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Books | In the moment

Books | In the moment

Posting in Science

A review of When: The Art of Perfect Timing, by Stuart Albert.

Approaching a red light last week, I added character to a Honda Prelude's bumper, my first time hitting another car. In my bag was a half-read copy of When: The Art of Perfect Timing (Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley, $26.95). I daresay author Stuart Albert's message failed to resonate in this instance.

I selected this book because I need a formal lesson in how to do the things that I'm supposed to be doing. Being "fashionably late" and "worth the wait" are no longer cute. I'm indecisive. During vexing encounters, I am obedient and passive, muzzling my comeback lines and apologizing even if I'm not at fault.

Although my expectations went unmet, When is exactly what Albert intended to write: a set of guidelines for corporate America, specifically mid- to senior-ranking jobholders like the alumni of his courses at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

From decades of research and workplace consulting, Albert believes timing can be truncated to six core factors: order of events, pauses and endings, intervals and how long they last, anticipation based on past experiences, the literal shape of developments if plotted on a timeline, and simultaneous actions. (The paraphrasing is mine; When introduces a whole new vocabulary).

Albert's thesis is summed up with this quote from conductor Leonard Bernstein's 1959 book, The Joy of Music:

"There is only one possible fraction of a second that feels exactly right for starting. There is a wait while the orchestra readies itself and collects its powers; while the conductor concentrates his whole will and force toward the work in hand; while the audience quiets down, and the last cough has died away. There is no slight rustle of the program book; the instruments are poised and -- bang! That's it. One second later, it is too late."

I would argue that "perfect timing" doesn't technically exist, that it is more abstract. In my mind, there are three types of timing: good, bad and fortuitous. Albert did convince me that for the most part, timing is a trained skill involving much contemplation. In essence, good timing is least likely to happen when you don't have much time (re: sudden stoplights).

The book's seventh and penultimate chapter, "Using the Lenses," provides a script of almost 20 responses to a boss who advocates a misguided business strategy. While some of the feedback may be perceived as particularly prickish in the moment, the foresight will hopefully be praised at a later date.

Probably because I don't oversee a corporation, throughout When I fixate on a single provocative sentence. "If a long-term solution requires considerable time to be devised, negotiated, and then implemented, then we can only hope [a] crisis lasts long enough for that to happen," Albert writes.

This struck me as woebegone and counter-intuitive, yet universal and true.

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Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure