19 November 2007

Foxes And Hedgehogs - 2

The words "sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision" betray where Berlin's sympathies lie. He is on the side of the foxes (The rest of the book argues that Leo Tolstoy was a fox, but was trying to become a hedgehog). Another writer (Scherder?) made exactly the same point when he said that every man is either a Platonian or an Aristotlean.

Leaving philosophy and art aside, let's talk about what this means for us ordinary mortals. The parallel at the mundane, everyday level is obvious. Some people can do only one thing at a time. Others are good at multitasking, and can do many things together. Some can hold only one thought in their heads at any given time. Others' minds are like multitrack recorders. Some seek comfort in uniformity. Others revel in variety. These are our hedgehogs and foxes, respectively. And by this definition, I am a hedgehog. (I also happen to prefer Plato to Aristotle)

So which type is superior? The usual argument of "each has its pros and cons" does not apply here. I think it is better to be a fox. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein said it best: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects." In today’s fast-changing, diverse and complex world, we hedgehogs are at a serious disadvantage.

The fox vs hedgehog theme has become popular again, thanks to the management bestseller Good to great by Jim Collins. Collins argues that one must be a hedgehog to become a great business leader. But he, like Berlin, is talking about the realm of ideas, not of day-to-day work. He is telling you to relentlessly focus on one idea and build your company around it. He is surely not saying that one can become a successful CEO by being a zero at multitasking.

So are you a fox? Or are you a hedgehog? :-)

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