Are you a big-picture strategist or a small-picture tactician? A long time ago, the Greek philosopher Archilochus introduced the idea that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Since then, this phrase has been used by scholars to divide the world into different kinds of thinkers, problem-solvers, and even leaders.
I first heard the phrase earlier last year and have spent the last couple of weeks turning it over in my mind. This summer has been a period of transition for me. As I’ve run down different avenues and pursued a number of different interests, I’ve gotten some interesting responses. I thought I’d unpack some of them here and tie it back to this old parable. Hopefully it will encourage some of you to pursue diverse interests and shed light on an interesting way of thinking about the world!
First, let me unpack the idea of foxes and hedgehogs. I researched this a bit further before sitting down and writing and while there are many nuanced interpretations, the gist seems to be that when a fox wants to eat it has different options whereas, when the hedgehog is being chased by the fox it has one goal—survival. There are those who take the analysis a bit further and say that even though the fox is good at hunting different prey, it is ultimately defeated by the hedgehog who has perfected the art of survival.
In the world this translates into foxes being “small-picture tacticians”. Foxes have many, sometimes seemingly unrelated, even contradictory interests. On the other hand, hedgehogs are “big-picture strategists” driven by one single defining idea, relating everything back to one overarching vision.
Now, I’m generally skeptical of dividing people up using false binaries—as are many others who’ve run across this parable, but I do think it sheds some light on the different ways in which people approach life. I actually think that for many, some sort of fox-hedgehog hybrid might be a more accurate descriptor. A cop-out, you say? Maybe, but again, I don’t think an “either/or” situation is most appropriate—then again, that might be my fox-side speaking ;)
I recently got back from a nuclear threats and public policy course in sunny California. I had an amazing experience, learned a lot, and met a bunch of incredibly brilliant people. But I was also struck by how often I was asked some variation of, “But do you actually want to work on nuclear security?”
Now if you know me at all, you know that I have a million interests and *technically* only one career. But I am of the mindset that I can have a rich, interdisciplinary career that touches on many of the issues I care about. In the past year I’ve worked a day job at a defense think tank where I focused on nuclear security policy, written a book chapter on terrorist threats to democracies, moderated a panel at a sister think tank on redefining national security in light of the 2020 election, partnered with NGO’s who are working to get more first-gen students into college, written consistently for this blog, worked as an organizer on a midterm election campaign, written op-eds on Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, written on Artificial Intelligence, become part of the leadership team for an organization seeking to get more women of color into the national security space, worked at an immigration law firm, become involved with a campaign to change school funding allocation in my state, and will be moving into intellectual property law this coming fall.
These are just some of the many issues I care about and work with. I didn’t spell all that out to humble brag, but to rather show you that you CAN pursue different avenues and do things that maybe don’t seem related. Maybe the belief that these seemingly unconnected pieces fit a larger (and coherent!) narrative is what makes me part hedgehog. While some might argue that you run the risk of being a mile wide and an inch deep, I strongly believe that getting too focused can also have it’s downsides.
We live in an interconnected world that needs creative thinkers and problem-solvers. When you’re too steeped in one particular area, it is so easy to lose sight of how your work relates to the rest of society.
I’m not saying it’s easy to pursue a number of different avenues—people will be skeptical, others will be dismissive, some will question your commitment to the field because your path doesn’t look traditional. I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t build expertise.
What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t be afraid to explore. You can and often will find ways in which a number of your interests connect. As long as you know your narrative and can explain it to potential employers, college admissions boards, graduate schools, and most importantly, yourself, it ultimately works to your benefit.
I’m often stunned by how often my work in one field helps me better understand my involvement in another. It’s helped me make better connections between ideas, think creatively, and most importantly feel fulfilled.
I don’t know if it’s better to be a fox or a hedgehog or even which I am, but I do know that I love what I do and I hope each of you crafts a niche for yourselves that makes you want to leap out of bed in the mornings.