Quotes From "You and Your Research" by Hamming

My labmate suggested I read “You and Your Research,” a transcript from a speech given by Richard “Dick” Hamming. Hamming is famous for, amongst other things, Hamming Codes. The speech is meant for scientists, but I think the quotes generalize well to a large segment of the population. Below are the sections I found particularly interesting.

I have to get you to drop your modesty and say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do first-class work.” Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage.Most mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and astrophysicists do what we consider their best work when they are young. It is not that they don’t do good work in their old age but what we value most is often what they did early. But let me say why age seems to have the effect it does. In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work. You may find yourself as I saw Brattain when he got a Nobel Prize… Now he could only work on great problems. When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems… The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the might oak trees grow. What appears to be a fault, often, by a change of viewpoint, turns out to be one of the greatest assets you can have. So ideal working conditions are very strange. The ones you want aren’t always the best ones for you. “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outperform the former. I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. If you believe too much you’ll never notice flaws; if you doubt too much you won’t get started. “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you… working on it?” Let me warn you, ‘important problem’ must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never wrked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn’t work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. You can’t alawys know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen. I notice that if you have a door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite what problems are worth working on, all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance…. I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work witht he doors open and those who ultimately do important work. You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it. It’s just as easy to do a broad, general job as one very special case. And it’s much more satisfying and rewarding! There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks. Most of the time the audience wants a broad general talk and wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give. As a result, many talks are ineffective. The tendency is to give a highly restricted, safe talk; this is usually ineffective. I changed something I did and I marched in the direction I thought was important. It’s that easy. You can educate your bosses. To struggle to make something of yourself seems to be worthwhile in itself. The success and fame are sort of dividends, in my opinion. He had his personality defects of wanting total control and was not willing to recognize that you need the support of the system. Another personality defect is ego assertion… You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. [Fighting the system is] wasted effort! I didn’t say you should comform: I said, “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.” If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, “I am going to do it my way,” you pay a small steady prioce throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble. By taking the trouble to tell jokes to the secretaries and being a little friendly, I got superb secretarial help. By realizing you have to use the system and studying how to get the system to do your work, you learn how to adapt the system to your desires. Or you can fight it steadily, as a small undeclared war, for the whole of your life. I am saying that my study of able people is that they don’t get themselves committed to that kind of warfare. They play a little bit and drop it and get on with their work. Many second-rate fellow get caught up in some little twitting of the system, and carries it through to warfare. He expends his energy in a foolish project. Now you are going to tell me that someone has to change the system. I agree; somebody has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be? Be clear, when you fight the system and struggle with it, what you are doing, how far to go out of amusement, and how much to waste your effort fighting the system. I have observed almost all scientists enjoy a certain amount of twitting the system for the sheer love of it. Originality is being different. You can’t be an original scientist without having some other original characteristics. But many a scientist has let his quirks in other places make him pay a far hgiher price than is necessary for the ego satisfaction he or she gets. Another fault is anger. Another thing you should look for is the positive side of things instead of the negative. You can tell other people all the alibis you want. I don’t mind. But to yourself, try to be honest. In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don’t succeed are: they don’t work on important problems, they don’t become emotionally involved, they don’t try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don’t. …if you want to be a great scientist you’re going to have to put up with stress. You can lead a nice life; you can be a nice guy or you can be a great scientist. There was a fellow at Bell labs, a very, very, smart guy. He was always in the library; he read everything… but there’s no effect named after him because he read too much… You read, but it’s not the amount, it is the way you read that counts. IF you want to get recognition long-haul, it seems to me writing books is more contribution because most of us need orientation… we have come close to doubling knowledge every 17 years, more or less. And we cope with that, essentially, by specialization. In the next 340 years at that rate, there will be 20 doublings, i.e. a million, and there will be a million fields of specialty for every one field right now. It isn’t going to happen. The present growth of knowledge will choke itself off until we get different tools. I believe that books which try to digest, coordinate, get rid of the duplication, get rid of the less fruitful methods and present the underlying ideas clearly of what we know now, will be the things the future generations will value. …every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field. You have to change. You get tired after a while; you use up your originality in one field. When your vision of what you want to do is what you can do single-handedly, then you should pursue it. The day your vision, what you think needs to be done, is bigger than what you can do single-handedly, then you have to move toward management.

I know this is a monster post, but it’s shorter than the complete transcript. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.pdf