Saturday 15 October 2011

The Fox And The Hedgehog

A short time ago, I met a friend Sophia, who mentioned that she will be running her 5th Half Marathon on the 15th of Jan 2012 in Mumbai.    
I could not understand why she would not move from the half marathon distance to the full marathon distance having already experienced the half marathon 4 times.  I have quite a few friends like Sophia.  They run the distance of their choice reasonably fast but their total focus is to keep improving their performance at that very distance instead of increasing or changing their race category.
I have friends who run a 1:45 half marathon and still insist that they are not ready for a full marathon because they want to first reduce the time of their half.  So they keep training and focusing on the half marathon. They insist on running only half marathons! I also have friends who run the full marathon in a time of 3:45, and yet tell me that they are not ready to run an ultra-marathon or Comrades until they further improve on their time in the full marathon to around 3:30. They insist on running only full marathons until then!
I on the other hand want to run and experience all manner of races (albeit slowly).  I take part in 10k’s, half marathons, marathons and ultra marathons. I don’t focus on any particular distance with the specific aim of running it at my fastest potential speed before exploring other distances. 
Archilochus, a Greek poet once said:
 “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing”
Nobody knows exactly what Archilochus meant by this.    Perhaps he simply meant that the hedgehog’s simple defence (of curling into a ball, and presenting spikes to the predator when attacked) defeats the fox’s many tricks.  
Perhaps he meant that the hedgehog has one single powerful response to all its challenges. The fox, by contrast, has no single response to challenges, for they ‘know many little things’.  They react to challenges by drawing on a pattern of general experienced understanding, often making mistakes along the way but never committing to one grand strategy.
Perhaps Archilochus meant that Hedgehogs single-mindedly pursue one ideological goal and organize their thoughts in relation to it, Foxes are knowledgeable in a number of areas but do not specialize in any one.
Isaiah Berlin, a famous philosopher expanded upon this metaphor to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: Hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, a single specific objective and a single strategy and foxes who draw upon a wide variety of experiences, who are flexible in their approach and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea. 
Of course, the metaphor for the hedgehog and the fox can be applied to runners as well.  The runner who needs to conquer each race distance, at his/her best possible speed before experiencing other distances seems to me much like a hedgehog. He/she has focus and clarity of vision.
Foxes on the other hand lack such central vision and universal principals; they seize many experiences and pursue many ends.  They don’t have a grand strategy.  They lack single-mindedness – they pursue a range of interests and dabble in whatever they find intriguing at a particular time.  The need of certain runners to take part in as many different races over different race distances as long as they provide new experiences seems to me the characteristics of a fox.
I think that each way of thinking has its strength and weaknesses; neither is superior to the other. 
Of course, the fox seems less consistent and disciplined. Sometimes, as a runner it is very important to create a good base running speed and my friends who master a particular distance before proceeding to the next longer distance may certainly be doing the right thing. Also, the runner who keeps participating in all manner of races rarely gets time to train and focus on one particular race.    
Sometimes knowing one thing exceptionally well (being the fastest you can be at a particular distance) is not a bad thing.  It has always been said that a Jack of all trades, is a master of none. 
I have heard that once the fox was boasting to the hedgehog of his clever devices for escaping his enemies. “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping the enemy.” "I have only one," said the hedgehog; "but I can generally manage with that."
Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the Hedgehog immediately scampered towards a bush and curled himself into a ball and presented his spikes outwards. "This is my plan," said the hedgehog. "What are you going to do?" The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, he knew a lot of things that he could do but while he was debating, the hounds came nearer and nearer. The Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen. The Hedgehog, who had been looking on, said:
"Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon."
I have often found myself wondering, at the 30k mark of the Mumbai Marathon, “What in the world am I doing here.  Why didn’t I just stick to the 21k?”
But on the other hand being a fox is not all that bad. It is good to run different distances and experience different things. It is great to experience the pain of Comrades (or races longer and tougher than Comrades) and at the same time to occasionally run an easy 21k, it is fun to run a reasonably fast 10k and a long slow 42k.  It is great to experience all the different race distances even if one is not exceptionally good at any of them.  It makes you polymathic.    
I have heard a famous parable, perhaps a version of it was first uttered by Ramakrishna (1836-1886) a famous mystic.  It is about a Pundit (a learned man) who knew everything about the great religious book The Gita, but little else.
Once, several men were crossing the Ganges in a boat. The pundit was making a great display of his erudition, saying that he had extensively studied the Gita and knew everything there was to know about it.
He asked a fellow passenger, 'Have you read The Gita?' 'No, revered sir, I am a farmer and don’t have time for it in the morning' answered the fellow passenger'.
“Has it ever been read to you?” 'No, revered sir' answered the farmer, “I have to mend all the farm implements and look after my animals in the evenings and can’t find the time.”
'Have you no idea of the philosophy expounded by the Gita?” 'No, revered sir' answered the farmer, “I also fish in this river sometimes at night.”
The pundit was talking in this vain way, when a great storm arose and the boat was about to sink. The passenger said to the pundit, 'Sir, can you swim?' 'No', replied the pundit. The passenger said, 'I don't know about the Gita or its philosophy, but I can swim.'
Sometimes, it seems, it is better to know many things as opposed to one, great thing. 
I think that to be a good runner one needs to be a little bit of BOTH, a fox and a hedgehog.  One can learn a lot from both stereotypes. Sometimes, as the occasion may demand, we need a fox-like flexibility and versatility and sometimes, a hedgehog-like vision and focus. 
But generally one personality trait dominates in each one of us.  Which one are you?


  1. Brilliantly written. I've always wondered why Anil Ambani has never completed a full marathon yet. Hope he does one day, and I'm glad that there is one thing available in the open market that I have acquired before one of the richest people in the world could :-)

  2. i realise am the Fox :-) vixen rather