I've been frustrated lately with the quality and quantity of my work. I haven't produced as much here at Get Rich Slowly as I would like — due largely to Fincon and its aftermath (calls and meetings, calls and meetings) — and what work I have produced isn't as good as I would like. This lack of productivity makes me agitated, which makes me even less productive because I'm not in a good place mentally. It's a vicious circle.
How nice, then, to rediscover the transcript of a 30-year-old talk from Richard Hamming, a former math and computer professor and researcher. (Hamming was also part of the team that worked on the Manhattan Project during World War Two.) Hamming titled his talk, which he presented on 07 March 1986, “You and Your Research,” but his actual subject was how to do great work.
I re-read the transcript this morning while I was once more feeling exasperated with how little time I've had for writing lately. (For me, writing is my yardstick for productivity. It doesn't matter how much other work I've been doing behind the scenes here; if I'm not publishing, I'm not happy.) Although this talk discusses the work of researchers and scientists, I believe that much of the advice applies to me and to writing. I suspect that many of you will find its lessons valuable too.
It's a long talk, though. In order to make it more palatable — and in order to help me remember more of this material — I'm going to summarize Hamming's message. I hope you find it useful.
What Greatness Isn't
Most people think greatness is achieved by luck, Hamming says. They're wrong.
Yes, great ideas and achievements all contain elements of chance, but hard work and preparation are the necessary groundwork to bring about this luck. “Luck favors the prepared mind,” Pasteur once said. And the brash Newton argued that, “If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.”
Hamming would agree that luck is no accident. Unexpected good things are more likely to happen when you do the work needed create favorable conditions for them.
Nor is greatness achieved solely by genius. Sure, there have been many brilliant scientists. But there's been more great work done by folks who were less gifted yet willing to put in the time and effort to achieve the results.
Finally, it's never too late to be great. Yes, many researchers did their best work when they were young. But plenty of others produced greatness later in life, after they'd had a chance to accumulate knowledge and experience.
So, if luck and youth and brains aren't pre-requisites for great work, what is necessary? Let's take a look. [Read more…]