Last week, Elon Musk shared a post on Twitter from author William MacAskill, who announced the release of his new book, What We Owe the Future. Along with the retweet was Musk's comment, "Worth reading. This is a close match for my philosophy." The philosophy he's referring to is what drives him, motivates his pursuits, and is at the core of his decisions.
This guiding force is so powerful that it makes Musk appear superhuman, between his natural genius to his remarkable ability to work 120 hours per week. Yet it is incredibly simple.
It boils down to just one very down-to-earth word that very few have heard of: "longtermism."
As the word implies, it is the philosophy of taking a long-term approach to short-term decisions. More specifically, it is defined as "the view that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time," according to Effective Altruism.
It's the foundation to Musk's innovation equation and the core of his brilliant startup strategy. But it's not the theory itself that has led Musk to become one of the greatest innovators of our time, and the wealthiest person in the world. It's how he has applied it to business. Here are the three foundational ways in which you can apply longtermism to your business to yield success:
1. Be grounded in optimism
Optimism is core to the concept of longtermism. Psychologically, you can't generally expect a positive future to be the result of a negative approach to the present. It has been shown statistically that there are financial benefits to being optimistic, according to the Harvard Business Review.
In other words, optimism breeds success. It's why the best innovators are not pessimistic about what is, but are optimistic about what could be. Innovation requires vision, and vision requires forward thinking that extends beyond the realm of what could drive success in the now.
When grounded in optimism, we naturally view the future through a different lens, and make decisions differently. And Musk isn't the only billionaire who fields decisions with a future-forward mindset. In fact, Warren Buffett's famous five-word investing advice is very closely aligned.
2. Prioritize the future
The philosophy of longtermism reinforces that we should not be morally blind to the interests of generations to come. Businesses that operate under the same philosophy tend to become those that operate for generations to come.
It's human nature to glorify the past, while valuing the present over the future. That's in part because it's also human nature to seek instant gratification, according to Psychology Today. And yet, in business, focusing solely on the pursuit of short-term wins is often a good way to damage long-term success. Reason being, it often leads to losing sight of overarching goals and cutting corners. The result is short-term profits that stave off customers in the long term.
3. Invest as if time is infinite
For a business to withstand many decades to come, it has to be built as if time is limitless. Sometimes this means going as far as starting projects we know we cannot finish in our lifetimes. It means letting go of our attachment to seeing the end results and simply being happy knowing that while we may never personally enjoy the fruits of our labor, that others will.
Naturally, people tend to make decisions relative to the time they perceive that they have. Take for example the economic phenomenon of increased spending during or after times of catastrophic events--whether that be natural disasters or international unrest. When people perceive their time as limited, they spend more money, more frivolously.
On the other hand, when we take a long-term approach to life and where we invest resources (whether that be time, energy, or money), we more willingly invest in the things that may not yield an immediate benefit. Rather, we look to those that take much more time and yield a much greater benefit.
It may explain, in part, why Musk has an unwavering desire to colonize Mars. He may be able to start the project in his lifetime, but he won't be able to see it through and experience his vision for it come to life. With a longtermist philosophy, his view of time isn't limited to his own generation.
Even if you're not naturally an optimistic longtermist, there's something to be gained from applying its core components when it comes to fielding decisions, allocating resources, and inspiring innovation. It creates a solid foundation for launching, growing, and maintaining a business, and it can serve as a guiding force that drives success.