Hamming was a productive and decorated mathematician who spent time at Los Alamos and Bell Labs and spent a great deal of time thinking about what is required to do “important work”.
In this talk, related to a room filled with Bell Labs scientists in 1986, he details through anecdotes the failures that cause otherwise capable people from producing great work:
- Not working on important problems
- Avoiding emotional involvement
- Not removing difficulties
- Excusing failures with alibis
- Continuing to point to luck
So, let’s invert that to provide a “what to do” list:
- Work on important problems
- Get emotionally involved in creating great outcomes
- Remove roadblocks relentlessly
- Examine failures, adapt, and improve
- Acknowledge luck but focus on what you can control
Work on Important Problems
To work on important problems, you have to identify important problems.
Implicit in the idea of important problems, as framed by Hamming, is providing a gift to humanity. In the context of scientists, that means unearthing new knowledge about the way the world works.
Great scientific progress may be the greatest contribution available in the quest to better humanity’s standing.
But is that the only way to do great work? Perhaps. But “great science = great work” leaves unsatisfying resolutions to these two thought experiments.
In the distant future, humanity may understand the natural world completely from first principles. In that instance, are there no more “gifts to humanity” available? Is it impossible for our distant decedents to accomplish great works?
Second, it turns out that science, particularly cutting-edge science, is quite hard. Can only those so gifted as to follow the plot and contribute new knowledge do great work?
It takes time reflecting to understand what “great work” means for you.
Get Emotionally Involved
At some level, it is a choice to be vulnerable to the world. There was a whole generation where “not caring” was cool.
To not care, to disengage from the world emotionally (even if only in the limited sense of your work), is to lose a piece of your humanity. To choose this path daily is to fail to live fully.
Emotional involvement entails risk. What if it goes wrong? What if I mess up? What if other people laugh? Accepting that risk is required to reap the benefits of emotional satisfaction.
Shake trees, be impatient, make it happen. Impatience is a learned skill for the patient.
Motivation derives from dissatisfaction with the way things are, the difference between a desired state and reality.
It is said that happiness is expectations minus reality. So, to remove roadblocks relentlessly, it may be required to invest a bit of happiness (by setting higher expectations).
Or, if you are a deeply careful emotional accountant, you may be able to parse the difference between the “desired state” and “expectations” and preserve your happiness. Not to say that would be easy.
Examining Failures, Adapting
Past is past, but lessons can be learned from what went wrong. It usually is your fault.
So, what different actions would have been required to succeed?
There is a retrospective stepping-away needed to understand our own failures. Too close to the moment, we reject as impossible or unreasonable our mistakes. Too distant and mistakes have been repeated, details have been forgotten, and learning is obscured.
Acknowledge Luck, Control What You Can
Again, a personal psychological phenomenon. Perception and mindset matter.
In chess, there is no luck.
In baccarat, there is no skill.
There is a luck-skill continuum. Everything sits on that spectrum.
Poker is the canonical luck/skill mixed game. Even with a full house, you can lose to a low-probability straight-flush. The decisions to bet heavily with a full house usually shouldn’t change (it is a very strong hand), but the outcome will not always be favorable.
You can control the bets you make and the actions you take.