What do foxes and hedgehogs have to do with skills and happiness? And while we're in the mood to ask questions, what (or who) on earth are specialized generalists?
Trust me, it is worth knowing the answers to these questions. You'll see why...
Let's start with a Greek parable.
In the translated words of the Greek lyric poet Archilochus:
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Many philosophers and thinkers have expounded Archilochus’ words over centuries. The simple explanation is how differently two animals—the hedgehog and the fox—deal with predators.
Hedgehogs have a stiff covering of almost quill-like sharp spines. When threatened by predators, hedgehogs employ a natural yet simple survival mechanism. They curl themselves into an unenticing, prickly ball that deters attackers.
On the other hand, foxes have no such physical adaptations to use for survival but are known for their cunning and patience. Depending on the situation, foxes employ different techniques to avoid being hunted, such as building burrows to hide or outrunning predators.
Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox”
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin used the contrasting nature of these animals to analyze various writers and thinkers. He found he could group them into one of two categories:
- Those who use one central idea as their guiding principle (hedgehogs) and
- Those who integrate multiple viewpoints and, based on circumstances, change lenses through which they view the world (foxes).
Berlin went on to create a profoundly impactful, remarkable, and uber-popular essay on Tolstoy. He titled the piece “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”
In Berlin’s assessment, Tolstoy was a fox but was fascinated by hedgehogs and attempted to be one. This resulted in Tolstoy leading a rather conflicted life. The French diplomat and critic, Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, describes Tolstoy as someone who has “a queer combination of the brain of an English chemist with the soul of an Indian Buddhist.”
Berlin goes on to recognize that the dichotomy between the single-minded hedgehogs versus the pluralistic foxes is a distinction that occurs in nature. He felt it could be applied not just to writers and thinkers but also symbolically to explain significant differences among human beings in general.
21st century interpretations
Into the 21st century, we’ve done just that. We’ve expanded the cultural connotations of hedgehogs and foxes to include how we define ourselves and our skills, how we approach careers, and even how we derive our sense of self-worth.
The terms we use today have changed somewhat though they bear a striking resemblance to the hedgehog and fox concept. Today, we identify ourselves, especially in our skills, as specialists (hedgehogs) or generalists (foxes).
A few words of caution before we get further:
Any black and white categorization of people or belief systems can lead to abject oversimplification and potentially border on the ridiculous. That said, there is some inherent truth to this philosophy. It pays for us to know where we stand in terms of being a specialist or generalist.
So, let’ dive right in.
Specialists v Generalists
The distinction between specialists and generalists is relatively straight-forward.
It is a matter of depth versus breadth.
Specialists aim for depth, with a vertical focus. They take a narrow skill and or field of knowledge and dig deep until they become an “expert” on the subject or until their thoughts are permeated by a singular view. Specialists know one thing, but they know it exceptionally well.
Generalists, on the other hand, take a broader, more horizontal view of the world. They identify with terms such as holistic and like to integrate from multiple disciplines. Unlike specialists, they don’t quite dig in and are amenable to changed viewpoints on issues.
At the risk of simplifying too much, let’s use a simple skill measurement-scale as a reference to indicate whether someone qualifies as a generalist or a specialist.
For instance, if you were to rate someone’s skill on a scale of 1-100 in a given field, where 1 is the lowest and 100 is the highest), here’s where the definitions of generalists and specialists would land. Again, these aren’t hard and fast rules but somewhat indicative of how these terms are defined.
The specialists, especially those at the top of the range, are the ones with names that evoke household recognition. Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt, Michael Angelo, Einstein, etc. The podium finishers in Olympics, renowned concert pianists, painters with works displayed in the Louvre, Nobel Prize winners, etc., all tend to be specialists.
On the other hand, generalists understand enough about multiple subjects but don’t get to the top of the chart in any of them. They may still become household names, but they get there not through single-minded focus and training in one field but instead through a broader focus on multiple areas that gives them a somewhat unique perspective on situations.
Typically, CEOs and executives who fill the “successful case studies” pages on business books tend to be generalists since their jobs require them to have a broader perspective across business areas. Case in point: Steve Jobs is legendary for combining design and technology skills to create Apple products.
The pressure to be a specialist
Traditionally, we’ve been drilled to find our passion in life early on and then spend a lifetime honing our skills in that one area. This idea has further been strengthened by the intensely competitive nature of most popular careers or sports. The specialization rat-race starts early in life; for some, as early as in elementary school.
Specialization has become a survival skill.
Getting to the top of the skill-scale I mentioned in the previous section (71-100 range) in many areas takes extraordinary effort, persistence, and even some luck.
As I had discussed earlier in this post, Malcolm Gladwell propounded the theory of needing 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a field. Bear in mind, the 10K figure is a ballpark. Some skills require way more—close to 25,000 hours, to even take a crack at getting to the top. The sad part? There are no guarantees.
Also, note that once you get to a certain level of expertise, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. It may take you six months of practice to go from being a couch potato to running a marathon in four hours. But it could well take you many years to be able to run the marathon in 3.5 instead of 4 hours (assuming it’s even possible).
Not to insult anyone here, but most of us lack the extraordinary skills, persistence, and patience (or fortunate circumstances) that it takes for us to become the next Usain Bolt or Neil Armstrong of the world.
It’s no wonder then for folks to get dejected and distressed when, despite their sincere attempts, they fail to get to the high places they aspire to.
But don't despair. Because, there's another proven path to success and happiness that rarely gets the credit it deserves. That of specialized generalists.
The case for specialized generalists
Generalists can do equally well, if not better than specialists, especially if you’re a unique kind of generalist—a specialized generalist.
We’ve seen the difference between generalists and specialists, but, who the heck is a “specialized generalist”? I won’t blame you if you think it’s the definition of someone who can’t make their mind up. But the reality is much simpler.
Specialized generalists are still generalists, but with above-average skills in a few areas and specialized skills in one or two areas. They can effectively “stack” all these skills to create a holistic unique perspective that is entirely their own.
An example of this would be a dentist who sets up their own practice. Not only will they need to know how to take care of teeth (specialized), but they need to be somewhat schooled (generalists) on other aspects of running a business, including hiring, marketing, accounting, and customer service.
Yes, the dental business owners can rely on having specialists solve complex problems in areas that don’t involve peering into someone’s mouth. Still, the more the dentists know and understand enough of the various other aspects of running their business, (to a point—they don't need to train to become accountants themselves), the better it is for them.
The world is full of examples of seemingly ordinary (read not-so-talented) people who manage to achieve stellar success in their fields or chosen professions simply because they managed to crack the code on being specialized generalists.
Why do specialized generalists thrive?
To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else ― Leonardo da Vinci
While there are multitude reasons why specialized generalists do well, here are the top five.
Connecting the dots
If you follow the polling and news cycles closely in the USA, you may be a fan of or at least be familiar with Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, a polling aggregation website. The site (and Silver) gained popularity over the years with its highly sophisticated methods of data analysis. In turn, these methods yielded more accuracy in the website's poll projections at a time when the whole industry performed dismally and struggled with credibility.)
In a nod to the hedgehog and fox parable, Nate Silver used the fox symbol as the logo of fivethirtyeight.com. He credits using a “pluralistic approach” as the reason for his website’s success (in an industry plagued by miscalculations.)
Being plural, aka a specialized generalist, allows you to connect seemingly unrelated dots to solve complex puzzles.
Don’t be a one-trick pony
Yes, many time specialists make the big bucks. A department store is likely to hire a retail strategy consultant instead of a generic management consultant.
But specialization comes at a cost. Many specialist’s skills aren’t easily transferable and are subject to the threat of systemic changes. For instance, I’d have hated to be a specialist in producing music CDs when the first iPod was designed. Entire industries and specialist careers can be waylaid in the face of innovation.
At times like that, it’s good to have pivotable-generalist skills.
Generalists can sometimes see and solve problems that blind specialists. That’s because generalists have learnings across disciplines that train them to be good at pattern recognition. Recognizing patterns in one field and applying them to another is considered the most critical skill in decision-making.
They are more fun to hang out with
Imagine attending a dinner party seated next to two strangers—Bill, a specialist on sleep technology to your right, and Amy, a generalist to your left.
Your conversation with Bill may soon lead to discussions on polysomnographic toys and CPAP titration. Fascinating—if you’re also a sleep specialist. But potentially sleep-inducing for most of us.
On the other hand, Amy likely will share a chuckle with you and recognize the Gollum (LoTR) reference when you tell the waiter at the party, “We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precious.” (as opposed to Bill, who’ll probably be mortified.)
Not too shabby to be a generalist, right? So, let’s see how to go about becoming one.
How to be a good specialized generalist?
Here are five key areas to focus on:
1. Acquire transferable generalist skills
Be a fox. Focus, if possible, on building transferable skills. For instance, if you’re planning to specialize as a runner, training to do yoga and weights may be worthwhile since they help with building flexibility and strength. On the other hand, excellent chess skills (technically another “sport”) may be less relevant to your success as a runner.
2. Specialize in something
Find a particular core skill to specialize in but don’t worry yourself silly about getting to the very top of the skill set. For instance, if you specialize as a dentist, you don’t have to be in the American Dental Association’s top 100 dentists. But you need to be able to skillfully work on your client’s dental problems instead of being featured in the latest issue of the “Dental Horror stories” newsletter.
3. Generalist DOES NOT MEAN Google search expert
Being a generalist involves more than being able to do a google search or quote from Wikipedia on a topic. It takes time to truly acquire enough expertise in the area, even to call yourself a generalist. This process cannot be shortchanged.
To be a good generalist, you may need to initially spend a significant amount of effort—almost as much as you’d if you were going to specialize in the field. The key difference here is that you won’t need to spend time honing and refining the skill perpetually as you’d a specialized skill.
4. Encourage genuine curiosity
Real learning happens only when there is genuine curiosity. As you acquire a new skill, focus and stay curious. Probe if you need to. The only stupid questions are the ones not asked. This is actually a universal life lesson that applies to all topics.
5. Don’t attempt too many generalist skills
Jack of some trades always fares better than Jack of all trades. That’s because, again, it takes commitment to be an above-average generalist in a few areas, let alone in many.
With these steps, you should be able to create a unique skill set that is not just recession-proof but one that makes you happy and keeps you positively contributing to the world around you.
The media periodically alternates between the two headlines: “death of expertise” or “the generalists shall perish.”
Consume both of these captions with a grain of salt. Society always has a place for both specialists and generalists. It is what you want that matters more.
Also, remember, generalists are not merely failed specialists. In Charlie Munger’s words,
No one can know everything, but you can work to understand the big important models in each discipline at a basic level so they can collectively add value in a decision-making process – Charlie Munger
However, the best of both worlds is the generalist, who also has a specialization —the hybrid, specialized generalists. Incidentally, also by Munger:
I think you don’t want to neglect your business as a dentist to think great thoughts about Proust
Suggested further reading
Jim Collins – Good to Great (A tribute to specialists)
David Epstein – Range (A tribute to generalists)
Isaiah Berlin – The Hedgehog and the Fox (A treat for humanity)