The Fox and The Hedgehog

A Blog for Foxes

How to Embrace Innovation, Adapt & Thrive

“The fox knows many things , but the hedgehog knows one big thing .”

The Fox & the Hedgehog - Inspiring InnovationThe above quote came from the 7th century BC Greek poet and mercenary Archilochus. The quote is only available as a fragment without context and thus no scholar has been able to definitively determine Archilochus’ true intended interpretation.

The popular, accepted interpretation is that these two animals – the Hedgehog and the Fox – are both great survivors, but for polar opposite reasons. Foxes survive through a bag of cunning tricks that allow them to evade predators. But Hedgehogs survive by just performing one trick (rolling up in a ball), but doing it very, very well.  This explanation of the survival techniques of these two animals has been turned into a metaphor for people and our philosophies by many different thinkers.

Isaiah Berlin’s Essay

The most widely read use of the Fox/Hedgehog metaphor was published by  Sir Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”. Berlin’s interpretation of the Fox/Hedgehog metaphor is thus the most popular and widely used.  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.  Berlin describes Dante and Plato as Hedgehogs and Shakespeare and Aristotle as Foxes. Hedgehogs, thus, know a single truth, while for Foxes the world is too vast and complex to boil down to a single truth.

My Understanding of the Fox/Hedgehog Metaphor

The Fox and the Hedgehog metaphor is extremely important to me and my family. My grandfather, Andrew Kamarck, considered himself an “economist fox“…so much so that that is exactly what is written on his gravestone. As an early economist who lived through the depression, WWII, the reconstruction of Europe, and the rise and fall of many African nations after independence, he became disenchanted with neoclassical economics and the rational man theory. He lambasted this trend because of the”Hedgehog thinking” that tried to boil down the complex science of economics into a simple, over-reaching explanation. Looking at economics through the lens of a single universal truth (the rational actor) oversimplified what he considered to be a much more complex and difficult discipline.

My grandfather knew that human choices on consumption and spending are so much more complex than simple utility maximization strategies and thus that these “rational man models” would fail. He was a behavioral economist before the concept existed.

The Superiority of the Fox

The Hedgehog’s strategy is superior in a fixed environment. If hunted by a common predator, like a dog, a Hedgehog’s strategy (rolling up in a ball) will be successful 100% of the time.

While a Fox’s strategy of jumping, running, climbing, digging and hiding may only be successful 80% of the time. Sometimes the Fox will fail.

But, if the environment changes….if a new predator comes along, say a human, who is undeterred by the hedgehog’s ball-strategy – because the human can figure out a way to get past this single defensive move – then the hedgehog is in trouble and fails 100% of the time.  While the Fox’s strategy, an adaptable strategy, is just as likely to succeed against the new predator as the old predator. The Fox will survive a changing environment. The Hedgehog will not.

The success of the survival strategies of these animals, as Berlin alluded, can be used to explain or predict the success of humans as well.

In competitive environments, like business and war, Hedgehogs stick to one single strategy and focus on doing one thing very, very well. They are extremely successful as long as they are in an environment that supports their strategy. If the environment changes, Hedgehogs fail extremely fast – think Kodak or Blackberry. Foxes, on the other hand, may not be able to compete head-to-head with a Hedgehog, but in a changing environment, they can adapt quickly and succeed. Think Apple, first getting beat by Microsoft and then constantly innovating to become the most valuable company in the world.

The metaphor can also be used to explain problems with politics and policy. The 20th Century made heroes out of ideologies – “-isms” that used a single belief to explain their world (socialism, libertarianism, nationalism, etc..).  Single minded devotion to a political philosophy, e.g. communism, tends to create failing policies and poor political environments that do not adapt to a changing world.

Lastly, the “big data” revolution is usurping the 20th Century “expert” – Hedgehogs who purport an expertise in a social science or predictive capacity because they focus intently on one subject. In the 2012 election, the Fox, Nate Silver, accurately predicted 50/50 states when political pundits (the “experts”) routinely failed.

Why the Fox and the Hedgehog Archetype is So Important

I believe that now, more than ever, the Fox and the Hedgehog archetype is extremely important. The rapidly accelerating pace of change thanks to technology and globalization is almost cliche. But despite this rapid pace of change in our environment, we humans seem to be stuck in neutral. In the US, we still have the same two political parties and philosophies we had almost a century ago. The US military still mainly uses command and control structures developed during WWII. Large swaths of our population reject grounded scientific findings and endanger the entire population. And, most of the world still hangs onto archaic class and caste systems that hamper human development.

The root of all human problems is Hedgehogs or Hedgehog thinking. For whatever reason, evolutionary psychology has some explanations, Hedgehog thinking – grasping onto a single idea or explanation and holding onto it tightly – is our ‘natural state’ as humans. It is easier to see the world in linear and black & white terms, than to try and grasp the complexity around us. Thus, being a Fox takes a conscious and concerted effort. And, if you want to adapt and survive as a family, a business, a nation or as a species, we need to all start working hard to become more Fox-like.

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