A Narrowed Focus

I recently went bowling for the first time in about a decade.  And, the only “bowling” I’ve really done the last couple years has been in front of the wide-screen in my basement.  Trading analog for digital, too bad my Wii bowling scores didn’t follow me to the hardwood crafted into the lanes between Shepherd and Billings, Montana.  I only displaced 86 pins my first game; no strikes and only one spare.  As we began the second game, I knew something needed to change…

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” based on Archilochus’ quote analyzes the differences between foxes and hedgehogs.  Berlin believed people can be classified as either foxes or hedgehogs.

In the fox and hedgehog parable, the fox is always trying to get the hedgehog.  Day after day, the fox is in pursuit of the hedgehog, devising means to catch the hedgehog.  The fox is, by all appearances, a highly intelligent, crafty and resourceful creature.  Indeed, compared to the rather dull hedgehog, the fox appears to have every advantage.  The hedgehog is a small, awkward animal that lives a simple life and spends his days taking care of his den and finding food.  Each day, the fox tries a new scheme to catch the hedgehog and each time the hedgehog simply bundles up into a ball of sharp spikes—foiling the fox’s attempts.

Berlin believed foxes “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.”  As a consequence of this outlook, foxes “lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.”

In contrast, Berlin believed hedgehogs “relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance….”

Jim Collins, a noted management theorist and a former professor at Stanford Business School, discusses the concept of the hedgehog and the fox based on Berlin’s famous essay in his book, Good to Great:  Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. Collins notes his conclusions formed from Berlin’s essay by Princeton professor Marvin Bressler during his interview with him:  “You know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart?  They’re hedgehogs.  Those who leave the biggest footprints, said Bressler, have thousands calling after them, ‘Good idea, but you went too far!”

To be clear, hedgehogs are not stupid; quite the contrary.  They understand the essence of profound insight is simplicity.  No, the hedgehogs are not simpletons.  They have a piercing insight that allows them to see through complexity and discern underlying patterns.  Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest.

As simple (or complicated) as it sounds, I applied the principle of the hedgehog to my bowling game; I simply narrowed my focus.  The first game was spend looking at the pins, hoping I was holding the ball correctly, timing my stride and tossing the 16 lb. resin orb down the lane.  I determined that the essential during this second game wasn’t necessarily the pins (however, my ultimate target) but the markers just beyond the foul line.  Focusing on them provided me with four strikes, two spares and a score of 158 during the second game.  Instant feedback!

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