Tempo: Timing, Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-Making - by Venkatesh Rao

Separating work into thought and action is less useful than it used to be. Work is simply whatever we must do to get from one decision to the next.

Being aware of tempo allows you to manage the momentum of your life. Managing momentum also means that when you do choose to slow down and pluck out individual consequential decisions for conscious and detailed processing, you won't be the victim of conjuring tricks pulled on you by the mob of unruly autopilots -- what Marvin Minsky called the "Society of Mind" -- that exists just below conscious awareness. The more you consciously manage tempo, the more creative and realistic your options during the big decisions.

I define tempo as the set of characteristic rhythms of decision-making in the subjective life of an individual or organization, colored by associated patterns of emotion and energy.

Tempo has three elements: rhythm, emotion and energy.

The emotion of a tempo can even change with no change in pace, and no new external factors. Humans and organizations naturally crave variety and stimulation. Stay too long at one tempo, and boredom will set in.

Situation awareness is our subjective sense of the immediate relevance and quality of an active mental model: an unwieldy, dynamic and partially coherent construct that represents our understanding of a particular class of situations. You might have one for work and one for home.

Situation awareness degrades if it is not actively maintained through immersion, so context-switches are an asymmetric form of information work. Preparing your mind for the to domain is uphill work. Letting go of the from domain is downhill work.

The world moves faster than we can hope to keep up, and we adapt by separating change into a background of predictable rhythms, and a foreground of unusual rhythms and non-rhythmic elements. Developing situation awareness is primarily the process of getting attuned to the dynamics of the background. Anything left over and unexplained is the foreground: raw material for active engagement.

Going with the flow is the smart thing to do if you've found a stable and rewarding niche, where your auto-pilot skills are in high-demand.

What makes us suspicious of going-with-the-flow behaviors is that they can become ritualized if underlying assumptions are not periodically re-examined, and the design reconsidered in light of new information.

Do not let the unpleasantness of tasks mislead you into overestimating their magnitude.

Skill: Tempo Doodling

Used judiciously, interruption and talking over others is how you, as a socially situated decision-maker, can arrest the momentum of developing group-think and assumed consensus. If you do not develop the thick skin to occasionally interrupt, and allow yourself to be interrupted, you will help enable pathological decision-making cultures wherever you go. Go too far though, and your thick skin will enable abrasiveness in others, or numb your ability to feel emotion (remember the ability to feel emotion is necessary for maintaining situation awareness).

If you normally schedule your time in blocks of one hour, try scheduling a week using just four-hour blocks. Investor Paul Graham calls this the manager time/maker time distinction. He suggests that people who build things should manage their time in four-hour blocks, while managers should use one-hour blocks.

Beliefs create or constrain possibilities, desires lead to preferences among them, and intentions represent commitments to specific courses of action.

Archetypes can be deeply thought-provoking constructs. The Greek philosopher Archilochus, for instance, made a cryptic remark that has occupied other philosophers for centuries: "the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing." Isaiah Berlin, in a famous essay analyzing the work of Leo Tolstoi, applied the fox and hedgehog archetypes to artistic styles, and concluded that hedgehogs look for a grand, unified world-view, while foxes are happy with a highly fragmented one.

Archetypes give rise to doctrines. Doctrines are basic sets of beliefs and desires relevant to decision-making. They are particularly relevant to momentum management. Doctrines can be closely identified with associated archetypes. Your most stable beliefs, the ones that actually modulate your behavior, aren't about life purposes; they are about momentum management. You are more likely to switch religions than to switch from an impatient to a patient temperament.

To build even simple unique models of others, you need data about their characteristic patterns of behavior. One of the best ways to find data is to notice and occasionally mimic repeated phrases and pet assertions used by those who are important in your life.

Narrative rationality isn't a single idea; it is the idea that there are many useful, local and temporary rationalities. The immediate benefit of this approach is that it allows us to take stories seriously, and make use of notions of truth other than scientific empiricism. We can meaningfully ask and obtain value from questions such as "Has he lived a fulfilling life?" or "Is this movie funny?" that only make sense within particular narrative contexts.

Narrative rationality is the ability to think, make decisions, and act in ways that make sense with respect to the most compelling and elegant story that you can improvise about a developing enactment. Narrative rationality allows you to structure your behaviors meaningfully even when feedback is impoverished, delayed and ambiguous.

Like Macbeth, you and I turn to metaphysical questioning in the brief interludes, known as liminal passages, between the waning of one important life story and the waxing of another. You may remember an evening of introspection between high school and college, or between college and your first job. Between liminal passages, we live through a special kind of enactment, which I will call a deep story. Unlike ordinary enactments a deep story is an episode of creative destruction that is significant enough to transform you. The transformation is a rebirth of greater or lesser magnitude.

This is one way to understand narcissism: it is falling in love with yourself at a particular liminal passage to such an extent that you are unwilling to submit yourself to further transformative experiences.

Within a deep story, raw information with which to build a mental model is accumulated through exploration. The inherent open-ended randomness of all exploratory behaviors leads to randomness in what is discovered. To a child, this is stimulating variety. To the impatient adult, this can seem like inefficient collection of irrelevant information. Exploration is a process that increases both the size and disorderliness – or entropy – of a developing mental model of a fundamentally new situation.

The process of planning is very valuable, for forcing you to think hard about what you are doing, but the actual plan that results from it is probably useless.

As George Box noted, "All models are wrong, some models are useful."

Introspection as a process is uncannily like trash compaction: your head fills up with unrelated, irreducible beliefs.

You do not need to understand the laws of thermodynamics at a technical level to appreciate the core tenets of thermodynamic theology. For our needs, this irreverent (and surprisingly accurate) folk version of the laws is actually more appropriate. The four laws of thermodynamics are:

  • You must play the game.

  • You cannot win

  • You cannot break even

  • You cannot quit the game

The vocabulary of narrative rationality allows us to craft a pair of simple but cryptic and non-prescriptive definitions. A strategy is a cheap trick. A tactic is a metaphoric mapping among primitive action concepts in two or more domains.

Why bother with definitions at all, if they are non-prescriptive? The advantage to operating by them is like the advantage to be found in knowing that perpetual motion machines are impossible. The knowledge allows you to avoid certain patterns of failure. But knowing how not to fail is not the same as knowing how to succeed. All these definitions do is constantly remind you that the creative elements in decision-making – novel perspectives and novel conceptual-metaphor mappings – are locked in a yin-yang embrace that cannot be engineered away by any calculative-rational formula.

Deliberative patterns are most often associated with calculative rationality. Recognition-primed behaviors illustrate how narrative rationality can arise from calculative rationality. Experts, characteristically, can skip quickly to correct answers without exhaustively exploring a complex decision tree of formal contingency plans. Effective recognition-primed behavior emerges when an inefficient and time-consuming calculative-rational decision tree is reorganized as a more compact but cryptic narrative-rational one. This happens as a novice gains experience and insights that allow him or her to gradually incorporate the cheap tricks from every new experience into canned prescriptions. Experts often describe novice behavior as being "by the book." Their own repertoire of cheap tricks and hacks can be understood, within this metaphor, as scribbled margin notes that improve a calculative-rational tactical manual.

The central idea in OODA is a generalization of Butterfly-Bee: to simply operate at a higher tempo than your opponent. This is a subtle point. A higher tempo is not the same as higher speed, in the sense of a race car overtaking another. To think in terms of tempo means to think in terms of (narrative time) frequencies rather than speed. The primary effect of operating at a faster tempo is that you can maneuver inside the decision cycle of your opponent, disrupting his or her enactment by introducing entropy into it faster than it can be removed. In terms of the entropy-based concepts in Chapter 4, you are forcing your opponent to stall in the high-anxiety exploration epoch, or prematurely commit to the wrong cheap trick out of sheer desperation.

I will leave you with a few interesting questions which have proved productive for me. I hope these prove productive for you as well.

  • Are all tactics derived from universal tactics, or are there tactics that represent direct mappings among non-universal domains?

  • Is there any such thing as a pure formula confined to a single domain, that cannot metaphorically translate to another domain?

  • What distinguishes true cheap tricks within deep stories from Aha! moments in simpler enactments?

  • Does the leverage provided by a given cheap trick diminish through reuse in subsequent enactments?

  • Does this leverage diminish rapidly enough that there is no value in generals being prepared to fight the last war?

  • Do forgotten historical cheap tricks regain their vigor and leverage after a period of abandonment?

  • Is it possible to systematically improve your sense of history, by approaching the subject in specific ways?

  • Is a cheap trick that has been recognized by an adversary automatically rendered useless?

  • Is a strategy shared no longer a strategy?

  • How does the efficient market hypothesis apply to the market of cheap tricks diffusing within and across domains?

  • How quickly do cheap tricks diffuse within and across domains?

  • Can we compute the time bought by a cheap trick a priori?

If there is an overarching theme to this book, it is ultimately the tension between action and contemplation. A tension that causes us to swing between a greedy, grasping engagement of life, and a tentative, doubtful withdrawal from it. A mode of life that doubts the possibility of meaning sufficiently to choose action, and believes in the possibility sufficiently to be tempted into reflection. It is my hope that the ideas in this book will help you turn this tension into a source of creative-destructive energy to fuel your life.