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Great Hedgehogs Start as Foxes
Why scattered exploration is necessary for finding clarity and discipline
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This is Startup Builder by Henrik Angelstig. Every week I consume countless hours of books and podcasts on entrepreneurship to learn why some startups succeed while others don’t. 📚
I then distill the most non-intuitive lessons into short essays. Bringing you the most useful insights that fewest founders know.
Today’s essay will cover scattered exploration VS focused discipline – and why being a fox is necessary to becoming a hedgehog.
Great Hedgehogs Start as Foxes
What separates the great business leaders from the unsuccessful ones?
This was the question Jim Collins set out to answer in his fantastic book Good to Great. After years of research, the answer he found was this:
The great business leaders were “hedgehogs”. While their less successful peers were “foxes”.
“Hedgehogs and Foxes” is a concept that divides the world into 2 kinds of people. It was popularized by Isaiah Berlin in his famed essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox.
Foxes are cunning creatures, always exploring new schemes to attack the hedgehog. Foxes see the world in all its complexity. But like a butterfly fluttering from flower to flower, foxes quickly get bored and can’t stick to anything. 🦊
Hedgehogs, in contrast, simplify a complex world into a single powerful idea. Hedgehogs are remarkably disciplined. They know that focusing on one great idea is worth more than scattering your attention over a thousand good ones. 🦔
In short – the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Jim Collins found that the business leaders who achieved 3X above-market returns all focused on a single strategy with unwavering discipline. While their less successful competitors jumped from one shiny opportunity to the next – without any consistency.
Look at the great companies of today – Apple, Amazon, Walmart, Google – and you will find that they’re all hedgehogs. They found one great idea, and stuck with it.
Vice versa, can you think of any company that became great by constantly switching strategies, without ever committing to anything?
It’s obvious that the hedgehog is the clear winner, right?
The fox-hedgehog dichotomy doesn’t tell the full story. It skips the most essential part – the beginning.
How did the hedgehog companies become that way?
The answer is that they started out as foxes, and later transformed into hedgehogs.
In fact, the only way to become a great hedgehog – is to first be a great fox.
Great hedgehogs emerge from foxy exploration
Charles Darwin may be one of history’s greatest hedgehogs. His theory of natural selection gave us a single explanation for why each species had evolved as it had. He turned an infinitely complex world, and organized it into one simple idea.
But how did Darwin come up with this insight?
By traveling halfway around the world for 5 years on the ship HMS Beagle – exploring such diverse places as the Canary Islands, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Mauritius, and the Galapagos Islands – recording more than 5,000 species. 1
What’s more, Darwin never intended to study species. The goal of his journey was to study geology! 2
That’s right. The person who is most remembered for his contribution to the evolution of species had set out to study – not species – but rocks.
But along the way, Darwin became curious about the diverse wildlife he came across. And that curiosity led to a quest to figure out why each species had evolved as it had.
Yet, despite his hundreds of pages of notes, Darwin didn’t hit upon his theory right away. He went through four different theories – relentlessly attacking his own ideas – until he finally stumbled on the idea of natural selection that fit all the evidence. 3
Darwin was the foxiest of foxes. He searched far and wide. He kept 231 pen pals in every field from worms to human sexual reproduction. And he actively sought out evidence and viewpoints that contradicted his worldview. 4
Darwin started by seeing the unexplained complexity in the simple theories of his day. Complexity that his hedgehog peers overlooked.
Then, after exploring diverse evidence and viewpoints, he found a better hedgehog theory that explained it all.
Darwin’s story is hardly unique.
Study the great founders before they found their “one big thing”, and you’ll almost always find a foxy trace of scattered projects and diverse exploration:
Mark Zuckerberg found a unique passion by merging his skill in computer science, with his interest in psychology and how humans behave. Before Facebook, he nearly got expelled for launching FaceMash, a social site where Harvard students ranked each other on physical attractiveness. Even after creating Facebook, he failed to recognize its potential and instead built a file-sharing service called Wirehog. Only when Facebook started growing like wildfire did Zuckerberg realize he had found his life's work. 5
Steve Jobs teamed up with Steve Wozniak in high school to make “Blue boxes” – devices that let you make free (and illegal) long-distance phone calls by mimicking the tones of the phone system. Jobs later dropped out of college, and dropped in on classes in calligraphy, dance, and Shakespeare. Only after being a college bum, working at designing a video game for Atari, and going on a spiritual journey to India – did he found Apple. 6
Phil Knight, founder of Nike, was early at identifying his love for running. But the idea of starting a shoe company didn’t arrive until he wrote his college thesis. Knight had seen how American camera companies had been disrupted by Japanese producers. In his college paper, he theorized that the same thing might happen with shoes. Yet, it wasn’t until he tried and failed at selling encyclopedias and stocks – and then succeeded wildly at selling shoes – that he realized a shoe company might be his “one big thing”. 7
Hedgehogs win by focusing their efforts on a lever…
Why do all great founders eventually become hedgehogs?
The answer is the well-known 80-20 rule – 80% of the results come from 20% of the actions.
When you scatter your focus like the fox, you’re far more likely to work on 80% of the actions that yield only 20% of the results.
This is why there are no pure foxes at the height of success. The greats know what their 80-20 actions are, and they focus all their efforts on those actions with stubborn discipline.
We can plot actions along two dimensions:
A lever is any action that is Low Cost and High Reward. But the truly great individuals know a secret:
Inside the 80-20 rule, there is another 80-20 rule.
0.2 × 0.2 = 4% of the actions create 0.8 × 0.8 = 64% of the results.
Every quadrant can be divided into yet another set of four smaller quadrants to that yield another level of 80-20.
Within the “Level 3” quadrant of 80-20, you find the 0.2% of actions that create roughly 50% of the results.
In practice, you can’t actually spend all your time in the top-most 80-20 quadrant. Not every decision can be life-changing. But you can certainly allocate more of your time to the high-level quadrants than you
That is what the great founders do.
Hedgehogs move mountains because they focus on a great lever.
…But it takes a fox to find a great lever to focus on
Now, let me ask you a question:
“Right now, do you know the single most important thing to focus on?”
If you’re reading this, the answer is probably “no”. Otherwise, why aren’t you already doing that thing?
But why is it so hard to identify what’s truly important? I can think of two reasons:
We aren’t aware of all options that exist.
We aren’t aware of all the costs and rewards of each option.
What’s more, the playing field keeps changing. New technology arrives. Customer needs change. Markets saturate. What used to be a powerful lever in the past may now be an outdated relic going forward.
Assuming the world is uncertain, complex, and ever-changing – which approach is most likely to find a great lever?
Hedgehog: Focus on a few options and evaluate them from a single perspective, or
Fox: Explore many options and evaluate them from multiple perspectives?
In this contest, the fox will win almost every time. Levers are rare and hard to evaluate at a glance.
But if you simply explore more options, and evaluate them from more perspectives, your odds of finding a great lever improve dramatically.
In his book Superforecasting, Philip Tetlock decided to test experts’ ability to forecast political and economic events. Over a 20-year period, he collected more than 80,000 expert predictions.
Those experts who saw the world from a single academic domain – the hedgehogs – were no better at forecasting than a dart-throwing chimp. In fact, the more experience the experts had, the worse they performed. They kept seeking out more data that confirmed their initial view.
The experts who instead drew on multiple disciplines – the foxes – outperformed the hedgehogs in nearly every area. Including long-term predictions in the hedgehog experts’ own domain!
As another example, consider the great hedgehog Warren Buffett. Few have matched his disciplined focus. But Buffett would not have achieved his world-class performance without his more foxy partner, Charlie Munger, who told him:
“Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices. Instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.” 8
As Warren Buffett later said:
"Charlie shoved me in the direction of not just buying bargains, as Ben Graham had taught me. […] It took a powerful force to move me on from Graham's limiting views. [Charlie] expanded my horizons." 9
It takes a hedgehog to focus on a great lever…
…But it takes a fox to find that great lever in the first place.
List more ideas, Ask more questions
One of the best business books I’ve ever read is Engage the Fox by Jen Lawrence and Larry Chester.
The story is a business fable of a hedgehog who is the CEO of a struggling newspaper business. Printed papers are being challenged by online media. Their revenue is declining. And the top four advertisers are demanding a 15% discount – and threaten to pull all their ads unless they get it.
The hedgehog can’t afford to offer the discount – and he can’t afford not to.
In desperation, the hedgehog hires a fox as a consultant to help find a solution.
What happens next is just extraordinary!
Within a few pages, the hedgehog’s management team goes from being completely disarrayed to 1) Gaining clarity of the situation, 2) Finding a much better alternative solution, and 3) Getting buy-in from the whole team.
But what’s interesting is how the fox helps them turn the newspaper around.
At every stage in the process, the fox gives them a worksheet that simply gets the team to:
List more ideas, and
Ask more questions to evaluate their ideas
Identifying the newspaper’s key issue
First, the fox helps them gain clarity of the situation by listing all the issues the newspaper faces. Once they have a list of 30 issues, the fox helps them evaluate the issues by asking:
Can we do something something about it?
Must we do something about it?
How important is it?
Just like that, the management team goes from 30 disparate issues, to identifying the Top 4 issues.
By then asking another question – “What issue must be solved now?” – the team identifies the #1 single issue to discuss in this moment:
“Our top four advertisers demand a 15% discount, or they will pull their business.”
Isolating the true cause of the problem
Once the team has isolated the key issue, the fox again helps them list all possible explanations as to why the issue is happening. To do that, he asks them questions such as:
What is the problem?
Who has the problem?
What is not part of the problem?
Who else could have the problem, but doesn’t?
After listing possible explanations they evaluate each idea with questions such as:
Which explanation is most supported by the evidence?
How do we conform if this is true?
Through this exercise, the team discovers what the true cause of the problem. It’s not that online media is killing newspapers. The true cause is that:
“Our top four customers are colluding to get a better price.”
As the story continues, the fox uses similar worksheets that help the team identify a stellar solution, as well as an implementation plan with backups.
The first time I read this story, I couldn’t understand why this process had such magic.
What was it about a spreadsheet that helped the team transform their complexity and chaos – into clarity and commitment?
But finally… it clicked.
The worksheets just helped the team to:
List more ideas, and
Ask more questions to evaluate those ideas
There’s no single idea or question that will make or break your decision. The important thing is not which ideas you list, nor what questions you use.
All that matters is THAT you list more ideas, and ask more questions to evaluate those ideas.
Listing ideas and asking questions are the two primary techniques of the fox. And by first being great foxes, the newspaper team ends up becoming great hedgehogs.
(I can’t recommend this book highly enough! Of the 200+ business books I’ve read, no one has taught me how to create clarity out of chaos better than Engage the Fox).
Being part fox is how hedgehogs adapt
In his later book Great by Choice, Jim Collins tackles a different question:
“Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?”
One key finding was that the CEOs who achieved 10X the stock performance of their competitors displayed a certain leadership – which consisted of three legs:
Fanatic Discipline: Holding true to your own values to a near-eccentric degree, regardless of what the outside world thinks.
Productive Paranoia: Never resting on your laurels, and always asking “What if?”, “What if?”, “What if?”.
Empirical Creativity: Thinking from first principles to come up with new ideas that others dismissed.
What’s interesting is that two of the three leadership legs – Productive Paranoia and Empirical Creativity – describe qualities of the fox.
Just one of the three legs – Fanatic Discipline – describes a quality of the hedgehog.
(Tying all three legs together was a Level 5 Ambition. All the 10X leaders had huge egos, but they channeled their egos into a mission larger than themselves).
Another of Jim Collin’s key findings was that 10X leaders “first fire bullets, then fire cannonballs.”
The 10X leaders realized the world was uncertain. So rather than betting all their dry powder on a single big bet – without knowing whether they would hit their target – they first tried lots of small bets to test the concept. Very much like a fox.
By shooting lots of “bullets” at the target, the leaders kept calibrating their aim until they hit the bulls-eye. Then – they fired a big “cannonball” and rolled out the concept nationwide. Very much like a hedgehog.
These two findings provide an interesting twist to the previous notion from Good to Great that hedgehogs outperform foxes.
The hedgehog is not “better” than the fox.
Nor is the fox “better” than the hedgehog.
Both creatures are essential. The fox is needed to find a lever, and the hedgehog is needed to stay focused on that lever.
When the world makes sense, when you have clarity on what matters, when the opportunity in front of you is big and you have an edge – that is when you lean more to being a focused hedgehog.
But in times of great uncertainty – when old levers stop working, new ones arise, and when you are not sure where you want to go – that is when you lean more to being an exploring fox.
Foxes are just hedgehogs in the making
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R Tolkien
In his book Life is What You Make It, Peter Buffett tells of a distant friend who changed majors practically every semester:
He started as a mechanical engineer. But he grew bored with the hands-on aspect of engineering, craving for something more abstract.
So he changed his major to physics. Only to realize that what he really loved beautiful and orderly patterns.
So he switched his major to math, which was about nothing but abstract patterns. But there his world felt too abstract!
He then pivoted to a fine arts major, hoping to paint his intellectual ideas into beautiful artworks of color. But the painter’s life felt too solitary and removed from the common experiences that connect most people.
So he changed majors yet again to architecture. It was collaborative and social. Both an art and a business. Drawing on mathematical patterns and hands-on experiences. Had he found his calling at last?!
Well, almost. He felt too frustrated that most designs never got built. But then he got curious in the building materials. Could he combine buildings – with their design and materials – into larger patterns that shaped people’s lives?
Then it clicked! – He was meant to be an urban planner. He changed majors a final time, achieved a master’s degree, and went on to a fulfilling career.
So… was this fellow “lost”? Was he an undisciplined nit-picker – doomed to start but never getting anywhere?
Or was he in the process of exploring himself and the world to find the thing most worth sticking to?
Let’s also consider the opposite question:
“How many others choose to stick with their major and career path, even when they know it’s not right for them, and end up deeply unhappy?”
Our society has a deep pride with grit and sticking to things. We love telling the stories of those who persist through endless challenges, setbacks, and rejections – and eventually emerge victorious.
But not all things are worth sticking to. In fact, very few things are.
Few people want to keep switching paths all their lives. Most crave to find that “one big thing” – something that feels uniquely you – that you can stick to forever.
If I can leave you with one last parting word, it’s this:
Don’t feel rushed to commit to one path. Don’t be afraid to switch, change, or pivot along the way.
Keep exploring. Keep merging your interests until you find a blend that feels uniquely you. When the right mix presents itself, you will know it.
You are simply a fox on your way to becoming a hedgehog.
Thanks for reading,
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Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein