“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.”

— Archilochus, 7th century BCE Greek Poet 

Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History,” playfully divides thinkers into two categories. Foxes have many interests; they revel in the diversity and complexity of the world without reducing it to a single schema. In his essay, Berlin offers Aristotle, William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, and James Joyce as examples of foxes. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are gifted with a profound and penetrating insight through which they interpret and impose order on the world’s complexity. As examples of hedgehogs he offers Plato, Dante Aligheri, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Subsequent writers have expanded the suggested list for each category to include a more diverse set of thinkers.

In his 2001 business classic Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, Jim Collins adapts the distinction to explain how some organizations make the leap to true greatness. He suggests that truly great organizations are driven by a “hedgehog concept” through which they define their mission and rigorously organize their strategic priorities. The hedgehog concept is something that they are positioned to do better than anyone else in their market sector. 

At ONSF our hedgehog concept is to use the motivational power of scholarship and fellowship competitions to drive deep advising conversations with students. Through the application process students reflect on how their curricular and co-curricular educational experiences at U-M are preparing them to pursue their post-graduation plans.

National fellowship conversations are powerful opportunities for self-reflection for several reasons. First, the opportunities these fellowships afford their recipients can challenge students’ ordinary plans and self-conceptions in ways that lead to self-discovery. ONSF advising sessions include questions like:

  • What would you study with two free years at the University of Oxford? Why?
  • If you had $30,000 to design your own fellowship experience anywhere in the world, where would you go and what would you do?
  • How will your future career promote the public good? 
  • What does leadership look like in your career trajectory?

Second, students are motivated to work hard in pursuit of these inspiring opportunities. The competition for these prestigious fellowships gives finite and compelling deadlines to self-reflective exercises that might not otherwise make it to the top of the to-do list for busy U-M students. To craft a competitive application for one of these awards, students must demonstrate fit in two directions. They must explain how the fellowship to which they’re applying fits their own life-story. In other words, who they are, where they are going, and how this fellowship would move them forward in that journey. They then must explain how they fit the criteria and mission of the organization to which they are applying. They need to articulate, specifically and concretely, what criteria like “demonstrated leadership potential” and “commitment to service” means in the context of their own educational pursuits and career aspirations. 

Finally, the entire application process provides iterative feedback, challenging students to move beyond surface cliches and develop ever deeper answers to these questions. ONSF application essays typically go through several stages of revision. At each stage, applicants seek feedback from their faculty and professional mentors as well as from ONSF. If they are selected for a campus or national interview, students will be challenged to answer questions about their applications by top U-M faculty and national leaders in various fields. At each stage, applicants discover new insights about themselves. Many applicants tell us that this is the most valuable part of the process, whether or not they win the scholarship or fellowship to which they are applying. 

The true value of a national scholarships and fellowships program is using these competitions to drive exceptional educational outcomes—not just for the scholarship recipients, but for a much broader and more diverse selection of applicants. By teaching students how to engage in these self-reflection and self-articulation practices, ONSF hopes to instill practices that extend well beyond a given application cycle. This is the central commitment that drives everything ONSF does, from selecting the scholarship and fellowship programs we choose to support, to the way we conduct outreach and advising. Of course, we also believe that building our program around these learning outcomes will also result in a higher degree of success for our students in national fellowship competitions—helping them make the leap from good to great.

A final reflection for applicants

Does this mean that competitive applicants for national scholarships are hedgehogs—in other words, that they are driven by a single project or mission? Not necessarily. For Collins, a hedgehog concept is something that drives an organization’s mission and strategic planning. It is probably also true that individuals who want to have a significant impact on a particular issue will have to sacrifice other potential commitments for the sake of that work. However, this is not always the case and it would be unfair to expect national scholarship applicants to have already identified this guiding principle so early in their careers. Some national scholarships intentionally look for people who are able to juggle excellence in several academic and non-academic areas. We should note that for Berlin being a fox was in no way pejorative. His conclusion in the essay is that Tolstoy was a fox (notably in his early novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina) who wanted to be a hedgehog—especially after the existential crisis recounted in his memoir, My Confession.

Berlin later said that his distinction should not be taken too seriously. He intended it as a parlor game question to spark discussion. So, I invite you to play along! Are you a fox or a hedgehog?