The Expected Value of Being a Fox vs. Hedgehog

In my review of One Person / Multiple Careers, which is about the wonders of a "slash" lifestyle of juggling multiple identities and career paths (entrepreneur / writer / student), Chris Yeh commented:

As Archilochus wrote, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Jim Collins has noted that great companies tend to be led by hedgehogs not foxes.

Here’s an interesting overview of fox vs. hedgehog. Chris and I are definitely foxes. The question is, how does being a fox in the business world affect our chances for success? Today Chris writes:

This highlights an issue that Ben and I often struggle with, as entrepreneurs/pointy-headed intellectuals: Great entrepreneurs are usually obsessively focused; being blessed/cursed with multiple talents and interests will certainly detract from that focus.

A more nuanced view may be that the slash lifestyle may have as high or even higher an expected value, but far lower variance. If the distribution of outcomes is more extreme for the hedgehogs (fat tails both left and right), then more of the legendary figures are likely to be hedgehogs, even if on average, foxes do better….

At the end of the day, no matter what you decide about expected values and standard deviations, we are not created equal. And trying to deny your true nature in the interests of some theoretical optimization of your career is likely to be a self-defeating exercise in futility.

Different strokes for different folks.

I am a slash, and I have to embrace the strengths and weaknesses of my nature, or I’ll simply end up as a pale imitation of something I’m not.

Amen.

12 Responses to The Expected Value of Being a Fox vs. Hedgehog

  1. I don’t see any reason why syncretism shouldn’t work as a life strategy for entrepreneurs.

    Even if one admits that “hedgehogs” may have the advantage in single-mindedly pursuing a life goal, and are more likely to be among the greatest in their fields, I can’t see that it precludes one from being successful.

    I would think that “foxes” have the advantage in synthesizing their life experiences, and are more likely to be well-rounded personalities than the “greatest” monomaniacs.

    I say this speaking as a master of brightwork/writer/comedian/artist/
    dancer/godfather.

  2. It’s worth noting that Collins’ hedgehog concept was discussed in the context of public companies that had been in existence for many, many years, not startups, which demand a different, usually more opportunistic skill set.

  3. Sean S. says:

    I once read a quote that sort of combines the attributes of the fox and the hedgehog. Also, I remember thinking it was good advice when I read it:

    “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”
    – Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

  4. krish says:

    Well, I have another observation to make.

    While one can be a Fox in general, (s)he needs to be a hedgehog on occasions – when the task at hand is excessively demanding, calls for high intensity involvement till the mission is accomplished – and be a Fox again !

    Thoughts ?

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    I think it’s less a choice than that — you have tendencies to one or the other, it’s hard to turn them “on” or “off” whenever you want.

  6. I think having a broad skill set (knowing many things) is extremely important for entrepreneurs, consultants, m&a advisors, venture capitalists, etc.

    It is also important to achieve depth and strong competencies. I don’t see any problem with having both properties.

    Chasing a singular passion can be accomplished by leveraging a broad skill set and varied interests.

  7. krish says:

    Look at no more than life itself. We do many things, yet when we look back some facets of our personality loom larger than others.

    Is it not the depth of our lives, which punctuates who we are, more than its length ?

    I think the duality co-exists and is in-built in everyone of us. Hedgehog in us assumes predominance over the Fox on occasions, relegating it to the background.

    That way, I agree with you when you say “it’s less a choice” – it’s in fact automatic.

  8. Jason Wood says:

    As a clear-cut fox in a hedgehog house, I can say that it’s not a choice; at least not for me. It’s a constant struggle for me to allocate time based on my disparate passions and skill sets. Some are far more financially lucrative and/or important relative to committments I’ve made to others; and I know that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle to maintain that balance each and every day.

    J

  9. Lacey says:

    Cheers to that– I have been needing some fox -understanding lately!!

  10. Michael Yan says:

    I’m a bonafide hedgehog. I’ve changed my major three times and have done stuff ranging from researching nanotechnology in a cleanroom, to starting a company, to working in the mailroom in a major Hollywood talent agency and assistant an agent with top clients. Now I’m moving to China to go into their media industry, but before I do that I need take take a step back in learning Mandarin, before taking two steps forward with my company. Sometimes, I think being a hedgehog is my curse since I could probably think of 4 or 5 careers that would be of great interest to me and I am wondering if I had chosen another path, where I’d be.

    I think the best life/career strategy for us is to choose something that would make being a hedgehog an asset. I can think of some possibilities – journalist, film producer (Brian Grazer, a prolific producer uses his projects as an avenue to explore the topics he’s interested in), high school history teacher (can teach nearly anything since history is broad), a research analyst or portfolio manager for an investment fund, or being a venture capitalist. Choosing a career that allows you to explore different interests will help prevent you from getting bored. Of course, I’m just talking about the “intellectual hedgehogs”. For those of you who like doing a bunch of different activities as your pursuits, that’s a much harder nut to crack.

  11. I’ve gone over this concept with my leadership team in a real estate company. They were all hedgehogs with lots of ideas. No follow through though.

    Being self aware is the start with the end result being what can I focus on the most with my passion.

    For me, I’m a trainer/speaker/coach/writer/real estate agent/business owner/wakeboarder/musician. Seems fox like? Actually I think of myself as a hedgehog and my main focus is being an information provider.

  12. Edit for above post. Leadership is foxes, not hedgehogs.

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