The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Archilochus, by way of The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History by Isaiah Berlin
March 23, 2009
At an out-placement services orientation I attended recently, the moderator asked us to raise our hands if we consider ourselves “detail-oriented.” Easily 80% of the attendees shot up a hand; I didn’t.
The moderator’s point was that we shouldn’t put stock phrases like “detail-oriented” on our resumes; if 80% of the resumes coming through a hiring manager tout attention to detail, then that’s a wasted piece of information that does nothing to differentiate one from the other. And that’s certainly true enough; but I found the preponderance of self-confessed detail-oriented people in the room to be the more interesting fact.
I’ve met a lot of people in IT whould would consider themselves detail-oriented: they like the nitty-gritty, bit-by-bit parts of technology, the hardware switches and minutiae of XML and the finer points of Struts configuration. This audience, though, wasn’t predominantly IT; at my table, there was a medical supplies salesman, an HR specialist, and a project manager; they all raised their hands. An interest in detail appears to cut across professions. It may be related to the specialization and compartmentalization of the modern world, or perhaps it’s a symptom of a flight from complexity.
Isiah Berlin writes about the “hedgehog” and the “fox.” The hedgehog knows one big thing; the fox knows many small things.
At first glance, it might seem that the fox is detail oriented, and the hedgehog is the big-picture thinker. But in fact, it’s just the opposite; the hedgehog is so narrowly focused on his one big thing, his unary vision of the world, that his interest is really in the details. His world is highly vertical, with the fine details tied to the cosmic plane in a neat and constrained chain of being. Indeed, I would argue, his cosmic understanding is derived entirely from the earthly details that draw his attention: the hedgehog’s god lives in a glorious burrow and dispenses tasty roots to his faithful, because those are the things that concern terrestrial hedgehogs.
The fox is less concerned about the details of things. He’s constantly moving, curious, and ruthlessly practical in his thinking. The fox doesn’t commit himself to a grand unified theory; instead, he borrows bits and pieces of theories based on their utility, and doesn’t worry too much about how, or even whether, they make any consistent sense. A theory is only as valuable as its utility: if an idea gets the fox fed, or lets him escape the hounds, then it’s a good idea and might go into the toolbox for another day.
Most of the job descriptions I see in my field call for hedgehogs. They’re looking for long and deep experience in a few technologies, and in interviews there’s a lot of attention on detailed (I might almost say trivial) knowledge. A fox’s approach to this conundrum is to tailor the resume to the job, omitting the pieces that don’t apply to the specific job at hand, and to do some last minute cramming on the details that didn’t prove useful in actually using the technology.
How a fox actually does the job, though, can be very different from the hedgehog’s approach. Foxes are messy. They pull things in from a variety of sources, try and discard several approaches, and don’t ever quite clean up after themselves. They are easily distracted by shiny things, but occasionally discover a solution that the hedgehog in all his tedious burrowing would never find. They can never claim complete mastery of a thing; instead, they know what is useful about something and leave the details to work themselves out.
I can’t claim that the fox’s approach to things is the best, even though it’s the one that resonates with me. It sacrifices mastery and perfection for speed and creativity, and often results in a solution that’s too clever by half (Rube Goldberg was probably a fox). But in conjunction with hedgehogs who can keep things grounded and work out the details, it’s an approach that can add a little pizzaz to an otherwise deadly dull project.