Content Creation: 4 Reasons Why You Need a Fox, Not a Hedgehog

Jun 30, 2015

by Harris Collingwood

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

—Archilochus (ca. 680–645 B.C.)

The British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin created a stir in 1953 when he published an essay that classified various writers as either foxes—generalists, able to leap nimbly from one realm of knowledge to another—or hedgehogs—specialists who rely on a single overarching system or theory to explain the world. The fact that a business writer like me even knows about this essay should probably mark me as a fox. It’s a classification I happily accept. And I’m here to argue that a fox, not a hedgehog, is your best bet when you need to create content for thought leadership. Here’s why:

  1. Foxes are quick studies. I was always a generalist by temperament, but it was during my nine-year apprenticeship at Businessweek that I became a generalist by profession. Sheer self-preservation compelled me to learn how to hoover up information in a hurry, to the point where it became second nature.

Now that I make my living as a thought leadership copywriter, a typical day finds me hopping from a white paper on M&A to an article on org design to an essay on leadership to a report on self-driving cars. I don’t know as much about those topics as my clients, of course—that’s why they’re subject matter experts and I’m not—but I can quickly grasp the contours of their ideas. So I spare my clients the tedium of expounding the basics of their specialty, and we can get right down to business.

  1. Foxes find relationships among disparate concepts, domains and disciplines. As a generalist, I can see, for example, how the problems of an Australian chicken farmer apply to leadership in organizations.

The farmer, I once learned over a steak dinner with a distinguished anthropologist, had housed all his champion egg-layers—alpha hens, if you like—in the same coop, thinking that they would spur one another to even greater productivity. Big mistake. It turned out that the chickens were all so determined to dominate the coop that they forgot about laying eggs and got busy pecking one another to death. Which helps explain what can go wrong in business teams staffed only by alphas. The goal of any project can quickly fade from view when everyone is more concerned with being top dog. Or top chicken.

Generalists love this kind of thing: applying concepts from one domain to help explain issues in another. That cross-fertilization can enrich any discussion on any topic.

  1. Foxes are inquisitive by nature. Since childhood, I have read deeply and widely in any subject that sparked my interest. So I know all kinds of random things about baseball’s Negro Leagues, the geology of Iceland, the Boston sewer system and the troubadour poets of France and Spain.

Nowadays what arouses my curiosity are the innovative ideas that my clients share with me. As I discuss these ideas with them, I’m still that inquisitive kid, constantly throwing out questions and testing out conceptual frames to illuminate the topic for me (and, eventually, the reader). That doesn’t help just me. The questions and frames can help clients see their ideas in a fresh light and tune the expression of those ideas to their clearest and most accurate pitch.

  1. Foxes share their smarts. One of the best things about my job is that I learn something new every day from some very bright people. Every so often, I get to repay the favor. A while back I was working with a client on a big report about an industry with a handful of top performers at one end of the spectrum and a whole boatload of miserable performers at the other, with very few players in the gray area in between. “I want this report to emphasize the contrasts,” the client told me, “to paint everything in black and white.”

“Oh,” I said. “You mean chiaroscuro.”

“I do?” the client asked.

I explained that chiaroscuro is a visual-arts term to describe paintings that feature strongly contrasting fields of light and dark (think Caravaggio).

“I see. Chiaroscuro, then.”

The next day he reported that he had really impressed his wife the previous evening when he observed that the new tiles in the kitchen made good use of chiaroscuro. “Thanks for making me sound smart,” he said.

Hey, no problem. That’s what we generalists—we foxes—are here for.

Agree? Disagree? Tell us what you think in the comments below.