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Talk: You and your research

  • In this talk, Hamming discusses his successes and what he’s learnt over his career. To start, he talks about the nature of success itself. He reasons that success is easy to maintain but hard to get. It is far easier to succeed when you’re successful than when you’re not. Well, how do you be successful? Do outstanding things he says. Essentially, it’s hard to be successful without some assymetric risk taking.
  • On the role of luck, he states, as many before him, that luck favors the prepared mind. It is not enough to be lucky, he says, you have to be able to take advantage of it. In a way, receptiveness to positive black swans is not always passive. In many situations, you have to play an active part in riding the positive black swan.

Another topic he touches on is the bare fearlessness you need to execute in the real world. “I ain’t scared of nuthin” he quotes Shannon, a man he clearly admires. Audacity and fearlessness are clearly attributes you need to get things done. Fear will constrain you otherwise.

  • Hamming then asks “If what you’re working on is not important, then why are you working on it?”. This question forces us to be active participants in life and not just passively live through life. It’s important to work on the right problems and to be able to do that. As he later says, “The person who works on the right problem at the right time in the right way wins.”. Nothing else counts. Fortunately, there are “A million races being run”. It depends on us to work on the right problems. Thus this also means that we need to take time to decide the right problems to work on. In his case, it was Friday afternoons.
  • The most important problems are also decided by whether they can be attacked, argues Hamming. This again, relates to the working on the right problem.
  • He stresses on the need for a good work ethic. “Whatever you do, do it well” he says1.
  • Relentlessly question the problem you’re working on. Sometimes what happens to be a defect may turn out to be an asset. This often means solving/seeing something that many people missed, A key ingredient of great men according to Hamming2.
  • On communication, he says that it’s equally important to be able to communicate your ideas through multiple channels. Written, Oral, and Casual. This can be improved by using the Feynman technique as well as knowing your audience. Ultimately, mass communication inevitably involves vulnerability. It cannot be avoided and the best defense I’ve found is to grow a thicker skin.
  • On dealing with systems and people, he argues that first and foremost, it’s important not to blame the system. You constantly want to keep an open mind and be receptive to other ideas. Interacting with people and ideas is an assymetric risk and you want more of that.
  • Finally, he talks about greatness. All progress requires change and it is foolish to expect otherwise.

  1. See also: ownership and attention to detail↩︎

  2. See also: Inversion↩︎