Book review – Tempo: Timing, Tactics, and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-Making

Tempo is a book with a lot to say and not quite enough space to do it in. Purporting to examine narrative-driven decision-making through the lens of narrative time, it digs deeply, if somewhat narrowly, into how we see time in the context of our individual lives.

Initially, it began life as a cookbook, an outgrowth of the author’s use of food preparation as unwinding time. Cooking remains a theme, showing up again and again as the author discusses the manner and timing of our decisionmaking process. Tempo, a measure of the rate of events, is the “thin red line connecting all of the ideas, but for all that it retains the “discursive, grab-bag feel to it” that it had as a course.

This isn’t to say that Tempo is a bad book, or a useless book. Tempo has a number of fascinating things to say, but it’s sometimes difficult to judge how Venkatesh Rao is making the leaps between these ideas that they are. Having read the Gervais Principle, my expectations were higher than Tempo was able to reach. That said, it has enough interesting thought on narrative time for me to have quoted it more than once, and I suspect I’ll reread it to see if I can’t get more on a second pass.

Tempo leads with a breakdown of what exactly is meant by ‘tempo’ – “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.” From a restaurant kitchen, to the workplace, to a well-optimized date, examples are given and discussed, and the skill of tempo-doodling is introduced, a means of illustrating the state and rate of interactions.

It further delves into rhythms, the sense of timing, the narrative timing carried in the state of a kitchen, and flow – going with it and disrupting it. The relationships of events in time take a section, illustrating the different ways the time of different events can be laid out. From momentum and mental models, we discuss the kind of conversational narrative that makes it possible for humans to have fast-paced high-density interactions, rather than conversations punctuated by minutes of silent consideration.

While I found Tempo somewhat disjoint, I did not find it without value. If you have time to invest in the contemplation and perhaps rereading, and you want a better understanding of time as we experience it as creatures of narrative, Tempo is worth the investment.

And if not?

Well, there’s always next week’s review…

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