Book Review: Obliquity (John Kay)

This instructional guide dressed up as a collection of anecdotes and case studies by John Kay was recommended to me by Alex Lenail, my favorite ideologue and intellectual sparring partner. It’s a quick and easy-to-digest read, with the thesis (more or less): Doing things directly leads to over-planned and narrow-minded results, best let things unfold as they may and roll with the punches.

this book cover is much cuter than the one I had

Throughout the book, Kay criticizes those who fall into Franklin’s Gambit: Finding evidence to support your conclusion, but forming your opinion before seeking evidence, thereby narrowing the scope of possible solutions you will pursue. But here’s the thing. Kay himself runs the gambit left right and center, and selects case studies that support his theory that the lucky and humble rule and try-hards drool. But even then, the companies and heros he profiles sure seem to me like they’re directly pursuing their goals. He pushes agendas like “make high profits” as metrics of success for businesses whose stated direct goals were other things, but who happened to make high profits anyway, and touts that as success of the big O. Dude, Kay, home boy, these businesses were pursuing their direct goals, and did it really well. Kay paints this as oblique successes taking the day, but imo, you’re better off just deciding what you want to do and really going for it.

Another thing that got me about this book is it seemed like it really could have been an article. I’ve read many books recently in the genres of Project Management, Business Development, and Leadership, and there is a common theme throughout many of them. The story goes (1) Social Scientist has a good idea. (2) Social Scientist gets a book deal. (3) Social Scientist does a case study and writes 10 good pages about their theory. (4) The terms of the book deal specify 200 pages, so they fill it with fluff. That was how this book felt to me. Imagine my intellectual self-satisfaction when I saw this was, in fact, an adaptation from an article of the same name in The Financial Times.

Here’s Dr. K himself espousing the virtues of pretending you want something only slightly orthogonal to what you really want.

All in all I would give this book a 4.9/10, borrow it from your friend (me?) and skim it, but the key takeaways sit, in my opinion, on wishy-washy, dubiously case-study heavy, seemingly unchallenged ideas, but they’re thought-provoking nonetheless.

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