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Friday, 2.18.05: Fox & Hedgehog

I had dinner with Ann last night and we got to talking about skills and talents. We both admire people who are masters in one area yet find ourselves in the jack of all trades (master of none) category. And I remembered what someone said to me once -- that he was a fox (teacher, musician, art dealer), but his wife, a well-known print artist, was a hedgehog. The actual saying is this:  

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

I thought it came from Aesop's Fables, but his fox and hedgehog are irrelevant. The line is a fragment by a Greek poet named Archilochus -- mysterious and open to interpretation. It's one of those handy ways of categorizing people and I always thought it differentiated generalists (us jacks) from specialists.

But now I'm flipping through web pages seeing that thinkers give it a different spin.

Basically, human beings are categorized as either "hedgehogs" or "foxes". Hedgehogs' lives are embodiment of a single, central vision of reality according to which they "feel", breathe, experience and think - "system addicts", in short. Examples include Plato, Dante, Proust and Nietzsche. Foxes live centrifugal than centripetal lives, pursuing many divergent ends and, generally, possess a sense of reality that prevents them from formulating a definite grand system of "everything", simply because they "know" that life is too complex to be squeezed into any Procrustean unitary scheme. Montaigne, Balzac, Goethe and Shakespeare are, in various degrees, foxes. [Arvan Harvat as quoted by Kheper]

(Never mind that I don't know enough about the literary giants referenced to test this guy's assertion.)

Princeton professor Marvin Bressler pointed out the power of the hedgehog during one of our long conversations: "You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They're hedgehogs." Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labor—they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it. "Those who leave the biggest footprints," said Bressler, "have thousands calling after them, 'Good idea, but you went too far!' " [again Kheper]

Hmmm... that's pretty interesting. And it definitely still leaves me in the fox category. I had lots of grand ideas in my old career, but I could never simplify them enough to have them gain traction. My old company is still enthralled by its own complexity -- a battalion of clever foxes -- and so its "vision" is more of a plaque than an organizing force.

Oh -- naturally some business guru has already latched on to this, calling it the Hedgehog Concept, without which your company is scattered, diffused, and inconsistent.

On the other hand, I see an ad for Hobart and William Smith College that extols the virtue of liberal arts foxes.

Being a hedgehog or being a fox is more about attitude and perspective than what academic subjects one pursues. Are you passionate to know? Do you love to learn? Do you see the world from multiple perspectives? Do you want to develop all of your abilities?

If your answer is yes, you are probably more like the fox than the hedgehog.

They also have a pretty humorous quiz for college-bound high school kids, to help them figure out if they are foxes are hedgehogs.

I guess it takes both foxes and hedgehogs to populate a forest.



The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin

Fox and the Hedgehog: an assortment of opinions.

The Hedgehog Concept by Jim Collins

Hobart and William Smith College



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