The Wisdom of Waiting, The Dharma of Delay

Earlier this week, on one of the morning news shows, I caught an interview with Frank Partnoy, the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance at the University of San Diego School of Law. He’s the author of a couple of books on modern finance, F.I.A.S.C.O.: Blood in the Water on Wall Street and Infectious Greed: How Deceit and Risk Corrupted the Financial Markets. He has a new one out and that’s what he was promoting the other day.

It’s called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. In it Partnoy argues that we make make decisions too quickly and that we would benefit from taking things slower and delaying many of our decisions. One of the examples he gave in the TV interview was that of great tennis players who delay hitting the ball until the last possible fraction of a second.

According to his website,

Frank Partnoy provides a necessary rebuttal to the gurus of “go with your gut.” He shows that decisions of all kinds, whether “snap” or long-term strategic, benefit from being made at the last possible moment. The art of knowing how long you can afford to delay before committing is at the heart of many a great decision—whether in a corporate takeover or a marriage proposal.”

What he’s advocating here is a “mindfulness” approach to making choices, without the meditation element. Although I don’t suppose he would be against combining the “art of delay” with meditation. You could also call Partnoy’s concept of delaying as informed or enlightened procrastination, a notion which is at the heart of one of the oldest books in the world, Tao Te Ching. In the Gia-fu Feng and Jane English translation, we find these passages:


Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.


Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone . . .


A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done.


Practice non-action.
Work without doing.

Lao Tzu’s take on delaying is called wu-wei or non-action. But it’s not simply inaction, rather it’s taking natural action. Wu-wei is action that is pliable, responsible, and mindful.  One of the reasons we practice meditation is so that we can train our minds to think more deliberately and not to long for things. It is that longing, that need to have and have immediately is what often results in the bad decision-making that both Lao Tzu and Frank Partnoy are trying to help us correct.

The Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu explained wu-wei with the story of an archer who at first would draw and fire the bow in a relaxed, natural way, and was unconcerned with whether or not the target was hit (which it was every time). But when the archer became fixated on winning a prize, the need to hit the target and have the prize got in the way and caused the archer to fail. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have target or goals, but merely that there is another way, perhaps a better way to hit the bullseye, to accomplish the goal.

I haven’t read Partnoy’s book, but I sure appreciate his message about slowing down, taking our time, using the “art and science” of delaying to make better decisions in every area of our life. It not only reminds me of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and the Buddha’s mindfulness, but also of an earlier time when we used talk about “stopping to smell the roses,” and Paul Simon sang “slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last.”  I’ve often found the greatest truths are the simplest ones. They may sound sophomoric or cheesy when you first hear them, but eventually you no longer try to filter them, and when they sink in, you come to realize the rightness in their uncomplicated expression.

On a golden autumn
day returning
Where each moment
never is the same
Sometimes pure joy it
comes with patience
When Im waiting on,
waiting game
When Im waiting on,
waiting game

– Van Morrison