The wisdom of waiting
In a super essay at FT.com (“Waiting Game,” June 22), Frank Partnoy, law and finance professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, delves into the psychology and physiology of optimum performance among professional athletes to draw out a profound insight about the supreme value of waiting. This value, he says, isn’t just a matter of peak performance but a matter of finding and experiencing meaning in life as a whole. What’s more — and this is me talking, not him — a direct line can validly be drawn between his excellent insights and the discipline of daemonic creativity that I have written about at length here and elsewhere.
Partnoy directs readers to this year’s Wimbledom tournament, where, he says, two weeks of watching pro tennis players return thousands of blindingly fast first serves
will give spectators an opportunity to improve on the personal and professional decisions we make in all aspects of our lives: by helping us learn to manage delay. Watch Novak Djokovic. His advantage over the other professionals at Wimbledon won’t be his agility or stamina or even his sense of humour. Instead, as scientists who study superfast athletes have found, the key to Djokovic’s success will be his ability to wait just a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball. That tiny delay is why most players won’t have a chance against him. Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate — at the speed of light. During superfast reactions, the best-performing experts in sport, and in life, instinctively know when to pause, if only for a split-second.
Partnoy goes on to apply this same insight to other areas of life, including the great and terrible (and ongoing) Crash of 2008, which, he says, has taught us in dramatic fashion “that gut reactions” — as in rushed, unreflective, kneejerk decisions made without waiting for the right moment to present itself — “are fraught with peril.” For an illustration, he points us to the case of Lehman Brothers, where senior managers hired a dream team of consultants in 2005 to help top executives improve their decision-making skills. “These managers sat for a cutting-edge course on the timing of decisions,” Partnoy writes, after which
they rushed back to their offices and made some of the worst decisions in the history of financial markets. Three years later, their firm was gone. If Lehman had lived until today, its decision-making course would look radically different. The core message of recent research is the opposite of the one Lehman’s executives learnt in 2005: the longer we can wait, the better. And once we have a sense of how long a decision should take, we generally should delay the moment of decision until the last possible instant.
Near the end he offers a really fine and pithy reflection on the existential value of waiting to all of our lives:
Thinking about the role of delay is a profound and fundamental part of being human. Questions about delay are existential: the amount of time we take to reflect on decisions will define who we are. Is our mission simply to be another animal, responding to whatever stimulations we encounter? Or are we here for something more? Life might be a race against time but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why.
As I said, I can’t help relating all of this to the issue of creative waiting in writing and the arts, where the moment of inspiration by the muse or daemon — which, as I have argued in A Course in Demonic Creativity, will probably only arrive and/or be of any use after a long period of deliberate practice and training — is analogous to that “sweet spot” moment in Djokovic’s serve return. Rudyard Kipling famously said, “When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.” In talking about the nature and role of the muse, Stephen King maintained that “One doesn’t call it; that doesn’t work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it on) and then waits…My muse may visit. She may not. The trick is to be there waiting if she does.” Perhaps most pointedly, H.P. Lovecraft told his friend Frank Long, “I never try to write a story, but wait till it has to be written,” and elsewhere explained exactly how he came to regard and recognize the arrival of that moment in the context of his own titanic drive to channel his lifelong experience of cosmic horror and infinite longing into literary art:
The time to begin writing is when the events of the world seem to suggest things larger than the world — strangenesses and patterns and rhythms and uniquities of combination which no one ever saw or heard before, but which are so vast and marvellous and beautiful that they absolutely demand proclamation with a fanfare of silver trumpets. Space and time become vitalised with literary significance when they begin to make us subtly homesick for something ‘out of space, out of time.’
The respective points or upshots of both daemonic creativity — the approach to creative work based on a deliberate attitude and experience of collaboration with your unconscious/muse/daemon/genius — and Partnoy’s discipline of waiting or “procrastinating” until precisely the right moment for action are, I think, fundamentally the same. There’s a right moment to act, whether the action is sitting down to write, swinging a tennis racket, or making financial decisions. There is a sweet spot, and our task, our discipline, is to wait attentively for it to present itself, and to train ourselves to recognize and make effective use of it.
And although Partnoy doesn’t go here, I think this discipline carries, if we care to notice it, a message about the subordination of our conscious ego selves to a larger set of ends and purposes of which we are merely enactors or conduits. If the precise moment of effective action is not something we choose but something we observe and receive, then this automatically opens us up to the unknown, to whatever diffuse intelligence underlies and stands behind the entire situation with its field of latent possibilities. And how — as we might do well to ask — from the viewpoint of actual first-person experience, is this approach to knowing when to sit down to write, or when to swing the racket, or when to pull the trigger on which particular investment, any different from being led in these things, and led by a power or intelligence of which we are ignorant and over which we have no control? The answer, of course, is that it’s no different at all. Following the discipline of procrastination, or what I have sometimes called (in keeping with Dorothea Brande’s terminology) the discipline of active waiting, emerges as a discipline of occult (in both senses of the word) spiritual guidance and dependence on an unknown force.
Partnoy closes by offering some advice to future generations:
If we are limited to just one word of wisdom about decision-making for children born a hundred years from now, people who will have all our advantages and limitations as human beings but will need to navigate an unimaginably faster-paced world than the one we confront now, there is no doubt what that word should be. Wait.
For reasons beyond the already excellent ones that he gives, I consider this a recommendation we should all heartily endorse.
(Note that Partnoy’s essay is published in tandem with his just-released book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, which has been published in the U.K. with the neater subtitle “The Useful Art of Procrastination.”)