Below is a reading note on Richard Hamming’s lecture: You and Your Research.
Age: Why most productive things were done young? One of Richard’s explanation was: “If you do some good work, you will find yourself in all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work”. That is the first problem. The second problem is, when you are famous for doing some good work, you can only work on great problems, not small. I was so shocked to know how small the idea Pierre Omidyar, eBay’s founder, had for his next startup. Very few people would understand the once-famous-founders’ second startups at the very beginning.
He mentioned about working condition – the best working conditions are not the way everyone want, just like the shacks in Cambridge is the birthplace for a lot of great physics.
Besides age, and working condition, there is drive. The really ambitious people drive themselves very hard. This relates to my standard of people around me. They can be inexperienced, but they have to be ambitious. There is a saying: Why bother? This is just a blah.blah.blah position. It does matter.
Ambiguity is an interesting one. The right balance between believe, and not believe. You believe it enough to go ahead and practices it, but not believe it enough to be able to adjust and change.
Subconscious. You need work enough, think enough, and starve the subconscious enough, and avoid any dilution of any noise of other kind to really get great result from the work of the subconscious. It is called creativity, or inspiration, or whatever. It is an extension of your hard and intensive work of conscious.
“What are the important problem in my field?” That is the starting point of everything. Again, as Paul Graham mentioned in early articles, beautiful thing is simple. I think this question is simple, shorter, and sweeter, and it is much more inspiring than the complicated 7 habits, or other bestseller books. I agree that the best minds are not always found in best sellers.
Really important problems are daring. Look at the three problems Hamming mentioned in his field: physics – 1) Time travel 2) Teleportation 3) Antigravity. My God!
The two problems a classifieds site have are: 1) fraud listing 2) way to attract enough personal listers. It is such a hard problem that we need to solve. The rest are relatively easy.
For the most important ideas, when there is a chance to fix it, the greatest scientist drop everything else, and pursue it.
That leads to the discussion about whether closed door working style, or open door working style is better. Obviously I know most modern companies, especially Internet companies, favor toward open door, or even open office with no cubicles. I was nervous when I started to read Hamming, and I thought he was arguing in favor of closed door – get more things done in today and tomorrow, and that is against what I long believed, and I felt relief when Hamming finally concluded that open door is a better option. Productivity in short term does not compensate on the error of direction.
Great thinkers get desperate when they see their life as a long sequence of problem one after another after another after another… all small problems If one can solve so many problems, it must be very small problems.
We should really do our work in a way that others can stand on top of ours. The science and technology world is cumulative. The beauty of the whole computer, or Internet world is, it can be split to layers, and our work can benefit others. One on top of another. For mathematics, the effort to generalization means the solution is simpler. It is exactly the same for almost every field. For Internet, and computer system, it is so. We should work on generalization.
On “Great Thoughts Only”. Spend about 10% of the time, in Hamming’s case, a Friday afternoon in every week, to allow only Great Thoughts. Great thoughts means “How computer changes science?” For our business, an example of great thoughts should be something close to: “Why people sell on Baixing?” or “How we can be 10 times more efficient as a company?” These great thoughts help to keep people on track in long term, and push them to the limit, or at least open the eyes of the person who tapped into it. Great thoughts by definition is not a solution. It is a problem. It is why part, not the how or what. We need to correct our path about whether we are attacking the right setup of problems. Another is permission. If you want a No, just go to the boss and you will get a No. Maybe that is deep in many people’s mind – No means you don’t need to work on it. The real doers just go ahead and then present the accomplished fact. Most people would say YES when something is already done. (A note: I just found out the first big gap between entrepreneur and a scientist who has a boss)
On ego assertion. I talked about the conflict in a world with different rules. I claimed that the one who follow the rule of the other side gets the best interest. This is pretty pragmatic approach, just as Hamming changed its cloth to be more formal to get the right service, instead of being who he is. If the dressing has get into the way to something you care, you should change the dress! That’s it. Does it really means you don’t have principle? Well, I would say, when there is a universal principle, stick to it, but there are some local principles, and we should should respect. Sticking to our own ways actually pays small price here and small price there. It is pretty steady cost along the way of one’s life, and the total value is enormous. So try to work with the system instead of fight against.
Hamming does brought out a controversial question: Whether we should fight to change the system. His judgement is, you cannot do the two things together: change the system or be a first-class scientist. Then you should choose. The worst thing is to do it just because of amusement – if that is the case, it is type-B procrastination – Doing less important work.
There are many mind-provoking statement Hamming made in his 50 minutes speech, and it took me about 3 hours to finish reading it while keeping this note. It worth the time, and it is also the first result of my dedicated long chunk of time to some really important work, without interruption.