Tuesday, December 5, 2006

How to Do Great Work - Hamming's Take Part II

Continuing the series on Richard Hamming's "You and Your Research" and how it can help you become a fantastic worker and therefore increase your income. The full text of the speech (which you can read instead of these blog entries) is available as a .pdf here.

Accept ambiguity - Hamming says that "Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well." He says that doing great work requires a delicate balance between believing in the idea well enough to go forward, and doubting it enough to notice errors. I have often engaged in this balancing act while working on bigger long-term projects at work. What this says to me is that, if you have an idea and you get some data or a result that disputes it, don't let that anomaly crush your idea, rather let it refine the idea, or guide you to a new one.

Be emotionally committed - Hamming speaks of the power of being so committed to a problem that it works its way into your all-powerful subconscious, which has an amazing ability to solve problems. "...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." This quote speaks to two points. The first goes back to drive and dedication. Working hard on something for a long period of time will ensure that it becomes the center of attention. The second is the amazing ability of our subconscious. Your mind can do some amazing things while you sleep.

Work on important problems - "If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work." Hamming admits that this is an obvious point, but says he noticed in his experience that the average scientist spends all his time working on unimportant problems. From what I've seen, the average worker also spends all of his time working on unimportant problems. To a certain extent, you have control over what you're working on. If you don't have control over what you're working on at the moment, do a good job with the work you're given and you will eventually get that leeway.

Hamming also had what he called "Great Thoughts Time." Every Friday during and after lunch, he would only discuss great thoughts, such as "What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?" By setting aside a specific time to think about great thoughts, he made sure he didn't get caught up in the little things. I know that Bill Gates does something similar, but instead of Friday afternoons, he gets it all done in one "Think Week" every year. You can read about think week in this article. This think time also gives him a chance to take a step back and examine whether or not the stuff he is working so hard on every day is really the right stuff to be working on.

Work with the your door open - Hamming made this observation- "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 quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tengential in importance." This seemed counterintuitive to me at first. It seems like all of the interruptions I get throughout the day (unfortunately I work in a cubicle and don't have the ability to close my door) are nothing but disruptive. However, Hamming's point is that you have to know what's going on around you, and keeping yourself open to the occasional interruption is one way to do this. In the short run it seems like a pain in the butt, but over the long term, you get to learn things about your organization and the world around you. Important things.

Sell your work - Hamming spoke about how selling does not always come naturally to a scientist who makes a discovery. "The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it. But the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you've done, read it, and come back and say, 'Yes, that was good.'"

He says there are 3 important ways to sell: write clearly and well, give formal talks, and give informal talks. If you're like me, the idea of giving talks makes you shudder. It made Hamming shudder also, at first. But given some time and practice, he became much more comfortable making these talks (the equivalent of presentations people give at my company).

So that's pretty much everything I took away from reading the text of Hamming's speech. Hopefully you had a chance to read it and take away some ideas and/or inspiration from it. Let me know if I missed anything important, if you think I got anything wrong, or if you have another take on this.

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