The Hedgehog’s Dilemma, or sometimes called the Porcupine’s Dilemma, is an analogy about the challenges of human intimacy. It describes a situation in which a group of hedgehogs all seek to become close to one another in order to share heat during cold weather. They must remain apart, however, as they cannot avoid hurting one another with their sharp spines.
The dilemma was created by Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, and was cited by Sigmund Freud in a 1921 essay.
How it applies to office politics in particular is drawn out by William Bouffard – a fascinating if not slightly dispiriting read. For more of a Freudian angle on it there’s a lovely essay in Cabinet. This also reveals the idea of “looking for one’s porcupine”, a phrase commonly used amongst Freud’s circle. It is explained as follows:
Whenever you have some large objective in mind, it’s always good to identify a secondary, less demanding goal on which to focus your attentions in order to detract from the anxiety associated with the search for the true grail.
(Aside: I think the apostrophe could be place before or after the “s” in “hedgehogs” and be accurate either way.)
Alexander Hamilton was the most precocious of the United States’ founding fathers, and was a man who commanded vision, strategy, policy, administration and pragmatism, as well as fierce and compelling rhetoric.
Operated in the realm of the possible taking the world as it was, not as he wished it to be, and he often inveighed against a dogmatic insistence upon perfection.
He himself said:
It is perhaps always better that partial evils should be submitted to than that principles should be violated.
Because of these sentiments expressed by and about Alexander Hamilton, above, I think he would have – rightly, in my view – celebrated the publication of the Barker Commission yesterday. I suspect he would have been impressed by the way it straddled vital principles of equity and fairness with a pragmatism of how to get to a new health and social care settlement and the compromises needed along the way.
Nevertheless, the latter certainly addresses a need and injustice that the former identified when writing “Utopia” in 1516:
“I’m damned if I can see the slightest trace of justice or fairness. For what sort of justice do you call this? People like aristocrats, goldsmiths, money-lenders, who either do no work at all, or do work that’s really not essential, are rewarded for their laziness or their unnecessary activities by a splendid life of luxury. But labourers, coachmen, carpenters, and farmhands, who never stop working like cart-horses, at jobs so essential that, if they did stop working, they’d bring any country to a standstill within twelve months – what happens to them? … They’re not only ground down by unrewarding toil in the present, but also worried to death by the prospect of a poverty-stricken old age – since their daily wages aren’t enough to support them for one day, let alone leave anything over to be saved up for when they’re old.
“Can you see any fairness or gratitude in a societal system which lavishes such great rewards on so-called noblemen, goldsmiths, and people like that[,] but makes no such kind provision for farm-hands, coal-heavers, labourers, carters or carpenters, without whom society couldn’t exist at all?
“And the climax of ingratitude comes when they’re old and ill and completely destitute. Having taken advantage of them throughout the best years of their lives, society now forgets all the sleepless hours they’ve spent in its service, and repays them for all the vital work they’ve done, by letting them die in misery. What’s more, the wretched earnings of the poor are daily whittle away by the rich, not only through private dishonesty, but through public legislation. As if it weren’t unjust enough already that the man who contributes most to society should get the least in return, they make it even worse, and then arrange for injustice to be legally described as justice.”
(“Utopia” by Thomas More, tr. Paul Turner – 1965, 2003 edition)
Anyone interested in change should be interested in Machiavelli.
That many of the observations in The Prince have been cited by leaders with questionable methods in fields such as business and war means the 16th Century Italian adviser has a negative reputation. But investing time in reading the source text on which most of Machiavelli’s reputation is based (i.e. not including The Discourses) will reveal more subtlety, wisdom and honesty than you might expect.
For anyone at any level who is interested in driving or influencing change, it provides plenty of practical advice:
[N]othing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.
From within this setting derives much of Machiavelli’s advice about how to work with different groups of people in the new order. This includes both people who have become “enemies” and, perhaps a harder group to manage, those who were supportive of change. In the latter’s case, Machiavelli recommends you, first, understand the motivations for their support:
[H]e must well consider the reasons which induced those to favour him who did so; and if it be not a natural affection towards him, but only discontent with their government, then he will only keep them friendly with great trouble and difficulty, for it will be impossible to satisfy them.
and then understand the implications:
and you are not able to keep those friends who put you there because of your not being able to satisfy them in the way they expected, and you cannot take strong measures against them, feeling bound to them.
A risk of not addressing either enemies or supporters quickly enough is the emergence of factions, on which Machiavelli has a clear view:
I do not believe that factions can ever be of use; rather it is certain that when the enemy comes upon you in divided cities you are quickly lost, because the weakest party will always assist the outside forces and the other will not be able to resist.
As well as considering external circumstances, there is equally sound advice for the ‘Prince’ or leader of change, especially in how they should carry and prepare themselves:
But to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves[,] to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former; and above all do as an illustrious man did, who took as an exemplar one who had been praised and famous before him, and whose achievements and deeds he always kept in his mind
he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired.
Machiavelli is clear this holds at all times, not just at times of change:
A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.
Such diligence can help prepare for whatever eventuality may arise, which it surely will:
And in examining [great leaders’] actions and lives one cannot see that they owed anything to fortune beyond opportunity, which brought them the material to mould into the form which seemed best to them. Without that opportunity their powers of mind would have been extinguished, and without those powers the opportunity would have come in vain.
Preparation will also allow “evils to be foreseen” and an ability to “distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil”. Ultimately, building such foundations will also help with sustainability:
Nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength.
Of course, all of these insights aimed at ‘princes’ are equally useful for those seeking to influence change: they help provide an insight into the way leaders may be thinking, and therefore an indication of how influencers should accordingly position themselves.
The Prince is only short. Even then, a reasonable proportion is taken up with describing the actions of various leaders drawn from Italian history and beyond that can (unless interested) easily be passed over. Investing time in reading it, and putting to one side what you think Machiavelli might represent, is time well used.
Impressive sounds, some of them, seeming to assure you that somewhere in the world life must be tremendously diverting, exceptionally exciting, and all good clean fun in the meantime… And even, now and then, truth reaches you with the penetrating power of a very quiet voice.
– from “Largo by the Sea (A Prologue)” in Varmints, by Peggy Bennett.
“Fail better,” Samuel Beckett commanded, a phrase that has been taken on by business executives as some kind of ersatz wisdom. They have missed the point completely. Beckett didn’t mean failure-on-the-way-to-delayed-success[.] To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down.
One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
This was Mark Twain on science in “Life on the Mississippi”, but he could well have been talking about any aspect of the modern world.
It’s a human folly to interpret new information in a way that confirms everything you already think. In danger of repeating this folly, though, the Twain quotation hits home with me for two current reasons.
First, I recently reflected on my relationship with news and decided to make a conscious and proactive choice to opt out of the news, social and other media. This was because:
I’d grown tired of most sources of media. Their focus seemed only to be on trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things to do with politics and policy, or fanning the flames of these things with news stories and opinion pieces. I’d also grown increasingly tired with social media, the majority of which was people sharing either trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things relating to politics and policy, or sharing a news story or opinion column that had fanned the flames of their outrage. On top of this, I found myself frustrated with the never-ending wealth of blogs, reports, videos and so on which offered organisation x’s perspective on the latest thing y or z.
This clearly reflects Twain’s observation. In this case, ‘trifling fact’ was the latest policy idea or something political that had happened, and the torrent of interpretations, opinions and perspectives were the ‘wholesale returns of conjecture’.
The second is on the nature of evidence.
Instead of considering, questioning and reflecting on new evidence – what it might actually tell us, what limitations it has, what our interpretations of it might reveal of our own assumptions – our current policy and political approaches tend to use any new evidence as the jumping off point for any number of other directions. As I intimated before, this is because we don’t live in a rational, evidence-led vacuum that is protected from the whims of politicians and public opinion. This in itself is fine (well, it’s reality); Twain’s observation reinforces to me we should invest more in what is currently ‘trifling fact’ than where most effort is made – on ‘wholesale returns on conjecture’.