Thursday, November 25, 2021

Be a Hedgehog or a Fox?

 Specialist or generalist?

A neighbor’s teenage son, Jayden, has become my surrogate grandson after about a year of getting paid for walking our dog, Colette, while my once-impaired hips minimized my mobility.  I’m healed, but the dog-walking gig continues, and we chat for several minutes three nights a week before The Walk.

Jayden is smart and athletic, and he became the second-string quarterback on the local high school junior varsity football team, likely to be the starter next year. He did well at the basketball try-outs that followed the football season, yet he was not selected for the team, as the coaches seemed to choose for height over most other qualities. When my younger son, Phil, faced this problem himself decades ago, I encouraged him to work on his jumping ability, already impressive, and assured him he was likely to grow taller, too. That all worked out as hoped and predicted, and Phil was one of the best players on their senior-year championship team.

I had discouraged Phil from going out for the football team. One reason was the risk of injury, another the value of specializing in basketball rather than pursuing other sports.

What to advise Jayden, who preferred football but also liked basketball?

We discussed two broad strategies, sometimes referred to as “the hedgehog and the fox.” The hedgehog (or “groundhog”) is a master at tunnel building, and this one exceptional talent serves him well. The fox has no such specialty but is clever in many ways, a mixed strategy, and it serves him well.

Specialization can be a winning strategy if you can perfect it. In much of human endeavor, the top 1% are highly rewarded and tend to be specialists. If you have a rare and desired talent, make the most of it.

“Jack of all trades, master of none” denigrates the person with many skills but no strong specialty, yet such broadly talented people are needed and rewarded in the running of various enterprises, where the narrow specialist might be lost.

I told Jayden that this relates to the two limiting evolutionary strategies: having many offspring and giving each little support versus having few offspring and providing each much support. These strategies reflect an evolution from the one-celled through many intermediaries, including insects and fish to birds and mammals and humankind. Societies, too, benefit from heavy, individualized investment, reflected in few children per family on average.  

So, if you have a particular and valuable talent, consider developing it fully, be a hedgehog.

Where you lack a particular advantage, treat your opportunities more like lottery tickets, acquire many useful skills, be a fox. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

"Are You Sad, Dearest Ting?"

A few days ago, my wife, Tina Su Cooper, and I spent an hour or so holding hands and watching a movie in our kitchen, as we do most afternoons.

We have been in love for 58 years and married for 37.

Due to multiple sclerosis, Tina (born Su Ting-ting) has been quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent, getting round-the-clock nursing at home for the past 17 years. She has weathered it heroically, appreciating the nursing care and almost never complaining.

Half a year ago, she had a stroke, reducing her damaged cognitive and communication abilities still further. After several hospitalizations over the past year, the doctors made it clear they thought she should get only minimal future care, as her prospects were grave. We disagreed, insisting on full medical care when appropriate and nursing care at home, which we did even after a period a few years ago when she was mistakenly diagnosed as being in a “vegetative state,” from which she “surprisingly” recovered.

We will give Tina the home and hospital care she can receive, not asking ourselves, “Are we there yet?” We don’t know where “there” will be.

Life includes the possibility of future pleasure. We hope that Tina finds some enjoyment, sleeping a great deal, watching television, and interacting with us for a few hours each day.

As we watched that movie together, I told her that she was our heroine, doing a very difficult thing, persevering despite the limitations, and I said I hope she was not unhappy.

I rephrased my comment into a question, “Are you sad, dearest Ting?”

I feared she would nod her head yes or remain immobile, an implied yes, but she did something she rarely does. She shook her head no.

Tina Su Cooper is not sad.

Even if her situation may make us cry, we are not sad, either.

Life is precious, and where there is life, there is hope.