Living Foxy or Hedgehogging

If you’re a People Geek like me, you love types and personality theory and all that stuff. I’m ENTJ (Myers-Briggs) and 2% Agreeable, 0% Neurotic (The Big Five). I even have my own spreadsheet going with all the different types of personality frameworks and binary types people use to describe each other: filers vs. pilers, readers vs. listeners, writers vs. talkers, etc. (Here’s my longer list.)

But the one I find myself explaining the most often, and the most useful one for people to understand, is the Fox and the Hedgehog.

I’m only a part-time People Geek, you see, since I’m mostly a full-time serial startup founder. I run a large-ish company now and I have started and built many others. So the topic comes up. How do you do it? How can I do it? How should I live? How can I be happy?

The answer is this line: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Isaiah Berlin’s essay provides us with a deeper look into Archilochus’s fragmented sentiment and contemplates the differences between thinkers and philosophers who present foxy or hedgehog-like tendencies.

The Fox

The fox is a generalist. In the original story, the fox, looking for food, plans his dinner around the hedgehog he spots in the woods. He tries to attack the hedgehog in a variety of ways, none of which leave him with a meal. Of course, we know that this is because the hedgehog keeps curling up into a ball of spikes, but more on that later. Berlin focuses on this story’s metaphorical meanings for the human world.

Typically, a fox:

  • Jumps from task to task without necessarily delving deeper into any one task  
  • Draws on many experiences to form several ideas about the world rather than one, all-encompassing idea or belief

Some famous foxes: Aristotle (who wrote a book on Ethics, one on Physics, and another one so good and important and sitting right next to the Physics they could only call it Metaphysics), Goethe (poetry, songs, novels, drawings), Joyce (you try writing a novel about rambling around Dublin as a Greek Hero, why don’t you?), and Shakespeare (who created enough wildly different sonnets and plays in his day to have people convinced that he’s actually a compilation of several dozen people).

The idea here is that the fox is a multitasker who doesn’t settle on one master theory of the universe, one way of behaving and driving a process, one truth, or one “job”. Recently, modern literature has walked us through new doors into the mind of a multitasker, and cognitive scientists have provided us with different theories about their collective process.

We can now view multitasking in one of two ways. In the first picture, we see the multitasker as the person who jumps from task to task, never actually completing any of them. In the second, and the more common in today’s work life, we see this person channeling his or her energy into several different tasks and eventually completing them all.

Now, this might not mean that all of the tasks in your multi-tasking sessions come out successful on the other side, but it doesn’t mean that none of them do. Folks like to keep re-running and re-sharing the experiments showing that cognitive load from multi-tasking is heavy, and that folks do worse.  

Multitasking tends to go hand in hand with procrastination, as most of us probably know all too well. Neither has a good reputation these days. But my old Stanford philosophy mentor John Perry’s article about structured procrastination, points out something all the cognitive load people miss: motivation. If you are doing what you want, you are doing it better. And the very definition of procrastination is when you are drawn to do something irresistibly, even if away from your larger (more boring) projects and aims.

But what if you could structure your time-wasting? Like a video game that teaches you math? (Sounds lame, that.) Let your own desires guide you. Using structured procrastination, a fox could surf back and across the tasks done on his or her list. You finish eventually. Make progress meanwhile, gaining some momentum and wins as you pick off the small stuff. The trick is to build your hierarchy in a way that allows you get the things you need to get done in a timely manner. To quote Perry:

“To make structured procrastination work for you, begin by establishing a hierarchy of the tasks you have to do, in order of importance from the most urgent to the least important. Even though the most-important tasks are on top, you have worthwhile tasks to perform lower on the list. Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, you can become a useful citizen.”

Basically, keep doing what you’re doing foxes. Turn your mess of a to-do list into an organized one, and you’ll find that procrastination is the biggest key to your productivity.

The hedgehog

Like we started out saying, the original story consists of a fox hunting a hedgehog for his dinner and failing thanks to the hedgehog’s one major defense: turning into an impermeable ball of thorny quills.

For writers, thinkers, and human beings in general, the hedgehog tendency is to nurture and cherish one big something. Whether that something is a defense, like the spikey ball in the story, or a project, hedgehogs focus on one thing and do that one thing well.

Some well-known hedgehogs include Hegel (there is no greater champion of a master idea — thesis, antithesis, synthesis of dialectic), Nietzsche (he wrote the same book ten times), Proust (he wrote one book that takes 10 volumes to publish and a lifetime to read), and Dante (who wrote the epic poem it took most of us more than one go-around to actually finish). While Dante lined his ducks all in a row, Shakespeare made sure to keep those ducks’ eggs in different baskets.  

Hedgehogs famously

  • Have one overarching worldview
  • Focus on one task that involves total concentration and deep work

Being a fox, I know these folks by their “go away” reactions to my crazy schemes. Doctors, engineers, professors. They hate multiple logins, avoid large meetings, dodge intros, spend 10 minutes saying No to something instead of spending 5 minutes following up. The fortress of the hedgehog is hard to penetrate.

The stuff on the inside — a big complex process and system, massive energy and detailed care — well that stuff gets done masterfully by the best hedgehogs. When they finally hit send on the message in drafts, it lands.

Perhaps your best Hedgehog strategy is Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s “draw a line” to do list. Like John Perry, they say make a list, in order, of your priorities top to bottom. But you draw a line after number 3; better yet you tear off the page. Items 4 and onward — they become your Don’t Do list. You spend your time avoiding their tempting draw, rechanneling your energies to the big stuff. Apparently it’s one of Buffett and Munger’s secrets to fabulous wealth and success.

But we all fox around

Now, your realization of whether you’re a hedgehog or a fox doesn’t bind you to a rigid way of living. “Of course,” Berlin says, “like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic, and ultimately absurd.”

I spent a good part of my life as a hedgehog, because, well, that’s what everyone told me I should be. So many of us were raised in a system that pushed us to be hedgehogs. Getting through my pressure-cooker high school, Columbia, the PhD program at Stanford, the entry level gig at uber consultancy McKinsey, and even my first years cranking away in the boiler room of Virgin Mobile with my cofounders. After a tour of duty leading Peek, our simple smartphone startup, did I get a chance to take a step back and really consider my process.

When I revisited this fox/hedgehog theory, I realized I was, without question, a fox. Things really flowed after this realization, which I talk about with superangel investor Dave Lerner on his podcast. I went from saying no to tons of opportunities to becoming yes-man. I realized I was most productive at certain phases of a company’s growth, and because of this, could be part of many different company’s growth processes at that level.

Start-up life is absurdly uncertain. Every day can be terrible to the same extent that every day can be divine. It’s painful. In Hedgehog Mode, you take the pain and persevere. In Fox Mode, working on a few different projects at the same time, you get some good news somewhere, every day. Like a portfolio manager for your life, you get some of the benefits of a diversification and have to pay attention to which investments you should take super long.

More than ever we are seeing the need for foxes in the work world to adapt and grow with today’s rapidly accelerating pace of change. The fox has far-reaching vision and the ability to see and connect more complex ideas that a hedgehog might not be able to catch. To thrive in your company, and to thrive as a company, you need to figure out what you’re passionate about. To accompany the passion in this passion-project, you need to be flexible (and foxible) enough to roll with the punches.

Take Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was known for his constant abandonment of projects – statues left half standing, paintings he changed his mind about midway, flying machines that never flew – but we still know him as a genius, a scholar, an artist, you name it. Part of da Vinci’s process was procrastination. Jennifer Senior points out that:

One of his most underrated achievements may have been his eloquent defense of procrastination. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he told one of his employers, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”

Being It vs. Doing It

Try “fox” and “hedgehog” as verbs. Take a brainstorming session for example: some ideas will pan out successfully while some will fall to the wayside, but you have to throw them all out there in order to figure out which you want to hedgehog, and which you just want to fox around with, like Leonardo.

Different occasions, occupations, problems — some call for Fox and others for Hedgehog. So that’s lesson number one: know thyself. Find out what’s going to work for you and what you’ll be effective tackling.

And lesson two is to use the costume on the party invitation. Throw on that fox suit when it’s time to juggle, create, sparkle, and innovate. Zip into that hedgehog outfit when it’s time to lockdown and turn the meat grinder.

It works for me. I co-founded perhaps 7 companies in the last 5 years — and a few of them are really rolling: Halo Neuroscience designs and sells loads of the cutting edge brain-boosting Halo Sport and has attracted significant and impressive venture backers; Knotable makes a powerful collaboration app called Knote, and Knotel is mushrooming its HQ as a Service business across the world, having raised more venture investment than virtually any company I’ve been associated with and certainly makes lots more money. Maybe it can work for you.