A few months ago, Jace introduced me to a 1986 talk by Richard Hamming titled "You and Your Research." It took until now for me to complete it, and many passages struck me as particularly poignant. They're excerpted below; emphasis is mine.
One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can't, almost surely you are not going to.
There's another trait on the side which I want to talk about; that trait is ambiguity. It took me a while to discover its importance. Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. 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. 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. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them.
A lovely balance indeed. I suspect that good salespeople tend towards ignoring the flaws; good managers tend to acknowledge them but remain enthusiastic.
On focusing your subconscious:
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.
I suppose the implication of this - and it's not a particularly surprising one - is that to achieve first class results, you can't be spending much time thinking of anything else. My question: Is the result a first class life? I suspect for me - and for most people - it's not.
On Great Thoughts Fridays:
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.
I think this is a great idea. In addition to 20% time (where a lack of productivity is almost the primary short term goal), I would love to devote some portion of my schedule to thinking about what is and isn't important.
On the importance of working on important problems:
If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work.
This is, simply, a highly succinct and profound observation. I agree completely.
On seizing on opportunities:
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.
This relates to something I wrote recently about maintaining a variety of projects. It's my feeling that - at least at this point in my career - keeping an open mind about what I want to focus on is of great value. More importantly, I try not to be wistful about projects that remain unfinished, as it is likely that they simply weren't as interesting as whatever else I have chosen to work on.
On personal appearance:
You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about.
It took me a long time, and a lot of prodding from now ex-girlfriends, to learn this. Fitting in is useful, if what you really want is for your thoughts to be heard. It's not fair, but it really isn't that hard either.
On good work vs. changing the system:
Many a second-rate fellow gets 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 somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody's 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. My advice is to let somebody else do it and you get on with becoming a first-class scientist. Very few of you have the ability to both reform the system and become a first-class scientist.
I realized at a certain point that I cared more about doing something than I did about fixing the means by which things get done. Part of this was a deep ambivalence about the degree to which I - or anyone, for that matter - am a good judge of the quality of the systems I work within. In other words, who is to say whether any changes I might be able to effect are net positive? I know now that I would rather produce work that I can stand behind.