The Hedgehog and the Fox
A personal reflection on specialization vs. being a generalist
|Sidhartha Jha||Apr 12||3|
Greetings from Washington, D.C.!
The days are long and the weeks are short. The weekends are shorter still. It was a sometimes balmy, sometimes overcast last few days in the American capital this weekend. I re-read one of my older essays about Prince Philip after his death. I am also re-reading Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running since the nicer weather means I can start to do some of my runs outside and the book brings me back to the practice of the process.
In this 99th issue of Snapshots, I want to explore:
How to navigate being a much-parodied “generalist” v.s. specializing in something which isn’t that exciting, or my personal take on Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox
Ben Smith’s column about why the media is freaking out about Substack and my take on it based on an airlines industry analogy
How Bandcamp is arming the musically talented rebels against the streaming services empires
Book of the week
The thesis of The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin is that there are two kinds of people in the world — foxes and hedgehogs. What’s the difference? According to Berlin, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
It seems to me to be a variant of the specialization vs. generalist debate. This topic is obviously a well-trodden path with entire books being written about them and newsletters (like yours truly’s) writing about what’s written in those books.
As I think about how I want my life’s work to look like, it’s tough to avoid this question. On one hand, I really enjoy data and studied a major that was basically a lite data science degree with a bend towards optimization and simulations. But I am smart enough to understand that there are people who are significantly better than me at that. I have seen too many of them in my life to ignore that truth. Whether by natural ability or simple accidents, the path dependence of expertise (the more you know the more you can potentially learn since you can build off of previous knowledge) means that it would be foolish of me to try to create a new optimization algorithm. I will simply never be in top 1% of that field.
So what’s left? Well, I could certainly be the much-parodied-in-tech “generalist” or in Berlin’s metaphor, a “fox.” But that decision too requires a level of self-reflection which can be deeply uncomfortable. How adaptable am I really? I want to say that I am pretty adaptable — having moved every 2-3 years when I was growing up gives you plenty of particular to get used to kind and wicked situations. But to what extent does that personal experience translate to the professional realm? Nebulous questions like those usually offer nebulous answers.
When I was a sophomore in college, I had a mentor who was doing an MBA at Northwestern’s business school, Kellogg. We had similar backgrounds in terms of where we grew up and how we thought about certain things so it was not a surprise in retrospect that we got along. During one of our conversations, he brought up the idea of a T-shaped skills. Basically, this is the idea that you can go “deep” into a topic and be very good at it or you can be sort of okay at a bunch of things and be broad. I remarked that this very obviously looked like a tree — and thought to myself that for a tree to remain standing, the trunk or the “specialization” needs to be strong.
But I largely nodded my head at the time since I knew that I had little control over how I spent my time — such was the life of me and every other engineering student who had required classes to take for most of their college career. Whatever autonomy I had was not evident in the day-to-day actions that I was taking.
With the benefit of hindsight and a few more years of lived experiences under my belt, I would like to propose an amendment to the T-shaped tree. To do so requires me to explain how I spent my summers as a kid.
During most of my summer holidays, I would travel to my mom’s parent’s house. Behind their house was a Banyan tree1.
Now, before this turns into a Jungle Book story, let me cut straight to the chase and explain how Banyan trees are different from most trees. While most trees have a trunk made of wood and a top made of branches and leaves, Banyan trees go a step further. They also have what are called “aerial prop roots” — basically mini-trucks that sprout out of branches and “search for” resources that they find in the soil. These aerial prop roots thicken over time and play a crucial role in the development of the tree’s growth.
Similarly, we can think about the T-shaped skills model as a tree with aerial prop roots. For me, these are some of the longer essays I write for the newsletter and the relationships that I have built over the years. These are the means to my growth as a personal — they support the critical core skills that I can feel uncompetitive in and the more interesting generalist skills that I can feel insecure about.
Being a fox who learns all he can from the hedgehog doesn't seem like the worst idea in the world.
Long read of the week
Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack by Ben Smith
I’ve had a personal rule that I was never going to be a Substack that discusses Substack. I have maintained that rule for 98 issues.
But I guess rules are meant to be broken.
Ben Smith wrote a self-reflective piece on why the media is freaking out over Substack. He provides an overview of the newsletter publishing landscape and explores some of the more psychological fears that media folks have. It’s a great article and you should definitely read it if you are interested in this space.
My perspective is grounded in my personal journey with the platform. Note that this newsletter is not paid and I do not pay Substack to host it. It is paid for by the some combination of (increasingly smaller) venture dollars and the 10% cut that the platform takes from its paying customers.
In that way, I am an Economy class passenger on a flight that is pretty much funded by Business class and First class passengers. That is the economics of an airline and it is also the economics of Substack. It turns out that the analogy is more broadly applicable as well. Until very recently, airline traffic was too expensive just like putting together a custom, paid newsletter was technically complex. Now, it is easier just like airline travel is more accessible. Just like paid newsletters can build their newsletter stack if they think the 10% take is too much, Business and first passengers can certainly choose to fly another airline if they want to based on their perception of what value they are getting for the price.
What gets lost is the celebration of the written word that the platform has enabled. I, a non-contributing member to Substack’s bottomline revenue, have been able to create an entire identity around my words. So have countless others because of the ease of getting started and putting your thoughts out there without having to worry about anything. This has led to an explosion of creativity.
Simply put, if I had a dollar for every person who expressed some version of the “I want to have a blog” statement to me over the last 6-7 years and never published anything until they used Substack and are now prolific writers, I would be giving a certain fellow DC-er named Mr. Bezos a run for his money.
And anyone who says “there are too many Substacks” is simply re-affirming that sentiment. It is precisely because it is easy to get started and try a bunch of things without having to make an upfront commitment of creating a blog or newsletter that Substack has enabled so much creativity. And if some are not doing great, that is part of the process.
It speaks to a broader point in the usual tech discourse. While the headlines are focused are on money raised or some celebrity joining a particular service, the lives being changed happen down the value chain at the upper-middle to middle-class equivalents. And you need nothing to get started.
Business move of the week
Somewhere around mid-2013, I discovered the idea of working playlists — playlists that you would listen to while working. Actually, I had also discovered the idea of “working” for the first time. Now at the mature life stage of entering high school, I had also taught myself how to use a torrented version of Adobe Illustrator. But podcasts were still largely a foreign concept and I really hated silence in my prepubescent days. So I did what every self-respecting 14 year old boy born in the 90s would do — whipped out Google.com and searched for “mixes.”
It was the first time I had seen this website. I had to pay €4 or something like that to download the tracks button. Well, I was certainly not going to listen to paid music while working on a pirated version of Illustrator. But next to the payment button was a “pay what you want” button. Easiest click anyone has ever gotten out of me.
This was basically self-regulated perfect price discrimination. Everyone had their own “equilibrium” price and they could choose to paid that. Looking back, that was a powerful thing. While there were certainly free loaders like me, there were also certainly “whales” on the consumer side who had the ability to pay a lot of money to a lot of different artists and did so. The artist was better off getting €10 from one person than €4 from two. There was also an in-built growth function that was not limited by the fact that customers had to pay for things. If they wanted to, they could download it for free and evangelize it to their friends who might end up paying for the music. All this works because once the music was made and on the internet, there was zero marginal costs associated with making more copies of it.
In the era of streaming services (largely commoditized) and hyper-exclusive events (largely unique) pre-pandemic, Bandcamp occupies a unique place in music culture. Focused mostly on up-and-coming artistes, the company has helped artists earn $518 million through sales of digital albums, vinyl, cassettes, CDs, and assorted merch2. They are arming the rebels of the music world on the artists side. They also seem to have some bundling advantages, such as their Bandcamp Days events launched during the COVID times which brings together artists of various scales under one roof.
Ultimately, I don’t think Bandcamp will be able to usurp the Spotifys and Apple Musics of the world — though the later is much more dangerous than the former because of its native platform moats — but it does remain an important bastion of a direct link between artists and their fans. A bastion that we should remain standing.
Odds and ends of the week
Two articles and a video to end this week’s issue:
✈️ This Plane Accidentally Flew Around the World by John Bull
There is a genre of story that I realize enjoy reading. It’s the “what happens to normal lives when someone goes horribly bad in the world.” In the American worldview, the most common date that these stories come from is 11th September, 2001. But there is another date before 9/11 which correctly lives in infamy. When the Pearl Harbor attacks happened on December 7th, 1942, a nation was caught by surprise. So were air traffic controllers at La Guardia airport. An amazing story of interdependency in our modern world.
☕️ emma chamberlain & the business of being relatable by Alice and Faye
I did not come across Emma Chamberlain until she launched a coffee brand which took the audience-first crowd by storm. Well, turns out there is a much more organic story to the small letters only and iced coffee aesthetic. A must-read for any creator in understanding what their audience wants from them and how they can use their authentic selves to deliver that.
🎞️ The Beauty Of Andrei Tarkovsky by The Beauty Of
In the now-established tradition of visually gorgeous videos tucked towards the end of Snapshots issues, this is another notch on that streak. Andrei Tarkovsky was a Soviet-era filmmaker whose austere aesthetic sense was reflecting of his times. A master of using time and Freudian-esque ideas in his movies, he was known for his long takes and beautiful shots. This montage does a great job of capturing some of the highlights of his work.
That wraps up this week’s newsletter. You can check out the previous issues here.
If you want to discuss any of the ideas mentioned above or have any books/papers/links you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of Sunday Snapshots, please reach out to me by replying to this email or sending me a direct message on Twitter at @sidharthajha.
Until next Sunday,
I wish I had a photo of me next to this tree but I have not been able to find one despite bothering my parents for the last week