Was it really a mistake?

engaging with oblique strategies

Quite by accident I stumbled upon a treasure trove. Out in the world, apparently right out of my reach has been an idea machine—oblique strategies. Oblique Strategies are fundamentally a deck of cards with a cultural history dating back to 1975.

Wikipedia sums it up, “card-based method for promoting creativity jointly created by musician/artist Brian Eno and multimedia artist Peter Schmidt, first published in 1975.

Full disclosure I downloaded a $1.99 iPhone app and it is great. Feel yourself blocked or uninspired? Give the phone a shake and viola.

These cards evolved from our separate working procedures. It was one of the many cases during the friendship that he [Peter Schmidt] and I where we arrived at a working position at almost exactly the same time and almost in exactly the same words. There were times when we hadn't seen each other for a few months at a time sometimes, and upon remeeting or exchanging letters, we would find that we were in the same intellectual position - which was quite different from the one we'd been in prior to that.—Brian Eno Interviewed on KPFA's Ode to Gravity, 1980

I am not certain I can convince you to click on the links and read or listen to the stories but I earnestly hope you will. Each week, if not day, I hear peers talking about their presence on one social media platform or another. What passes in their mind as their unique flavor or golden ticket is actually a well-trodden road of unrepeatable coincidences. They view themselves as a brand and they need clicks and likes to validate that brand. Hands held earnestly within view of camera so gestures can translate sincerity and overall likability. Gaze should be directed into camera as you attempt not to blink at the small mobile light you have clipped to your laptop.

The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation - particularly in studios - tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you're in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that's going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn't the case - it's just the most obvious and - apparently - reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, "Don't forget that you could adopt *this* attitude," or "Don't forget you could adopt *that* attitude.”—Brian Eno Interviewed on KPFA's Ode to Gravity, 1980

As a writer and geospatial analyst I am often leading discussions about the tools I rely on (open-source geospatial platforms, ArcGIS, Python (PyQGIS), Tableau, census data for example). I always think this is the wrong question. The tangential way of attacking the problem is first to identify the problem. The question needs to come first. I entered the world of geospatial analysis from the back door. I had open-source public health and population data without a narrative arc. I also was able to locate quite a bit of geo-coded data but how to integrate the two so I could narrate the story more completely?

Perhaps the newly defined question of what happened and where presented the hidden intention in a way that might lead to exploration and insights.

The first Oblique Strategy said "Honour thy error as a hidden intention." And, in fact, Peter's first Oblique Strategy - done quite independently and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that - was ...I think it was "Was it really a mistake?" which was, of course, much the same kind of message. Well, I collected about fifteen or twenty of these and then I put them onto cards. At the same time,
Peter had been keeping a little book of messages to himself as regards painting, and he'd kept those in a notebook. We were both very surprised to find the other not only using a similar system but also many of the messages being absolutely overlapping, you know...there was a complete correspondence between the messages.—
Brian Eno Interviewed on KPFA's Ode to Gravity, 1980

The insights are buried in the journey or at least this is what I wholeheartedly believe. I listened to the audio and learned about Brian Eno’s and Peter Schmidt’s journey. The unique approaches and viewpoints feeding their creativity and zeal for new ideas. There were certainly a lot of people doing things the easier way. Following the musical or artistic styles that sell and bring average people out in droves.

But where is the fun in that?

So subsequently we decided to try to work out a way of making that available to other people, which we did; we published them as a pack of cards, and they're now used by quite a lot of different people, I think.Brian Eno Interviewed on KPFA's Ode to Gravity, 1980

If you are like me, you might need reminders from time to time. What Seth Godin calls 100 true believers is our fundamental truth as creatives. Why are so many of us willing to lean into LinkedIn’s secret algorithms or join the hashtag mafia?

Here are my thoughts. If you value what you are creating and put it out in the world proudly and sincerely because it will help someone or curate empathy — maybe it should be whispered.

Whispered because only those waiting and listening will hear your message. It might be out of reach of those seeking to monetize and amplify and land right where it should—as an honest intention.