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The End of the Long Haul (by Paul W. Smith)

The “long haul” is a lot longer than it used to be. Over the last century, average life expectancy has increased by 30 years (unless you live in Monaco where you get 9 more). If you are life-planning for the long haul, your task is getting harder.

Common use of the term “long haul” began about 100 years ago and has grown since. It originated with early sailors who were hauling goods over the open sea trade routes from Egypt to Alexandria. Merchants trading along short hauls in the Mediterranean Sea got more paydays, but for lesser amounts. If you were willing to take some risk and be patient, bigger returns were available from the long haul.

Those old rules still apply. People contemplating major life change, say from marriage, career or weight loss, will often tell themselves that they are in it for the long haul. One night stands, job-hopping or crash dieting may produce swifter fulfillment, but the long haul pays off better overall. Everybody knows that.

The challenge of preparing for the new, longer haul is to look ahead and picture what you will be like, what you will want to do, and what you will need. A big company I used to work for burned a lot of calories every 6 months doing a new 5-year plan. The message was clear: (1) We need to forecast industry trends and technology breakthroughs to be successful, and (2) We suck at it. This is just as true in real life as it is in business.

One would certainly think that our current world of massive big data and sophisticated computational tools would make this process much easier. One would be wrong. Google’s very name, drawn from the word googol, represents the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. Its magic comes from anticipating the Googler’s needs and prioritizing all this stuff. The fact that it seems to work is reflected in Larry and Sergey’s net worth of $5.3 billion. The trouble is that what looks like a solution has become the problem.

While boarding a red-eye flight recently, I was stowing a backpack in the overhead compartment when my watchband snagged on the latch and was ruined. I sat down in my seat, pulled up Amazon on my smartphone, and reordered the same band. The day after I arrived home, the replacement appeared in my mailbox. I am not the only one who performs this magic. At its peak this year, Amazon was selling 306 items every second. For about four hours late last month, founder Jeff Bezos was the richest man in the world. Alas, he was unable to sustain it for the long haul.

Nearly any question that arises these days results in a quick jump to Google, often accessed with a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa. Over Google’s 20-year lifespan, daily searches have gone from 10 thousand to over 6 billion. Information, like actual physical stuff, is just a voice command away. Proactively gathering information and stuff may be ridiculously easy, but there’s a dark side to the Instant Economy.

Now that our many devices compete incessantly for our attention, empowered by marketers who have embraced the Internet with glee, we have developed an attention span shorter than a goldfish. This is a drop of about 30% in the past two decades for us humans, while the goldfish has remained unaffected. For those who see this as a personal challenge, the number to beat is 9 seconds. Even if you don’t give a flip that Bubbles can focus longer than you can, there are other changes to consider.

UCLA psychiatry professor Gary Small was curious to see just how malleable human brains really are. Gary’s paper Your Brain on Google set off a torrent of research showing that people with access to search engines are more likely to skim when reading, less able to control impulses, more vulnerable to temptation and addiction, and over confident in their own intelligence. Neuroscientists explain that new stuff triggers a squirt of the pleasure drug dopamine, and the folks at Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram are eager dealers. While Internet deprivation can improve social and emotional intelligence, this is not where our culture is headed.

Personally, I can’t peruse information on the Internet for long without wondering about Kim Jong Un’s newest weapon, or Donald Trump’s latest tweet. Something I read triggers thoughts about the upcoming weekend, but I can’t do much planning without first checking the weather. If my mind appears to be focusing on one thing for too long, the little boxes on the right of my screen will offer to lead me in new directions, because people like me have also shown an interest in Denver Broncos dental floss or funny aardvark videos. Before long, I’ve forgotten what I was looking for in the first place.

All this instant information (Google), product (Amazon Prime) or social interaction (Facebook) has conditioned us to focus on the Short and stop thinking about the Long. Delayed gratification may be an acknowledged virtue, but it’s so much better without the delay.

Before the Internet, ancient merchants understood that there was a mindful trade off to be made between frequent short-haul payoffs and fewer, but much larger, long-haul returns. Centuries later, the old rules still apply.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40

years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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