John Kay

The principle of obliquity…says that some objectives are best pursued indirectly. We are all familiar with one application of the principle of obliquity. While Americans, characteristically, talk of the pursuit of happiness, happiness is rarely best achieved when it is pursued. Research in social psychology confirms our intuition and experience. Happy people are not, in the main, those who selfishly promote their own interests: in fact happy people are most often characterised by a kind of uncalculating and outgoing generosity.

Instinctively, we understand why. What makes for happiness is rather complicated and uncertain, and dependent on interactions with other people…In noting these things, we can see that they have direct business analogies.

Let me state the principle of obliquity rather more formally. When a characteristic is selected for in an uncertain and imperfectly known environment, deliberate action to promote that characteristic is often self-defeating, and the highest values of the characteristic will often be achieved by chance.

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