Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies for Tangential Thinking

Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Nick Williams
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Here Come the Warm Jets

“The key to Brian, from my view, is his sense of play . . . Although Eno is considered an intellectual, and clearly he has more than sufficient wit, it’s Brian’s instinctive and intuitive choices that impress me. Instinct puts us in the moment, intellect is slower.”

-Robert Fripp, long-time Eno collaborator

Brian Eno is a man that seems to infuse positivity and creativity in everything he has ever touched— that spirit, that willingness to embrace failure and to approach everything from a playful, intuitive and creative perspective, is one that can serve to enrich our lives and empower our contributions to the world.

He has a unique knack for embracing the ambiance of life. The mercurial renaissance man has dabbled in almost every type of creative endeavor imaginable.

Starting off as an esoteric and free-wheeling electronic glam pop pioneer before moving into the world of contemplative ambient soundscapes, Eno is a true trailblazer: on one hand straddling the line of his era’s pop sensibilities, on the other hand fearlessly innovating or expanding on conventional sonar wisdom.

Eno’s list of classics is undeniable—from Another Green World to Ambient 1: Music for Airports; and that’s not even including the gems he had a hand in producing—most notably David Bowie’s iconic Berlin trilogy, as well as some Talking Heads, Devo, and U2 albums.  

In addition, Brian Eno is a noteworthy visual artist, philosopher, and musical theorist.

It is hard to imagine that any one person could excel and innovate in so many different creative mediums. Brian Eno did not achieve success through blind luck or pure hard work, though both contributing factors. Rather, Eno embodied a mental framework for dealing with success, failure, tribulation, and innovation.

While Eno’s framework may be a singular way of being, impossible to directly emulate or reproduce, he has made efforts to pass on his wisdom to others through his writings and through Oblique Strategies: a set of axioms, transcribed onto cue cards and derived from the Chinese Divination system, the I Ching.

“St. Elmo’s Fire”

Oblique Strategies started out as a card-based method designed to encourage the exploration of lateral thinking as a means of solving creative dilemmas. Lateral thinking is the philosophy of approaching problems from an indirect, creative angle.

The Strategies were created alongside Eno’s close friend and mentor, the painter Peter Schmidt, and began as a limited press set of cards that were extremely difficult to track down, even for the biggest of Eno heads.

Luckily, we now live in an era where everything is accessible as long as you have an internet connection. As a result, you can now download replica versions of the Oblique Strategies as an app for iPhone and Android.  

The card’s messages can be quite straightforward, and yet their application has the potential to send projects down unexpected roads, filled with twists and turns.

Oblique Strategies’ general axioms are broadly applicable in almost any situation. Sometimes all we need is that extra little nudge to get the ball rolling. Not unlike studying for tests in grade school, using a tangible, physical productivity tool like cue cards can help us retain information, get out of our heads, and see things from a different angle.

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

Brian Eno presents the idea of an open world—of life and our endeavors and projects as a question with an unlimited amount of answers.

Our natural inclination might be to follow our habitual patterns—to pursue the safe and comfortable solution to the problem—even if that solution might be harmful to us, or move us further away from a solution that will satisfy our spirit.

The cards are basically tangible attempts to scramble the mundane patterns that occupy our mind and interfere with the flow of creative thoughts—as Eno himself states:

“The enemy of creative work is boredom . . . and the friend is alertness. Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.”

It’s this loss of control, espoused by Eno, which can seem terrifying and unforgiving. After all, we spend our entire lives trying to maintain control—control over our futures, our finances, and our place in the world. But giving up that familiarity can be an important step in exploring uncharted creative grounds. Boredom and familiarity are very powerful forces in our lives, forces that can stunt self-development and dull our senses of curiosity.

It is often much easier to be bored or boring than to put ourselves in vulnerable situations.

Like a mother nudging their angsty pre-teen out of their comfort zone, pulling a card from the Oblique Strategies deck could at times trigger a weird, or uncomfortable outcome.

Tim Harford, author of the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, illuminates the type of bizarre situations Eno’s unique strategies would catalyze. For example, during the recording of the Lodger album, Carlos Alomar, one of the world’s greatest guitarists, was told to play the drums instead.

Another famous example of the Strategies at work involved Bowie and Eno brainstorming and recording ‘Sense of Doubt,’ one of the songs from Bowie’s spectacular album, Heroes (1977). They each picked a card but didn’t reveal it’s content:

“It was like a game,” Eno recalled. “We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next. . . . As it turned out they were entirely opposed to one another. Effectively mine said, ‘Try to make everything as similar as possible,’ and his said ‘Emphasize differences.’”

As exemplified by Bowie and Eno’s experience—the messages transmitted by the cards can lead down chaotic and diverging paths.  

However, at times, chaos can be that elusive missing ingredient. Most things, and especially creative works, don’t necessarily progress on a steady and obvious continuum.  

Sometimes the obscure path is the best one; Bowie and Eno needed to head in completely opposite directions creatively before they could converge again and produce a piece with such a profound impact.

Without Oblique Strategies, maybe Bowie and Eno would have agreed on every single step and aspect, and maybe they would have produced a song that never even left the studio.

In an interview with Charles Amirkhanian, Eno explains how Oblique Strategies was conceived after taking a different perspective when it came to crunch-time panic:

“[The cards] 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.”

Lateral thinking underscores the idea that we need to see our limitations as a form of strength, an idea that can also serve to abate modern problems like workplace stress, self-confidence issues, and productivity guilt.  

Nobody is perfect—a truth which should be celebrated and accepted as a tenet of human nature rather than being painted in a negative light. Our limitations allow us to pause and offer an invaluable opportunity to look at life’s dilemmas from a new perspective.  

Eno’s system encourages the user to visualize mental blocks not as dead ends, but rather as jumping off points to move in new and unexpected directions.  

Often, pivoting towards a completely different solution can feel intimidating or unnatural—and yet, the intended use of Eno’s cards not only prevents you from festering in the possibility of failure but also teaches you how to use failure and fear of the unknown as building blocks towards success in previously unimaginable ways.

You draw a card, and you follow the instructions, no matter how bizarre or counterproductive those instructions might seem.  

But it wasn’t all blue skies and sunshine with the Oblique Strategies method, which at times, left behind some pissed off and bitter musicians.

The prescriptive nature of the cards has led several bands to completely scrap songs or ideas—even if they did not, at the moment, necessarily want to. Devo, for example, famously hated the system. In a funny assessment of Eno’s spiritually driven system the band’s frontman, Jerry Casale, stated:

"Devo being the smartass intellectuals that we were, we thought [the cards] were pretty wanky, they were too Zen for us. We thought that precious, pseudo-mystical, elliptical stuff was too groovy. We were into brute, nasty realism and industrial-strength sounds and beats. We didn't want pretty. Brian was trying to add beauty to our music."

But for every cynical realist who revolts at the idea of spirituality or self-development, there are dozens of others who can find meaning and peace of mind in simple creative axioms, where there is no room for the hypercritical or obsessed.  

The axioms presented on the cards have a real “go with the flow”-type vibe; it can be very rewarding to allow yourself to embrace the fluidity of intuition, to ride the wave of the creative process without getting hung up on all the little details.  

It is important not to place perfection on a pedestal—a concept central to the ideas of modern self-help psychologists like Daniel J. Levitin, who argues for a form of decision-making called  “satisficing,” which is essentially the pursuit of the ‘that’s good enough.’

Satisficing is not an excuse to accept the bare minimum, but rather a strategy to avoid wasting any unnecessary mental resources. LIke Oblique Strategies, it contributes to a more carefree approach towards creativity and decision-making.

“On Some Faraway Beach”

For Eno, there seems to be no such thing as a bad ending. And yet, a fear of bad endings is what motivates and drives so much of general human action.  

On the grandest scale, it’s a fear of death, but on a more specialized level, it can be a fear of failure or a fear of missed opportunity.

We obsess over the minutiae in our lives because we fear being left behind by the fast-moving machinations of our society. Brian Eno embraces those potential bad endings, instead encouraging the exploration of failure as a tool towards even greater success. Eno invites us to take a more light-hearted approach to mental obstacles as nothing, for him, is a dead-end—it’s just another fork in the road.

Overcoming creative or professional battles can be difficult—especially if we over-intellectualize our struggles. Yet it’s easy to become mired in existential crises over our obligations—will I ever be able to finish this project? What’s the point anyway? Am I good enough, am I talented enough to leave my mark on the world? In these situations—fostering a healthy relationship with our instincts can help us take action without obsessing over the results.

There is a whimsical and playful optimism that permeates almost all of Brian Eno’s work—an optimism that we would be well-served to incorporate into our personal challenges and pursuits.

And in some situations, the solution may lie in choosing a single card from a deck.

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