Are You a Fox or a Hedgehog?

The fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing– Ancient Greek Aphorism

Isaiah Berlin, in 1953, famously referenced this as a jumping off point for an essay on the relative importance of two kinds of knowledge, on the one hand that of principles and ideas, and on the other hand that of “ways of the world,” street smarts, and technique.

I was reminded of it recently by an old and wise colleague, as we were evaluating an investment opportunity, and the relative importance of the executive team’s operating experience versus their big picture strategy and growth model for the business.

His point was that while those executives were certainly “foxes” – great resumes, hard workers, and excellent communicators – they were lacking as “hedgehogs,” pursuing an inefficient and difficult to scale business model.

We passed on the investment.

And it occurred to me how so many of us think and work like them –  tens of millions of knowledge workers all over the world that know and do a lot of “little” things – how to code, talk, email, text, post, and tweet, but how too often doing so crowds out the “Deep Work” necessary to arrive at and execute upon business models that scale.

Perhaps the most vexing “focus” challenge of modern business, but for the disciplined executive one surprisingly easy-to-overcome through asking one simple question:

Does a particular bucket of stuff really make me and my company money or does it not?

Because focusing on making money almost always means focusing less on:

  • Cycles of email response
  • Internet and Social Media surfing and browsing
  • Poorly planned and managed internal meetings
  • Gossip and complaining of any / all types – about prospects, clients, co-workers, managers, our products, services, etc.

And more on:

  • Building and sustaining deep customer relationships
  • Getting to and maintaining team clarity on long-term strategy
  • Professional development, training and skills sharpening
  • Building brand and thought leadership to improve pricing and margins
  • Ruthlessly improving operational efficiencies and reducing non-essential costs
  • And perhaps most importantly, managing our lives away from work in a holistic and “saw sharpening” way so that when we are at work, we are able to be fully engaged, present, and interacting with both our desk work and others with high, clean, and positive energy.

And when we reflect on it, isn’t this not just the stuff that makes us money, but is also the stuff we almost always enjoy and find the most fulfilling?

Isaiah Berlin’s full “The Hedgehog and the Fox” essay can be read here.

Timeless, ancient wisdom worth applying to our frenetic, modern day. 

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