In photography, the Depth of Field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects that are in sharp focus of an image. To clarify, this means that when you see a photograph where the subject is in focus with the rest of the image blurred out, there is a very narrow depth of field. Conversely, when you see a picture where the background is clearer and in sharper focus, there is a larger depth of field.
Short-termism is when we tend to place more emphasis and focus on those events that are closer in nature. In the analogy described above, we can say that we have a narrower depth of field. We picture a world-view with mental models that are a few weeks or a few months out. Daily thoughts and mental models that are further in the future – say a few years out – tend to be blurry.
When we place an over-emphasis on short-term thinking, it may result in sub-optimal decisions for the longer term. It can force us to focus on quarterly profits, prioritise short term investments, remove accountability for sustainable practices, and may result in businesses that are not future fit.
Richard Fischer, recently wrote an article in the MIT technology review that “Human thinking becomes more blinkered in times of turmoil and more expansive in periods of prosperity and calm”. With the pandemic upon us, this blinkered view of the world is particularly extreme at the moment.
For some, including myself, it can be challenging times. While we’re stuck at home, isolated, looking at little boxes on the screen the entire day, it can be hard to see beyond our current situation. In South Africa, at the time of writing this, we have begun our first days of another two-week government-directed lock-down because of the rising Covid cases, well into our third wave. This isolation may cause increased brain fog, and the blur starts to permeate, and the long term vision becomes less clear.
Short-termism can also induce anxiety, as volatility may seem more pronounced. Higher volatility may lead us to make bad decisions in the longer term. Let’s take the example of investing in a stock. If we focus on the short term and look at the share price daily, we may see massive fluctuations, up ~3% one day, down ~2% the next day, up another ~4% the day after, and down ~4% the day after that. When we look at a share on a more frequent basis, we may be tempted to trade on a whim. If, however, we stepped back and decided to take a longer-term view, we may notice that there has been a steady gain over a more extended period. The data line flattens out as we increase the time.
This short-termism is often associated with the availability heuristic in behavioural economics. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that humans have developed to solve problems and make decisions quickly. While this can be necessary at times, it can often be misleading. The availably heuristic suggests that the information we use to make decisions is usually based on more recent information that we have on hand. It may also be based on information that we see more frequently, say in the news or social media, or even more information that is more vivid. We tend to place our attention on that which is immediately apparent to us without giving sufficient thought to the bigger picture.
To have a future-based mindset, we need to look further out, consider scenarios in the future and look for possibilities and opportunities. We then start by taking action, even at the most basic level, to close the gap while keeping an eye on blind spots.
One way to increase our depth of field is to have a vision and a shared purpose. A clear vision can help to align the team with the longer-term ambitions. It shifts the conversation from the now to a conversation about the future.
A fascinating example of long-termism and increasing our depth of field comes from the Egyptians. When Alexander the Great died, his empire was divvied up. Egypt was given to Ptolemy, a General, astronomer and mathematician who lived in the city of Alexandria, named after the great king. Ptolemy, for some reason, enjoyed building light-houses and hired an architect, Sostratus, to help design the lighthouse in Alexandria. Sostratus did such phenomenal work in the design of the lighthouse; it was named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
At the time, Sostratus knew that his design was a noteworthy achievement and wanted his design and work recognised by inscribing his name at the lighthouse base. Ptolemy thought differently and also wanted recognition. He insisted that his name is inscribed on the base to get the requisite credit.
Increasing his depth-of-field, Sostratus gracefully accepted the request and inscribed Ptolemy’s name in beautiful lettering with pure craftmanship onto plaster, which was then added on the base of the lighthouse. What Sostratus failed to mention was that, at the same time, he had his own name deeply etched into the granite, hidden underneath the plaster.
Sostratus understood that the continuous battering of the Agean Sea against the lighthouse would eventually, over a long time, erode the weaker plaster with Ptolemy’s name and uncover the name of Sostratus.
In volatile and challenging times, we must remind ourselves to look beyond the present, lessen our aperture, look to the distance, and decrease the circle of confusion for a clearer vision of where we want to go.
In time travel movies, the story’s premise is often about someone who goes back in time and alters the past, which creates a very different present reality. We have an opportunity now, in the present, to make decisions that create the future we want.
Increasing our depth of field can help us create a brighter future for all.