Friday, November 5, 2010

Balancing the short and long term

Many years ago I worked as a director of marketing for a very large life insurance firm. At some point during my tenure the company went from being a mutual to a public company. That didn't change how life insurance policies were sold, but it did change the way the company was run. Because suddenly all that mattered was quarterly earnings.

Focusing on short-term profitability isn't bad, unless it distracts management from its longer-term vision. Unfortunately, soon after my company went public it became clear that short and long term plans were an either/or rather than a both/and proposition. I remember talking to my boss after about the third wave of major layoffs, in which truly essential people were let go because the goal was budget instead of efficiency. My boss asked what I thought of the cutbacks. I paused for a moment, then said drily, "Cutting off your leg is one way to lose weight."

I believe in thinking ahead, in factoring long-term considerations into your short-term plans. Or, as I frequently say to my kids, "Think through it before you do it."

Thinking things through is hard to do when you're a child, and you still need Mom to act as your frontal lobe from time to time. You're likely to make that cute little cardboard box into a bed for your mini-stuffed animal without considering that the 150 brass fasteners it used to contain now have no home. Or you forget that if you make all the tissues into dollies, there won't be any left when you start sneezing. Then Mom steps in and asks wearily, "What did you forget when you started doing that?" or (on a bad day) "What we you thinking?"

I feel I have a kind of moral obligation, especially since I have five children, to increase the population of future adults who have some modicum of foresight. So I strive to get my kids thinking for themselves as quickly as possible. Instead of asking, "Do you have your water bottle?" I ask, "Have  you forgotten anything?" As an alternative to "Put you literature notebook in your bag," I try to ask, "What else do you need for co-op?" I want my kids to develop their own mental checklists. It's slow going.

I also want my kids to think several steps ahead, to how others will feel or react to what they say or do, and to what might happen after that... and after that. It's hard to teach this, because kids usually catapult the cat out of the bag long before I can intervene to prompt thoughtfulness. So a lot of the thoughtfulness work is retroactive, and involves encouraging kids to make apologies even when they don't want to and eliciting ideas on what they could have done differently. That's not as effective as nipping the problem in the bud, but it's what I can do.

It occurs to me that this kind of thinking-ahead training lies almost exclusively in the realm of parenting. Isn't that an odd thing? That critical thinking, thorough thinking, the application of simple human thoughtfulness to every decision you make isn't considered education? Makes it all the more important to think ahead to what I need to teach my kids.


  1. In the private school where my son went, that kind of thing was part of the education, and it made a huge difference in how the population of children acted toward each other and the adults. I think having 'emotional intelligence' classes that would increase in intensity at the kids age would be BRILLIANT.

  2. I consider it part of education. I try to infuse some of this in my public school classroom of middle schoolers, but if it isn't reinforced elsewhere, I feel like it is always an uphill battle and never quite achieved. However, I also believe that even trying to teach some of these things may affect my students positively and in ways that I will never know. I can hope, right?