Thinking Like a Hedgehog

Thinking Like a Hedgehog

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins writes:

“Are you a hedgehog or a fox? ”

In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”‘ The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox circles around the hedgehog’s den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, and crafty—the fox looks like the sure winner.  The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a dowdier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his simple day, searching for lunch and taking care of his home.

The fox waits in cunning silence at the juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right into the path of the fox. “Aha, I’ve got you now!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog becomes a sphere of sharp spikes, pointing outward in all directions. The fox, bounding toward his prey, sees the hedgehog defense and calls off the attack. Retreating back to the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place, and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.

Berlin extrapolated from this little parable to divide people into two basic groups: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They are “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels,” says Berlin, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn’t matter how complex the world, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple—indeed almost simplistic—hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.

Stop Chasing Your Tail

The world is full of people chasing their own tails.  They move from one scatterbrain goal to the next, never thinking a plan completely through and never making any meaningful progress at it.  They are, as the above proverb describes, “foxes.”  They may be highly-capable and high-energy individuals, but because of a lack of discipline and focus, after running in aimless circles, they end up right where they started.

Perhaps this personality describes you.

Regardless of your undertaking, it’s important to recognize the problem isn’t always a lack of ideas or options to try, but often the overabundance of them.  A big part of the reason many goals and strategies fail in life is because they have been choked out by too many competing goals and strategies that get in the way.  To put it simply, we fail because we bite off more than we can chew.  In some cases, we fail because we never even start chewing due to our feeling overwhelmed by all the choices.

Part of the solution requires evaluating and eliminating what isn’t a truly worthy goal (or what isn’t a truly working method) and stepping away from it.  Fruitfulness requires pruning.  Therefore, identify what needs to be pruned and get out your shearers.

Stick With What Works

A second group of people in the world are more like the hedgehog.  They may be less flamboyant than the fox, but they get more done.

The reason for their success is simple.  They concentrate their attention and efforts on a relatively small number, and relatively straightforward set, of goals and plans.  Rather than spreading themselves thin, they anchor themselves deep.  Instead of chasing after every opportunity that crosses their path, they are content to wait for the right opportunities and, while they wait, they work to master the clear responsibilities already in front of them.

One of the surest ways to see progress in your pursuits is condense your number of pursuits to the most important and the most realistic.  Time and energy are wasted if they aren’t concentrated on the things that matter most or have the greatest impact.

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