Ideas for modern living: Obliquity


Why happiness and profit are best achieved indirectly

Obliquity is the notion that complex goals are often best achieved indirectly.For example, happiness is the product of fulfilment in work and private life, not the repetition of pleasurable actions, so happiness is not achieved by pursuing it. The most profitable companies are not the most dedicated to profit. (Few companies in the history of the world were as profit-oriented as Bear Stearns and Lehman – so profit-oriented, in fact, they were ultimately destroyed by the greed of their own employees.) Buildings designed as “machines for living in” proved to be machines their occupants did not like living in. The planned cities of the world, such as Canberra and Brasilia, are dull and lifeless; the great cities of the world, such as Paris and London, grew over centuries with little assistance from any designer.

But surely we will be more successful in achieving something if we adopt it as our goal? That would be true if we were clear about the nature of that goal, and knew not just all there is to know, but all we might hope to know, about the means of achieving it. We find out about the real nature of our goals in the process of accomplishing them, and our understanding of the complex structures of personal relationships or business organisations is necessarily incomplete. We not only do not know what the future will hold but cannot anticipate even the range of possible events. The world in which we operate changes, partly as a result of our actions.

The great utilitarian John Stuart Mill recognised in his autobiography that happiness was best achieved indirectly: “aiming thus at something else [happy people] arrive at happiness along the way”. Donald Trump expressed a similar sentiment: “I don’t do it for the money. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form.” The paradox of obliquity is all around us.

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