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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly

This title of British economist John Kay’s latest book caught my attention, but thankfully, my intelligent sister, Teresa is the one who read it and did the review.

Most people won’t read a book written by an economist, let alone appreciate its title, except for maybe me. A few months ago, I spent a Sunday afternoon at the library, skimming through dictionaries, looking up the title of British economist John Kay’s latest book, Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly (due out in the US in spring 2011); it is based on his essay in the January 17, 2004 issue of the Financial Times. As with many words, obliquity has diverse definitions, depending on its usage (e.g., astronomy, trigonometry, botany, grammar). I zeroed in on two from the Oxford English Dictionary: “3. Indirectness in action, conduct, speech, etc.; a way or method that is not direct or straightforward” and “4. Deviation from any rule or order. Obs. Rare.”

As Kay notes, anyone can program a computer to play Sudoku (or Jeopardy), but that misses the whole point of the game (consider one of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s responses during 2010 Celebrity Jeopardy Tournament). To be oblique is to follow an indirect path, to not do the obvious, to not plow single-mindedly toward a goal. Kay’s primary thesis is we have less control over our circumstances than we think we do; while we can create models, plan actions, and propose strategies, we cannot control what other people, and especially nature, will do in response. And when things go wrong, we blame people and nature, not our models, actions, or strategies.

He takes particular aim at the recent business scandals that led to the economic meltdown in 2008 and the decisions that led to the U.S. military action and ongoing involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kay also rails against planning that ignores the fickleness of human nature and unpredictability of the natural world. When he discusses attempts at urban planning by le Corbusier and Robert Moses, the cliché “Rome wasn’t built in a day” rings oddly appropriate. Muddling through is practical and pragmatic thinking, examination and discovery, reassessment and, ultimately, achievement

While the book is not a self-help guide, it is readable (less than 200 pages) and gave me (in spite of its decidedly subjective viewpoint) insight into why some people, like Warren Buffet, seem to have the “magic touch.” These individuals focus on those things they know well, understand their goals, and learn from their mistakes. While there is a need for the direct approach to solve some problems, we are best served when we do not merely think outside the box, but obliquely.

1 comment:

J. said...

I am intrigued. I may get it and pass it along to my teenagers. Two of them read Freakonomics-not because they had to - I just left it out on the coffee table in front of the TV-and liked it; I think because we could discuss it. While we all need goals, it seems sometimes they are just another "check" in our column.