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Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly

3.57  ·  Rating Details  ·  487 Ratings  ·  59 Reviews
A leading economist charts the indirect road to happiness and wealth.

Using dozens of practical examples from the worlds of business, politics, science, sports, literature, even parenting, esteemed economist John Kay proves a notion that feels at once paradoxical and deeply commonsensical: The best way to achieve any complex or broadly defined goal-from happiness to weal
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published April 14th 2011 by Penguin Press (first published May 1st 2010)
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Ian Not His Real Name
The Allure of the Oblique

I bought and read this book because of one word, which happened to be its title.

I was fascinated by the word “obliquity”. I wasn’t familiar with it. I didn’t even know whether it was a neologism created by the author, John Kay, a Professor of Economics and regular columnist for the Financial Times.

As it turns out, the word has been around since the fifteenth century. Naturally, it derives from the word “oblique", which means "slanting, sidelong, indirect".

As a noun, it
Feb 23, 2012 Bobby rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good quick read about how the path to achievement is often obtained by "muddling through" with uncertain destinations as opposed to detailed planning, sterile objectives, and over-analysis. Some excellent perspectives, and well worth reading.

On the downside, the book comes across as almost anti-objective decision making. I don't think this was Kay's intent, but I hoped the book would at some point go further in highlighting the value of using objective decision frameworks - even in instances whe
Jun 07, 2011 Jeffrey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: edification
Recommended. However, like many business and conceptually-driven academic books, the provocative concepts in the book make enduring the repetition and lack of stark definition worthwhile.

I am annoyed at the publisher and whatever writer from the Financial Times placed and wrote, respectively, the quote saying Kay was an excellent writer on the book's front cover. Unfortunately, Kay is not a great writer, as he failed to solve the problem of having an absorbing book spring out of concept that ar
Per spiegare il pensiero obliquo l'autore ricorre spesso a confronti con lo sport:

Ed Smith, giocatore di cricket e scrittore, esprime questo concetto molto bene: "Non dico che lo sviluppo personale sia più importante della vittoria; al contrario, dico che godere del viaggio alla scoperta di sé, rimuovendo parte della pressione e delle angosce associate alla vittoria a tutti i costi, aiuta a vincere più spesso".

Bob Rotella autore di 'Golf is not a Game of Perfect' spiega che si può riuscire a f
Mara Shaw
Remember the Smurfs? How half the words in their conversations were replaced with the word "smurf" or "smurfy"? John Kay has done something similar with "obliquity" and "oblique". Decisions that are made iteratively, with trial and error, employing emotion or intuition, or from going for greatness and reaping a side benefit of profits -- these are all oblique according to Kay. Quickly in the book, I was frustrated with the repetition, much as the Smurfs made me cringe.

Chapters 1 - 4 and "Conclus
If you are looking for the short version, another Brit gave us the same message: No, you can't always get what you want
But if you try sometime, you just might find
You get what you need

For the most part, obliquity seems to be pursuing goals that come from the heart rather than the pursuit of fame or fortune.

The book's set up: if you follow obliquity, it will get you the true measure of success. So as long as you are doing it for the right reasons, you will get wealthy, which was really the goal
May 29, 2011 Ed rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well I read this book in more or less one sitting today. Couldn't put it down. I guess it has profoundly shaken some of my ideas about how to make good decisions, and I will have to weave it into my conflict work.It is a well written and persuasively argued case for going about achieving things indirectly, in an exploratory, provisional way. And this is necessary in business, in our own personal lives, in our attempts to become happy. Life is way too complex for our goals to be always clearly st ...more
Aug 03, 2015 Rick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business, 2015, audiobook
I didn't think I would like this book as much as I did. I'm not sure if I want to become an urban planner anymore now, after Mr. Kay describes the failures of planned development to keep up with the demands and changes to a city. If you go after a complex problem, especially one that will affect many people, you must be able to pivot if necessary, instead of going full speed ahead with a single preconceived solution.
Nov 28, 2011 Joseph rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book discusses on why an indirect/muddling through (or just oblique) way is better than a direct approach. For example, why paradoxically, the happiest people in the world arent pursuing happiness per se nor are the richest people on the world maximizing wealth per se...that happiness and wealth are often a by product of our passion/energy.

the book also advocates an present adaptive approach to achieving goals vs long term plan. I agree with this thinking. another thinking is to break down
Sep 28, 2011 Carla rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this book in Dutch (for I rated it as "okay" because the message is interesting, as are the examples but I didn't see the practicality of it. Even the chapter "Obliquity in practice" gave more arguments and not the "how to apply this" that I hoped for. Kay argues that often goals for success, happiness aren't reached directly but indirectly. People or companies that aim at being successful, often aren't so successful. I found the concept of Franklin's Gambit interestin ...more
Kevin Browne
Being goal oriented is a popular virtue these days. There are innumerable websites promoting all sorts of methods to increase productivity, wealth, health, happiness, and so much more. The sometimes unstated, but more often over-stated, message of many of these resources is that we need to sit down, clearly define our goal, and march directly towards it.

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
Magda Roberto
John Kay é um economista de renome que no seu livro Obliquidade procura mostrar o valor do pensamento lateral no processo de tomada de decisão, contrariando a importância atribuída a processamentos de informação racionalizados e directos. A premissa de que os grandes ganhos e as melhores decisões são efeitos colaterais de objectivos de primeira ordem é apresentada ao longo de três partes: na primeira o autor explora a importância e os benefícios do pensamento obliquo; na segunda parte, Joh Kay f ...more
Jan 30, 2015 Phredric rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Would have made a good essay but instead we got an awfully, painfully even, padded out book.
Robert Giddings
This book starts off with an interesting idea, but then slaps it repeatedly across your face until you're just sick of it. In a way it's impressive that it manages to do this in less than 200 pages. The book also fails to be constructive, giving various examples of decisions made in the past which have gone wrong and why, but not giving any kind of decision making advice other than "if a plan isn't working then don't stick to it".

The style is similar to Malcolm Gladwell, but the book is not as w
D.m. Smith
I used to read a lot of John Kay, including his commentary, which I usually found refreshing. In this book, I don't think he makes his case. And it's an odd case to make from one who has written so extensively on strategy as the hard nuts-and-bolts work of making and executing feasible plans.
Kirsty Darbyshire
Jan 05, 2015 Kirsty Darbyshire rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
I was in complete agreement with the author before I started reading. If you want to achieve something, especially something like "be happy" or "make lots of money", you simply won't achieve it by setting it as your goal, mostly I think because it doesn't give you anything concrete to do. And there are lots of examples here about people and companies who have set out to do these things without success, as well as those who achieved these goals by trying to do something else entirely. One example ...more
Aug 20, 2014 P rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: problem-solving
The achievement of a great statesman is to mediate effectively between competing views and values The success of a leader is to continuously match the capabilities of the firm to the market conditions The skill of problem solving frequently lies in the interpretation and re-interpretation of high level objectives The best means of reengineering is not going back and inventing a better way of doing work but trying models that have been successful elsewhere Happiness is where you find it, not wher ...more
Mike Peleah
Feb 24, 2016 Mike Peleah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: betterme
The books is a philosophical anthem to "oblique" decision making. John Kay pray indirect way of making decisions, through trial and errors, rather than comprehensive planning in all details from the very beginning. The book was definitely worth to read--both because of some informative parts and because disagreement with some parts provoked interesting discussion.

I got the feeling that John Kay is going too far in lambasting planning and preaching obliquity, example of non-planning of Paris is
The Joy of Booking
Just the kind of “stuff I’ve always known without being put into words” kind of book I like! Quick: which band do you think has a chance at making it big? The band that has real passion for what they do and whose focus is on making music, or the band that has determined what a #1-selling band looks like, sounds like, and acts like and has strategically implemented all of those elements in order to get rich? If you guessed the first one, you already get the premise of Obliquity.

Our society is ful
Jul 30, 2015 Choonghwan rated it it was amazing

I found some western philosophers like this book’s author might have reached the concept of “Wu Wei (non-doing)”, which is the basis of Taoism, in oblique ways. The author argues we cannot pursue elusive and sublime goals, such as running a good company, winning a war, directly. There are many reasons: we cannot fully understand and get enough information to make a perfect decision even with hindsight; environment and situation take turns and twist constantly; we cannot enforce our will unilater
Feb 27, 2012 Anne rated it liked it
This is a non-fiction book that discusses how the straightforward approach is not always the best one. When it comes to our goals, approaches to happiness, decision-making processes, etc. the oblique approach is often better. In the book John Kay explains this theory and gives a myriad of examples (several from his professional field: economics). One example in the book is mountain climbing. Climbing a mountain is a dangerous, grueling experience that is extremely difficult, yet mountain climber ...more
Not worth reading beyond intro, first two chapters, and randomly pick one or two others. You'll get it. He doesn't define obliquity very well, or stick close to his definition, as he rambles about all the associated concepts. There's a lot to his main gist, but his organization of the material and concepts is unnecessary. You know it, you just need four chapters to jostle all the ideas in your head a bit.
Marilyn Pocius
Jun 22, 2016 Marilyn Pocius rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am a John Kay fan. This is based on an article he wrote for the Financial Times. The premise is that most goals are best pursued indirectly. He's an economist, so one example is that the most profitable companies are not the most profit oriented. Maximizing shareholder value is an uninspiring mission statement. "The greatest happiness is rarely achieved by those setting out to be happy."
May 06, 2012 Stella rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This was a short and interesting read; its premise is that the world and systems are complex therefore taking a direct approach to decision making may not be as effective as an 'oblique' or indirect manner which adjusts for circumstances and environment. Practical examples are provided where corporations, nations, individuals have failed by taking a direct approach through oversimplifying their aims (maximise shareholder value over building good businesses; redesigning cities without recognising ...more
Apr 18, 2013 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After reading Nate Silver's "The Signal and the Noise" and Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow," John Kay's "Obliquity" is a requisite counterbalance.

I did not give more stars because I set the standard extremely high for Mr. Kay. His articles in the Financial Times are almost always path breaking. I try never to miss one of his articles as I invariably learn something entirely new; he jars me away from long-held assumptions and prompts me to question basic beliefs about the role
Mark Law
Mar 01, 2015 Mark Law rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book explores a really interesting concept which is closely linked with the ideas and practice of emerging strategy. I think there is so much more to the concept than emerged in the book that it's worth spending some serious thinking time working out its practical real world implications (if there are any beyond throwing a lot of dice) and how to deploy them.
Shawn Liu
The central thesis of the book is that most large goals are best achieved indirectly. For example, if a company's primary goal is to make as much profit as possible, it can achieve that by focusing instead on something else other than profit (eg making the best service, helping the most people, being the best place to work etc.). Similarly, if my goal is life fulfillment, that is better achieved through focus on something else (eg helping others, doing something bigger than yourself) rather than ...more
Feb 12, 2015 Jeremy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great, life changing principle. Nonetheless, It could have been explained in a 1 page article. He essentially says that a directive approach to anything works when there are specific goals and an understanding of the instructions & institutions required in order to achieve the desired outcome.
Wendy Yu
Charles Darwin attempted to follow Franklin’s rule when he set out the pros and cons of marriage in two opposing columns. A wife would provide “children, companionship, the charms of music and female chit chat.” But Darwin also noted the disadvantages: the prospect of “being forced to visit relatives, and to bend in every trifle”, the “loss of freedom to go where one liked”. Both men understood perfectly well that moral algebra is not how people really make decisions. Below his assessment Darwin ...more
Richard Newton
I enjoyed this book, but it is a bit of a one trick wonder and it could probably have been much shorter. Having said that it would not be a book then but just an essay - but it could have been a 5 star essay. I found the main ideas, that goals are best achieved indirectly, to be interesting - and some of the examples are almost persuasive. But I can equally come up with many examples of people who have relentlessly and directly pursued their goals and achieved them quickly. However, that is not ...more
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I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1948, and completed my schooling and undergraduate education in that city: I am fortunate to have lived most of my life in beautiful places. I went to the University of Edinburgh to study mathematics. But, after taking a subsidiary course in economics, I decided that I wanted to be an economist. The notion that one might understand society better through the ap ...more
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“We incline to see history through the lives of great men. That inclination blinds us to the real complexity …” 0 likes
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