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Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly Paperback – March 27, 2012
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This is an elegant, simple book and, rarely for a business book, is written by a man who actually understands the academics and philosophers he quotes. The best nine quid you'll spend this year -- Jeremy Hazlehurst * City AM * [A] smart, witty book -- William Leith * Evening Standard * John Kay is an admirable debunker of myths and false beliefs - he can see substantial things others don't. Read this book. -- Nassim N Taleb * The Black Swan * Economics with style as well as substance -- Stephen Bayley, architecture and design correspondent * Observer * Obliquity is a characteristic John Kay production. It is a pleasure to read -- Howard Davies * Financial Times * How rare is it for an academic economist to write with such clarity, intelligence and courage. And, in these troubled, confusing times, how desperately we need other dismal scientists to follow John Kay's shining example. -- Liam Halligan * Spectator Business * --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
John Kay is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a fellow of St. John's College, Oxford University. As the director, he established the Institute for Fiscal Studies as one of Britain's most respected think tanks.
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Our failure to achieve these goals is then attributed to our lack of focus, lack of drive, lack of persistence. But, what if our real failure is related to our attempt to achieve our goals directly? What if we shifted our focus away from our ultimate goals? Perhaps we would have better success in achieving them.
This seemingly counter-intuitive idea is the subject of John Kay's very interesting book Obliquity. To see what he is getting at let's take a look at some examples of important goals best achieved indirectly.
Happiness: Everyone is striving to be happy. But, studies have shown that the happiest people are the ones who are the least focused on this goal. Those who are most happy with their own lives tend to be ones focused on helping others to be happy. Or they are focused on achieving some other goal whether it be performing a task well, completing a project, raising a child, creating a piece of art. By focusing on other things they end up being happy. In fact, they end up happier than they would have been had happiness been their direct goal.
Wealth: I have a few students every semester who tell me that their goal is to be wealthy. But, they are often dumbfounded when I point out that most wealthy people do not focus on becoming wealthy. Instead, they focus on doing something well, running a company, making a product, serving other people. They pursue these goals with drive and passion. Often with an obsessive rigor. As a result, they end up wealthy. As Kay points out, the most profitable companies are not profit driven.
Social Order: One of the most intriguing passages in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations describes the possibility of arriving at social order by focusing on individual self-interest: "By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it." Leaders would do well to remember this insight as many of the problems created by leaders of companies and countries are the result of attempting to promote direct solutions to problems which would be better solved by indirect solutions.
To understand these examples we have to be willing to recognize the limits of our own knowledge, the biases in our own thinking, and the possibility that these too can be overcome not directly but by being indirectly addressed. Direct solutions work well on straightforward problems where all the information needed is known. But, in a world where individual knowledge is often incomplete and imperfect our best recourse is to oblique solutions.
The ultimate example of obliquity is the example of the diversity of life that is all around us and how that diversity arose. In formulating the theory of evolution through natural selection, both Darwin and Wallace recognized the insight that this diversity was driven indirectly. Order could result from disorderly processes working with a healthy dose of randomness. This theory still confounds many today precisely because it is based on the insight that obliquity is a powerful force at work in the world.
We need to embrace the insight and the uncertainty that comes with it. If you're concerned about your own happiness, your own wealth, your own success, your own love life, try focusing on something else. Try helping someone else. Try serving others in some useful way. And, without intending it you will achieve your goals. Indirectly with obliquity.
This is precisely what Kay has in mind when observing, "An oblique approach recognizes that what we want from a home, or a community, has many elements. We will never succeed in fully specifying what they are, and to the extent that we do, we discover that they are often incompatible and inconsistent." This is one of his most important points: There are specific limits to what a direct approach can resolve; however, if there is a complicated question to answer, a complicated problem to solve, or a complicated task to completed, only an oblique approach can succeed. Moreover, with rare exception, several persons must be involved. The approach must be oblique because the process will be one of continuous discovery and adaptation, application and modification, etc.
Consider the great teams in history such as the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, the animators who produced a series of classics such as Snow White and Bambi, and the engineers employed by Lockheed at its Skunk Works. All of the members of a team know more, can do more, and do it better than any one member can. Here's what Kay has to say about all this: "Obliquity is the best approach whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the way in which others respond to them...Directness is only appropriate when the environment is stable, objectives are one-dimensional and transparent and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved. The word of politics and business today is afflicted by many hedgehogs, men and women who mistakenly believe the world is like that." Oh that it were.
Kay clearly explains the "what" of obliquity but devotes most of his attention to WHY and/or HOW. More specifically,
In Part One:
o How the happiest people do not pursue happiness
o The most profitable companies are not the most profit oriented
o The wealthiest people are not the most materialistic
o The means help us to discover the ends
o Obliquity is relevant to many aspects of our lives
In Part Two:
o Oblique approaches succeed
o There is usually more than one answer to a problem
o The Outcome of what we do depends on how we do it
o The world is too complex for directness to be direct
o We rarely know enough about the nature of our problems
o Models are imperfect
In Part Three:
o We mistakenly infer design from the outcome
o We have less freedom of choice than we think
o Decision makers recognize the limits of their knowledge
o Adaptation is smarter than we are
o We know more than we can tell
o Complex outcomes are achieved without knowledge of an overall purpose
o It is more important to be right than to be consistent
o Spurious rationality is often confused with good decision making
The development of the concepts in this book followed an oblique path from drafts that resulted in an article published in the Financial Times (January 17, 2004). The process continued during John Kay's subsequent journey of continuous discovery and adaptation, application and modification, etc. The result is this book, first published in 2010. No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the quality of information, insights, and counsel he provides but I hope that I have at least indicated why I think so highly of Obliquity. If you want to put some white caps on your gray matter, look no further.
The basic premise that I got out of the book is that there are many ways to get a solution to the problems we face and that perhaps the best solution is not the direct path. I agree with the author that the world is full of ‘hedgehogs’ that determine a path for success slowly and straightforward, “objectives are one-dimensional and transparent and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved.” (Kay 195) I tend to fall in the ‘hedgehogs’ Mr. Kay describes. The question is do I want to be a ‘fox’ that goes about the same problems darting in and out, learning from mistakes but eventually capturing its prey or escaping danger. It does give me something to think about with my goals in life.