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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Friday, May 01, 2009

THE FALLACY OF SHORT FOR LONG

"Goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength medication"
-Adam Galinsky, Goals Gone Wild

At the Simple Dollar, Trent examines a recent article by Drake Bennett at the Boston Globe. The article examines one aspect of GM's failure as a company which has broader implications than just auto manufacturing:
In the early years of this decade, General Motors had a goal, and it was 29. Determined to boost its flagging profits and reverse a long, steady fall from postwar dominance, the automotive giant did the natural thing: it set a goal. The company pledged to recapture 29 percent of the American market, the share it had ebbed past in 1999. The number 29 became a corporate mantra, and some GM executives took to wearing lapel pins with the number emblazoned on them.

It didn’t work. GM never did regain 29 percent of the market, and today, facing the possibility of bankruptcy, it looks even less likely to do so. The lapel pins are gone, and that number isn’t much heard from the company.
What went wrong, why did GM fail to reach this modest goal?
In clawing toward its number, GM offered deep discounts and no-interest car loans. The energy and time that might have been applied to the longer-term problem of designing better cars went instead toward selling more of its generally unloved vehicles. As a result, GM was less prepared for the future, and made less money on the cars it did sell. In other words, the world's largest car company - a title it lost to Toyota last year - fell victim to a goal.
Bennett's article is less about GM and more about goals in general, about the concept of goal making, what works, what doesn't, and hidden problems in the entire process. Trent examines one of them, more specific to the GM example:
In other words, GM set an audacious goal but they sacrificed too much to get there, which not only made it impossible to reach that goal, but undermined what they already had. They set a long term goal, but they used short term tactics to get there. Instead of long-term planning (designing better cars, streamlining their production models, offloading less-profitable business segments), they went short-term by doing things like drastically cutting prices, offering loans that undermined their financing business, and pushing forward with poorly-optimized manufacturing facilities.
Trent's blog is primarily finance and money focused so that's where he looks most closely when this topic comes up. But his point is valid for a broader range of ideas.

First is the economic aspect, which The Simple Dollar explains:
It’s easy to apply this idea to personal finance. Let’s say, for example, that your goal is to be debt free. You need to ask yourself a very simple question: is your goal simply to reach a point of debt freedom at all costs, or do you want to be sustainably debt free?

If your goal is to just reach a point of debt freedom at all costs, then you’re likely to engage in things like cashing out your 401(k), emptying your emergency fund (and not building one at all), going hyper-frugal, delaying necessary repairs and maintenance, and so on. This plan is the quickest way to get to debt freedom if everything goes perfectly, but it is far from a guarantee. If something goes wrong, you’ve got very little protection against it and your only recourse is more debt.

On the other hand, if you seek sustainable debt freedom, it will take substantially longer to get there, but once you’re there, you’ll stay there. This plan involves building an emergency fund, saving now for retirement and other big future expenses (like future vehicles and education), keeping up with proper maintenance on your home and health and automobiles, adopting reasonable lifestyle changes that can be sustained and still leave you with a high quality of life, and so on. These moves won’t get those debt bills paid nearly as fast, but when you finally do reach debt freedom, you won’t be facing a devastated personal finance landscape.
In other words, cutting corners, looking only at the short term, and abandoning the long-term aspect of your goal may seem to succeed, but it will fail in your ultimate long term intent. You can, through audacious schemes, even illegal activity, achieve financial independence and be wealthy in the short term. You can take all those checks that mortgage companies cut you hoping to lure you into taking a loan, get fifteen credit cards, get loans from the bank and so on, then be wealthy until it all comes due. It really would work, you probably could get five years of living fabulously out of that kind of irresponsible short term thinking.

Then you'd be ruined financially because you couldn't possibly pay back all you owed. You'd lose all that neat stuff you bought, go bankrupt, possibly lose your job, and have your credit rating destroyed. Short term thinking can bring short term success... but it will not achieve long term goals. It might if you are extraordinarily fortunate and unusual. You could take all that money, buy Lotto tickets, then win 150 million dollars and pay it all back. You could stumble across a pile of lost pirate treasure too. It's just not terribly likely.

By sacrificing in the short term, approaching your goal as a marathon rather than a sprint, and setting aside for the future, you can actually achieve your goal and keep it for the long haul. Obviously disaster and misfortune can always strike: in fact it is more likely than the fortune mentioned above: you're more likely to get caught in a recession or lose your job or suffer some accident than you are to win the Lotto or win big in Vegas. At the same time, even if you fail at your long term goal because of disaster, taking these long term steps helps you face the disaster better than the short term efforts. Because you can both win the Lotto and have some disaster wipe you out. And when that happens you have nothing to fall back on.

Yet finances aren't the only place this principle applies, where long term goals are attempted with short term efforts.
Using system, not efforts you can achieve dream control
-Queensrÿche, Silent Lucidity
POLITICS
One of the more frustrating things about politics is that changes are often needed so very badly - and failure to change results in such damage - that you want quick solutions. When the government shreds the constitution and betrays all it vowed to stand for, you want them all thrown out and newer, better people in office immediately. The problem is that the reason the government got to this place wasn't simply bad people in positions of power, but a culture steeped in and a long, long slide toward that ideology. Changing the names and faces won't fix the problem because it's in all of us like a virus and only a very few show any signs of immunity - too few to make a difference. And the system built up slowly like a hideous hateful version of a pearl, layer after layer over long epochs until it reached this point. That won't peel away in a flash of new elections. Fixing things will take at least as long as it took to get to this place. In politics that's a matter of decades, and one or two elections won't repair that damage.

The quick solutions (constitutional amendments, revolution, tossing the bums out) can help, but most likely they will only bring short term benefit and end up even worse than before. Consider the Gingrich revolution. When Newt Gingrich's congress took over in 1994, things looked wonderful for conservatives: they were actually taking the right steps, they were actually trying to do what needed to be done, they were passionate, smart, and hard working. Ten short years later, they were the enemy because the system ground them down and the passion died. Now, the left is celebrating because they have their guys in power and look at how wonderful it all is! Prosecutions of the evil Bush cronies, nationalized medicine, sticking it to the wealthy, corporation law and structure being rebuilt, etc.

Yet the cost is ghastly: multi-trillion dollar debts, economic disaster, and how long will this be sustained? President Obama was elected by people who liked his change motif and were sick of Republicans - and saw Senator McCain as not just old, but not a leader. Now he's in office, the only change is to do business as usual while leaning extra-far to the left. The basic flaws with politics have not even been addressed, all his campaign promises of transparency and new politics were abandoned the first day in office.

Real change will take time and sacrifice, and while that's not nearly as attractive - especially to the young - it is the only way to make authetic repairs to the system. And from a conservative perspective there's a lot of change that needs doing, and it will take a very long time to get back to what America was meant to be, designed to be, and the constitution states it should be.

ROMANCE
Romantic entanglements can suffer the same flaws. Sure, you can find someone in a hurry, you can get a sweetheart in a matter of weeks or months if you really try. They will fill that empty part of your life that eats at you when you lost a love, you can have that loneliness filled, at least to some degree, in very short order. This happens a lot to people: having lost a love, they move swiftly to find the next, which often means desparation. It takes time to greive, it takes time to heal from damage to your soul. If you move before that healing is done you not only make poor choices out of haste and a damaged soul, but you do harm to the other person by not being healed.

Too many marriages fall prey to this haste fallacy. In the rush to be married (usually because one was raised to understand that's what you do or wants what their parents had without thinking it through) too often people fail to consider what marriage means and should be, fail to take the time to learn about their potential mate, and fail to prepare properly. Hasty marriages are even more prone to failure than more considered ones, and it is, by all accounts, hard enough without stacking the deck against you.

Even if you've not had love to hurt you before, rushing to find someone will tend to make people ignore faults and danger signals that they can clearly see but wish not to. It is all too easy to explain away the lies or the drinking or the flirting with other people or the lack of respect they show you, or simply that their goals and worldview are in conflict with yours. Wanting that compansionship, floating on infatuation and the unbelievable high of having someone care and want you that much can make even the most sane person act like a lunatic. Throw sex into the mix and it gets even more muddy and difficult to disentangle. If you take the time to get to know someone, learn about them, see them in non-romantic settings, learn about their friends and family, and rationally consider them, you will be far better served, even if it means being alone longer.

Better to be alone, trust me, than be with the wrong person. A hundred thousand times yes.

DIETING
A diet works the same way. Any fitness or atheletic endeavor benefits from the long term outlook. Having a long term goal is good: run that marathon, lose 4 dress sizes, cut my body fat by 10%, lower my heart rate to 75 bpm, all are good goals. Yet they are long term goals, which require long term solutions. Trying to slim down in as short a time as possible is foolish, usually catastrophic, and sometimes dangerous.

Most fad diets and short-term weight loss solutions are absolute failures in the end. They can, honestly, lead to cutting inches off the waistband but the price is always painful. One of the things that nutritionists found out is that your body will react to how you eat. If you starve yourself for long enough, your body reacts by packing on more fat. It is a survival mechanism designed into you: your body thinks you have little food available, so when you get more food, it stores more. In other words: starving yourself to get skinny triggers your body to make you more fat. Once you go off the diet, you'll be worse off than ever.

Not only that, but the diets tend not to address the reasons why you became overweight to begin with. If you diet temporarily to lose pounds then go back to normal, all the things you did before to get fat are still there, waiting for the diet to end. If you ate junk, got no exercise, and had a stress-filled life, then a diet won't fix that. In fact, craving that junk and weariness at exercise might make matters worse when the diet ends by cramming as many Ho Hos© down your neck as you can while lying on the couch watching that CSI marathon.

The long term approach to fitness involves an analysis of your life and attitude, not merely food and exercise. You have to have realistic, slow goals: lose one pound a week or two, not ten. Walk a mile, don't run five. Working out too hard can cause you to crash from illness or exhaustion which results in no gain at all - and possibly loss, becoming more flabby while you recover. Want to lose weight? Identify three of the worst foods you are eating and cut one out for a month. Cut the next out the following month, and so on. Meanwhile, spend at least three days a week in exercise, just a little at first. You will not see changes for weeks, you won't notice inches melting away. But over time, other people will see a change you haven't and after a few months to a year, you'll see dramatic, sustainable, long term change. Don't exchange the long for the short, no matter how frustrating or panicky you get. Life may seem short to you but its the longest thing you'll ever do.

CULTURE
The same thing applies to culture. In the rush to repair a damaged, corrupt, and sinful culture, many have a long term goal of a more virtuous, ethical, and righteous society. They take short term steps to reach it, and accomplish nothing except often making things worse. The short term solutions usually involve laws, the right people in positions of authority, and destroying that which you hate™.

When this attempted, all you get is an angry, bitter reaction - often justified - and a loss of overall liberty. Instead of free, good people, you have tyrannized, angry people who are just as bad, but hide it better. This is where often social conservatives are misunderstood: we don't want to go back to the "good old days" when women were treated as children, minorities were barely treated as human, and sins were better concealed. We want to take the good from the past (there was much) wed it with the good of the present (again much) and seek a future with even better still. That laudable long-term goal cannot be reached with short term efforts.

It took a long time to get where we are, and even in the past there were evils that had to be dealt with (and some still have not). Solutions to that cannot be found in quick answers. It requires long, steady efforts of teaching, example, involving ourselves in every aspect of culture to influence and better them. It involves generations of effort. Long term goals need long term solutions.

HABITS
Finally bad habits can only be dealt with in this manner. Habits are, like bad health, the result of something inside the person, not the outside. Changing the surroundings will just mean a fresh place to engage in the habits, although they can help with a change of attitude. A fresh start only works if you realize what's inside you and work on that. I have a bad habit of plucking at my beard, I don't know why or when it started. I know, its really weird. As a result the damaged follicles turned my luxurious brown, red, and black beard into salt and pepper prematurely. It looks nice, but the habit is bad. I try to stop, but catch myself doing it: it is a pattern I developed, often when nervous. The only way to stop is to consciously, over a long period of time, not pluck at it. To stop my self each time, and keep refraining.

It is said (and I've found) that if you can keep something continuously up for a month, you'll tend to form a habit of it. That works in the negative too: you have to refrain from doing something for a month and you'll tend to drop the habit, although it will require conscious effort for longer to not pick it back up. That's a long term solution to a long term goal.

SHORT TERM
Some habits, such as addictions, can only be stopped by the short term. Yet breaking an addiction is not a long-term goal. It is short term: don't do this any more. Addictions are compulsive, they force you to take action that is contrary to your nature. They can only be stopped by force of will and strong, swift action. You can cut down significantly on smoking, for example, but you won't stop until you stop. These kind of short term goals need short term solutions.

It is always easy to teach and write and ponder this sort of thing, the hard part is carrying it out. When you have ill health, heavy stress, or complications such as family and work in the picture, it gets even harder to carry out these goals. Yet with a proper attitude and idea of how to do the job to begin with, it becomes easier to at least attempt it. I'll work on that beard thing.

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