Accomplishment’s Secret Couriers: “The Hedgehog and the Fox”
Where does success come from? It’s somewhat of a mysterious concept. I came across a fable this week that had a few roadsigns pointing to clues to the roots of it’s foundation that I’d like to expand on. “The Hedgehog and The Fox” was mentioned by the greek philosopher Archilochus amongst his writings and then in an essay that was widely publicized and heralded in the 1950’s written by Philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The observations they made note of are still widely at play today, but often unknowingly. Not only because what they speculated upon seems to be at play every day in our lives, but perhaps more importantly, there seems to be a pattern here. A framework that with more study and understanding could unlock some secrets as to why some people seem to have their way with success while others just can’t seem to get it right. First off, lets be honest, success is relative. Certainly people can define it in a variety of ways. But for those who accomplish quite a lot, there seem to be bold trends emerging all the time. In my recent column “The Drumfish Formula: Our True Originals” I discussed a pattern in people who I classify as “Drumfish”. Those who have their own opinions, dare to be different, stand out from the crowd, and don’t get frustrated under scrutiny and criticism. They are their own brand. Now I want to take things a step further. “The Hedgehog and the Fox” parable draws striking similarities to recent theories on success proposed by the brilliant author Malcolm Gladwell and Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner Charlie Munger (among many others). Is there a defined formula for success? Probably not. But they all are on to something. But the facts need to be combined to be cohesive and comprehensive and I think we need to bring attention to the fact that all these brilliant minds are discussing the same thing. A fable or parable of sorts. A Hedgehog. A fox. The fact that there are such staggering similarities causes one to raise an eyebrow about where success comes from. It doesn’t give us reason to draw definitive conclusions, but merely illustrates a pattern of thinking that is revealing about the hidden mysteries behind accomplishment. Take notice.
Let’s begin. I first want to look at an essay from the great Russian-British theorist, philosopher, and historian Sir Isaiah Berlin titled The Hedgehog and The Fox. In it Berlin discusses the differences between a metaphorical fox and hedgehog and how these differences are reflective of one of the biggest essential truths that define two schools of human thinking.
Our first known recording of this observation was a written fragment from Ancient Greek Poet Archilochus:
“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing .”
Berlin’s essay was extremely popular with the public at the time however he stated “I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game.” In the writing itself Berlin focused on legendary author Leo Tolstoy and how while he believed Tolstoy was an exception to the rule in that Tolstoy was actually a fox but believed in being a hedgehog. His heralded piece goes on to discuss Tolstoy’s famous War and Peace and theorizes that Tolstoy being an exception plays into the deepest paradoxical themes present in War and Peace and how they hold true over the course of human history.
Now think about the depths of what a fox and hedgehog are. A fox is cunning, quick, fast, always on the move. They escape predators by being slick and having a bag of tricks across different realms. A hedgehog however just needs to do one thing and do it extremely well. They roll up into a ball and stay hidden when danger strikes. And they’re an expert at this one thing.
Abraham Kamarck sums it up well in his online blog:
Berlin’s Essay uses the Fox/Hedgehog archetypes to define people and divide the world of thinkers and philosophers…
“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.”
Berlin divides the world into two kinds of people — Hedgehogs & Foxes. Hedgehogs see everything through a single vision. They understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle. The world is simple to a Hedgehog. The Fox sees the world as complex and lacking simple truths. They are able to embrace contradictory ideas and are thus often perceived as fragmented and contradictory.
This diagram helps describe some distinct differences:
In his famous piece Berlin also provides examples of historical writers, philosophers, and thinkers in both categories:
Hedgehogs: Plato, Lucretius, Dante Alighieri, Blaise Pascal, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust and Fernand Braudel
Foxes: Herodotus, Aristotle, Desiderius Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Molière, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Aleksandr Pushkin, Honoré de Balzac, James Joyce and Philip Warren Anderson
So lets flash forward now to modern day. One could hypothesize that even today we are living in a society of foxes and hedgehogs and not even fully aware of it. In his current New York Times bestselling book The ONE Thing Gary Keller hypothesizes that the secrets to success lay in a person’s ability to find their one thing and become a master at it.
He even opens with a famous proverb:
He proposes that idea that in current society there’s too many distractions and these keep us from being focused on our one thing so we can become an expert at it which in turn breeds success. Just like that hedgehog rolling into a ball….
What would Keller’s philosophy be considered? A HEDGEHOG
Now lets take the great Outliers (one of my favorite books) as an example. In it famed modern philosopher Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes that the inner workings of success are based on becoming a master at your one thing. What does it take to become master of one thing? 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell brings in many examples in history including The Beatles, Bill Gates, and Sun Co-found Bill Joy.
“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, “this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”
Here is Gladwell discussing his theory on CNN to Anderson Cooper:
What would Gladwell’s philosophy be considered? A HEDGEHOG
One of my favorite directors Tyler Perry also talked about how he achieved success. In this video he discusses narrowing your focus to “ONE THING”:
What would Tyler Perry’s philosophy be considered: A HEDGEHOG
Now lets take a look at some examples in the other school of philosophical thought. We can’t leave the fox out now can we?
While it’s my belief that the hedgehog focuses on one thing and becomes a professional and expert, the fox has a different approach. They often have a wide range of topics and interests with varying degrees of depth. The fox is always on the move with a wide attention span. Let’s start with Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner Charlie Munger.
Brilliant entrepreneur and writer Michael Simmons wrote a great article discussing the concept of “The Expert Generalist”. He writes:
Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co, who coined the term, describes the expert-generalist as:
“Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:
Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”
Sounds familiar right?
This is our classic “Fox” in the world of success and accomplishment. While the Hedgehog focuses on becoming a master at that one thing through 10,000 hours of hard work, the Fox becomes your resident “Expert Generalist.”
The Expert Generalist has a wide range of knowledge on a variety of topics. A “bag of tricks” so to speak. They will draw from his knowledge and use it in career and life in general. The fox is much more fluid with change than the hedgehog. They will draw information from widespread sources and then apply it deeply. But their across the board know-how is extensive and noticeable.
In the same article Simmons writes:
Bill Gates has said of Munger, “He is truly the broadest thinker I have ever encountered. From business principles to economic principles to the design of student dormitories to the design of a catamaran he has no equal… Our longest correspondence was a detailed discussion on the mating habits of naked mole rats and what the human species might learn from them.” Munger has, in short, been the ultimate expert-generalist.
By all accounts what would Munger’s philosophy be considered? A FOX
Let’s take a look at a couple other potential foxes.
Take entrepreneur, investor, engineer, and inventor Elon Musk‘s range of interests. Musk is involved in Automotive, Aerospace, Solar Energy, Energy Storage, Satellite High-Speed, Ground Transportation, Artificial intelligence, and Multi-Planetary Expansion. WHEW!
Simmons writes in another wonderful column:
At first, Musk’s reading spanned science fiction, philosophy, religion, programming, and biographies of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. As he got older, his reading and career interests spread to physics, engineering, product design, business, technology, and energy. This thirst for knowledge allowed him to get exposed to a variety of subjects he had never necessarily learned about in school.
Elon Musk is also good at a very specific type of learning that most others aren’t even aware of — learning transfer.
Learning transfer is taking what we learn in one context and applying it to another. It can be taking a kernel of what we learn in school or in a book and applying it to the “real world.” It can also be taking what we learn in one industry and applying it to another.
What would Musk’s mode of operation be considered? A FOX
Finally there’s Investor, businessman, and philanthropist Richard Branson who formed Virgin Group which if you do a little research is a venture capital conglomerate consisting of business areas including travel, entertainment, lifestyle, financial services, transport, healthcare, food and drink, and telecommunications. It’s business consists of more than 400 companies worldwide.
Here’s a graphic illustrating Virgin Group’s wide variety of business areas:
What would Branson’s mode of operation be considered? A FOX
The fable of “The Hedgehog and The Fox” extends across all stages and corners of humanity. This is not just people. Let’s quickly look at businesses and sports teams.
Google was started as a search engine. Where people could enter a topic into a scroll bar and find more information. They were based on having the world at your fingertips. Amazon started as the world’s first online store. You could get anything and everything whenever you wanted. Both of these companies it would appear fit into the FOX mold.
Meanwhile Steve Jobs and Apple focused on that one thing. Jobs wanted to revolutionize the computer world (and did). Because Apple focused on computers and had a defined central area of expertise one could argue with the visionary Jobs at the helm this focus made Apple into what it is today. Same with Netflix. They were focused on becoming an expert at home-movie viewing and ultimately ended up taking down Blockbuster Video. By all accounts these companies would be considered HEDGEHOGS.
Finally even the National Football League fits into these frames of thought. If you look at the 1999 Saint Louis Rams aka “The Greatest Show on Turf” or the 2007 and 2014 New England Patriots led by drumfish Tom Brady (Frankly any Patriots team of the last 15 years). These were offensive teams who beat you with their “circus-esque” play. They were and are Barnum and Bailey (hence Saint Louis’ “greatest show” nickname). Even today the Patriots still apply the FOX strategy. All the more ironic their stadium is located in the city of “Foxborough.” Of course right? Ha! With a wide range of ways to beat you and certainly a “bag of tricks” one could consider both of these franchises at these times to be FOXES.
Here’s a video of “The Greatest Show on Turf”:
Meanwhile if you look at the 1999 Tennessee Titans and the 2014 Seattle Seahawks led by Drumfish Richard Sherman these were teams that beat you with an established excellent running game and brutal defense. They were more focused and singular. But they were damn good at what their specialty was. They were HEDGEHOGS. We have had 2 Superbowls (and probably many others) where a FOX faced off against a HEDGEHOG on one of the grandest stages in the world. And we loved every moment of it.
1999: Saint Louis Rams (Fox) vs. Tennessee Titans (Hedgehog)
2014: New England Patriots (Fox) vs. Seattle Seahawks (Hedgehog)
A final note to mention is often in today’s world in all facets of life it can often be very beneficial to pair the Hedgehog and Fox. The two can definitely learn from each other! In fact, many very successful pairings have had success because they learn from and complement each other. Interestingly enough operating under one method or the other people, businesses, or even sports teams tend to rise above the crowd. What can we conclude from this? Perhaps the very early writing of Archilochus and the mid 20th century writings of Berlin were on to something that we don’t pay enough attention to. Something modern business theorists and philosophers like Gladwell and Munger notice but don’t connect to historical philosophy. The conclusion I’m drawing is that the clever, sly, and cunning fox and the focused, determined, and unwavering Hedgehog might hold keys to the doors of the inner workings of finding success. In today’s world all too often we quickly define success as a singular mode of operation or by luck, timing, nepotism, and other various reasons. Perhaps paying closer attention to the observations of some of our great philosophers and authors would give us an expanded insight and reveal some hidden clues about humanity and our means for accomplishment.
By Geoff Pilkington: You can connect with me on Instagram at geoffreypilkington, or listen to a recent podcast I was on discussing my theories on ADHD: http://www.seeinadhd.com/adhd-mind/.