Saturday, March 17, 2007

Foxes, Hedgehogs, Slashes, and Expected Value

One of the (many) books I am reading right now is Marci Alboher's new book, One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success.

The book focuses on the phenomenon of "Slashes." No, not the Guns 'n Roses guitarist, or homoerotic Star Trek fan fiction. Marci uses "slash" to refer to people who pursue multiple careers simultaneously, like the psychotherapist/violin maker she interviews.

It's a great book, and highlights what I think is an important trend: the desire to live a meaningful and happy life, and the unwillingness to subordinate that desire to fit into a particular career "box."

Nonetheless, I think we also need to examine the downside of the slash life. In a comment to Ben's review of the book, I wrote:

As a dad/entrepreneur/investor/mentor/writer, I'm not one to talk, but I do wonder sometimes if focus is a better strategy.

As Archilochus wrote, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Jim Collins has noted that great companies tend to be led by hedgehogs not foxes.

For a pretty interesting discussion of this topic, check out: http://www.kheper.net/topics/typology/Fox_and_Hedgehog.html

This highlights an issue that Ben and I often struggle with, as entrepreneurs/pointy-headed intellectuals: Great entrepreneurs are usually obssessively focused; being blessed/cursed with multiple talents and interests will certainly detract from that focus.

A more nuanced view may be that the slash lifestyle may have as high or even higher an expected value, but far lower variance. If the distribution of outcomes is more extreme for the hedgehogs (fat tails both left and right), then more of the legendary figures are likely to be hedgehogs, even if on average, foxes do better.

In the end, however, I think Marci put it best:

If you're a slash. you would have a really hard time living another way. It's not usually a choice, more of a disposition.

At the end of the day, no matter what you decide about expected values and standard deviations, we are not created equal. And trying to deny your true nature in the interests of some theoretical optimization of your career is likely to be a self-defeating exercise in futility.

Different strokes for different folks.

I am a slash, and I have to embrace the strengths and weaknesses of my nature, or I'll simply end up as a pale imitation of something I'm not.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think that big companies are run by hedgehogs because I believe that all people have this one passion in life that is greater than all others, and leaders of big companies are people who have incorporated these passions into their business ventures.

Foobarista said...

Personally, I've never liked this saying, although I "get" what it's trying to say. Personally, I'd change it to say "a 'hedgehog' knows a few Big Things", because in my experience, there are people who dive deeply in a few areas and ignore everything else, while there are others who are "a mile wide and an inch deep", which I suppose are "foxes" in the saying.

"Mile-widers" are useful in areas where synthesis and integration is important. "Deepers" are good in areas where one truly needs extensive knowledge and repeated use of that knowledge to accomplish something.