The Hedgehog and the Fox

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In an effort to continually learn a thing or two throughout this life, I’m always on the lookout for good books to read. One, in particular, was recommended by more than a handful of friends so I decided to take a look. The book, Good to Great from Jim Collins, provides an excellent analysis of what it takes to be a great leader. The way Jim and his team breakdown historical examples of amazing leaders provides some great insight into what it truly means to be “great” and inspire a whole organization.

One concept in particular is the story of the Hedgehog and the Fox, originally told in an essay by Isaiah Berlin, that covers two different mindsets on mastery. As described by William Barrett for the NY Times:

“On this ancient bit of wisdom Mr. Berlin bases his distinction between two fundamental human types: those who have sharp eyes, like the fox, for the multiple things of the world, and those, like the hedgehog, whose defense consists of a single centripetal impulse–that is, who seek an inner unified vision.”

As I read through the story and began to thumb through more background information, I began thinking about which one I was. Was I more of a fox or a hedgehog? Admittedly, this wasn’t the first time I’ve thought about the idea of focused or dispersed effort. I’ve written previously about my inclination to wear multiple hats. I think taking on work from various subject matters offers several benefits:

  • Your paycheck isn’t tied to one particular industry.
  • Working in different business sectors offers variety and beats boredom.
  • You can become more than a one-trick pony by mastering multiple subject levels.

But, as much as I think it’s important to explore different career areas, when I think of the story of the Fox and the Hedgehog, I realize how important it is to focus on one overarching theme.

A few months back, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. I had quit my job personal training to pursue a position within digital advertising for Federated Media. Both were commission-based jobs where you largely got out what you put in. When I started at Federated, I was operating as more of a fox than a hedgehog. I was still freelancing heavily (2-3 pieces a week) for a few fitness publications. I was teaching group fitness on the site. Plus, I was trying to write a bit here on my personal site as well. As a result, I had little energy left to actually focus on my real job at Federated Media, and it resulted in a disappointing end to the quarter.

Fast forward to the next quarter – I drastically decreased the amount that I was freelancing. I put my blog on the back burner, and I focused on doing one thing really well. The result – I doubled my output from the previous quarter.

Better the Hedgehog Than The Fox?

With my success from focusing on one element as opposed to dispersing my energy across many different outlets, you’d probably venture to guess that I’ve transitioned to more of a hedgehog-esque work ethic right? To be honest, I don’t think there is a right or a wrong answer. Each approach has pros and cons.

More than picking one over the other, I think it’s important to think about and develop your overarching theme. This helps to focus the opportunities you pursue, but more importantly helps you to prioritize items and tasks. See, the problem with the fox mindset isn’t that you have too many ideas to pursue. Instead, it’s that foxes can’t prioritize their ideas. Everything carries equal weight. This leads to minimal progress being made on a lot of things rather than huge progress being made on a few. Without time constraints, this isn’t so bad. But, when your back is against the wall, you have to be able to pick and choose where to focus your effort. To me, that’s the benefit of the hedgehog mindset.

As with anything else, it’s important to look at yourself as an individual rather than as a replica of someone else. Take the Fox and the Hedgehog analogy for what it’s worth. After all, it’s an analysis of two different strategies, not a guideline for success. Each approach has its benefits. In my opinion, the key isn’t whether you’re a fox or a hedgehog, but rather, whether or not you can prioritize where you focus your energy to get the maximum amount of results.

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