We’ve heard a lot about the ancient parable of the fox and the hedgehog lately. And while its origins are somewhat ambiguous, the allegory has been applied to entrepreneurs.
Taken from Ian Bell’s article, one of the fables goes something like this:
A fox and a hedgehog were strolling through a country path. Periodically, they were threatened by hungry wolves. The fox – blessed with smarts, speed and agility – would lead packs of wolves on a wild chase through the fields, up and down trees, and over hill and dale. Eventually the fox would return to the path, breathless but having lost the wolves, and continue walking. The hedgehog, being endowed with a coat of spikes, simply hunkered down on its haunches when menaced by the wolves and fended them off without moving. When they gave up, he would return to his stroll unperturbed.
As describe by historian and thinker Isaiah Berlin in the early 1950s, Foxes are complex thinkers who account for a variety of circumstances and experiences, while hedgehogs have the keen ability to focus and drive along a single path. I find this quite reasonable when you think about it on how foxes and hedgehog behave. The former is more active and jumping around being curious while the latter just sit down and lay back focusing on one task at a time.
As Nicholas Kristof describes the dichotomy in NY Times:
Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great soundbites, they are far more likely to get things right.
As per the article by Alison Gopnik, the distinction comes from a saying of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Biologist have studied fox life in detail and it turns out that Archilochus got it right: Foxes are far more wily and flexible learners than hedgehogs but why?
Foxes have a longer childhood than hedgehogs. Hedgehog develop their spines – that one big thing – almost as soon as they are born and are independent in only six weeks. For fox cub are dependent for six months. As a result, hedgehog need less parental care – hedgehog fathers disappear after they are done mating. For fox couples, in contrast, stay together, and the fathers help bring food to the babies.
Baby foxes also play much more than hedgehogs. Fox parents start out by feeding the baby their own regurgitated food. But then they bring the babies live prey, like mice, while they are still in the den, and the babies play at hunting them. That play give them a chance to practice and develop the flexible hunting skill and wily intelligence that serve them so well later so.
The biologists suggest that childhood matters enormously to the ways we turn out. The hedgehogs are, in their own way, as smart as could be—quickly and brilliantly adapted to one environment. But the foxiness that comes with protected immaturity, parental devotion and play lets us cope with a changing world.