Every once in a while, I have a “viewquake” - a conversation, book or what-have-you which dramatically changes my world view. One such conversation I had was with Ben Mosior about Eastern philosophy and strategy. It connected many floating dots I’ve had around the idea of playing the long game—nurturing the soil and rejecting the craving of immediate results. A lot of what we spoke about stems from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. He’s generously shared with me his excellent summary on the book Deciphering Sun Tzu by Derek M. C. Yuen. It helps a Western audience understand these hard-to-translate Eastern concepts. I implore you to have a read. Anyway, here’s the big idea: focus on conditions, not actions.
Remembering that everything is a system, let’s look at one close to home—the human body. When you take action in a system, you aren’t contributing to it as you might think. Instead, like a virus, you are disrupting it. The natural response to a virus is to create anti-bodies - a reaction. The same is true in all systems. Actions are anomalous to systems. This is why it’s so difficult to make a change in organisation. The system is happy as it is. A status-quo. Trying to affect the system directly is like hammering at a rock. It’s hard, and there can be unintended consequences like a shard of flint getting in your eye. This is the actions-consequences approach. We do a thing, we get a result. When we don’t see a result, we figure it failed - which prevents us from trying again, ultimately creating a short-term mindset.
The opposite is the conditions-consequences approach. Rather than asking “what do I need to do to get this result?”, you ask “how can I create the conditions to get this result?” When someone comes to you with a problem, instinctively we want to offer solutions (actions) to help them. By taking the conditions-consequences approach, we help them indirectly. How can you create the conditions so they can solve it themselves? It feels counterintuitive, but it’s better in the long run. Letting them struggle, and even fail, are part of strengthening the conditions that mean they’ll improve, and succeed next time.
Another example might be that of internet traffic. Buy ads. Get traffic. But the conditions approach would be to tend good content, SEO, backlinks, a mailing list. You could say actions-consequences is the short game, conditions-consequences is the long game.
Despite sounding obvious, this is quite a revelation for me, and changes how I approach life and work. It’s led me to think and act more like a gardener. The principles of a good gardener are patience, consistency and a clear outcome. Everything a gardener does helps create conditions to allow their crops to grow: nurturing soil, weathering climates, planning for next season, taking time to rest. It may be a more peaceful way of living. You know you’re contributing to the right conditions, so you don’t need to get hung up on not seeing immediate results. Inaction is actually more favourable, as overwatering is as bad or worse than underwatering.
To put this into practice, I began visualising the conditions I’m nurturing as seeds, saplings and trees. It reframes my actions as those of cultivation, and that I’m playing a long-term game. As well as how mature they are, the plants also act as an indicator of health. Does this plant need watering? Does that one need more fertiliser? Am I strengthening this one’s root system for future growth? It also makes me consider other conditions like my health, relationships and finances. If they fail, then the health of my business’ conditions are for nought. Compounding is at play here too. As Ben puts it, one small change in a condition can have a dramatic effect over time. The final piece of the puzzle is a watering-can which helps remind me that energy is finite, and prioritisation, as always, is essential.