The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Archilochus, Greek Poet
There are generalists and there are specialists. There are deep divers and there are dabblers.
There are hunters and there are gatherers.
Then there are people who run away with sexy analogies. Since Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote about writers and thinkers as foxes and hedgehogs, in his famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” this comparative tool has been borrowed by other industries, dividing people.
What is the difference between a fox and a hedgehog?
The fox is a hunter and a generalist. The fox is known for its cunningness. Foxy and sexy. They are inventive and come up with new ideas for new situations, trying all sorts of ways to deal with a challenge.
The Hedgehog, on the other hand, has learned very early on in life that one big idea. They roll up into a ball. It’s very effective. It’s tried and tested over the ages. This one singular idea has allowed the hedgehog to survive through the ages. Pretty much the same for the past 15 million years.
Foxes are people, according to Isaiah Berlin, like William Shakespeare, Aristotle, and James Joyce, “who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.” Hedgehogs are those “who relate everything to a single central vision.” Plato. Proust. Ibsen. They see the world through one lens, their big compelling theory about the world. There are those who by nature are foxes and by conviction hedgehogs. Berlin sees Tolstoy as such, with this division causing much pain at the end of his life.
Of course this is a simplistic classification of people, a dichotomy that Isaiah Berlin later regrets. People are indeed simple and complex, both purposeful and useful in the appropriate situations and circumstances. Sometimes skimming the surface is the best strategy while deep analysis is required at other times, usually a blend and flexibility.
The left and right hemispheres of the brain are both necessary for processing information. The left side for analysis; right, synthesis. “The left converges on a single answer; the right diverges into a Gestalt. The left focuses on categories, the right on relationships. The left can grasp the details. But only the right hemisphere can see the big picture.”1 Even in this left-brained dominated and logical world, we are using a lot of our intuition and other right-hemisphere abilities than we realize, though only a stunningly low percentage of our whole brain.
What is interesting between the fox and the hedgehog, which also shows the influence early childhood has on adult life, is that foxes stay as dependent youngsters much longer than hedgehogs. Fox cubs are shown how to survive through play and modelling. Hoglets, spines surfacing hours after birth, follow their mothers on foraging trips when they are just weeks old, striking out on their own with less than two weeks of experience under their belt. By nature, hedgehogs are built to fend for themselves from early on. They grow up fast, and maybe they just cannot afford to be too curious.
Curiosity is a means of declaring our allegiance to the human field.
Alberto Manguel, Curiosity
Ian Leslie in his book Curious cites “forage like a foxhog” as one of his seven ways to stay curious. A foxhog is a fox and a hedgehog, both a generalist and a specialist, with robust curiosity that drives a person to dig deep, and then deeper still, building a speciality, plus having a lot of surface knowledge on wide ranging topics.
We are all a bit of a fox and a bit of a hedgehog. Often we do not recognize how we are each in a situation and may underuse or over-rely on a certain response or strategy. We have all probably rolled up into a ball, waiting (hoping) for the crisis to be over. Sometimes it works. At least superficially. At least in the moment. Some people dissociate. Then we learn better adaptations and responses. Often we have to try many different approaches before we find our own way, so we dabble.
“Dabbling” is useful – it is scaffolding for new ideas, which invariably come from old ones. What we learn in school – the dates of major conflicts, the rise and downfall of the Roman Empire, where is the Cradle of Civilization, square root, acute angles – may feel useless at the time but as Leslie points out, data points in longterm memory are not islands; they “join up with other facts to form associative networks of understanding.” This is how we build our databases.
So forage like a foxhog. Be curious. Be flexible. Know when to go wide and when to narrow focus. Also know when not to re-invent the wheel.
Persistence is what carries curiosity to some worthwhile resolution.
Brian Grazer, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life
When we follow these question marks, leading us to new ideas, interesting people, linking the world, we will also find that the more we know the more we do not know. It is a delicious state that spurs on deeper knowing and self-knowing in particular.
This drives the more curious of us to venture outside our info orbit.
Curiosity, however, is not all the same. Susan Engel, in Hungry Mind, writes about three types of curiosity – diversive, epistemic, and empathetic. Diversive curiosity is chasing the shiny object and what is novel. The “fast and furious” entertainment and pace of our modern world stimulates and encourages this type of curiosity that is easily satisfied by Google.
A useful question is whether our curiosity is “unfettered” or “unchannelled” as Susan Engel points out. The exploration of the new is positive if it is a starting point for us to go deeper, rather than skate the surface, skipping everywhere and going nowhere. High diversive curiosity, associate editor of World of Psychology Margarita Tartakovsky writes, is a risk factor for less desirable behaviour like arson and drug use.2
Epistemic curiosity is more disciplined and effortful, going deeper, and brings more reward.
Empathetic curiosity is being interested in the why of people’s actions, putting ourselves in others’ shoes.
Then there is intellectual curiosity.
Ian Leslie describes intellectual curiosity as “the tendency to seek out, engage in and enjoy and pursue opportunities for effortful cognitive activity.” The scientific measure for intellectual curiosity is “Need for Cognition” (NFC). Those high in NFC enjoy complex and analytical thoughts and are more motivated by the challenge of understanding situations and people. Less distracted by superficial cues and obvious primers and more compelled by solid arguments and subtlety, they are also more easily transported by a good story. If you are high in NFC, don’t get tricked by someone’s good sob story!
Curiosity is not a personality trait. It is more a state of being, subject to many factors. As a “fragile quality”, curiosity needs to be nourished, encouraged, and fed by more knowledge. Without robust practice, this very important element of being who we are withers.
Why do we need to be curious?
In English we have many sayings and tales that warn against being curious. “Curiosity killed the cat.” (“But satisfaction brought it back” is the lesser known second part of the saying.) The cautionary tale of Pandora. Original sin and temptations. Frankenstein. Grimms’ Tales. There is a risk of disobedience to authority and of destruction.
We are innately curious. Perhaps the convenience of modernity has merely reduced mysteries into puzzles. To progress, we must continue to be curious and question the assumptions, stereotypes, and dangerous and ignorant conclusions drawn from ages mired in survivalism and fear.
Ask the why. When we ask why, we exercise our free will and make headway out of the pen of sheeple. When pushed by fear, we are more easily controlled and dominated. We must see these tactics for what they are and be curious about what people say and their motivations and ulterior agendas. When we hear stories and gossip, it is imperative we stop and ask why are we being told? What is the real motivation? To buy everything fed to us wholesale without questioning is a disservice to ourselves and the people we are hearing about, through stories passed along, filtered and altered. Inquiring minds is one of the best qualities of humanity, an enduring trait that leads us to new frontiers.
Thinkers aren’t limited by what they know, because they can always increase what they know. Rather they’re limited by what puzzles them, because there’s no way to become curious about something that doesn’t puzzle you.
Daniel Quinn, My Ishmael
Cost of Technology to Curiosity
Technology has made life a lot easier. Many people cannot now fathom their lives without mobile technology, online banking and shopping, and social media. Advances in transportation, medical sciences, manufacturing and production. We get to keep in touch with friends and family from around the world with ease not imagined by most. If left uncorrupted, social media has become a more reliable source of real news, over alternative facts presented by the mainstream.
Technology is so interweaved at every level of day to day life that most of us are not even aware of the actual degree. Who does not love convenience right?
This convenience does come at a cost.
Our expectation of instantaneous gratification, our love of 24/7 availability, and our reliance on technology that makes life easier has shaped our experiential trajectory and culture in interesting ways. That is the topic of another discussion.
What it has done for curiosity and learning in general is to make certain cognitive processes such as memorization a less robust skill. Socrates was much against writing. Not only is the written word not a true representation of real knowledge, which to him is necessarily gained through dialogue and discourse. And experience. We all know layers of meaning and intentions get missed and misinterpreted through emails and texts. Misunderstanding can happen when other cues and clues are taken out of communications. Socrates was also against the written word because no longer would people commit large volumes to memory.
It is this effort that makes what we learn more endurable.
Studies by cognitive scientists such as Robert Bjork show that we learn better when effort is expended. He coined the term “desirable difficulties” which pushes the brain to endeavour at “encoding and integrating inputs.” When we learn quickly, that is often superficial and we are more likely to forget the information as it is only committed to working memory, rather than long term memory. That is the hidden value that Ian Leslie speaks of in his book. It is like what Abraham Lincoln said – “I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned.”
Research on curiosity has very implications for education curriculum and approach.
We are now beyond the Age of Information. In this Age of Choices, we have at our disposal mind-boggling access to information and it is up to us to pursue closing our information gaps, to choose mysteries over puzzles (one is neat and tidy, the other not), be comfortable with the discomfort of knowing that we will not know all of it, and be happy to have this itch to scratch. It’s a delectable combination of initial overwhelm that leads to such fulfilling places and experiences, once we let go.
It is up to us to choose what to hedgehog, so not to reinvent the wheel, and how to fox it out, when to be nimble, flexible, and responsive. Everyone’s foxhog is going to look different.
In face of a fast-changing world, we cannot stick to the us vs them mentality or demand packaging the world into neat little boxes, with neat little solutions and exclude outliers to reduce dissonance. The world is a beautiful perfectly imperfect playground – messy, ambiguous, open-ended, paradoxical, chaotic… full of possibilities. When we remain open ourselves, we can roll with the punches and come up stronger, wiser, and more grounded.
1 Daniel H. Pink. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. (Marshall Cavendish 2008), 23.
2 Margarita Tartakovsky. The Power of Curiosity: 3 Strategies for Staying Curious www.psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/09/06/the-power-of-curiosity-3-strategies-for-staying-curious/