Foxes and Hedgehogs

I recently finished reading “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by the journalist David Epstein who argues for the value of acquiring a deep breadth of knowledge over the hyper-specializing in one discipline. The central motif in the book is base on the idea posed in an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (and previously by the Greek poet Archilochus, d. 645 BCE) who offered an intellectual exercise saying people can be sorted into two categories: foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing; or, to put it another way, those leaders who excel at seeing the granular details of projects and others who can see the big picture.

Most of our experience in life tells us that experience itself is the key benchmark for discerning how to make decisions. [We’re all familiar with the employment tautology of jobs requiring experience: How does an applicant without experience get experience so they can be experienced?!]. What we fail to recognize is that being an outsider looking in can have a great advantage beyond those who are deemed insider experts in a field. When I entered the fundraising profession after years of being a teacher, I didn’t have the typical credentials to justify how I perform in the position. I had no direct experience and development was most certainly not in my wheelhouse. Yet I knew that being in administration would require me to have some background in this given the challenge of many private schools to raise capital while achieving long-term strategic planning goals. What I did have was an understanding of cultivating relationships (pedagogy) coupled by an appreciation for the psychology behind the emotional impact of philanthropy: giving literally feels good!

When I was department chair hiring theology teachers, candidates would often tell me, “I specialize in the New Testament,” or “I would like to teach a seminar on St. Paul,” to which I would reply, “I need you to do everything.” As an educator, being adaptable is the antithesis of being specialized. You can’t just focus on 2nd grade Language Arts; you need to be proficient in phonics and science and religion and so much more. The work of psychologist Phil Tetlock underscores this point in his work on forecasting and predicting. We may presume that political scientists are best suited for predicting polling results but sometimes that specialization can obfuscate the answer that’s right in front of us. In his research, generalists tended to fare better in their predictive abilities because they were able to examine a case from multiple positions. Our focus quickly becomes our proverbial blind spot.

So while this animal representation of leadership styles and approaches to decision making may be a fun topic for your next cocktail party, it does hold important implications for how our society influences and inspires the next generation of scientists, educators, and entrepreneurs. Do we allow for greater intellectual space to explore new ideas or do we simply replicate previous achievements? Are we more excited about the young sports prodigy (e.g., Tiger Woods) or the person who writes their magnum opus well into their middle ages (e.g., Julia Child)? We are all guilty of this “achievement impatience” whether it be for ourselves or our loved ones, especially our children: excel now and succeed today are common sentiments. Instead we may be better served by allowing the fox inside us to explore with more freedom and the hedgehog to ponder more deeply. Maybe then we can begin to learn to take the short and long view of things hand in hand.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

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