Fight Against Your Short-Term Rewards

From a very young age, we are ingrained with a powerful short-term reward system.  We are incentivized to eat on day one with the reward of satisfying our hunger.  Such immediate gratification teaches us to always eat when we are hungry.  As we began our education, we were rewarded to learn with grades. And grades, we soon realized, yielded the reward of approval (and love, we suspect) from parents, teachers, and peers. We would study non-stop for days to take an exam, with the assurance that we will receive a grade within a week.  As we entered the job-market, a day’s work was rewarded with a monthly salary. In many cases, an immediate commission was rewarded for each sale – or aggregated into a bonus at the end of the year.

All that we do is governed by reward systems, and the most powerful reward systems are short-term.  Short-term rewards keep society in full function.  Short-term rewards are meant to sustain, to keep the status quo.  It is during the pursuit of extraordinary achievements that traditional short-term rewards fail.

To make bold ideas happen, a short-term reward must be transcended and a long-term reward must be realized.  This is called vision.  Great companies are started by people who gave up their day jobs and made a tremendous sacrifice. Great organizations and societies are built over time through the long-lasting vision and fortitude of a committed membership.  When near-term benefits do not exist, vision SHOULD BE the bridge that carries us along to the long-term rewards.

However, it turns out that visions are not powerful enough to overpower our short-term tendencies. It is no surprise that long-term rewards are so great – and rare.  Society causes us to think in the short-term.  Forces like risk and reputation encourage us to err on the side of short-term assurance. And who are we to think we can escape such a grasp?

Great leaders and true visionaries have found a way to manipulate reward systems for themselves and those they work with.  Their strategy?  Impose a sophisticated short-term reward structure overhaul – one that incentivizes us to make decisions that are long-term oriented but appease us in the short-term as well.

Creative leaders fail when they assume that they can work towards uncertainty without any rewards structure to get there. In reality, they must trick themselves. Long-term rewards are most effective when they are broken up and positioned as short-term rewards.

Sometimes this means setting celebratory milestones – even if they are not financial achievements – over the course of a long-term project. For others, it means finding mentors or other leaders that can hold you accountable to goals as you set them. Many leaders that have achieved long term goals reveal that they had partners that would pace them along the way.

The key realization is the powerful short-term reward system within us that keeps us comfortable in the near-term but gets in the way of long term objectives. Once you acknowledge it, you can start to play with it.

More insights on: Perseverance

Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making ideas Happen.
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