Clear thinking - Persuasive communication

Be A Foxy Hedgehog

Knows one thing very well

Knows one thing very well

If you want to develop maximum credibility, is it better to be a hedgehog or a fox?

I’m referring to the terms that Isaiah Berlin used in an essay classifying thinkers as either hedgehogs or foxes.  According to parable the hedgehog knows one thing very well, and the fox knows a lot of things.

Is there a clear advantage of one style over the other? A hedgehog thinker would answer yes; he would come down squarely on one side or the other and support his position to the hilt. And he would be very credible in doing so.

For developing credibility, there is a lot to be said for being a hedgehog. By concentrating on one area, you can focus your learning and develop deep expertise which can differentiate you from others and establish your reputation. According to Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, the “hedgehog concept” was one of the factors that helped that companies make the leap to greatness. They focused on one thing and did it really well. Because they figured out what they could be good at, they had the advantage of clarity, focus, and confidence.

When applied to individual success, the hedgehog concept makes perfect sense because it ties neatly into the popular idea that when you can find something you are passionate about, you will succeed because you will pour your heart and soul into it. That level of concentration can get you to the point where you know more than anyone else, and you will have rock-solid credibility in your field[1]. And, with knowledge accumulating so rapidly in so many fields, that concentration will keep you abreast of the state of the art. You would probably not want to go to a doctor who stops reading medical journals so he can broaden his mind in other areas.

Hedgehogs also have an advantage when it comes to persuasion: they are listened to more and are more believable when they speak, because of their confidence and conviction. In fact, I would propose that the most successful bloggers are definitely hedgehogs, and most best-selling business books are written by hedgehogs. When readers and listeners are suffering from ever-shrinking attention spans, no one has time to explore the shades of grey between black and white. Very few people nowadays have patience for nuanced arguments; we prefer to be like Harry Truman, who complained that he wanted to meet a one-armed economist, so that he would never have to hear him say, “on the other hand…”

But could there be a downside to single-minded concentration on one big thing? Philip Tetlock thinks so. Tetlock studied the track records of political commentators over 15 years, those folks you see on the Sunday talk shows who get paid to make predictions about what will happen during political crises and trends. He found that hedgehogs were not only wrong more often than foxes, but that they were less likely to recognize or admit that they were wrong when events did not match their predictions[2].

The advantage that foxes have is that they are more likely to seek out new information from a broader range of sources, and are comfortable with uncertainty and new information. When something happens that contradicts their view of the world, they treat it as new information, not as an aberration or an exception. They try to incorporate it into a more nuanced viewpoint rather than finding reasons to exclude it from their thinking. They are also better calibrated, meaning that they have a clearer estimation of what they know and don’t know.

Knows a lot of things

Knows a lot of things

The irony is that although foxes are more often right, they get less air time. In fact, judging from seeing the same faces all the time on television despite being woefully off on their predictions, it pays to be a hedgehog. Maybe people just have short memories, so being wrong is rarely fatal.

So, which is better?

I’m going to try to answer the question in a foxy hedgehog style. In other words, there are clear advantages for each style, depending on the situation. We’ll look at three different activities – learning, thinking, and persuading – each considered over the short term and the long term, for a total of six different scenarios.

Learning. In focusing on what to study and learn, there is no question that you should be a hedgehog early in your career, so that you can establish solid credentials and expertise in one particular area. It could be an academic discipline such as electrical engineering or finance, or it could just be becoming a deep expert on your craft, or even your specific accounts. You want to get so knowledgeable and so good at what you do that you become recognized as the “go-to” person. So many fields require years of focused learning and improvement to master that it behooves you not to scatter your attention early.

Even when you think you’ve mastered your field, you can’t stop learning. Because we are learning so much about so many things, there is a half-life to knowledge in any field, and a lot of “facts” that you take for granted are probably wrong, or will eventually be proven wrong.

Yet, as you get promoted to positions of higher responsibility, you’re going to find yourself dealing with more and more situations that your expertise has not prepared you for. In order to avoid Peter Principle, you have to become more of a fox; get curious about the wider world, broaden your knowledge, and learn to blend in different perspectives. In general, learn like a hedgehog early to establish a secure base, and then evolve into a fox.

Thinking style. I come down solidly on the foxy side on this one, both for the short and the long term. We all crave the comfort of simplicity, the stability of “timeless” ideas, and the seductive clarity of apparent patterns, but that’s dangerous in a complex and dynamic environment. Especially as you rise in an organization, more and more of the problems you will have to solve are people problems, and people are too diverse and complicated to fit into the neat little certainties that hedgehogs love. Plus, the world changes too quickly for a single big idea to hold its power for very long. Check out the subsequent track records of the “great” companies that Collins wrote about for all the confirmation you need about that.

You should almost always think like a fox. (I would say always, but that would turn it into an oxymoron.)

Persuasive expression. In the short run, it’s clearly more persuasive to speak like a hedgehog, because listeners respond to clarity and confidence. If your only goal is to win others over to your point of view – right now – then go full hedgehog on them. That’s what TV pundits and transactional salespeople do, because it works.

But if you care about long term credibility, keep in mind that most people have excellent memories about things that affect them directly. They will pay attention and they will keep score, and they will be especially more likely to remember your inevitable mistakes unless you learn to speak with a certain amount of fox-like humility. It’s good to have conviction and clarity, but sustainable agreements are more likely when you remain open to others’ reactions and inputs. They will feel greater ownership of the decision taken and you may actually learn something that will improve your original idea. To encapsulate this approach, it’s hard to improve on Bob Johansen’s phrase, “strong opinions, which are weakly held.”

In summary, the choice between being a hedgehog or a fox is a false trade-off. The most effective way to go through life is to strive to be that rare hybrid known as foxy hedgehog!


[1] One of the most eloquent proponents of this view is Cal Davenport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, although he disdains the passion argument.

[2] Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment.

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