Hedging and hedgehogs

In the West, at least, we seem to live in the age of hedgehogs – so many jobs and academic disciplines are defined so narrowly and we consult hedgehogs through the newspaper or TV mediums. My work life has been filled with hedgehogs too and even education was delivered largely by hedgehogs. Typically people specialise and some possibly overly specialise in a subject or practice. A lot of jobs these days seem to require a hedgehog too. It is as if they assume human mind is not plastic enough to adapt or learn new things. Some recruiters told me ‘you don’t have that experience’… well, so what? Nobody has experience until they tried it, and that does not mean you can’t get good at it. They seem to confuse experience with expertise.

In life we often seem to adopt perspectives that rely on singular theories. Whether it is a parenting expert who wrote a book on how to raise children (yes, according to many writers there always seems one way of doing it) or a management guru whose new (and often the newest) book will reveal the true mastery of success in managing whatever. Singular perspectives are simple and digestible. They also seem to sell better.

Isaiah Berlin refers to a fox and a hedgehog as two kinds of mindsets or ways of looking at the world: ‘a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.’ I don’t suppose Berlin implies one is smarter than the other, it’s the mindset – the way we look at things and practice. A hedgehog knows one best way to cook eggs – he is the expert (whether recognised by others or only by themselves). Foxes were more likely to acknowledge and adopt a plural view of things: there is not just one way of cooking eggs.

I seem more comfortable with the plural ideas and multi-dimensional views, in part because life is complex and gaining different perspectives can be more enriching. Having lived in different cultures has enriched my perspectives as I learned to look at values and practices differently. My Austrian friends like to start everything on time; fine that works in that environment, but you get a mental breakdown if you try to live like that in most of developing countries.

I find relying on a narrow set of views is like investing in a narrow portfolio of funds. Some investments bring high returns, but for how long? When the substance hits the fan it may result in more losses. Enter tulip mania. Looking for and adopting different other perspectives and competencies helps me to be more adaptive and agile. Adopting plural perspective is like spreading my bets where a wider set of options gives me a better ability to hedge against losses. Plurality of perspectives helps me to hedge against hedgehog mania (which is to say let’s all go after one big, and preferably new, thing).


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