“What the country needs right now is a good hedgehog.” So begins Wednesday’s insightful editorial by Arianna Huffington (“Why America Is Deeply in Need of a Good Hedgehog”). Which begs the question: what is a hedgehog and why do we need one?
She references Isaiah Berlin, well-known British philosopher, who in 1953 laid out two opposing styles of leadership–foxes and hedgehogs–taking his cue from a line in an ancient Greek poem by Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
She notes: “According to Berlin, the fox will ‘pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way.’ In contrast, the hedgehog offers an ‘unchanging, all embracing… unitary inner vision.'” The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
The Power of Focus
So why is this an important quality? There’s something very powerful about focus. Recent brain science tells us that focus and attention on something you believe is possible actually prompt the brain to begin charting a path, called a motor map, toward the realization of that goal. The brain acts on the power of your focus and begins setting into place (creating) what you imagine. From your focus, it actually determines the best route that will take you to your goal.
Cultural Habits Work Against Us
So with this built-in tool to help us, why is it so difficult? We live in a culture that demands our attention every time we turn around. And we’ve given it 24/7 access to us through our smartphones, computers, iPads, laptops, radio, TV. I notice that when I’m working on my computer, even though I’m deeply focused on the screen with what I’m doing, my eyes wander to the 20 other tabs I have open in my browser. And before I know it, I’m browsing the latest news in those tabs. Or I hear a text come to my iPhone so I immediately look at it. Focus gone. Attention lost. And when I return to my document, I have to read again what I’ve already written in order to get back into focus. Time lost.
Comparing Hedgehogs and Foxes
The power of the hedgehog is its focus on the one big thing important to it. It drills down without distraction or dilution. It focuses on what it knows it does best and does it again and again.
The fox is all over the place, going really fast here and there. It’s very busy and active–it has a million different ideas, scampering from one to the other. It might look to an outside observer that it’s sure getting ‘er done and being really successful.
But busyness isn’t synonymous with effectiveness. Activity, activating, don’t necessarily mean productively purposeful or purposefully productive.
So whenever the fox wants to grab the hedgehog for its next meal, attempting its million different strategies for stealth attacks, the hedgehog simply rolls into a spiky ball. And the fox ends up the loser every time.
So what is that one big important thing to you? What do you live for? What do you work for? What are you in relationships for? Is there a common thread in those life areas that would help define your “one big important” thing? What are you truly focused on? What holds your attention? What do you know you’re better at than anything else? What one thing do you wish you could do more than all others? Answering those questions will help to identify your hedgehog.
All spiritual traditions through the centuries have reminded us that effective spirituality is about developing focus and attention. You could call it Hedgehog Spirituality.
I’m reminded of one of the successful spiritual luminaries in the Bible who delivered a very hedgehog-like statement: “13 I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 3)
St. Paul expresses a very hedgehogian perspective. “I focus on this one thing.” Remember, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. And St. Paul is choosing to stay focused on his one thing.
And to do this hedgehog-like experience, notice what he has to include: forgetting the past, and pressing on to the end goal. That’s the power of focus.
Brain scientists tells us that when we focus on one thing thing (especially inspirational, positive things like hope, allowing our imaginations to hold it and savor it), our brains immediately go to work establishing neural pathways that short circuit our tendency to fear which as St. Paul describes it can keep us anchored in the past. That positive focus engages our brain centers in charge of activating our behaviors to achieve that focus goal. As St. Paul said in another place, “By beholding, we become changed.”
St. Paul’s choice to focus and give powerful attention empowers him to stay pressing on, even when the going gets rough and tough and discouraging. Giving focus to our One Big Thing activates our brain to keep us pushing forward.
Runners all know that when you’re running a fast race like the 100 yard dash you have to keep your face pointed forward. Otherwise, the moment you look around or sneak a glance sideways or backwards, your body loses speed, easing up even a tiny bit. And that tiny bit can cost you the win.
Notice the three runners in the picture at the right. Where are they focusing? Keep your focus forward.
St. Paul’s Hedgehog
I’m inspired by St. Paul’s One Big Thing–that which he kept his eyes upon, what he allowed his mind to savor and attend to. God through Jesus Christ. A few verses before this, Paul refers to the faithfulness of God. Paul is motivated, his life propelled forward, by his focus on a God revealed through Jesus who is faithful, who loves him without condition, who breathes life and soul into his spirit freely and abundantly, who has a prize waiting for him at the end of his race whether he comes in first or last. Faithfulness, compassion, relentless tenderness–the big L, Love.
Imagine living your entire life with your One Big Thing as Love, the divine kind of love. Imagine how that focus and attention would empower you to show up every where you go in Love–showing up at work in Love, showing up at home in Love, showing up at the grocery store in Love, showing up in your relationships in Love, showing up in your conflicts in Love, showing up in our world of need in Love.
What would it take to make Love your One Big Thing, your hedgehog, the one thing you do better than anything else, the one thing you are keeping your face forward focusing on, leaning into, savoring? And then imagine receiving that heavenly reward from the hands of a God who has been there beside you every step of the way.
What the world needs right now is a good hedgehog!