The pursuit of long-term goals

Pluto scientists were masters of the long haul – here’s how people stick with extremely long-term goals

What keeps workers going when the goal isn’t even in sight? Road image via

It took almost a decade for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to navigate its way across the solar system to start taking and transmitting dramatic closeup photos of the dwarf planet Pluto. Turning funding into the reality of a launch involved another five years before that. Was it worth the wait? One team member calls it“a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to participate in “a history-making event,” so apparently it was.

Lurking behind the scientific excitement are questions about the nature of work that involves goals with very long time horizons, goals that may never be reached in one person’s working lifetime. A Washington Post profile of New Horizons scientist Andy Cheng reminded us that life happened during the long wait. As New Horizons made its three-billion-mile way through the solar system, Cheng’s kids grew up, his father and a brother died, a daughter married, hair thinned, health changed.

What’s it like to do the kind of work in which the time horizon to accomplishment is so vast? Here’s what Cheng told the Post: “You just have to teach yourself: Wait. Just wait. Be patient. It’s a very long time.” Indeed it is. So how do people who thrive in these settings stay motivated?

We’ll be here waiting for you in the morning… for years on end. Blake Patterson, CC BY