notes from ‘Richard Hamming: You and Your Research’
Richard Hamming: You and Your Research
Talk at Bellcore, 7 March 1986 The title of my talk is "You and Your Research." It is not about managing research, it…
I am mesmerised by the universality of tactical advise delivered in this talk and how all of it is backed by examples. It is wisdom on steroids but a really long read. I would love for everyone to read it so sharing a teaser in the forms of excerpts I love so that you build conviction and dive right in.
The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.
Newton said, “If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.”
But great work is something else than mere brains
When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you.
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. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind.
Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, “creativity comes out of your subconscious.” Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you’re aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there’s the answer. For those who don’t get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn’t produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don’t let anything else get the center of your attention — you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.
“What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “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 at Bell Labs working on it?”
Along those lines at some urging from John Tukey and others, I finally adopted what I called “Great Thoughts Time.” When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: “What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?”, “How will computers change science?”
I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the 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 know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.
song which I think many of you know, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_kjctTbMHA
You’ve got to work on important problems. I deny that it is all luck, but I admit there is a fair element of luck. I subscribe to Pasteur’s “Luck favors the prepared mind.” I favor heavily what I did. Friday afternoons for years — great thoughts only — means that I committed 10% of my time trying to understand the bigger problems in the field, i.e. what was and what was not important. I found in the early days I had believed `this’ and yet had spent all week marching in `that’ direction. It was kind of foolish. If I really believe the action is over there, why do I march in this direction? I either had to change my goal or change what I did. So I changed something I did and I marched in the direction I thought was important. It’s that easy.
I also did a second thing. When I loaned what little programming power we had to help in the early days of computing, I said, “We are not getting the recognition for our programmers that they deserve. When you publish a paper you will thank that programmer or you aren’t getting any more help from me. That programmer is going to be thanked by name; she’s worked hard.” I waited a couple of years. I then went through a year of BSTJ articles and counted what fraction thanked some programmer. I took it into the boss and said, “That’s the central role computing is playing in Bell Labs; if the BSTJ is important, that’s how important computing is.” He had to give in. You can educate your bosses. It’s a hard job. In this talk I’m only viewing from the bottom up; I’m not viewing from the top down. But I am telling you how you can get what you want in spite of top management. You have to sell your ideas there also.
If you will learn to work with the system, you can go as far as the system will support you.” And, he never went any further. He had his personality defect of wanting total control and was not willing to recognize that you need the support of the system.
If you want to do something, don’t ask, do it. Present him with an accomplished fact. Don’t give him a chance to tell you `No’. But if you want a `No’, it’s easy to get a `No’.
I had to make the decision — was I going to assert my ego and dress the way I wanted to and have it steadily drain my effort from my professional life, or was I going to appear to conform better? I decided I would make an effort to appear to conform properly. The moment I did, I got much better service. And now, as an old colorful character, I get better service than other people.
By taking the trouble to tell jokes to the secretaries and being a little friendly, I got superb secretarial help. For instance, one time for some idiot reason all the reproducing services at Murray Hill were tied up. Don’t ask me how, but they were. I wanted something done. My secretary called up somebody at Holmdel, hopped the company car, made the hour-long trip down and got it reproduced, and then came back. It was a payoff for the times I had made an effort to cheer her up, tell her jokes and be friendly; it was that little extra work that later paid off for me. 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.