Have you heard of the “Hedgehog Concept”, made famous from in Jim Collins’s book Good to Great?
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. – Archilochus
The gist of the “Hedgehog Concept” is that while a fox is cunning, the hedgehog knows “one big thing”, and can use that skill to outsmart the fox. Jim Collins didn’t invent the story; the parable was first written by a Greek poet named Archilochus thousands of years ago. While Collins’s interpretation is unambiguous, (spoiler alert – you want to be a hedgehog!) this parable and what it means has been debated for thousands of years.
Hidden Brain’s The Fox and the Hedgehog podcast is fascinating because it looked at the parable in a completely different way. Instead of being about business, it was about different cognitive styles. Hidden Brain’s host, Shankar Vedantam, sums up “one big thing” this way:
There are different ways to think about the metaphor, but here’s how I see it. If a fox wants dinner, it has many options. It can chase down a hedgehog. It can find something else to eat. It can even go without food for a day. But if you’re a hedgehog being chased by a fox, you don’t have multiple goals. You have one overarching idea – DON’T GET EATEN.
– Shankar Vedantam
Hedgehogs are visionaries guided by a single organizing principle, whereas foxes employ different strategies and are more comfortable with nuance, but lack a coherent worldview.
The show focuses on one hedgehog, Don Laub, a surgeon who became a leader in the transgender movement and created one of the first international medical missions. He took big risks without considering the consequences; risks that sometimes ended in tragedy.
One of his former patients was interviewed about her interactions with Don before her gender reassignment surgery. Take a look in their differences in thinking:
At some point, he asked me if I were 100% committed to wanting surgery. And I said, no, I’m not. I’m probably 99.9%. I think anyone who is 100% committed to anything is probably crazy. You have to have some reservations in life. You have to have an overview of everything that you’re doing and have alternative plans if what you’re looking for doesn’t work out. And Don said, well, in that case, you’re not eligible for surgery. You have to be 100% committed.
– Sandy Stone
After hearing that, I knew immediately which thinking style is most like my own. (Hint: it’s not what you’d expect!) Which thinking style do you have?
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