Saturday, September 10, 2005

Curious about Foxes and Hedgehogs: Which Are You?

Being a ‘generalist’ (or what some would call a ‘fox’), I have often been criticized for the fact that I pursue so many different careers, studies, subjects and interests. If I have heard “focus, focus, focus” once, I have actually heard it dozens of times. The Fox and the Hedgehog parable describes the daily encounter between the fox and the hedgehog.

The cunning fox has many ideas of ways to wage a sneak attack on the hedgehog. As the fox bounds toward him, the hedgehog thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” He - as always - rolls up into a sphere of sharp spikes and the fox, seeing this defense calls off his attack.

In 1953, Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote, “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.

For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side (i.e. the hedgehogs), who relate everything to a single central vision ... and those (i.e. the foxes) who lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused ...” For more of the article, click HERE.

In the past few months I have been reading Jim Collins’ Good to Great in which he writes about the ‘Hedgehog Concept’ - “A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, and intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.”

I have also been preparing for a presentation I will be giving about creativity and finding that “one great idea.” So, also being a storyteller, I thought this parable - or one similar - might fit well with my theme. And, I guess that in the usual definition of a being a fox - "their thought is scattered or diffused," I became quite interested in the whole discussion and idea of separating people and businesses into either foxes or hedgehogs.

I was feeling a bit distraught about being a typical fox, until I found the article by Ralph Estling that appeared in May, 2000 in the Skeptical Inquirer. You can read it HERE.

Estling wrote, “There is a third category, which Berlin doesn't mention because, I guess, it's so awfully rare, which includes people like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Thomas Jefferson, who combine in their natures both fox and hedgehog. Home run sluggers are strictly hedgehogs, while the little guys who regularly poke scratch singles through all parts of the infield, get to first base on bunts, and make it a habit to steal second, are your foxes. Babe Ruth was your quintessential hedgehog. Wee Willie Keeler, who ‘just hit em where they ain't,’ was your fox par excellence. Politicians and popes are almost always foxes, economists and saints almost without exception hedgehogs."

And came to the conclusion, “A world run by experts would be a disaster. Unless the hedgehog is also a fox, the specialist also a pretty fair generalist, Earth is doomed if ruled by experts. And if we can't have the combination of fox and hedgehog (and we almost certainly can't, it is much too improbable) and must choose only the one, let it be the good generalist, the all-rounder.”


You will find a quick, down and dirty summary of the whole discussion with links by clicking HERE. Even Hobart and William Smith Colleges extol the virtues of a liberal arts education (and, yes, my college was liberal arts all the way - we had a great science department, but the approach was still liberal arts - lots of foxes!).

I found only one different - and fun - quote at my favorite site:

Douglas Adams wrote, “If somebody thinks they're a hedgehog, presumably you just give 'em a mirror and a few pictures of hedgehogs and tell them to sort it out for themselves.”

So what do you think? And which are you? I would love to read your comments.