Life is short for learning from your own mistakes; you need to play catch-up with people who tried new things. Most people do not document their learnings. The rare culturati group that notes their understandings in an essay easily trumps the large group, which keeps their learnings to themselves.
I have read many interesting essays. Some of them stuck with me — like fingers working with super glue. I revisit them often. When I reread them, I often see myself clinging to an awfully good section. In this live post, I will share some of those good nuggets.
Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.
— André Gide
Paul Graham, http://www.paulgraham.com/vb.html
Paul Graham is one of my favourite essayists. I’ve read a lot of his essays. This one in particular frequently makes me rethink about what is important in life and what is not. Eliminate the unnecessary, focus on the required.
Ok, so life actually is short. Does it make any difference to know that?
It has for me. It means arguments of the form “Life is too short for x” have great force. It’s not just a figure of speech to say that life is too short for something. It’s not just a synonym for annoying. If you find yourself thinking that life is too short for something, you should try to eliminate it if you can.
When I ask myself what I’ve found life is too short for, the word that pops into my head is “bullshit.” I realize that answer is somewhat tautological. It’s almost the definition of bullshit that it’s the stuff that life is too short for. And yet bullshit does have a distinctive character. There’s something fake about it. It’s the junk food of experience.
But while some amount of bullshit is inevitably forced on you, the bullshit that sneaks into your life by tricking you is no one’s fault but your own. And yet the bullshit you choose may be harder to eliminate than the bullshit that’s forced on you. Things that lure you into wasting your time have to be really good at tricking you. An example that will be familiar to a lot of people is arguing online. When someone contradicts you, they’re in a sense attacking you. Sometimes pretty overtly. Your instinct when attacked is to defend yourself. But like a lot of instincts, this one wasn’t designed for the world we now live in. Counterintuitive as it feels, it’s better most of the time not to defend yourself. Otherwise these people are literally taking your life.
Derek Sivers, https://sive.rs/kimo
The “defined” pace exists so that anyone could do it. If you are driven and realise there is no speed limit, you can travel faster, hence further in life.
After a one-minute welcome, we were sitting at the piano, analyzing the sheet music for a jazz standard. He was quickly explaining the chords based on the diatonic scale — how the dissonance of the tri-tone in the 5-chord with the flat-7 is what makes it want to resolve to the 1. Within a minute, he started quizzing me.
“If the 5-chord with the flat-7 has that tri-tone, then so does another flat-7 chord. Which one?”
“Uh… the flat-2 chord?”
“Right! So that’s a substitute chord. Any flat-7 chord can be substituted with the other flat-7 that shares the same tri-tone. So reharmonize all the chords you can in this chart. Go.”
The pace was intense, and I loved it. Finally, someone was challenging me — keeping me in over my head — encouraging and expecting me to pull myself up quickly. I was learning so fast, it felt like the adrenaline rush you get while playing a video game. He tossed every fact at me and made me prove that I got it.
Carl Lange, http://carl.flax.ie/dothingstellpeople.html
These are the only things you need to do to be successful. You can get away with just doing one of the two, but that’s rare, and usually someone else is doing the other part for you.
Then make something that you can talk about. Make something cool. Something interesting. Spend time on it. Go crazy. Even if it’s the least useful thing you’ve ever made, if you can talk about it, make it. This part is easy, because you’re doing something you think is cool, and interesting, and if it’s useless, great, because you won’t need to support it much either!
You would not believe how much opportunity is out there for those who do things and tell people. It’s how you travel the entreprenurial landscape. You do something interesting and you tell everyone about it.
Richard Hamming, http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html
This is probably the gem of this list, especially at this point of my life when I’m trying to find what is a good research. If you’re serious about your career, you should check it out. You can also watch the talk here: https://www.youtube.com/1
Let me start not logically, but psychologically. I find that the major objection is that people think great science is done by luck. It’s all a matter of luck. Well, consider Einstein. Note how many different things he did that were good. Was it all luck? Wasn’t it a little too repetitive? Consider Shannon. He didn’t do just information theory. Several years before, he did some other good things and some which are still locked up in the security of cryptography. He did many good things.
So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.
For example, when I came to Bell Labs, I shared an office for a while with Shannon. At the same time he was doing information theory, I was doing coding theory. It is suspicious that the two of us did it at the same place and at the same time — it was in the atmosphere. And you can say, “Yes, it was luck.” On the other hand you can say, “But why of all the people in Bell Labs then were those the two who did it?” Yes, it is partly luck, and partly it is the prepared mind; but “partly” is the other thing I’m going to talk about.
One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them. For example, Einstein, somewhere around 12 or 14, asked himself the question, “What would a light wave look like if I went with the velocity of light to look at it?”
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. Courage is one of the things that Shannon had supremely. You have only to think of his major theorem. He wants to create a method of coding, but he doesn’t know what to do so he makes a random code. Then he is stuck. And then he asks the impossible question, “What would the average random code do?” He then proves that the average code is arbitrarily good, and that therefore there must be at least one good code. Who but a man of infinite courage could have dared to think those thoughts? That is the characteristic of great scientists; they have courage. They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.
Age is another factor which the physicists particularly worry about. They always are saying that you have got to do it when you are young or you will never do it. Einstein did things very early, and all the quantum mechanic fellows were disgustingly young when they did their best work. Most mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and astrophysicists do what we consider their best work when they are young.
You may find yourself as I saw Brattain when he got a Nobel Prize. The day the prize was announced we all assembled in Arnold Auditorium; all three winners got up and made speeches. The third one, Brattain, practically with tears in his eyes, said, “I know about this Nobel-Prize effect and I am not going to let it affect me; I am going to remain good old Walter Brattain.” Well I said to myself, “That is nice.” But in a few weeks I saw it was affecting him. Now he could only work on great problems.
I think that if you look carefully you will see that often the great scientists, by turning the problem around a bit, changed a defect to an asset. For example, many scientists when they found they couldn’t do a problem finally began to study why not. They then turned it around the other way and said, “But of course, this is what it is” and got an important result. So ideal working conditions are very strange. The ones you want aren’t always the best ones for you.
I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?" He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years." I simply slunk out of the office!
What Bode was saying was this: 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 — it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.
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.
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. Those are often the great contributions.
Now again, emotional commitment is not enough. It is a necessary condition apparently. And I think I can tell you the reason why. Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, “creativity comes out of your subconscious.” Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of 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.
Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can’t say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” I wasn’t welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with!
Let me warn you, “important problem” must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn’t work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important.
Along those lines at some urging from John Tukey and others, I finally adopted what I called “Great Thoughts Time.” When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: “What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?”, “How will computers change science?”
Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. 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 know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.
I was doing the required integration by a rather crummy method, to say the least, but I was getting the answer. And I realized that in truth the problem was not just to get the answer; it was to demonstrate for the first time, and beyond question, that I could beat the analog computer on its own ground with a digital machine. I reworked the method of solution, created a theory which was nice and elegant, and changed the way we computed the answer; the results were no different.
The published report had an elegant method which was later known for years as “Hamming’s Method of Integrating Differential Equations.” It is somewhat obsolete now, but for a while it was a very good method. By changing the problem slightly, I did important work rather than trivial work.
You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it, so they will indeed say, “Yes, I’ve stood on so and so’s shoulders and I saw further.” The essence of science is cumulative. By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work.
To end this part, I’ll remind you, “It is a poor workman who blames his tools — the good man gets on with the job, given what he’s got, and gets the best answer he can.”
There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks.
While going to meetings I had already been studying why some papers are remembered and most are not. The technical person wants to give a highly limited technical talk. Most of the time the audience wants a broad general talk and wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give. As a result, many talks are ineffective. The speaker names a topic and suddenly plunges into the details he’s solved. Few people in the audience may follow. You should paint a general picture to say why it’s important, and then slowly give a sketch of what was done. Then a larger number of people will say, “Yes, Joe has done that,” or “Mary has done that; I really see where it is; yes, Mary really gave a good talk; I understand what Mary has done.”
Well I now come down to the topic, “Is the effort to be a great scientist worth it?” To answer this, you must ask people. When you get beyond their modesty, most people will say, “Yes, doing really first-class work, and knowing it, is as good as wine, women and song put together,” or if it’s a woman she says, “It is as good as wine, men and song put together."
Well, one of the reasons is drive and commitment. The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day. They don’t have the deep commitment that is apparently necessary for really first-class work. They turn out lots of good work, but we were talking, remember, about first-class work.
Good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer. It has a lot, if you learn how to use it. It takes patience, but you can learn how to use the system pretty well, and you can learn how to get around it. After all, if you want a decision ‘No’, you just go to your boss and get a ‘No’ easy. If you want to do something, don’t ask, do it. Present him with an accomplished fact. Don’t give him a chance to tell you ‘No’.
By taking the trouble to tell jokes to the secretaries and being a little friendly, I got superb secretarial help.
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. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.
On the other hand, we can’t always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. I have observed almost all scientists enjoy a certain amount of twitting the system for the sheer love of it.
Now self-delusion in humans is very, very common. There are innumerable ways of you changing a thing and kidding yourself and making it look some other way. When you ask, “Why didn’t you do such and such,” the person has a thousand alibis. If you look at the history of science, usually these days there are ten people right there ready, and we pay off for the person who is there first. The other nine fellows say, “Well, I had the idea but I didn’t do it and so on and so on.” There are so many alibis. Why weren’t you first? Why didn’t you do it right? Don’t try an alibi.
This is a live blog and is expected to be updated frequently.
The content in video is slightly different from the essay. Like Hamming says in the video, he has delivered this talk at many places by various names. ↩︎