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When Waiting Pays Off

Successful people bide their time.

By Matt Huston

For a modern extension of classic fairy tales, look no further than Wait, a book that explains why—contrary to the Info Age emphasis on snap decisions—faster isn’t always smarter. The tortoise’s triumph over the hare comes to mind. And author Frank Partnoy evokes Goldilocks in championing approaches to athletics, stock trading and communication that “optimize delay.” In other words, they’re not too fast or too slow, but just right.

The strategy Partnoy lays out can unfold over many years or a few hundred milliseconds, but the theory remains the same: Skilled decision-makers take as much time as they reasonably can to prepare for their decision before they make it.

Wait provides many examples of delay in action. But some untouched pieces of American life further show how this tactic can stretch from the highest levels of power to the most average mundanities.

The president deliberates

The executive process behind the killing of Osama bin Laden may be the most dramatic example of optimal timing that wasn’t included in Wait. As Graham Allison details in Time magazine, President Obama waited five months after learning about the terrorist leader’s suspected location to launch an assault—during which the government took pains to confirm bin Laden’s identity and determine the most effective strategy. It worked: Obama took long enough to make sure the operation wouldn’t backfire, but not long enough to let bin Laden slip away. Echoing Partnoy, Allison writes: “A Commander in Chief had the confidence and determination to slow the clock long enough to aim carefully before pulling the trigger.”

Better safe than sorry

On June 28, the day of a colossal Supreme Court announcement, two media giants raced to announce the decision before anyone else. In their haste, CNN and Fox News reported incorrectly that the controversial health care law had been struck down, just a moment before the opposite was revealed. The blogosphere glowed at the mistake. It’s a classic example of the importance of waiting: Just a couple more minutes with the court documents could have saved the networks a load of embarrassment. NPR learned a similar lesson when it falsely reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was killed in the Tucson, Arizona shooting that seriously wounded her and killed six others.

A magic number for job seekers?

Career experts differ on how long prospective hires should wait to follow up on their job applications. The sweet spot typically falls in between one and two weeks after the app is sent. At least one career coach recommends that if a due date is provided, prospects ought to send the employer a message a day or two after the deadline. But regardless of the timeline, the general guidelines stick: It’s helpful to follow up in a timely manner and make sure your materials were received, but you don’t want to come across as impatient.

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