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Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  725 ratings  ·  79 reviews
If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another. This is the concept of 'obliquity': paradoxical as it sounds, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. Whether overcoming geographical obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting sales targets, history shows that oblique approaches are the most successful, especial ...more
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published March 18th 2010 by Profile Books
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Ian "Marvin" Graye
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 rated it liked it
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
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
May 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Mara Shaw
Apr 28, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Tim Hughes
Apr 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In this book “Obliquity” John Kay points out that actually objectives are a waste of time, what do I mean?

If we go back to 1940, Prime Minister Churchill stood up in the UK Parliament and said that the United Kingdom would be victorious. Which was a goal, but Churchill had no idea how he would reach that goal.

Think about it, the Nazis had pushed back the whole of the Europe onto the beaches of Dunkirk, the UK hadn’t prepared itself for war and especially a war over a highly efficient and overwhe
May 29, 2011 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 02, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Nov 20, 2011 rated it liked it
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 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015, audiobook, business
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.
D.m. Smith
Jul 07, 2014 rated it it was ok
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.
Jan 14, 2015 rated it did not like it
Would have made a good essay but instead we got an awfully, painfully even, padded out book.
John Jacobi
May 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Good ideas, bad writing: most of the book suffered from this unfortunate combination. It was also repetitive and could have been greatly condensed.

Still, the end of the book pulls everything together quite nicely, describing some of the principles of cultural evolution. To ask what a business is for, he says, might be comparable to asking what a tiger is for. Be forewarned, though, that these descriptions are not technical. For that other books on this topic are better: Cultural Evolution by Bo
Intriguing points, little evidence

I really wanted this book to be successful. As a person somewhat familiar with complexity theory, the points Kay makes feel right. But the evidence provided is very limited.

The author handpicks various events and uses them to conclude his ideas are valid.

Unfortunately, I constantly had the feeling that an author claiming the exact opposite could use the same evidence successfully. That's how unrelated from the point the evidence seems.
Sam Klemens
Aug 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Ehhh.. I mean, good idea for a book but I think the whole message could have been contained in about 4.3 pages. Instead we got a bunch of stories and lessons about how you "should" lead your life, much of it being obvious common sense. Really, my strategy for how long to wait for the bus is correct? Swell, did I need to waste my life reading that in a book.

I think obliquity would have been a good magazine article, it didn't need to reach bookish levels.
Sabastian Hunt
Feb 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book had one central idea: goals are best achieved indirectly. The author at times stretched to make his point but that didn't detract from the freshness of his thesis. The author says that problems that are able to be defined tand that have a finite number of solutions and a best solution can be met head on but for real life problems with an infinite number of possible solutions and no known best solution it is best to meet those problems obliquely. Another good reason given for approachin ...more
Oct 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Suggested by Rory Sutherland this book would be five stars for someone unfamiliar with the ideas of bottom up/emergence, Nassim Taleb, complexity theory, or decision making. It's a great introduction to those ideas.
From the book, "If there is a one line explanation of the power of obliquity it would be - evolution is smarter than you are."
If that quote interests you - dive in.
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: great
Really good, engaging little look at lateral thinking and oblique approaches vs direct ones, as applied to decision making in business and life. With some outstanding, illuminating and memorable examples, and some entertaining potted histories of blue-chip enterprises that went brown-chip.
Omar Ismail
Feb 08, 2018 rated it liked it
Okay book, quick read. General theme is that the more abstract/high-level the goal (happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment) the less clear the path to get there, and the more one's focus ought to be directed on low level activities (family, friends, reading, gym, etc).
Albert Faber
Feb 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
About 3,5 star, really, but I overrated because I read it at a good time, working on a training. I’m well informed in terms of theory, but this easy to read book offers nice examples and generally a good entrance from theory to practice. Very useful for my own training!
Oct 07, 2018 rated it liked it
Complete overview, not everything that happens had an explanation. I guess that’s it.
Chad McKenzie
Aug 10, 2018 rated it liked it
More of an interesting book if you approach it in respect to decision making as opposed to achievement.
Arop Pattnaik
May 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: my-collection
It's quite fascinating to see how we make decisions but the intent is only limited to how we weigh things around and take decisions i.e being adaptive and learning as we go.
Jan Bos
Aug 02, 2018 rated it liked it
Excellent book on fundamental issues in society: why aiming for shareholder value might not create value; why aiming too desperately for better education may only result in higher exam scored; the list goes on. While theoretically suboptimal, success is often achieved by incrementally selecting a good option from a limited set.
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
Sven Meys
Feb 27, 2017 rated it liked it
On its own, I did not find this book particularly interesting to read.

However, since I recently read a lot about focus, goals setting and grit it does provide an interesting look at how to define your goals and approach them.

While I used to set a goals and try to tackle it straight on, this book mede me realise there is another, more subtle way. Again adding a missing piece of the larger puzzle.

Obliquity! Awesome idea. Shame I didn't enjoy reading it.
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A highly informative, entertaining and surprising read on the potential benefits of taking what looks like the long way 'round. Highly recommended for anyone interested in stimulating their capacity to shift perceptions :).
Kirsty Darbyshire
Dec 02, 2014 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
Mike Peleah
Aug 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
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
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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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