Almost everyone dreams of hitting it big, of becoming someone who makes a difference and changes the world. The reality is that most people will never make the type of impact that they want to make and instead will live very ordinary lives.
That’s not always a bad thing, but wouldn’t it be great if your wildest fantasies came true? As a kid, you probably dreamt of becoming an astronaut, a record-breaking athlete, or a world-class scientist.
What things do you need to do in order to rise up to the top of your field and actually make a difference? I recently ran across the transcript of a talk given by Richard Hamming, an American mathematician whose work changed the computing industry.
In the talk he outlined some of the things he learned from working with numerous world-class scientists and the way these lessons could be applied in your life and your work.
While most of his lessons come from the scientific field, they can be applied in any type of field that you are in. The lessons are universal:
“Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has one life to live. Even if you believe in reincarnation it doesn’t do you any good from one life to the next! Why shouldn’t you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant?
I’m not going to define it – you know what I mean. I will talk mainly about science because that is what I have studied. But so far as I know, and I’ve been told by others, much of what I say applies to many fields. Outstanding work is characterized very much the same way in most fields, but I will confine myself to science.“
One of his first jobs was at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project as a programmer who created the machines that helped the physicists calculate all the different equations they were using to create the A-Bomb.
There he started noticing the things that the top guys did and what made them different from all the rest.
“At Los Alamos I was brought in to run the computing machines which other people had got going, so those scientists and physicists could get back to business. I saw I was a stooge. I saw that although physically I was the same, they were different. And to put the thing bluntly, I was envious. I wanted to know why they were so different from me.
I saw Feynman up close. I saw Fermi and Teller. I saw Oppenheimer. I saw Hans Bethe: he was my boss. I saw quite a few very capable people. I became very interested in the difference between those who do and those who might have done.“
The part on observation is very important. If you want to succeed, you need to be a keen observer of the things around you. Look, analyze, and then implement. Observe what is happening around you, ask yourself questions and analyze why some things work and others don’t, take out lessons and implement them in your own work.
In his speech, Hamming noted that the first thing that you need to do is to drop your modesty and become ambitious. You should say to yourself: “Yes, I want to do first-class work.”
This type of goal is what creates the drive needed for rising to the top. As I noted in the article on how chimps rise to the alpha (leadership) position, ambition is the first trait of someone who becomes a leader.
This trait is important for motivation and drive. Without it, you would just end up drifting through life, with no goals, no motivation and no willpower to better your situation.
From the speech we can notice a pattern emerging: ambition, motivation, drive. Each one creates the other. Drive is one of the things that differentiates the great ones from the just mediocre ones:
“Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive.“
Hamming goes on to talk about luck. Yes, luck is important, but you still have to prepare the conditions necessary in order for luck to strike. Here the quote “luck favors the prepared mind” sums up the situation perfectly.
Most people think that becoming a top-scientist or innovator or whatever is all about the brains, but in reality it isn’t. There are many other little factors that are necessary and the difference between success and failure.
“How about having lots of `brains?’ It sounds good. Most of you in this room probably have more than enough brains to do first-class work. But great work is something else than mere brains. Brains are measured in various ways. In mathematics, theoretical physics, astrophysics, typically brains correlates to a great extent with the ability to manipulate symbols. And so the typical IQ test is apt to score them fairly high.
On the other hand, in other fields it is something different. For example, Bill Pfann, the fellow who did zone melting, came into my office one day. He had this idea dimly in his mind about what he wanted and he had some equations. It was pretty clear to me that this man didn’t know much mathematics and he wasn’t really articulate.
His problem seemed interesting so I took it home and did a little work. I finally showed him how to run computers so he could compute his own answers. I gave him the power to compute. He went ahead, with negligible recognition from his own department, but ultimately he has collected all the prizes in the field. Once he got well started, his shyness, his awkwardness, his inarticulateness, fell away and he became much more productive in many other ways. Certainly he became much more articulate.“
A lot of people start off without confidence, but by plugging at it, they get results. Success creates its own confidence.
This plugging at it is inherently linked with courage. For Hamming, one of the main characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. You cannot be afraid to take risk. This is also one of the traits that I noted among the successful chimps rising to the alpha positions. The ones at the top positions almost always show great amounts of courage. They do things that others are afraid to do.
You also cannot be phased by failures. In fact, the thing to do is to turn your failures into assets. One way to do that is by treating them as learning opportunities.
“I think that if you look carefully you will see that often the great scientists, by turning the problem around a bit, changed a defect to an asset. For example, many scientists when they found they couldn’t do a problem finally began to study why not. They then turned it around the other way and said, “But of course, this is what it is” and got an important result. So ideal working conditions are very strange. The ones you want aren’t always the best ones for you.“
Another thing that Hamming doesn’t forget to mention is that hard work is always necessary. Without hard work, you will not achieve results. Hard work is also compounding, just a little extra effort can create a huge impact:
“What Bode was saying was this: “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 outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate.
Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; 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.“
However this comes with a caveat. All this hard work needs to be applied sensibly. You need to set priorities and apply hard work sensibly in where it matters:
“The steady application of effort with a little bit more work, intelligently applied is what does it. That’s the trouble; drive, misapplied, doesn’t get you anywhere. I’ve often wondered why so many of my good friends at Bell Labs who worked as hard or harder than I did, didn’t have so much to show for it. The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough – it must be applied sensibly.“
You also need to keep an open mind. Being too rigid and stubborn can create problems, but so can being too skeptical. You always need to keep a balance:
“If you believe too much you’ll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won’t get started. It requires a lovely balance. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don’t quite fit and they don’t forget it.“
Creating important work is a matter of asking the right questions and working on important topics. If you work on unimportant stuff, you will never create anything that is of consequence.
Hamming mentions that he set apart some time that calls “great thoughts time”, time where he only thought about great things. For example, he did it on Friday after lunch.
You also need to be able to strike when the opportunity comes:
“The great scientists, when an opportunity opens up, get after it and they pursue it. They drop all other things. They get rid of other things and they get after an idea because they had already thought the thing through. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it. Now of course lots of times it doesn’t work out, but you don’t have to hit many of them to do some great science. It’s kind of easy. One of the chief tricks is to live a long time!“
Another important observation that Hamming makes is that just changing the problem slightly can result in great work. This is something that has been noted by many people, and I examine it a bit more in my article on first principles thinking.
And finally, in his speech, Hamming mentions the X-factor of all great work, being able to “sell” it.
“I have now come down to a topic which is very distasteful; it is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell it. `Selling’ to a scientist is an awkward thing to do. It’s very ugly; you shouldn’t have to do it. The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it.
But the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you’ve done, read it, and come back and say, “Yes, that was good.”
I suggest that when you open a journal, as you turn the pages, you ask why you read some articles and not others. You had better write your report so when it is published in the Physical Review, or wherever else you want it, as the readers are turning the pages they won’t just turn your pages but they will stop and read yours. If they don’t stop and read it, you won’t get credit.“
Unfortunately, oftentimes creating something spectacular and groundbreaking is not enough, you need to be able to market your idea and sell it.
As noted in my article on James Hutton and his important work on geology and his notion of “deep time”, this inability to sell his idea was why Hutton failed to convince others in his lifetime. Only after his ideas were taken up by some of his friends who were much better marketers, did they gain prominence.
Hamming’s presentation is full of wisdom and lessons applicable to any endeavor. It must have been a treat to sit in the audience and listen to this great man speak.
Some of the people sitting there that day did in fact take these lessons to heart and did go on to create great things. Go back and re-read Hamming’s speech. If you keep these lessons in mind, you too can go on to create something great.
Here’s a summary of the 11 top lessons from Hamming’s presentation:
Lesson 1: Ambition, motivation, drive. If you want to succeed, you need to be ambitious, and have the drive necessary to carry out that ambition.
Lesson 2: You need to turn failures into assets. Treat your setbacks as learning opportunities.
Lesson 3: If you can’t do a problem, try to figure out why not. Then turn it around and reframe it.
Lesson 4: You need to work hard. 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 outproduce the former.
Lesson 5: Hard work needs to be applied sensibly. Make priorities and focus on the right things.
Lesson 6: You need to keep an open mind. Being too rigid and stubborn can create problems, but so can being too skeptical. You always need to keep a balance.
Lesson 7: Creating important work is a matter of asking the right questions and working on important topics. If you work on unimportant stuff, you will never create anything that is of consequence.
Lesson 8: Luck is important, but luck also favors the prepared mind. You need to be able to strike when the opportunity comes.
Lesson 9: It’s not just about the brain, but other little things matter too.
Lesson 10: You need to have courage. The ability to take risk is what separates the successes from the others.
Lesson 11: And the last lesson and probably the most important is that you need to be able to sell your work. If no one sees it, it is as if it doesn’t exist.