Different people work in different ways. Some people are foxes, others are hedgehogs.
That comparison stems from ancient Greek writer Archilochus, who died in 645 BC. Not much of Archilochus’ work survives. But mankind is blessed with this gem from his pen: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.”
Here’s a brief rundown of Archilochus’ story: A fox spots a hedgehog in the woods. He uses all of his cunning to plot an attack—the fox is hungry, after all. He repeatedly tries to ambush the hedgehog using a variety of tricks. But each time he approaches, the hedgehog morphs into an impenetrable ball of sharp bristles. Rinse and repeat. The fox goes hungry.
Cool story bro. But what does that mean? How does it apply to the workplace?
Foxes do a lot of things. They make contributions to a diverse well of topics. But they’re not too keen on going deep on topics. The bounce around from task to task, helping out and pitching in. But they aren’t really capable of doing deep work.
Hedgehogs, on the other hand, love plugging away at complex work. They like to direct all of their focus on one major project, seeing the big picture and everything it encompasses. But hedgehogs might have a hard time switching between topics when it’s required.
Knowing whether you’re a hedgehog or a fox can have a profound impact on the success—or lack thereof—that you experience over the course of your career.
Foxes vs. Hedgehogs
It’s important to note, however, that there isn’t a rule that says it’s more desirable to be a hedgehog than it is to be a fox, nor vice versa.
Yes, it’s true that when you look at people who’ve built fantastic and powerful companies—like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk—you’re likely to find hedgehogs. But that doesn’t mean foxes are incapable of making their own marks, too. Just check out Italian writer Italo Calvino’s take on the matter:
I am a fox, even though I dream of being a hedgehog in all my dreams, and even though I try to write hedgehog books if you take each of them one by one.
In a 1953 essay, Isaiah Berlin used Archilochus’ statement on foxes and hedgehogs as a jumping point into a discussion about how the manifestation of the two animals affects the work. In it, he names a list of hedgehogs, or those who “relate everything to a single central vision.” Among them: Dante, Hagel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Plato. He also names a slew of foxes, or those “who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.” Included are Goethe, Shakespeare, Balzac, Joyce, and Aristotle.
So wherever they land on the list—as foxes or hedgehogs—all of these men inarguably hold their place in history. If you’re a fox, don’t try to be a hedgehog. Know thyself, and work to your best abilities.
The Truth About the Hedgehog
There are some who believe that hedgehogs make the best leaders, like Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. Collins argues that this is primarily due to the fact that they understand their company’s “hedgehog concept,” which includes these three pillars:
- They understand what their companies are passionate about.
- They understand what their companies can be the best at and what their companies can absolutely not be the best at.
- They understand what drives their company’s specific economic engine.
Put each of those three pillars into Venn diagram form, and you’ll find that hedgehogs live in the area where the three overlap.
Hedgehogs may very well make great leaders. But that doesn’t mean foxes don’t have value in their own right.
What Does the Fox Say?
In a blog post announcing the expansion of his FiveThirtyEight forecasting site, Nate Silver alluded to Archilochus when explaining the logo he chose to represent his company: a fox. In addition to famously forecasting political races, Silver and his team were expanding their coverage to focus on sports, economics, science and life.
Instead of simply analyzing politics to guess which candidates will win which elections and whether certain ballot measures would pass, Silver put his team’s genius to work uncovering a slew of information relating to a large cross-section of life. In his mind, with respect to using data to forecast outcomes, it’s better to know about many things than to know every single nuance about one thing. In other words, foxes are better forecasters than hedgehogs—which is exactly what Silver wrote in his 2012 book.
Development workers too may be better off being foxes. This way, they’re able to roll with the punches and bend when they have to. On the flipside, hedgehogs may be too stubborn to work in development. They have their way of looking at things, and they may be too rigid to embrace change.
The bottom line? The better you understand yourself, the better you can deploy yourself within your organization. And if you ever find yourself in a managerial position, your job will become a lot easier if you know which of your employees are foxes and which are hedgehogs.
But just be warned: Berlin also included this disclaimer in his essay:
Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd.
So you may want to take it all with a grain of salt.