Bandwagon Timing verus Biding Your Time

There are two basic types of timing: bandwagon timing and biding your time. They are the extremes of a spectrum. Most people focus on the first extreme. A minority focus on the second extreme. Successful timing requires a synthesis. Only a tiny fraction of people achieve synthesis.

We use different kinds of language to talk about each type.

Bandwagon timing is associated with the following types of language:

  • This is the right time to sell
  • Computer science is a hot major right now, and you should focus on Web technology
  • He was in the right place at the right time
  • It’s the perfect time to move to China

Biding your time, on the other hand, is associated with very different types of language

  • This is your moment
  • “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, lead on to success” (Shakespeare in Julius Caeser)
  • This is an idea whose time has come
  • This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life
  • He was a visionary ahead of his own time

To synthesize the two, you have to understand how they relate.

The first kind of timing is about synchronizing your narrative with a grand narrative of some sort. This can happen only under two conditions: luck, or a predictable environment. Predictable is subjective of course, and depends on how much situation awareness you have. But in general, the more predictable an environment is, the more people you have trying to bet on it, diminishing the average value. A computer science degree, for instance, is a 4-year investment in an opportunity that has been pretty universally recognized for 20 years, and will likely continue to be a good investment for another decade. It is a very big bandwagon.

The second kind of timing is about ignoring the grand narrative, doing something of value, and trusting that at some point in the future, the broader world will recognize its value.  It is a higher-risk, higher-return game. Because you invest over a longer horizon, when your time does come, you have a lot of assets to play a powerful game. But there is serious risk because your time may never come. Or it may come after you are dead. Its fundamental premise is differentiation in an unproven direction.

The two kinds are obviously a spectrum. On the one extreme, you have a universally recognized opportunity. Timing adds little value. It is sheer speed that counts, since everybody has spotted the “right time.” On the other end, you have a bandwagon of one, and a potential winner-take-all outcome. There is no competition in the race. Timing — as in patiently waiting for your time — adds a lot of value, because when an opportunity does come up and others spot it, you’ll be years ahead of them. In fact you’ll be so far out ahead, the race will not have started yet. You’ll get to define the race and create a bandwagon timing event behind yourself. Your personal narrative, instead of synchronizing with a grand narrative, will trigger a grand narrative. This is basically what is called pioneering if it succeeds. Only a few people who try this actually succeed in triggering a serious grand narrative.  Most are never recognized.

How do you synthesize the two? It is determined by how fast you can run (metaphorically; the psychological test of speed in this sense is the strength of your competitive drive). If you are extremely slow, you want to bide your time and shoot to be a pioneer. If you are extremely fast, you want to jump on the hottest bandwagon and win a race on the strength of your speed. If you are somewhere in between, you need to differentiate yourself with respect to an active bandwagon, but not go off entirely on your own. You want to think 2 or 3 moves ahead and run at your medium pace towards the finish line, not of the current race, but of some race that is likely to start after the current one ends.

I am very slow. I am not very competitive at all. All I am really capable of doing is biding my time.

I am trying to improve my speed so it is worth my while thinking 2-3 moves ahead.

But I doubt I’ll ever be fast enough to make pure bandwagon timing worthwhile for myself.


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  1. Patrick White says

    Typo alert: “Or it may come after you are dead, It’s fundamental premise is differentiation in an unproven direction.” :-)

  2. These two types of time strike me as very similar to the Information Location axis on the Basic Decision Patterns chart in Tempo (§5.4, page 107). Bandwagon is the external end, and Biding Your Time is the internal end.

    Would you agree? Just what, if any, is the relation between these axes?