How Trusting in Obliquity May Provide Direction

How Trusting in Obliquity may provide you Direction.png

I really love to learn. I never knew how much I enjoyed it until it was no longer forced on me. Once I graduated college and was finally no longer a student, I realized how much I wanted to keep learning. I recently attended an intensive continuing education course for music therapy. I had been looking forward to the course to get some questions answered and to be reinvigorated in my work. It was a very intensive few days and I loved every second of every long hour.

Like many continuing education opportunities, trainings, or conferences, I came back to work completely jazzed. I had a million thoughts a minute and couldn’t even set pen to paper because there were too many channels of overlapping connectivity in my brain. I couldn’t figure out how to start processing. So I went back to work with this mindset of: “let me process things through and then begin to tackle how I want to make changes.” It was meant to be a temporary mindset that would then be discontinued as soon as processing was completed. After processing-completion, I envisioned a total shake-up of my music therapy norm and that everything would explode into success!

But then, processing took a lot longer than planned and I continued to work in this temporary model of going back to how I’ve always done things. Suddenly, my “total shake-up” no longer seemed feasible. I began to have quiet existential crises about who I was and what I was even doing in my work. The glitter of the training had fallen off and the workflows of my current job became glaringly obvious to be in black and white and not the multi-color I was dreaming.

I began to question the integrity of my work and whether my focus on my “music therapy dream” was even ethical for the care I was providing to my caseload. If I chose to follow through in walking this path of my dream, was I really doing my patients’ justice? Was it ethical for me to take time away from patient care in order to focus on what I want to create for the music therapy program? It unexpectedly seemed like a question of not only limitations, but eliminations in order to find a better balance.

Is what I’m currently doing in my work just a lot of things done adequately, or should I scale back and focus on doing only a few things exceptionally?

It’s a question I think most people ask themselves in any profession. Assessing the amount and quality of our work is an important part of self-reflection. It also helps us evaluate whether our workflows or systems are how we want to keep doing things in the future.

I’m a firm believer in cycles. Everything happens in a cycle – including my questioning of my work and whether what I’m doing is the right thing. Upon reflection, this typically happens for me in an annual cycle. One thing I’m understanding more each passing year is that in addition to these life cycles, our accomplishments happen indirectly. Although I rationally know that about once a year, I question everything I’m doing at work, I also have the ability to see how with this year’s cycle the things that I accomplished had been set in motion prior to this cycle really beginning.

This idea of achieving your goals indirectly is depicted by economist John Kay in his book and lectures about “obliquity.” John Kay essentially states that when we directly attempt to achieve something, it is not nearly as successful or effective as when it is met indirectly. For example, organizations who make the most money are not focused on making money. Alternatively, when an organization focuses only on profit, this is when their successes tend to decline.

I’ve seen this aspect of obliquity numerous times in my life, but especially in my work. Throughout my annual cycles of determining my music therapy identity, I’ve focused on learning, challenging myself, and trying to be the best music therapist I can be, while attempting to remain open to feedback. I’ve tried to share these experiences along the way mostly because it’s helpful to me. Things that have occurred simply because I was willing to share my thoughts have included connecting with people all around the world to discuss music therapy, to hear music therapy-related ideas, and to collaborate with people who think music therapy can be a partnership in non-music therapy situations. I never once intended to directly obtain these specific experiences, but they occurred because I was focused on something else. This is obliquity.

It is this outlook that causes me the most struggle in finding what responsibilities to let go of. It is not a rationalization or an excuse, but more of an honest belief that the work I do may eventually provide a unique return or reveal an unexpected path. I don’t know what return will be and it doesn’t really matter. Pretty much nothing I do directly truly works out to benefit myself or anyone else, but I’m passionate about the process. The process is where we learn about who we are and why we are.

Unfortunately, being passionate about the process doesn’t actually resolve my day-to-day challenges with balance. It does, however, provide me with a better sense of grounding and trust. In the moments where I become frustrated with the status quo, the processes that are out of my control, and the confusion as to why I’m doing what I’m doing, I can remind myself of obliquity. Having concrete evidence of a success achieved indirectly can provide acceptance of all directions taken and all paths considered.



*Don’t feel like you fully understand John Kay’s obliquity? Me neither. It’s a complex mindset. I highly recommend his book: as well as his TEDx talk: for clarity and continuous learning.

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