Obliquity book cover

Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly

Book Author: John Kay

Obliquity – a book that’s wise and pleasure to read. It packed with many true stories from historical events, politics, businesses and the author’s personal experiences. As John Kay pointed out, we can only learn about our objectives and how to achieve them through a gradual process of risk taking and discovery – what he calls obliquity.

My Reading Notes

  • The achievement of happiness is a matter of personal fulfillment rather than objective circumstances.
  • The capacity of humans to survive appalling circumstances, and emerge little affected, is an extraordinary testimony to our powers of adaptation.
  • “The job of a leader and his/her team is to deliver to commitment in the short term while investing in the long-term health of the business…” – Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001.
  • Everyday experience tells us that while greed is a human motive, it is not, for most, a dominant one.
  • Greed is not generally an overriding motive even for the very wealthy. For them, money is a mark of status, a register of achievement, or by-product of a passion for power or for business.
  • People who are obsessive in their greed, that obsession frequently destroys them the organizations that attract them.
  • “We don’t consider any man successful until he has died well” – Plutarch.
  • There are three broad senses of the term happiness. The lowest (basic level) comprises the momentary feelings that make us happy. The intermediate level is typically a state of mind, a sense of satisfaction and well-being. While Eudaimonia is a high-level concept, a measure of quality of life, of flourishing, of fulfilling one’s potential.
  • To function well, we have to break high-level objectives into goals and actions.
  • The 19-century French scientist Louis Pasteur who discovered penicillin with obliquity – during a botched experiment by his assistant produced unexpected results.
  • Most real-life problems have less clear descriptions. Our high-level objectives are loosely defined and cannot be completely broken down in advance into specific goals and actions.
  • Good problem solving and decision making is necessarily oblique because in the process of solving problems we learn not just about strategies for achieving our high-level objectives but about the nature of the objectives themselves.
  • Great artists do not only break the rules, they redefine them.
  • Only at the end will we know whether life was lived well, because we will never know whether the life was lived or the work was completed was the best possible.
  • The world is too complex for directness to be direct.
  • Almost all real problems are incompletely and imperfectly specified, and to tackle them we have to try to close them in some way.
  • Closing a problem means deciding what information should be discarded and what should be added. In even the simplest problem, our analysis is based on interpretation of the context.
  • Abstraction is the process of turning complex problems we cannot completely describe into simpler ones that we think we can solve.
  • Today, even a cheap computer program will defeat an average chess player, but only because it us programmed with the skills of experts. The computer is an efficient decision-making aid, but not an efficient decision maker.
  • The direct decision maker perceives a direct connection between intentions and outcomes; the oblique decision maker believes that the intention neither necessary nor sufficient to secure the outcome.
  • The direct decision maker emphasizes the importance of rationality of process; the oblique decision maker believes that decision making is inherently subjective and prefers to emphasize good judgment.
  • The illusion that we have more control over our lives than we possess, that we understand more about the world and the future than we do or can, is pervasive.
  • The key characteristic of many kind of evolutionary processes are a tendency to repetition or replication, frequent modification through incremental change and a filtering mechanism that favors modifications that fit the environment.
  • Adaptation is smarter than you.
  • In business, in politics and in our personal lives, we do not often solve problem directly. The consequences of what we do depend on responses, both natural and human, than we cannot predict. The system we try to manage are too complex for us to fully understand. We never have the information about the problem, or the future, we face that we might wish for.
  • When happy people talk about their lives, when wealthy people talk about their careers, when the leaders of profitable businesses talk about their companies, they routinely talk about many things besides the pursuit of happiness, wealth or profit.
  • Sometimes we want things that are incompatible. We want to eat cream cakes but also want to remain slim and fit. We want to give up smoking but we also want another cigarette. We want a secure retirement but we do not want to save. Our expressions of preference often seem contradictory.
  • “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to functions.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • Our behavior depends not just on what people do but also on our beliefs why they do it on our familiarity with the wider social context, and for good reasons.
  • Good decision making is pragmatic and eclectic. To fit the world into a single model or narrative fails to acknowledge the universality of uncertainty and complexity.
  • Goals are often vague, interactions unpredictable, complexity extensive, problem descriptions incomplete, the environment uncertain. That is why obliquity comes into play.

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