Monday, December 4, 2006

How to Do Great Work - Hamming's Take

I read widely and often find pieces of personal finance inspiration in fields outside of finance.

One of my favorite non-finance bits of inspiration is a transcription of a speech given by Richard Hamming, a mathematician who was highly respected in the fields of computer science and telecommunications. He was one of those scientists whose research led to a number of things being named after him: Hamming code, Hamming matrix, the Hamming window, Hamming numbers etc... Needless to say, he was one of the greats, and made contributions that I don't even pretend to understand (not being a scientist myself), but I know earned him a great deal of respect.

The title of this particular speech was "You and Your Research" and in the talk, he attempted to give his answer to the question "Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?"

He then goes into what separates great scientists from the average scientist, and I think the lessons apply to separating great anythings from average anythings. Financial analysts, marketers, human resources people etc...

Being great at what you do at work goes a long way towards increasing your income, which is without a doubt the most important thing you need to do if you want to become wealthier than you are today. When you go to your boss for a review at the end of the year, if you can put a record of great accomplishments in front of him, you are going to make it easy for him to offer you a raise, or risk losing you.

I'm going to break out what I learned from reading this document over the next couple of posts because there was just too much good insight in there to limit it to one. I highly recommend you read the entire text here (direct link to a .pdf document at

So what's the secret to setting yourself apart from the pack?

It's not all luck - Hamming argues that some people don't even set out to do great work, because they believe all of the great breakthroughs were the result of luck. He contradicts this thinking by giving examples of scientists who did a number of things in their lifetimes and says that luck might have played a part in their accomplishments, but, quoting Pasteur, concludes that "luck favors the prepared mind."

It takes courage - Hamming says that courage is another thing that distinguishes great scientists. He says "Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can." I notice this a lot in my line of work. The people who do better work in finance are the people who don't hide when they come across something they don't understand. They believe that they can understand it, and they work to do so. Just because something at work is complex, does not mean you cannot figure it out and do it. If you hide from big words and difficult tasks, someone else is going to do them and get paid for them as well.

It does not take ideal working conditions - "What most people think are the best working conditions, are not," Hamming said. This wasn't a particularly great insight to me. I remember the book "On Writing" where Stephen King said he wrote his first few novels in a cramped closet in the back of a laundromat. Apple Computer started in a garage...the list goes on and on. You don't need the ideal working conditions to do great things, so stop complaining about your quirky mouse, your squeaky chair, and your coworker who is always making personal phone calls.

It takes drive - Paraphrasing a colleague, Hamming said that "Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity"

I think that is worth reading again. Go back and let that sink in. If you're the type of person who does this, print it out and post it someplace where you can see it. I think this quote speaks to those of us who get caught up reading sports stories at work, or not putting in the hours we need to when we need to. Quite simply you have to work hard in order to do great things.

One other thing he adds to this topic is the fact that you must intelligently apply your drive. As hard as you might be working, if you aren't working on the right thing, you are just spinning your wheels. Sometimes it takes a great deal of awareness to be sure you're working in the right way on the right thing because you can get caught up in the moment. In the next post I'll get into what I think Hamming's solution for this particular problem is... it involves setting aside time for thinking some form of what he calls "Great Thoughts."

1 comment:

ispf said...

Nice post. I was on a short break at work when I started browsing, but realised while reading this post that it's way past the time to get back to work. So, I will head back now, but promise to return during my next break :) Its good be informed (my excuse for browsing :), but its more important to "keep an eye on the ball". Thanks for the reminder!