Ever heard of the parable of the hedgehog and the fox? These terms gained notice after a philosopher named Isaiah Berlin used them in a popular essay back in the mid-1900s. Berlin used the parable to analyze the worldviews and history of Tolstoy in his classic manuscript, War & Peace. And while I haven’t read War & Peace in many years, or the essay by Berlin, I did read a more recent book entitled, Good To Great by Jim Collins. Collins uses the allegory as a way to define how to be a leader and run a successful business. Even more recently, I came across the two terms in the book Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman uses them to define differing ways to think and predict coming events. But what exactly is a hedgehog, and how does it differ from the fox? Even more importantly, what does it have to do with your life and can it help you live SMART 365?
According to Berlin, a Greek poet named Archilochus made the very first reference to the hedgehog and the fox. Archilochus said something like, “the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin then expounded on the analogy saying that the world could be divided into two categories: 1) the hedgehog who views the world through a single defining idea; 2) the fox, who draws upon wide experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea. The strength of the hedgehog is in his focus and central vision. The power of the fox is in his flexibility and openness to experience. The hedgehog never wavers, never doubts. The fox is more cautious, more pragmatic, and more inclined to see complexity and nuance.
Collins in his book Good to Great took the simple comparison and applied it to the business world in a unique way. Clearly, a cheerleader for hedgehogs, Collins says, “All good-to-great leaders, it turns out, are hedgehogs. They know how to simplify a complex world into a single, organizing idea—the kind of basic principle that unifies, organizes, and guides all decisions.” Collins tends to see foxes as flighty, distracted and inconsistent. But mostly, he sets up the contrast between the two as a competition over who is a winner and who is a loser. In his analogy, the fox is always trying to “eat” the hedgehog. But the hedgehog just hunkers down in a ball and protects himself until the fox gets tired or distracted and then continues on his journey.
An alternative view of the parable is from Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast & Slow. Kahneman explains the research of Dr. Phillip Tetlock (another author) who studied the outcomes of expert predictions for over 20 years. Tetlock analyzed the predictions of over 100 experts and generally found that the more “confident” the experts were about their predictions, the less accurate they were compared to random guessing. Because these overconfident experts were single-mindedly sure of their expertise, Tetlock calls them “hedgehogs.” In contrast, forecasters who were less confident had greater success in predictions and Tetlock called them “foxes.” Tetlock’s research shows that when a person sees himself or herself as an expert and is overly confident, even though they might look and sound good, they actually proved to be less reliable in terms of predicting what will happen in the future. Those who were more comfortable questioning and synthesizing multiple choices without confidence had the advantage.
Kahneman goes on to explain foxes and hedgehogs even further. About hedgehogs he says, “They account for particular events within a coherent framework, bristle with impatience toward those who don’t see things their way, and are confident in their forecasts. They are also especially reluctant to admit error.” And, as a backhanded compliment he continues with, “they are opinionated and clear, which is exactly what television producers love to see on programs. Two hedgehogs on different sides of an issue, each attacking the idiotic ideas of the adversary, make for a good show.”
“Foxes,” Kahneman goes on to say, “by contrast, are complex thinkers. They don’t believe that one big thing drives the mark of history (or example, they are unlikely to accept the view that Ronald Reagan single-handedly ended the cold war by standing tall against the Soviet Union). Instead the foxes recognize that reality emerges from the interactions of many different agents and forces, including blind luck, often producing large and unpredictable outcomes.”
Several things I’ve learned since reading the book, Thinking Fast & Slow is how easy for all of us to jump to conclusions, believe in cognitive illusions, and stay oblivious to any naturally innate bias. And precisely because our minds seek to simplify and create coherence, we often blindly follow and believe anyone who acts like an expert—be they a financial advisor, a politician, a minister, a doctor, or a stockbroker. Unfortunately, over twenty years of research proves that even if those advisors are benevolent, most of their predictions or suggestions are likely no better than random guesses. In fact, the more certain anyone is regarding the right answer for you or me, the more we should run in the opposite direction (or at least get a second opinion!)
A big problem is, most of us (me included) really wish that things were a little more “hedgehog” and that one big idea was all we needed. In classic hedgehog fashion, most of us unconsciously want to gravitate to anyone who acts like they have the one perfect solution to all our troubles. One can almost picture John Wayne swaggering in when the bad guys show up, only to insist he can handle everything. Surely that is why we often follow or elect the most confident person with the biggest promises. We want to believe someone strong and confident will take care of it all.
Plus, as the hedgehog points out, it is evident that staying focused and disciplined often leads to success. Jim Collins is right in suggesting that anyone who can ignore the distractions around them and focus on the task at hand has an advantage—at least for a while. Unfortunately, if that focus on a goal is held at the exclusion of all else, then any long-term advantage usually crumbles. Like I’ve said before, even if you win that rat race, in the end you’re still a rat.
What the fox sees that the hedgehog doesn’t (and doesn’t care that he doesn’t!) is that the world is much more integrated and complex than he can imagine. A life can’t be described as happy unless that includes good health, good relationships, good work and everything else. A planet isn’t healthy unless we have clean air, clean water and all the peoples, plants and wildlife live in peace, cooperation and respect. In the 21st century we need a bigger sense of the world we live in and we all need to be more open-minded and comfortable with ambiguity. We also need to be less impressed with those who say they have answers for us, and more willing to support those whose actions match their rhetoric.
It is said that Isaiah Berlin himself was a fox, intrigued by many ideas, unendingly curious, open-minded and one who pleaded constantly for tolerance. He understood that the world could never be reduced to only two ways of looking at things but considered the discussion of the fox and hedgehog as worthy. Berlin writes, “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…. mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.”
So which are you?
“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” —Tony Schwartz
“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” —Erich Fromm