“The fox knows many things, the hedgehog but one, but that is enough.”
Someone sent me a joke on WhatsApp the other day- mother to son, “Son, there is a marriage proposal for you, the girl is also an engineer.” The son replies, “Mom, that’s okay, but how will two unemployed people run the household.” I read further and found a 2019 report by the Ministry of Human Resources, “The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE)” which stated that engineering is the fourth most popular stream with 38.52 lakh students enrolled in more than 3500 colleges across the country. Regrettably, as per a 2019 survey by Aspiring Minds, an employability assessment company, 80 per cent of these engineers are unemployed. I shudder to think about what would be the statistics in the tumultuous Covid landscape.
Why and how these bright, young people reach this sorry state? I could figure out one main reason – they had joined the engineering college without ascertaining whether they were cut out for this job. They had not asked themselves as to what is it that they wanted to do in their life or indeed with their life. In short, they had joined the bandwagon of engineers without having a technical aptitude or attitude. They had not asked them why were they joining that engineering college, even if it was an IIT or NIT – the most prestigious ones. I had written a series of articles on ‘Finding your Raison Détre’ and ‘Ikigai’ some time back and in this series, I will look at this important issue differently. How to find that One Thing which will ensure happiness and success for you irrespective of the profession or endeavour you choose? To set the stage, let me narrate two delightful fables.
Once upon a time, there was a ferocious, strong and very hungry tiger. He was perpetually hungry because he could not hunt regularly, not because he didn’t have the strength, but because he didn’t have the necessary guile. He was too noisy and clumsy which resulted in his potential prey running off much before the tiger could reach the pouncing distance. Once, the tiger was walking back to his den after yet another bad-hunting days when he saw a cat gracefully and strategically hunting a mouse. She was so quiet, supple and graceful in her approach to the prey that the mouse was caught unawares despite the cat being within a few feet away. “I must learn this trick from the cat”, the tiger muttered to himself as he approached the cat. Alarmed at the intruder, the cat quickly climbed the tree and looked suspiciously at the tiger. “I mean no harm to you cat mausi (aunt), please teach me the nuances of hunting, I am unable to hunt due to my lack of finesse.” The cat was wise and retorted, “what is the guarantee that you will not make me your food the moment I come down?” The tiger folded his paws and pleaded, “mausi, please trust me, I will never harm you in my life. You belong to my species and I have called you mausi, how could I hurt you?”
The cat was moved by the tears and sobbing of the tiger and took him in her fold. She taught the tiger all the nuances of hunting and the tiger too proved to be an ideal pupil- imbibing all that the cat had to teach. Soon, the time of the last class came after which the cat pronounced her verdict – “Tiger, you have now learnt all that I had to teach you. I am sure that with your newly acquired skillsets, you will never go hungry.” The tiger, however, let out a burst of ominous laughter, “Thank you mausi, but as the Guru Dakshina, and to prove to you that I am indeed the ideal hunter-pupil, I will make you my first prey.” The cat was too quick for the tiger and lithely climbed the nearest tree barely avoiding the murderous paws of her ungrateful pupil. The tiger was dumbfounded as though the cat was just a few feet away but perched on the tree. To get at her, the tiger had to climb the tree, a skill the wise cat had not taught her.
The cat let out a peal of uproarious laughter and mocked the tiger, “My dear pupil, I always had suspicion on your intentions and hence did not teach you this one thing, the art of climbing trees. You have hundreds of strengths which are better than mine but I have this one which is better than yours. This ONE THING will always keep me safe from you and is more valuable than all your skills put together.” Ashamed and beaten, the tiger slinked away.
The second fable has its origin in the Greek poet, Archilochus’ poem, the last line of which says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one Big Thing.” Once upon a time, there lived a fox and a hedgehog. The fox was athletic, cunning and had a bagful of tricks up her sleeve. With such an agile attitude and devious mind, the fox was never short of food but had one big regret. Despite all her machinations, she was never able to hunt a hedgehog. To add insult to injury, the hedgehog was diminutive, sluggish and guileless- all the qualities which made him an ideal prey for the fox. Unfortunately, this dumb animal (the fox’s perspective, not mine), had one and only one quality. The moment he sensed danger, he would roll himself into a neat little ball with his pointed quills covering him from all directions. It didn’t matter how stealthily the fox approached the hedgehog, and from which direction, by the time she pounced on him, she would only encounter the sharp quills of the hedgehog. Licking her wounds and swallowing her pride, the fox will walk away waiting for another moment when she would have her victory.
The fox undoubtedly knew a lot, a lot more than the unassuming hedgehog but what the hedgehog knew trumped all that the fox threw at him. It was that ONE THING which the hedgehog knew, which was able to defeat the fox, the proud possessor of a multitude of tricks.
This ONE THING is what I am referring to as the WHY of our lives. If we get this Why right, all our actions will lead us to success, happiness and wealth. The question is how to find this why and towards this end, I have already written the series on “Raison Détre” and “Ikigai”. In this series, I intend to share with you yet another way to find your Why which is called the ‘Hedgehog Concept’. This concept has been enunciated by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great and applies to successful and great companies. However, I would reckon that with due modifications, this concept could also be applied to our lives. So, let’s first dive into what the original ‘Hedgehog Concept’ is? Have a look at the diagram below.
Collins takes this idea from an essay written by Isaiah Berlin in which he divided the world into two kinds of people – the foxes and the hedgehogs. The foxes were the people who were multiskilled, multitalented and pursuing many things at the same time. However, this desultory tendency of theirs precluded them from seeing the Big Picture, the Why of their existence. The Hedgehogs on the other hand believed keeping their lives uncomplicated and simple. They had one Big Idea of where they wanted to be and what they wanted to do to reach there? All their efforts in life were directed towards this One Thing – anything not aligned to this Unifying Idea was ruthlessly avoided. It didn’t matter whether that thing was beneficial in the short term. It had to fulfil the criteria of aiding the journey towards the Unifying Why, if not, it was not worth wasting one’s time, effort and energy.
Please have a look at the diagram above, which consists of three circles which form an intersection- the Why or the unifying idea for existence- the One Thing.
- What you can be the best in the world at? Notice that it is not about what you are currently engaged in or doing for a living? You may even be successful at the job or pursuit you are in but are you the best in it? If not, it is time to reflect. The converse is equally true- are you pursuing a career or job in which neither you are the best nor you have the potential to be the best? Are you wasting an opportunity to be great at the altar of being merely good?
- What drives your economic engine? For the companies, it means monetizing their core strengths. At the individual level, it begs the question whether people will be willing to pay for what you are the best at? Remember you might be currently paid well in another pursuit, but that’s not the point. Here we are looking at the intersection of the first and the second point- being paid for something at which you are the best.
- What are you deeply passionate about? While you might be highly enthused by the job you are in but are you really passionate about this endeavour? It might well be possible that you are working in a field that was once your passion (or at least you thought so at that stage), but over time, the fire has got extinguished and you are doing it more as a duty. But there must be something else which makes your pulse to race fast, your excitement to rise, by just thinking about that activity or endeavour. It is something which drives you to wake up in the morning full of enthusiasm. It is something which drives you to put in energetic effort even after a tiring day at the office.
What wonders could be achieved if what you are best at is also what you are passionate about? And, the icing on the cake – people are willing to pay you well for that endeavour. This is the intersection of the three circles, the unifying idea, the Hedgehog Concept, the One Thing, the Why, the pursuit of which can never fail to reward you handsomely.
Let me narrate my real-life example. As a teenager, I was deeply passionate about cricket and used to spend all my waking hours playing it. It soon reached a stage that I even began to miss college to play local tournaments. Soon, my studies and attendance suffered, but I couldn’t care less. I was enjoying myself on the cricket field and that was all which mattered. My grandfather, an astute and strict man, engaged me one of the days as I was going out for another exciting day of cricket. “Where are you going to play today” he innocently asked me? I politely responded that I was going to the nearby ground where a local tournament was underway and I was the star opening batsman. “Good, are you being paid for this tournament”, he came up with the second question? “Of course not. There is no payment but there are free refreshments. And in any case, it doesn’t matter because I am even willing to pay from my pocket to play in these tournaments”, I cockily replied. “Hmmm, so very soon you should be breaking into Indian Cricket Team”, my grandfather muttered. “No way, I am nowhere at that stage where I can play Test Cricket”, I replied meekly. “But definitely, you would be playing Ranji Trophy for Uttar Pradesh (UP) soon, isn’t it”, my grandfather asked with enthusiasm? I was rapidly losing mine though as I sheepishly responded, “I don’t think I play well enough to play for the State also.”
My grandfather stood tall, looked me in my eyes and growled, “Why the hell then you are wasting so much time playing cricket, where you are NOT the best and which is at the cost of your studies?” I was dumbfounded and bereft of any logical answer. It was true that I was passionately following a pursuit (cricket) which I loved but without any focus to represent the country or the state. In fact, I had to confess that I was not good enough to play at the highest level as I was not the best batsman even in my town. Clearly, this passion of mine was not something at which I was the best nor was it monetizable. Was I justified in spending a sizeable part of my day, and life on this pursuit? My grandfather had not read the book by Jim Collins as that was still decades away from being published, but his life-experience had blessed him with the acumen to question my Hedgehog Concept.
I will stop here and let you mull over the Hedgehog Concept. In the next part, we will look at some more real-life examples, compare this concept with Raison Détre and Ikigai and suggest some practical ways to find our Why.
Read more from Anand here: