Becoming a hedgehog

Thursday, May 12, 2016

I consider myself an autodidact polymath: a self-taught person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In other words, I have deep knowledge of many, disparate things. I used to believe this was an asset but I'm beginning to have my doubts. The secret to success, it seems, is to do just one thing exceptionally well.

Right now, I'm reading "Good to Great" by Jim Collins and I'm fascinated by the Hedgehog Concept. In his famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox," Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."


In the parable, the fox uses a variety of strategies to try to catch the hedgehog. It sneaks, pounces, races, and plays dead. But it walks away defeated, with a nose full of spines, every time. The fox never learns that the hedgehog knows how to do one thing perfectly: defend itself.

In his essay, Berlin argued that foxes are shrewd animals that pursue many goals at the same time. Because of this wide variety of interests and strategies, their thinking is scattered and unfocused, and they are limited in what they can achieve in the long run.

Hedgehogs, however, are slow and steady, and people often overlook them because they're quiet and unassuming. But, unlike the fox, they are able to simplify and focus on one overarching vision. It's this principle that guides everything they do, and helps them succeed against all odds.

Collins says "The Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, or a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be best at."

Everyone wants to be "the best" at something, but few people actually understand what they have potential to be best at and, more important, what they cannot be the best at.

If I want to be the best, I have to answer three questions:

What am I passionate about?
I must find something I have a great passion for. Something I love to do. Something that reflects my values. Something that gets me up early in the morning and keeps me up working late at night. Things that I would do even if I don’t get paid for doing them.

What can I be great at?
I need to find what I can be great at. Not just something I would like to be great at, but what can I actually be great at. This can be something I am genetically encoded for or it can be a skill I have been developing. I need to understand my weaknesses and remember it is okay to not be great at everything (although I do try).

What can make me money?
I must identify where I add value in the world. What will other people pay me for? Adding value often means making other people’s lives better, providing services or products that improve other people’s lives. I still need to pay the bills and keep a roof over my head. It is important to identify a skill I can use to earn a sustainable income.

I understand that my transformation from fox to hedgehog won't happen right away. It is a difficult exercise to get right the first time. It requires some deep introspection, asking tough questions about what I'm good at, what value I bring to others, and what I want to spend the rest of my life doing.

But understanding that the Hedgehog Concept exists, and working towards finding mine, will push me closer to greatness and doing what I love.
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