The Foxes & The Hedgehogs

Somebody or other, I forget just who, says that British philosophers can be neatly divided into two types:  The Foxes and the Hedgehogs.  The Hedgehog demarks his own territory, explores it thoroughly and returns to the place he began.  The Fox, on the other hand, is never satisfied with what he knows, but is constantly bounding off, looking for new fields to explore.

I think something like that can be said about most of us.  There are some who are intrinsically specialists.  It is in their nature to choose some field, focus their attention on it and basically never leave it.  Frequently, in fact, they will not only not leave their chosen domain, they will further subdivide it and concentrate their attention on one of its subsets.

Others seem to be intrinsically generalists.  No matter what their nominal field, they are always stretching the bounds, craning their necks at the fascinating turf lying outside.  Personally, I have always fallen solidly into the roving category.  Let me stay too long in some area, perhaps even master it, and I am bored silly.  Show me some new world, some microcosm about which I know little or nothing and I am fascinated, distracted, diverted.

Now this sort of bad habit is clearly not going to lead to worldly success.  Our world, which once reverenced the universal, now falls down to worship the restricted.  As knowledge grew to be more than any one person could hope to master, we divided and subdivided it so that one could hope to truly master their own sphere, however small.  Generalists became specialists and our awe followed them.  It seems we have a need to idolize those who have mastered something, however small.

It may be that simple, but there seems to be something more basic going on than that.  For some reason, the world at large is much more comfortable with the Hedgehogs.  The person who decided at age two that s/he wanted to be a brain surgeon and relentlessly pursued that goal is treated with a solemn approval.  Solid.  Steady.  Dependable.  The other type, ever moving, never settling, is regarded with some reservation, even fear.  Unreliable.  Unpredictable.  Unstable…in every sense.

[This is true, by the way, only, while we are working.  The appraisal reverses itself when we play.  Our admirable, focused specialist becomes now boring, one dimensional, dull.  The flibbertigibbet suddenly blossoms and becomes interesting, exciting, fun.  We are very odd creatures.  But I digress…]

Unfortunately, our bedazzlement with specialization has largely blinded us to the dark side of the evolution.  While the knowledgeable medieval savant could expect to correspond (in Latin, of course) to his opposite number halfway across Europe with complete understanding, specialists fairly quickly evolved into separate intellectual species, unable to have intercourse outside their own domain with any hope of fertility.  Specialization has built itself a Babylonian tower (ivory, of course) echoing with jargons, lingoes and mutually incomprehensible dialects.

Back in the thirties, science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt anticipated the width of the gulf between the specialties that we have reached today, understood its consequences and proposed a solution (Voyage Of The Space Beagle).  According to van Vogt, the imperious reciprocal ignorance of scientists would soon mean that any discovery that overlapped the boundaries between specialties would never be made.  The solution, he proposed, lay in making a specialty of Generalism.  We should train people whose entire goal was to serve as a bridge between specialties.  We should give as much respect, stature and authority to the wholists as we now do to the specialists.  In the long run, of course, all department heads, project managers, directors of research would have to be Generalists.

This may sound like a wooly theory, the sort of simplistic pipe dream that would come from a work of fiction.  O.K., but consider this.  The aerospace industry ran its nose into the specialization paradox some time back.  Their solution was to develop a new specialty called Systems Design.  The systems designer was expected to understand all of the specialties involved in a project and be able to guide, coordinate and manage them into a coherent whole.

Back to the problem of worldly success for those of us who are mental Foxes (to be polite) or somewhat scatterbrained (to be more honest).  Let me encourage you.  There is hope.  Perhaps it was simply a neat application of the Peter Principle, but I made a very nice living for a number of years, thank you, as a Systems Manager.

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