A hedgehog in a field of cloversA hedgehog in a field of clovers

Discovering My Hedgehog Concept as a Software Engineer

7/15/2022 | Thoughts and Musings

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


This quote is the basis of the Hedgehog Concept presented by James C. Collins in his book "Good to Great". Consequently, it's become something of a mantra for me over the last two months.

The book itself is a fascinating, scientific look at what makes a good company become truly great – outperforming their markets by 5x or more. It's several years old now, but the core concepts remain true. With the hedgehog concept, it quickly became apparent that while the book applied the idea to large businesses, it would be equally true for me as an individual! I set out to understand myself better and create my own person hedgehog concept.

Before we dive in too much further, let's understand what a hedgehog concept is, and how you find it.

What is a hedgehog concept?

The basics of the hedgehog concept are contained in the quote at the beginning of this post. "...a hedgehog knows one big thing."

A fox is clever, and can come up with many creative ways to defend themselves from danger. When danger comes, they'll try all manner of methods to ward it off.

A hedgehog, on the other hand, will do the same thing, every time, without fail: roll up into a ball, stick out their quills, and wait.

Enemies will attack both, but the hedgehog almost never gets hurt, because he relies fully on the thing he knows best.

This was hard for me to comprehend at first, as someone who has always taken great pride in my situational flexibility, breadth of knowledge, and ability to learn a lot. Suddenly I'm being told that what I see as my greatest strength is a great weakness! How can that be possible?

The one big thing

It's not about knowing only one thing. Personally, I believe that being T-shaped (lots of knowledge across the board, deep specialty in one area) is the biggest advantage you can have in your professional career. Knowing many things is good, and will always help you.

Having a primary focus to laser in on, and base all decisions against is the core of the hedgehog concept. It's a systematic approach to adversity – a gameplan for facing your life.

You may have loads of knowledge and skills in your life, and that's great! Having a hedgehog concept – a true, thorough one – will give you the framework with which to apply that knowledge and those skills.

The three circles

The hedgehog concept can be visualized as a venn diagram of three circles. When you know the answer to the questions in each of the circles, the overlap in the middle is the hedgehog concept. To me this is why the concept makes so much sense – it's literally the core of who you are! Let's look at each of these three circles.

What can you be the best in the world at? (Skills)

At first glance, this is a hard question to answer, and for some, impossible. "I know I'll never truly be the best, it's too subjective." I said the same thing, and was immediately dismissive.

The question isn't what are you the best in the world at, nor what will you be the best in the world at. It's a question of capability. What do you know that if you applied the time and effort necessary, you could be the best in the world.

Put another, better, way is this: what are you "genetically encoded" for? What does it feel like you were born to do - when you're doing it, there's no effort, no time, no space. It feels like an extension of your soul. You were made for this. If you can find that, you've truly found something that you could be the best in the world at. Don't worry if you haven't found it yet. I believe that everyone has that one thing.

What are you truly, deeply passionate about? (Passion)

Of the three, this is probably the easiest to answer. It may feel too similar to the first question, but the difference is this: with passion, you always find a way to do the work. Sometimes your passions aren't effortless, they may take a lot of mental or physical effort. While your primary skill may be athletics, your passion may be relegated to coaching. Coaching won't always be easy, but with enough passion, you can push your way through the hard times.

What drives your economic engine? (Economics)

The term "economic engine" is strange, but important to differentiate from "what makes me money". It's not simply about making money. Your economic engine is what fuels your reserves, and generates more revenue. It's the things that you get paid to do, get paid well for, and above all, you enjoy and are comfortable making money from. This was a particularly difficult part for me, as we'll explore in the next section.

My discovery process

The first thing I did when I set out was to review other periods in my life where I've done deep self-exploration and attempted to better understand my purpose. I found notes and conversations from years back that served as a good basis – questions of strengths and weaknesses that directly related to passion and skills.

Next, I struck up fresh conversations with new friends and colleagues, plus friends and family who've seen me grow. I found a lot of new insight asking the questions above (What am I genetically engineered for? What am I most passionate about? What gets me fired up the fastest?)

After some research, I began building a mindmap using Miro to get all my thoughts and ideas on paper quickly, in a free-flowing visualization. Not everything perfectly aligned, but the patterns and coherencies quickly became obvious.

After a few days of work, my mind map led me to answer the question I'd been seeking: what is my personal hedgehog concept?

Making the world a more equitable place through technology.

What a relief! What a revelation! It was so simple – as it should be – but it felt so revolutionary to see it all out there in the open. It was like all of my life was summed up into one succint mission statement, and that's exactly what a hedgehog concept is.

From there, I converted the mindmap into a proper Venn diagram to see the three "byproducts" of the hedgehog concept: Hobbies, Dreams, Careers. Hobbies you love and could make money, but you may not be the most skilled at. Dreams you have passion and skills for, but may not make you enough money. Careers you may be good at and make you a lot of money, but you may not just love doing it. At the center, however, is that magical place where everything is right. A perfect balance.

Personally, I consider myself so blessed, since the center of my circle is my current career! Consulting, helping others understand how technology can improve their lives is a passion, something I have innate abilities in, and something that pays me well, and I enjoy making my money from it. All of this coupled with a passion for consumer protection and equality, leads me to that singular concept I can continue to chase.

If you've had a similar journey of discovery, I'd love to hear about it! Drop me a line or comment below.