otherworldly ideas.
With short-term thinking, an imagined future does not impact one’s thinking and actions. Costs and benefits that could happen beyond the (immediate) horizon are immaterial, speculative and thus ignored. By living in the short-term we render ourselves blind to the impact of our actions beyond this horizon. So we exploit what we can—and this includes people and finite natural resources—without concern for any negative impact that will actualize in the future. Again we are concerned more about what materially benefits us now than about the ramifications of our hedonistic behavior. Moreover our self-interest causes us to seek to be unconstrained in our self-interest pursuits: In the short-term unfettered action maximizes pleasure.
Growth is About the Past
Since (material) growth is assessed in the present relative to the past, the present or what happens in the next moment is always a matter of most concern. Why? Because our economic theory—which was made up by people sometime ago applying knowledge from sometime ago—rests upon the assumption that people are at base primarily driven to maximize material self-interest. We correspondingly have learned to place tremendous importance on material growth. This is why the vast majority of those at the higher rungs of the hierarchy in business organizations direct their organizations by looking in the rear view mirror. Driving by looking back works just fine as long as the trends of the past are straight and do not change in the future—when the future is a repetition of the past.
Because of the short-term’s frame of reference ideas that require management to venture beyond the horizon or to understand the underlying shifts or tectonic type changes in the environment cannot be sensed. If these are perceived they are seen an affront to their right to maximize self-interest, so these are usually seen as threats.
So many top executives, with the cooperation of their governing boards, have driven their organization into the abyss because of an unwavering adherence to short-term thinking. Most recent example is Kodak, whose so-called-leaders simply did nothing with the idea of digital photography. Another, GM had for years sacrificed innovation for profits, and it would have fallen into the abyss had the U.S. government not provided life support thus keeping GM from succumbing to its suicidal tendencies.
In a HBR blog network article, two economists attending the 2012 Davos World Economic Forum offered the following thoughts regarding the seemingly widespread inability to attend to the future: “Leaders don’t have time for the future because they’re too busy with the present” (Muhammad Yunus); “We’re limited by being human. We want results fast, and we discount the future”(Saul Perlmutter). It seems the conclusion is, even if leaders weren’t so busy concerning themselves with what they can get now, they would be incapable of thinking about the future because they are human. Really!
If this is an immutable fact then of course—being self-indulgent—we must get for our self what we can now. We mustn’t waste time thinking about, imagining and planning for the future. Developing our creative capabilities—which is inherently future-oriented—is pointless. Therefore we need not worry that our educational system is facilitating the unfolding of inherent creative potential. The future is not ours’ to enact only to react.
The World Beyond
We should question the notion that we are destined for this way of being. Contrary to the implication of Perlmutter’s belief, this is not genetic; it is not inherently part of being human. So yes we discount the future not because we are human but because we haven’t transcended our animal nature: We haven’t progressed toward becoming fully human.
We need not continue to act from our animal nature. We need not rely on crises for motivation to act. Stimulus-response may be the primary if not the only way for animals to act it is not the only way for humans to act. The world of the immediate and urgent is not the only reality people can live within—we aren’t just intelligent animals.
There is another world, one that requires people to use the unique capabilities they have as human beings. Specifically this speaks to the use of powers emanating from the unique human capacity for conscious awareness. Only we have the power to think about our thinking, to consciously transcend what came before and to change our way-of-being in the world. Our destiny lies in the decisions we make about how we will be in this world. It is not genetics that makes us seek material gain at the expense of everything else—to only have a concern for ‘me’ and ‘my’ profit now.
It is hopeless, and frankly a bit foolish, to think that we can change our life experiences and the direction of the history of our very existence without changing our (individual and collective) minds about what it means to be human. We must cease acting as if we believe we are destined to live within the very limiting world of the short-term. It is a space wherein nothing else matters except self-interest, except our material gain and growth. Life can be more, much more, than a linear sequence of short-terms.
Even though we all will live beyond the short-term horizon, most refuse to think about the possibilities we can provide to ourselves beyond this horizon. Most do not think about and recognize the importance of realizing progress toward maintaining (our collective) viability. Now, in this present moment, is the only time we can take action to make our future reality a more humanly productive—not just materially productive—reality. A better world won’t happen if we don’t enact it—wishing and hoping won’t make it so! To do this we must step out of the short-term and broaden our concerns.
Aren’t we in this life together for the long term? Shouldn’t we (all) be proponents of the long view? Shouldn’t we be proponents of progress and not (solely) material growth? We can enact not merely re-act.