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Newsletter #29: Foxes, Hedgehogs, Generalists, and Specialists

There’s a celebrated proverb from the 7th century (BC) Greek poet Archilochus:

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Subsequent thinkers and writers have argued about what exactly Archilochus meant by the adage. Despite a broad range of interpretations, one thing is clear: these two animals employ very different survival strategies.

Foxes—at least the literary ones—rely on cunning and have a wide range of tricks at their disposal; they exhibit flexibility in the face of changing circumstances. Foxes are generalists.

Hedgehogs rely on a single remarkable trick—the ability to roll up into a nearly impregnable ball when threatened or attacked. This skill is unique, reliable, and wholly effective. Hedgehogs are specialists.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously explored the dichotomy between foxes and hedgehogs in an essay from 1953:

Taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision…a single, universal, organising principle…and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends…the first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.”

Berlin labels Dante, Plato, Hegel, Nietzche, and Ibsen as hedgehogs. Shakespeare, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Goethe, and Balzac, he asserts, are foxes. Berlin is careful to note the limitations of the metaphor in noting that “it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting-point for genuine investigation.”

Which approach is better? That depends on the predilection of the observer and their resulting interpretation. Half the fun is advocating for one side or the other and extending the metaphor as far as reasonably possible—an activity that, admittedly, invites a tremendous degree of creative license.

Business writer Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don't, explicitly invokes the hedgehog metaphor and writes that “if you cannot be the best in the world at your core business, then your core business absolutely cannot form the basis of a great company.” In other words, you have to embrace the hedgehog strategy and excel at “one big thing” to win at business. He dismisses foxes as “scattered, diffused, and inconsistent”—they can be good, but never great.

David Epstein, in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World , is inclined towards foxes. “Hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise…foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect. They understand that most cause-and-effect relationships are probabilistic, not deterministic.” In an uncertain and constantly changing world, he asserts, fox-like traits are an asset.

Still others argue that the real trick is reconciling the two ideas. Historian John Lewis Gaddis, in his book On Grand Strategy relates novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion of ‘first-rate intelligence’ as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Consequently, Gaddis argues for combining the best of each, a union of the “hedgehog’s sense of direction” with “the fox’s sensitivity to surroundings.” Why settle for one approach when you can embrace both?

As for me, I’ve long considered myself a generalist. Deep down, however, I’ve always envied the specialist. I wish I possessed that “one big thing” known by the hedgehog. I sometimes wonder if hedgehogs are equally envious of foxes or if their one thing is so satisfying that they don’t give it a second thought.

Erasmus discusses Archilochus in his collection of proverbs, the Adagia (1500). The Dutch philosopher concludes his commentary on foxes and hedgehogs with a different, but thematically similar, parable (with a cat standing in for the role of the hedgehog). It captures the bewilderment experienced by many metaphorical foxes:

Once the fox was talking to the cat, and boasting that he had so many skills at his disposal that one might say he had a bag of tricks: the cat replied that she had only one, to which she trusted in danger. While they were discussing this, there was suddenly a noise of approaching hounds. The cat leapt up into a high tree, while the fox was encircled and caught by the pack of hounds.

It figures that a fox, like Erasmus, would end his commentary with a grudging nod to the hedgehog.

Now onto the updates…


Articles:

  • Do Not End the Week with Nothing: Entrepreneur Patrick McKenzie offers practical advice on how to build personal capital (e.g., skill-based “human capital,” social capital, and reputational capital) whether you’re your own boss or a salaried employee working for someone else.
  • The Fight Against Fake Paper Factories: A look at the problem of scientific paper mills, companies the churn out fake or dubious scientific manuscripts and the impact on academic and research journals. As with anything, when status, money, and reputation is at stake, the incentives to cheat are high.
  • Five Investing Powers: Morgan Housel continues to be my favorite financial writer. His advice is high on common sense and low on jargon.
  • Grice’s Maxims of Conversation: The Principles of Effective Communication: Linguist Paul Grice developed a set of maxims to minimize misunderstandings and common communication errors. The overall gist: be informative, be truthful, be relevant, be clear.
  • Outgrowing Software: Benedict Evans on how tech changes industries, and how it doesn’t. For instance, in retail “tech will change everything, but once the dust has settled the questions that matter will mostly be retail questions, not tech questions.”
  • Sovereign Writers and Substack: There’s been a lot of online hand-wringing about the newsletter publishing platform’s business model. As usual, Ben Thompson (Stratechery) does a solid job of making sense of Substack’s strategy.
  • The Three Types of Burnout: “A team at the Department of Psychiatry from the University of Zaragoza in Spain decided to design a more helpful framework to understand the many subtypes of burnout.”
  • What Data Can’t Do: Hannah Fry, mathematician and author of Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms, writes about the limitation of a data-driven view of reality. Numbers are a powerful tool, but they don’t hold all the answers.

Podcasts

  • The Knowledge Project: Matt Ridley, Infinite Innovation: A conversation about science, the battle against viruses, rational optimism and the difference between innovation and invention.
  • Planet Money: The New Shape of Pasta: The story of Dan Pashman (host of the podcast The Sporkful) and his quest to create a new pasta shape that has high “forkability” (stays on the fork), “sauceability” (holds bits of sauce), and ‘toothability” (has nice toothsome chew).
  • Twenty Thousand Hertz: 20th Century Fox: The story of the musical fanfare, written almost one hundred years ago, that became one of the most recognizable pieces of music in modern history.

Odds & Ends:

GPT-3 Tries Pickup Lines is worth reading if you could use a good laugh. Research scientist Janelle Shane has a knack for exploring the humorous side of AI. In this case, Shane, using the vaunted GPT-3 language model, wanted to see what the state of the art machine-generated pickup lines might look like. Fortunately, real humans need not worry too much (yet). Here’s a sampling from her digital Lothario:

  • “You’re looking good today. Want snacks?”
  • “Your eyes are like two rainbows and a rainbow of eyes. I can’t help but stare.”
  • “I once worked with a guy that looked just like you. He was a normal human with a family. Are you a normal human with a family?”
  • Buffet FAQ is a collection of responses and investing insights from Warren Buffet. The responses come from the notes and transcriptions of attendees at question and answer (Q&A) sessions from the past two decades.
  • The Era of the Wooden Skyscraper is Arriving: Canada’s 18-story Brock Commons defies high-rise construction norms. Could mass adoption of wood construction lead to reduced carbon emissions without sacrificing safety or integrity? It’s an intriguing idea.

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