In a world run by Hedgehogs, the case for the Fox

Consider the journalist with a narrowly defined “beat.” He covers baseball, or film, or federal politics. He gets to know that little patch of turf very well. He cultivates a pool of sources and develops a set of firm ideas. Eventually he becomes as expert as the people he’s writing about. That expertise is his currency. He has become that most important thing to be, as a writer, as a human being: trustworthy.

He is what the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin called a Hedgehog, rather than a Fox. The Fox knows many things, Berlin said, explaining the difference, but the Hedgehog knows one big thing.

So is it better to be a Hedgehog than a Fox?

For sure our culture rewards Hedgehogs more lavishly. A Ph.D is a reasonably reliable ticket to security. Science advances when high-level hedgehogs incrementally build on each other’s rarefied discoveries. History is etched in stone when the experts reach a consensus. You wouldn’t want a Fox removing your gall bladder.

And for sure, Hedgehogs deserve props for their commitment.

But I must admit a soft spot for Foxes.

Poets, by and large, are Foxes. You wouldn’t ask a poet what her “beat” is, any more than you would diss a butterfly for flitting from flower to flower. “Life” — that is the poet’s beat.

Not long ago the writer and artist and poet-at heart Miranda July gave an interesting interview. She is a Fox, no doubt about it. She seems allergic to digging ever deeper in a particular spot, even when she has had success there. When the film You and Me and Everyone We Know — which she wrote and directed — was released to critical acclaim, she was showered with juicy offers to make another movie. The world said, Aha, now we know what you are! That thing you did, do it again. Sing “Free Bird,” Lynyrd.

Instead, she started work on a collection of short stories. (But don’t call her a short-story writer. Her most recent book is a novel.) Then she started developing a new performance piece.

“Being a beginner, time and time again, that’s a good feeling to me,” July said. “The feeling of being a pro, like, a master of this particular thing – it sounds nice. I like the respect part of it. But it doesn’t sound fun, creatively, to me. It doesn’t sound like a livable life.”

Oddly, this made me think of John McEnroe.

Clearly a master of one big thing, McEnroe was nonetheless never a Hedgehog. He played in a band, dabbled in art collecting. After he retired from competitive tennis, he tried hosting a late-night talk show. It bombed, mostly because McEnroe was terrible at it. He got better, but not quickly enough, and the network pulled the plug. The press was mostly unkind about McEnroe’s wander-y yearnings. “His understanding of himself,” one writer said, “seems constantly under revision.”

But one L.A. Times columnist got Johnny Mac. “He might be a bit of a dilettante, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a sensible response to the fact that you only live once.”

That’s the spirit in which the Big Day project was hatched.

The idea is that you set aside one day a month to do what you need to do. And only you know what that is. Sometimes what you need to do, what we all need to do, is work; it just is. But it’s my hope that a good portion of those precious days we carve out will be devoted to things we don’t do for a living and haven’t yet mastered. To chasing the feeling of being a beginner —  a feeling many of us become less and less comfortable with as we grow older.

This project isn’t about turning Hedgehogs into Foxes. For most of us, it’ll amount to becoming a slightly Foxier Hedgehog.

And that is a sensible response to the fact that we only live once.

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