“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.”
Four years ago, in his remarks for my Yale College opening ceremony, President Salovey pointed to this seventh century B.C. quote by a Greek poet as an appeal to the value of a rich liberal arts education.
“When threatened, the fox remains flexible, coming up with a clever way to deal with that particular matter. The hedgehog, however, responds the same way to every threat: It rolls up into a ball. The fox is wily and resistant. The hedgehog consistent but inflexible.”
It was a convincing idea. In the context of Salovey’s address, the fox and hedgehog comparison made the case for the transformative power of a liberal arts education. Salovey argued for us to explore far and wide — as a fox would — when it came to our courses and interests rather than remaining narrow and specific, as a hedgehog would. Yet now, as I begin my final year of college, I’ve found that aspiring to “be like a fox” is applicable to far more than simply the breadth of our academics.
Our “Bright College Years” grant us an opportunity to explore our interests, yes, but we are given so much more over the course of these four years; we get to live in a sandbox where the ground isn’t too hard and the corners aren’t too sharp.
If you’re a first year, you’ll likely learn that college — and the real world — is seldom like high school. Many of us may arrive at Yale as hedgehogs; or as President Salovey put it, we were “consistent but inflexible.” We found some niche, and we stuck to it. As the hedgehog does, we responded to challenges consistently. Our equivalent to rolling up in a ball was often a combination of grit, resilience and determination. It’s a mentality that is hammered into our brains from a young age: Finish what you start. It’s an admirable — and worthwhile — ideal to live up to.
But as the hedgehog teaches us, always being “consistent and inflexible” in our temperament and nature has its shortcomings as well. Undoubtedly at Yale and beyond, we’ll be faced with moments where our goals, interests and passions are called into question. These are the sort of crossroads we become all too familiar with in college.
As a senior, I’ve caught myself on a few occasions pursuing a goal for nothing more than the fact that it is “what I’ve always done.” I doubt I’m alone. Few Yalies manage to avoid succumbing to the trap of the sunk cost fallacy. One case might be the prospective pre-med student who discovers a newfound antipathy for biology after their first semester at Yale. Another might be the senior global affairs major who comes to realize that his interests fall more directly within the realm of economics, despite having just two classes left to complete the major — yes, I’m talking about myself here.
We are enamored with the idea of completion: completing a major, arriving at the finish line, seeing things through to the end. Oftentimes, this is a worthwhile exercise, but not always. Sticking with something we detest — or even apathetic towards — for nothing more than the previous effort we’ve sunk into it is typical “hedgehog behavior.”
Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, often alludes to this value in “being a quitter” in his podcast, “People I (Mostly) Admire.” He usually engages with grandiose figures like Nathan Myhrvold, a former mentee of Stephen Hawking and former chief technology officer at Microsoft; Yul Kwon, a winner of “Survivor: Cook Islands”; and Maya Shankar ’07, a Yalie who founded the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team under the Obama Administration. In these dialogues, Levitt helps to strip away the negative connotations embedded within quitting. In fact, it is the very act of quitting — or the less callous “pivoting,” an embodiment of flexibility and resilience that characterizes a “fox” — that helped propel many of the guests on his podcast forward both in their professional and personal lives.
My argument is not for us all to approach the world with reckless abandonment, nor is it to be a “quitter” of things we care about when the going gets tough. Getting a B+ in organic chemistry is hardly a reason to cast aside the dream of becoming a doctor. But hating biology and chemistry could be.
One of the most agonizing lessons at Yale is coming to terms with the path forward when things don’t go our way. And the most painful of these lessons is when the road ahead seems at odds with our past selves. Leading up to and during our time here, we become defined by our past accomplishments and titles, making it an even more daunting endeavor to cast aside these carefully curated identities in pursuit of newfound passions. But luckily enough for us, Yale is the perfect place to be making these difficult decisions. Because Yale can teach us to be like a fox, and “when threatened, the fox remains flexible.”