B S Raghavan

Delaying decisions can be good for you!

B.S.RAGHAVAN | Updated on July 08, 2012

I recently came across a reference to a book titled Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Portnoy who has sought to demolish all that we have been told and taught about not putting off till tomorrow what we can do today. In fact, almost every language has adages analogous to the early bird catching the worm.

The pith and substance of the book, though not expressed in identical words, is that sharp reflexes may not always turn out to be smart reflexes. While the early bird may get the worm, if one looks at it from the worms’ perspective, it is the early worm that is liable to get caught by the early bird, and worms that defer coming out of their hiding places escape from its clutches.

The author quotes the legendary investment guru, Warren Buffet, the hero of millions who yearn to make billions in bourses, to the effect: “Lethargy bordering on sloth (is) the cornerstone of … investment style.”

Art of doing nothing

We have many exemplars of masterly inactivity. There is the famous exhortation, “Let sleeping dogs lie!” of Robert Walpole, the first British statesman, who occupied a post till then called the First Minister to the Crown but came to be known as the Prime Minister since his time.

Equally famous was the “Let’s wait and see” of the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, the longest continuously serving Prime Minister in the 20th century until that record was broken by Margaret Thatcher in 1988. He was said to have practised the politics of delay and vacillation, but then he lasted for eight full years as Prime Minister, which included the first three years of the First World War.

The US President, Calvin Coolidge, was also the master of the art of doing nothing. In fact, he spent long hours lounging and sleeping, in the firm, and well-founded, belief that if you don’t cast about meddling with problems, they would automatically solve themselves! Once he was asked by reporters about his sleeping long hours when he was expected to be attending to affairs of state, he disarmingly replied, “Look at all the wrong decisions I don’t make when I am sleeping!”

LOT OF SENSE

We have, of course, our own Kamaraj with his aagattum parkkalaam (Let’s see) and P. V. Narasimha Rao with his hitherto unmatched reputation for his mastery of the art and science of delay. Like Yudhishtira, though, when they struck, they struck home!

There is no doubt a lot of sense in not rushing to decisions. Quick decisions and fast actions can often be precursors to disaster, or at least unhappy consequences. If one carefully reviews one’s own past decisions, without doubt, one would come across many in respect of which by taking more time to weigh the pros and cons and work out the moves and counter-moves in one’s own mind before jumping to conclusions or into the fray, one would have been better off.

Deliberation is not the same as dilatoriness. For instance, the humorous quip of Mr Warren Buffet about “sloth being the cornerstone of investment style” should not be taken to mean that he is not alert and vigilant about what is happening around him.

As the book on the advantages of deferring decisions says: “ (Buffet) certainly isn’t lazy. He works all the time, reading financial statements and reports, preparing for his next big trade. But although Mr Buffett is constantly working, he is not constantly buying and selling. He does not respond to everything he sees. Instead, he delays his reactions as much as possible. His short-term discount rate is low. He is focused on the long haul.”

Actually, as appears from some other writings on the subject, the term “masterly inactivity” itself has a medical origin. WAW (Wait-and-watch) is the recommended approach to a medical problem which stands a good chance of self-resolution, or in regard to which there is high uncertainty concerning the diagnosis, or where the risks of intervention or therapy may outweigh the benefits.

However, to project WAW as an iron clad universal law will be a huge mistake. Like all principles guiding human affairs, its application should be based on sound judgment, resorted to only in deserving cases. WAW should be the criterion for practising WAW itself and not greeted with WOW all the time!

Published on July 08, 2012

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