Feeling the Tempo (Book Review)

On the surface, Tempo is a book about making decisions using stories. More deeply, Tempo is a call to revisit how you relate to the world: whether you are cooking a meal, driving a high-powered business meeting, guiding a career, or dealing with the next stage your life, you can use both your felt sense and intellectual awareness to harmonize and even master the experience.

Dr. Rao begins with an exploration of the various fundamental elements of the organism’s experience of tempo. It’s felt emotion is an essential sensor for cultivating situation awareness — you can get a feel for what’s going on in a situation by connecting to the feeling tone. The organism interacts with his environment in a set of key relationship modes: merging, going with the flow, pace-setting, and disruption — knowing which mode you are in can inform your decision of what to do next.

In this exploration he develops a Vocabulary of Thought, sketching a glossary of mental models of the self, others, and situations. He helps us make sense of how these mental models interact in the mind and how they externalize into the outside world, manifesting through Enactments.

All of these ideas build toward the intentional key insight of the book: by developing the awareness of and leveraging the structure of the Deep Stories in an otherwise seemingly amorphous flow, one can more creatively and skillfully navigate the experience. You can make better decisions if you look at life through the lens of a story. Rao calls this approach Narrative Rationality.

The book provides a patchwork of loosely anchored frozen steps across the stream of sense-making. It is a survey, not an exhaustive treatment. It is a heavy lift: a consilience of military thought, culinary arts, software development, the creative process, organization theory, psychology, systems and control theory, metaphysics, economics, improvisation and poetry.

Tempo is more than theory. Rao sprinkles exercises throughout the book inviting the reader to not just contemplate but engage. Use Tempo Doodling to explore a sense of rhythm in a conversation. Help reinforce the more positive behavior patterns in others through skillful mimicry. Cultivate an awareness of the ebb and flood of energy throughout your day by seeing your calendar as an artful map, not a sequence of meetings. Pull these skills and the theory together in order to wield the central power tool of the book: the Deep Story — a richly annotated narrative structure that can be used to orient one’s self in non-trivial situations. For example, in a given circumstance, do you sense confusion and/or volatility? You might be experiencing the “Exploration” epoch of a Deep Story. In this part of the story, a good move might be encouraging creativity (through play or “random exploration”)… fertilizing the field toward finding what Dr. Rao calls a “cheap trick” — an organizing insight that provides (hopefully) significant leverage…

This is theory begging to be applied.

This book has been simultaneously disruptive and a normalizing experience for me. Venkat pulls together a set of ideas that were either vague and, at best, loosely connected in my own mind. He affirms many of the ways I already approach situations, firming up that understanding with intellectual rigor. He also has introduced me to a fresh set of perspectives. The material becomes quite dense as it climaxes and in parts of those sections, I simply had to allow the words to wash over me during this first reading. Even still, enough stuck that I can start using it. For example, I am addressing the question of “I want to be a catalytic leader, how do I encourage the self-organization of my team?” by recasting it in the form of a deep story: “What is the journey of a team learning to self-organize? … and how can I help catalyze that experience?” Even if this one is not a nail, I’m at least getting some feel for the heft of the hammer. It’s better-informed play.

I love this book. The author has struck a beautiful balance of science and art. He explores the very personal and pulls it back to the universal. As I finished reading the book, I felt sated, energized to put these concepts to use and yearning to learn more.

If you resonate with the notion of more fully connecting with the vibe of life especially to be more effective in your participation in it, you owe it to yourself to pick this book up. Price for pound, it’s an embarrassment of riches.