Michael He

June 23, 2021

You And Your Research

Richard Hamming's You And Your Research is excellent. Here are my favorite lines from the lecture.


Start Big, Live A Meaningful Life

As far as I know each of you has but one life to lead, and it seems to me it is better to do significant things than to just get along through life to its end.

Certainly near the end it is nice to look back at a life of accomplishments rather than a life where you have merely survived and amused yourself. Thus in a real sense I am preaching the messages that (1) it is worth
trying to accomplish the goals you set yourself and (2) it is worth setting yourself high goals.

On Luck

The major objection cited by people against striving to do great things is the belief that it is all a matter of luck. I have repeatedly cited Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” It both admits there is an element of luck and yet claims to a great extent it is up to you. You prepare yourself to succeed or not, as you choose, from moment to moment by the way you live your life.

If it were mainly luck, then great things should not tend to be done repeatedly by the same people.

It is hard work, applied for long years, which leads to the creative act, and it is rarely just handed to you without any serious effort on your part. Yes, sometimes it just happens, and then it is pure luck. It seems to me to be folly for you to depend solely on luck for the outcome of this one life you have to lead.

On Talent & "Brains"

One of the characteristics you see is that great people when young were generally active—though Newton did not seem exceptional until well into his undergraduate days at Cambridge, Einstein was not a great student, and many other great people were not at the top of their class.

Brains are nice to have, but many people who seem not to have great IQs have done great things.

I had already learned brains come in many forms and flavors, and to beware of ignoring any chance I got to work with a good man.

Ability comes in many forms, and on the surface the variety is great; below the surface there are many common elements.

Working on Important Problems

Among the important properties to have is the belief you can do important things. If you do not work on important problems, how can you expect to do important work? Yet direct observation and direct questioning of people show most scientists spend most of their time working on things they believe are not important and are not likely to lead to important things.

I began by asking what the important problems were in chemistry, then later what important problems they were working on, and finally one day said, “If what you are working on is not important and not likely to lead to important things, then why are you working on it?”

If you do not work on important problems, then it is obvious you have little chance of doing important things.

Courage and Confidence

Confidence in yourself, then, is an essential property. Or, if you want to, you can call it “courage.”

Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes.”

The courage to continue is essential, since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.

The Discovery Process

The desire for excellence is an essential feature for doing great work. Without such a goal you will tend to wander like a drunken sailor. The sailor takes one step in one direction and the next in some independent direction. As a result the steps tend to cancel each other out, and the expected distance from the starting point is proportional to the square root of the number of steps taken. 

With a vision of excellence, and with the goal of doing significant work, there is a tendency for the steps to go in the same direction and thus go a distance proportional to the number of steps taken, which in a lifetime is a large number indeed. As noted before, Chapter 1, the difference between having a vision and not having a vision is almost everything, and doing excellent work provides a goal which is steady in this world of constant change.

On Fame

Fame in science is a curse to quality productivity, though it tends to supply all the tools and freedom you want to do great things.

Most famous people, sooner or later, tend to think they can only work on important problems— hence they fail to plant the little acorns which grow into the mighty oak trees.

Not that you should merely work on random things, but on small things which seem to you to have the possibility of future growth.

On Openness

There are many illustrations of this point. For example, working with one’s door closed lets you get more work done per year than if you had an open door, but I have observed repeatedly that later those with the closed doors, while working just as hard as others, seem to work on slightly the wrong problems, while those who have let their door stay open get less work done but tend to work on the right problems!

I suspect the open mind leads to the open door, and the open door tends to lead to the open mind; they reinforce each other.

Invert Work And Play

I was led directly to a frontier of computer science by simply inverting the problem. What had seemed to be a defect now became an asset and pushed me in the right direction! When stuck, often inverting the problem and realizing the new formulation is better represents a significant step forward. I am not asserting all blockages can be so rearranged, but I am asserting that many more than you might at first suspect can be so changed from a more or less routine response to a great one.

The conditions you tend to want are seldom the best ones for you—the interaction with harsh reality tends to push you into significant discoveries which otherwise you would never have thought about while doing pure research in a vacuum of your private interests.

On Drive

Now to the matter of drive. Looking around, you can easily observe that great people have a great deal of drive to do things.

On Long Term Work

Intellectual investment is like compound interest: the more you do, the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. I do not know what compound interest rate to assign, but it must be well over 6%—one extra hour per day over a lifetime will much more than double the total output. The steady application of a bit more effort has a great total accumulation.

You need to work on the right problem at the right time and in the right way—what I have been calling “style.”

At the urging of others, for some years I set aside Friday afternoons for “great thoughts.” Of course, I would answer the telephone, sign a letter, and such trivia, but essentially, once lunch started, I would only think great thoughts—what was the nature of computing, how would it affect the development of science, what was the natural role of computers in Bell Telephone Laboratories, what effect will computers have on AT&T, on science generally? I found it was well worth the 10% of my time to do this careful examination of where computing was heading so I would know where we were going and hence could go in the right direction. I was not the drunken sailor staggering around and canceling many of my steps by random other steps, but could progress in a more or less straight line. I could also keep a sharp eye on the important problems and see that my major effort went to them.

I strongly recommend taking the time, on a regular basis, to ask the larger questions, and not stay immersed in the sea of detail where almost everyone stays almost all of the time. 

if you are to be a leader into the future, rather than a follower of others, I am now saying it seems to me to be necessary for you to look at the bigger picture on a regular, frequent basis for many years.

How To Be Certain

Great people can tolerate ambiguity; they can both believe and disbelieve at the same time. You must be able to believe your organization and field of research is the best there is, but also that there is much room for improvement!

Most great people also have 10 to 20 problems they regard as basic and of great importance, and which they currently do not know how to solve. They keep them in their mind, hoping to get a clue as to how to solve them. When a clue does appear they generally drop other things and get to work immediately on the important problem. Therefore they tend to come in first, and the others who come in later are soon forgotten.

On Something's Importance

The importance of the result is not the measure of the importance of the problem.

A problem is important partly because there is a possible attack on it and not just because of its inherent importance.

On Leadership, Or Doing With Style 

Doing the job with “style” is important. As the old song says, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” Look over what you have done, and recast it in a proper form.

By presenting it in its basic, fundamental form, it may have a larger range of application than was first thought possible.

You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it. Do not in the process try to make yourself indispensable; if you do, then you cannot be promoted, because you will be the only one who can do what you are now doing!

If you are to get recognition then others must use your results, adopt, adapt, extend, and elaborate them, and in the process give you credit for it.

It is a poor workman who blames his tools. I have always tried to adopt the philosophy that I will do the best I can in the given circumstances, and after it is all over maybe I will try to see to it that things are better next time.

Do you want to be a reformer of the trivia of your old organization or a creator of the new organization? Pick your choice, but be clear which path you are going down.

Selling Ideas

I must come to the topic of “selling” new ideas. You must master three things to do this (Chapter 5):

1. Giving formal presentations,
2. Producing written reports, and
3. Mastering the art of informal presentations as they happen to occur.

All three are essential—you must learn to sell your ideas, not by propaganda, but by force of clear presentation.

They are wrong; many a good idea has had to be rediscovered because it was not well presented the first time, years before! New ideas are automatically resisted by the establishment, and to some extent justly.

On Growth

Change does not mean progress, but progress requires change.

I strongly suggest you adopt the habit of privately critiquing all presentations you attend and also asking the opinions of others. Try to find those parts which you think are effective and which also can be adapted to your style.

I had to establish the reputation on my own time that I could do important work, and only then was I given the time to do it.

Similarly, only when you have developed your abilities will you generally get the freedom to practice your expertise, whatever you choose to make it, including the expertise of “universality,” as I did.

Along the way you will generally have superiors who are less able than you are, so do not complain, since how else could it be if you are going to end up at the top and they are not?

The chief gain is in the effort to change yourself, in the struggle with yourself, and it is less in the winning than you might expect. Yes, it is nice to end up where you wanted to be, but the person you are when you get there is far more important. I believe a life in which you do not try to extend yourself regularly is not worth living—but it is up to you to pick the goals you believe are worth striving for.

As Socrates (469– 399 BC) said, The unexamined life is not worth living.

It's Your Life

A plan for the future, I believe, is essential for success, otherwise you will drift like the drunken sailor through life and accomplish much less than you could otherwise have done.

It is your life you have to live, and I am only one of many possible guides you have for selecting and creating the style of the one life you have to live.

Michael: I thought about writing a reflection on this, but could not really do it. Hamming did it all.

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.