“The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
-Greek philosopher Archilochus, 7th Century B.C.E.
The hedgehog and the fox are both great survivors, but for very different reasons. Foxes use a bag of cunning tricks that allow them to catch prey and evade predators. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, survive with just one trick (rolling up in a ball), and doing it very, very well.
The Fox and Hedgehog Metaphor
This difference in survival techniques is a pointed metaphor for people and life approaches. Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” is the most popular explanation of the metaphor, and defines fox and hedgehog archetypes to define models of decision-makers.
- Hedgehogs see everything through a single vision and a universal, organizing principle. The world is simple to a Hedgehog.
- The Fox sees everything through contradictory ideas and multiple organizing principles. To a Fox, the world is complex and lacks simple truths.
The Superiority of the Fox
The hedgehog has an advantage in a fixed environment. For example, when pursued by a dog, rolling into a ball will work for the hedgehog every time. In contrast, the fox’s choice to run away, climb a tree, or dig a hole will work most of the time, but allow the dog to catch it at least some of the time. In this fixed world, the hedgehog will always succeed and the fox will fail sometimes.
But life isn’t fixed. If a new predator comes along – a human for example – the hedgehog is in trouble and will fail every time. On the other hand, the fox’s adaptable strategy will continue to be successful most of the time. In a changing world, the hedgehog fails to survive, while the fox thrives.
This model can be used to explain success and failure of humans as well. In competitive business environments, some people stick to one single strategy and focus on doing one thing very well. They succeed when they are in a fixed environment that blends with their strategy. But if the environment changes, they fail extremely quickly. Foxes may lose a battle or two with a hedgehog in particular arenas. In a changing environment, however, they can adapt quickly and succeed.
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