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Advice from Richard Hamming's "You and Your Research"

svemaraju profile image Srikanth Updated on ・4 min read

This is one of those things when I first saw, I asked myself why couldn't I have watched this earlier. I really can't tell if it would have made any difference had I watched this lecture 10 years ago, but I cannot stop myself from wondering about it.

Richard Hamming was a mathematician who has worked on numerous interesting problems. I came to know about him when I read about Hamming Code in my engineering course. This blog post is more of a 'dumping my thoughts' sort of thing. If you have come across this blog post by some chance, and have not yet been lucky enough to listen to the Hamming's lecture then please do it!

Link to the lecture -- You and Your Research

If you happen to like it, I also recommend watching his lecture on Creativity.

Notes from Hamming’s Lecture: -

  • When you become famous, it is easier to remain famous.
  • Luck favors the prepared mind. - ‘There is luck and there isn’t’. You prepare yourself for luck I.e. you prepare yourself for opportunities.
  • Working hard all the time — that is what makes the difference. It is simple math, reducing it to the number of hours you put it. Doesn’t matter if you’re not the smartest person, put in the hard work that not many people would do and you will succeed.
  • Do something significant in life (Significant according to your idea of significance.). ‘If what you’re working on is not important, then why are you working on them?’ — You cannot always work on important problems, you will end up doing nothing. Hamming puts it as ‘You have to plant little acorns, that will grow into mighty oak trees.’ Work on problems which can become important and matter. (Of course, it is not easy to know what can become important.)
  • Working in isolation v/s interact with others about your work. Be receptive to new ideas. Know when to give up.
  • Surround yourself with the right people who can complement your skills. Very important to have peers who can motivate you when you don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes you will have to go out of your usual circle to find people who can help you advance your work.
  • You can achieve success by either changing the problem you’re trying to solve or more importantly identifying the underlying problem.
  • Study your successes, more important than studying failures. This is particularly interesting to me, as whenever something works there is a natural tendency to move on to the next one, especially if something is working better than expected. ’Studying successes is a very good way of forming your own style.’
  • Set aside time for reflection or as Hamming puts it ‘Great Thoughts’ — what are you doing? What you should be doing in the coming days/weeks? What’s the nature of work happening in your field?
  • Tolerance of ambiguity — The ability to having the belief and also being skeptical about the problem you are trying to solve.
  • ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’. Style matters.
  • The need to communicate well both orally and in written form. Communicate orally informal and casual scenarios, wherever you can reach people the best. How to learn? Every time you watch a talk, you not only listen to what is being said but also how good or not good. Why is a talk effective or ineffective. What aspects of the speaker can you adapt?

Some personal reflections:

  • I have never been a person who comes of as confident. The conventional view on confidence is you just have to ‘Be Confident’ ‘Do it confidently’ ‘Talk confidently’, I have tried those but was never able to pull it off. The only place where I feel truly confident is at work, where I am in control more or less. Watching Hamming’s lecture made me appreciate this, you cannot just be confident there’s a process of becoming confident in yourself, and there’s a whole lot of work you’ve to put in to reach there. (Of course, this is not true for everyone, some people act confident seamlessly, and I envy them.)
  • On working as hard you can, Hamming tells an anecdote when he questions one of his boss about someone ‘How can anybody my age know as much as he does.’. His boss responds — ‘Hamming you’d be surprised how much you’d know if you worked as hard he does.’ This is so much relatable to me, especially with the internet. I often come across people who are of my age or even younger, and are doing terrific work. It always makes me think, I may not be able to work hard as some people out there, but there is so much more I could be doing, that I am not.
  • 'If you are going to have progress, there has to be change. Change does not mean progress. But progress requires change.' This quote really got through me. It does have a simple meaning, but the way Hamming makes this point is really effective. I want to make progress, but I barely change in terms of things I do to achieve it. If I have to begin making progress in learning new things or completing those side projects, I have to change. There is something I notice about myself, I want change in my life but I really hate the transition whenever it happens.

Please share your thoughts here or start a conversation with me on twitter @sri_kanth 🙂

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