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.