Skip to main content

Outlier’s Path

Time Span of Discretion

I can recount many blessings and serendipitous happenstances throughout my life and career. The most significant was a change in mindset from a provocation from my first academic advisor in college. He observed that I am likely preoccupied with solving this week’s problem set, next week’s midterm exam, or this semester’s final projects. While all important, our comfort for longer time frames gives us time to fulfill a more significant vision and impact. To that end, he asked me what impact I would want to have a decade after I graduated college and then sent me on my way with some papers to read by Elliot Jaques.

Elliott Jaques was a polymath professor whose mind spanned psychiatry, social science, and organizational management. Many of Jaques’ insights can be traced to his work with the Glacier Metal Company (aka “Glacier Project”) from the early 1950s to the late 1970s, which led to the development of the requisite organization, a system that aims for an effective and efficient organization. While at the Glacier Project, he noticed that employees at different levels of the organization had very different time horizons. Line employees focused on what they could complete before the end of their shift. Middle management aimed to meet monthly or quarterly goals. The leadership was preoccupied with yearly plans and three to five-year targets. The time required for the most lengthy task an individual can comfortably undertake is what Jaques called “the time span of discretion,” a term that Roelof Botha reminded me about. 

Increasing our time span of discretion may be one of the most potent ideas for entrepreneurship. Combining a long-time horizon with consistent compounding, the results are extraordinary. We work in a dynamic world where founders can transform a seed of an idea into a unicorn or a decacorn in a decade.  In the right hands, that seed can be further fashioned into a trillion-dollar company over a few decades, which is the case for Apple, Nvidia, and Google.

And yet, founders need to balance a long time span of discretion with motivating immediate action. Everything large started small and as Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So, what seeds will you plant today, how will you help that seed consistently compound, and what will be your time span of discretion?