Thursday Thought: Taking the Path of Obliquity

We've all heard it before, those famous words of Robert Frost about the path less traveled by making all the difference. But is it true? Do we sometimes arrive at our destination more effectively by taking the less direct, less focused route from point A to point B? 

In his wonderful book Everest: The West Ridge, Tom Hornbein writes that, as he approached the mountain, "at times I wondered if I had not come a long way only to find that what I really sought was something I had left behind." And, acknowledging this paradoxical drive to venture far when you know what you seek is close at hand, Hornbein includes just below some great Kipling: 

Something hidden. Go and find it.
Go and look behind the Ranges –
Something lost behind the Ranges.
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

So, is there something to taking the path less traveled, to not simply going from point A to point B in the most direct and quickest fashion? I think so. 

Just today I came across a wonderful book excerpt by economist and author John Kay entitled Think oblique: How our goals are best reached indirectly. In it, he of course makes a compelling case for taking the oblique path, referencing examples from Malcolm Gladwell to Bill Gates, the Panama Canal to Messner climbing Everest solo and without oxygen in 1980. (Interestingly, Kay also discusses the differences between big pharma companies Merck and Pfizer, something which I discussed a bit in my Brotherhood of the Rope post back in 2007.)

Kay's main point is simple: if we follow the hedonistic path, seeking only a direct route to profit or pleasure, we'll find neither. But, if we instead align our actions with our ethics, if we decide what we stand for and believe in and then chart a course based on those principles, both pleasure and profit will indeed follow. 

Today's Thursday Thought comes from the great utilitarian John Stuart Mill, from his autobiography written at the end of his life:

[Happiness is] only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.

Thoughts, comments, reactions, ideas? Please share them!

Will you take the path of obliquity?

Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.

  1. DSD
    DSDMarch 18,10

    Always Jake… Always…
    Great post and I loved the quotes.
    Every time I’m heading out it seems that this kind of path then appears below my feet…

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