The Fox and the Hedgehog

The Fox and the Hedgehog

I recently finished reading the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. It’s not a running book, it’s actually a book on business. However, as I read the chapters, it became clear that the ideas embodied some great principles that should be applied in many areas of life. The very basic premise of the book looks at different companies that were on the Fortune 500 lists throughout the 20th century. The book compares companies that took off and comparison companies that eventually faded away through acquisition or completely changing. I won’t go into the whole thing, but it’s a great book.

What I wanted to talk about is the two concepts that really make the book applicable. These are the three circles and the hedgehog concept. I don’t know if it’s really one concept because the three circles help you find the hedgehog. The hedgehog concept is simple, on one hand, you have the fox, always hunting the hedgehog by trying something cunning and different every time. He thinks he’s being slick, only to be fended off by the hedgehog in the same way, every single time. No matter what angle the fox uses, the hedgehog has perfected the one way to always fend off the fox and always beats the fox.

From a running standpoint, this could be a person who jumps from coach to coach, or philosophy to philosophy, always trying the shiny new thing.

All of this while the hedgehog (the person who has followed sound principles and developed a philosophy that works for them) absorbs new information and sorts out all the noise about what’s new and improved.

Anyway, the three circles are really a Venn diagram representing three questions.

The first question is what are you really passionate about? In business, it was something like producing products that helped make life easier, or something like that- usually specific to a certain industry. Now, it got me thinking about runners and what this response would be. This might be- running as fast as I can, running races, using running to maintain my health, etc. For me, I think it would be to maintain my competitiveness and joy of competing against those younger than me.

The second question in the book was, what is your economic driver? This might be profit per customer, profit per transaction. Something that measures how well you made money. For runners, this might be- how many times I qualified for Boston, how often I placed in my age group, or how many races I ran.

The third question was what can I be the best in the world at? In the case of a business it would be like making printers or something like that. For you, that might be something like age-graded performance. I’m not so literal on the wording, but the point is, what can I be the most successful at? It might be recognizing that the half marathon is your sweet zone, even if your heart keeps pulling you towards the mile.

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The responses to these questions represent the inner part of the diagram and forms your hedgehog concept.

A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best.

It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial. For you as a runner, this means understanding where your strengths lie. To me, it just clears the noise so that I can focus on what is most important in reaching my goals.

Now, when I was writing this out, I got confused on my own thought process. Am I telling a person to decide what they are best at and only stick with that? It certainly seemed like I was heading down that road. However, the more I think about it and look at what Collins’ book discussed, I don’t think that’s the case at all.

My case for the hedgehog mentality:

  1. Understanding what you are best suited for, will help you find more enjoyment in the sport. (Being successful and playing to strengths is always more enjoyable).
  2. Allows you to be realistic about your goals, especially when dipping toes into things outside your comfort zone.
  3. Not a surrender from doing any other events, by any means. To me, it means that when you are planning out seasons, looking at long term goals, deciding to run a race on a whim, then you should ask yourself the three questions above and decide how that is going to help you be the best runner you can be. Does it fit into what your “core” running being is?

I can hear many of you saying, but that means I will never have fun. To that, I say, “no you might not.” But I also think your definition of fun might change. Let’s use an example of qualifying for Boston. If you’ve been trying for years and it hasn’t come to fruition, how fun is that? More that likely, it has eventually become demoralizing. Let’s say you explore the three questions above and realize that the races you were running in the buildups were fun, but didn’t really help you when it came to your qualifying attempt. So, missing out on that immediate fun is definitely a bummer, but that fun of qualifying because of making a calculated decision will far outweigh that. Plus, after you qualify, you can find new races to jump into for a while, or the next year run those races as a stand-alone segment.

So, I don’t want you to think that you have to abandon things you enjoy, I am simply saying that you may want to consider a more calculated approach.

So, you really have to ask yourself, do you want to be the fox or the hedgehog?

Do you want to always be trying the shiny new tactic, or develop a system that allows you to be systematic, deliberate, and battle tested? Either way you go is fine, as long as you are comfortable with that. However, when you look at longevity and success, look towards the cute little hedgehog.