I read “The Hedgehog and the Fox” today, an essay written by Isaiah Berlin on Tolstoy’s View of History. I strongly recommend this read; I read it at one sitting. You can find it here.
One of the most interesting concepts coming out of that essay is the classification of thinkers and writers into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. Although Berlin recognized that such classification was just for fun and definitely an oversimplification, yet it definitely holds some wisdom and establishes an effective framework to quickly pinpoint where people lie on this spectrum.
Berlin establishes two camps.
Foxes have different strategies for different problems. They are comfortable with nuance, they can live with contradictions. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, focus on the big picture. They reduce every problem to one organizing principle.
Since the publication of Berlin’s essay, people have enjoyed categorizing novelists, philosophers, economists, musicians, and anyone else you’d care to mention, into singular hedgehogs and pluralist foxes. In the field of business, hedgehog leaders value focus, best practice, order, and specialism. By contrast, Fox leaders cherish diverse skillsets, complexity, adaptability, and speed.
Some infer that it’s the foxes that thrive in our time, but I’d argue that although the skills of the foxes align better with what our time demands, what we need more is the resilience and persistence of the hedgehogs.
It’s becoming easier and easier to become foxes. Design sprints, agile development, the overwhelming number of productivity apps that have probably made me less productive are all promoted by the foxes. While craftsmanship, deep work, and character-building belong to the department of hedgehogs. The former approach permeates the content shared by many as guidebooks for success; they are flashier, more attractive, and more accessible. While not enough discussions are held on the latter, even though we idolize people who are hedgehogs once they succeeded.
I start thinking about who are the hedgehogs and foxes, and why does it matter? Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are more so hedgehogs, steadfastly believing in a vision that they relentlessly pursue, and end up delivering, whereas Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg lean towards being foxes. This means the former is more likely to prioritize vision over speed, and the latter would prioritize action over principles. This can be observed by looking at the strategies of their respective companies.
It’s easy for people to claim that what these companies are doing wrong, but taking either direction as a fox or a hedgehog comes with significant trade-offs. Without being able to move and adapt like a fox, innovation will not happen as fast, and without the conviction of a hedgehog, actions become movement without direction. We’ve moved really fast for the past couple years, and that has brought us a lot of amazing things that tangibly improved our life, but with them also arise a culture where short-term outcome, convenience, and speed construct the new standard; patience, thoughtfulness, and meditation only precede.
Having strong conviction in something isn’t that difficult, but holding on to a belief while remaining intentional on our way of getting there and fight on when the direction is fuzzy requires something much more than simply being adaptive as a fox. When we ask ourselves: what is your vision for the future? How many can answer the question, and how many can tell us why and how they arrive at their answers?
I definitely have been acting like a fox for most of my life, but I want to become more of a hedgehog on things that matter. Another step to adulting.