Throughout history, we humans have liked the idea of new and better. Together that is. Our affinity for novelty is wrapped tightly with our desire t
Throughout history, we humans have liked the idea of new and better. Together that is. Our affinity for novelty is wrapped tightly with our desire to discover and innovate in ways that advance us. What enables us to achieve new and better, the record clearly shows, is applying a combination of our two naturally endowed human mindsets, two modes of thinking I refer to as our fox and our hedgehog. The trouble is, we don’t often apply them in concert. But before we talk about why we must, say hello to your fox and hedgehog.
Our fox is our curious, border crossing, adventurous, questioning, and creative mindset – the one we turn too when we need or want a breakthrough. Our hedgehog is our nuts and bolts, make a plan, stick to the rules we know and trust, and actually produce some results mindset. Our tendency is to treat these two capacities as though they are somehow separate. Yet neither works without the other. Getting in the swing of using both your fox and your hedgehog in concert takes practice. But it’s a story of a past human breakthrough that happened because of swing that helps us see why being in practice even matters in the first place.
A Story of Breaking Through, Then Breaking Down
For nearly all of its history, Portugal was an exceedingly poor country, at least by comparison to its European and North African neighbors. But if the Portuguese were rich in anything it was guts and a willingness to, fox-like, channel that boldness towards new and better. Beginning with the efforts of Prince Henry the Navigator in the early 1400s, Portugal boldly set its collective fox mind on breaking free of its known world and discovering a new one. Literally.
Henry and others believed that the continent of Africa could be rounded at its southernmost tip in order to reach the Indian Ocean and the far eastern spice trade by another path than it had traditionally been reached. The fact was, other kingdoms controlled the Mediterranean and land routes and with them all trade with the far east. Simply competing within the structures that already existed wasn’t a viable option for the Portuguese. So they innovated – they dreamed up new and better ships and navigation tools. They scoured, integrated, and logged previously unheard of amounts of navigational data and quite literally rewrote the map of what the world looked like. The boldness of their ideas was fully fox, but the discipline they set to seeing those ideas through and moving towards their ultimate goal was pure hedgehog. For 60 years they masterfully combined the two and shocked the world with the speed of their advancement.
Yet over that span of time, they gradually shifted to nearly all hedgehog – sending expedition after expedition down the same southern route along the West African coast, each time just hoping fate would take them further than the last and to the Cape of Good Hope. And that’s where they lost their mojo. An undertaking that began so foxlike reversed. The Portuguese got stuck. Wind, currents, and their own mindsets quite literally left them in the doldrums, without progress, and short of their goal – that is until Bartolomeu Dias put them back in the swing.
A Story of Getting Back In The Swing
No one knows for sure just why he did it. Maybe it was purposeful, maybe it was a happy accident, or maybe it was a purposeful accident, meaning a little of both. But where those before him had largely hugged the coast, Dias chose to swing in a new direction, to steer his ships far out into the Atlantic, away from the sight of land, and beyond the edges of the map and world as they knew them. Turns out it was stroke of genius. By heading west, Dias hit new currents and winds that eventually took him south where he was hoping to go – not just south, but around the Cape, and into the Indian Ocean. When he shared his foxlike thinking with his countrymen and they did the same, everything suddenly broke free again, and the Portuguese were astonishing the world anew. Not only was the Cape rounded and a new route to the Indies mapped, but along the way they discovered South America, new ways to design ships and to sail, and above all the importance of being both fox and hedgehog-like to get anywhere new.
The Whole Story: The Importance of Two Mindsets Combined
On the outside it began with a gutsy move, yet Dias’s log reveals that even as they turned fox they did so in balance with their hedgehog. They determined to sail further west (fox) but to do so within the range of their supplies so if they needed to turn back they likely could (hedgehog) – putting a toe over the edge and just outside their known world, rather than the moon leap move we like in hindsight to describe them making, and all the while staying true to their larger mission. It wasn’t swashbuckling so much as a fused way of thinking that allowed for new to surface and better to be reached – a combined way of operating every one of us is factory built to be able to do. All we need to do is practice and get in the swing.
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