The world is made up of hedgehogs and foxes. The foxes are clever. They can run and jump and bite. They can attack hedgehogs in any number of ways. The hedgehog is very simple. Under attack, a hedgehog always does the same thing. He rolls up into a ball with his spines pointed out. The fox is clever, but the hedgehog keeps it simple, so the hedgehog always wins.
The ancient Greek poet Archilochus distilled this parable into the phrase, “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing.” More recently, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, used the hedgehog concept as a defining attribute of great businesses.
Collins’ take on the hedgehog concept is fascinating because it provides a concrete rubric for identifying a business’ core strength.
According to this rubric, great businesses operate within the sweet spot where three important concepts overlap. Clarity around these three concepts is how a business identifies its hedgehog concept.
- What can you be best in the world at?
- What drives your economic engine?
- What do you feel deeply passionate about?
Collins is primarily concerned with business institutions, but with a few minor tweaks the hedgehog concept also applies to individuals.
Clarity around these three concepts is how I identified my hedgehog concept, which is computer programming. I asked myself the three questions:
- What can you do better than most?
- What will people pay you to do?
- What do you do for fun?
I love coding. People pay me to do it. And I feel deeply passionate about the craft. When I am coding, all three circles overlap and everything is right in my world. But it took me a long time to discover my hedgehog, and the process was long and arduous.
Take another look at the diagram. What’s interesting about this picture is the areas where only two circles overlap. I call these areas of partial overlap The Almost Zones. Truth be told, the majority of my life has been a swirl in these Almost Zones, and I can tell you from painful experience that it sucks to be there. When you are in one of the Almost Zones, your life takes on a strange incongruity that I call Failure Without Failing. Here are a few examples.
Failure Type #1: Rich but Miserable
In my twenties, I was a lawyer. I went to an elite law school, made Law Review, aced the bar exam, etc. But my law career fizzled out quickly. What happened? I was good at law. It paid well. But I had no passion for law, which means the third ingredient of the hedgehog concept wasn’t satisfied.
This incongruity expressed itself in many unhealthy patterns. I ballooned up to 240 pounds, I barely slept, and in the most charitable assessment I became a total jerk face. Despite the outward trappings of success, I felt like a complete failure.
Failure Type #2: Happy but Poor
At another point in my life, I was a musician. I played guitar obsessively throughout my childhood and was good enough that I could go on tour with my band for months at a time. That period of my life was incredibly fun and rewarding. If the band made enough at a gig to fill the van with gas and buy some burritos, we were content.
But the music business is brutal. There are too many sellers and not enough buyers. So, while I was good at something I loved to do, I was also poor as a church mouse. Music is still fun for me but it’s not my hedgehog because the economics are ultimately not sustainable.
Failure Type #3: Poor and Miserable
My latest sojourn in the Almost Zone was with Brazilian jiu jitsu. I love the sport. At the elite levels, you can make a good living. But after many years of struggling, I had to come to grips with the fact that I’m just not very good at jiu-jitsu. I still grind away, because it’s in my nature, but I realize now that a career in BJJ is just a dream.
Remember that being a hedgehog means that within your problem domain, you are better than most. Mediocrity in your problem domain is a strong signal that you are swirling in the Almost Zone.
Finding Your Hedgehog
Let’s face it. Nobody dreams about being a computer programmer. And I can tell you that nothing is more repellent to the opposite sex than revealing you are a computer programmer. Most people think of coders as socially-impaired dorks who wear their pants backward and live in their parents’ basements. While this stereotype has started to fade, programming is still not a prestigious profession, which is why I relegated it to hobby status for so long.
My turning point was when I realized the difference between passion and vanity. All those years I was following the popular maxim of “follow your passion,” I was actually being derailed by personal vanity. I had been chasing high profile, glamorous careers like lawyer, rock star, and professional athlete. Those careers are right for some — but wrong for me. It was only hubris that blinded me to that fact. Only when I let go of my vanity was I able to hit my stride in a “lowly” hedgehog profession.
Now, it probably sounds like I regret all my years in the Almost Zone, but nothing could be further from the truth. Finding your hedgehog is like hitting a bulls-eye. Some oddballs might hit the bulls-eye on the first go, but most people have to adjust their aim after a few misses. Generally speaking, this is a good way to think about failing at things. As long as you are circumspect enough to adjust your aim, each failure gets you closer to the bulls-eye. The trick is to not get discouraged when you miss.
The Clarifying Power of Commitment
If you are like most people who haven’t yet found your hedgehog, I would like to share the most important thing I have learned in my journey. You can learn a lot about yourself from failure, but you don’t learn anything from half measures. So whatever you’re doing, go all in.
Full commitment has a way of clarifying your vision and steadying your aim. Even if you suspect you are in an Almost Zone, you need to fully commit to whatever you’re doing. One of two things will happen. Either you’ll discover your calling or you’ll get it out of your system. Either way, to paraphrase Studs Turkel, you’ll never wonder “what could I have been?”