One's Values and One's Work

Saturday, September 06, 2008

This article, being extremely good, can't wait for me to blog it next week -- and being extremely long, it's better recommended over a weekend anyway. The "article" is really a speech delivered over two decades ago by the mathematician Richard Hamming to an audience of fellow scientists, followed by a transcript of the Q&A. Its title is "You and Your Research".

Don't be fooled by the audience or the subject matter. The author's excellent advice on knowing oneself -- one's goals, one's strengths and weaknesses, and how one changes over time -- makes it worthwhile for anyone, and required reading for anyone with an intellectual career. I have never seen such a good (although implicit) grasp of the principle that values are hierarchical applied directly to the question of how to perform one's work.

An excerpt can't do this justice, but I'll excerpt anyway:

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! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, "Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research," he says, "but I think it was well worthwhile." And I said, "Thank you Dave," and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, "What are the important problems in my field?"
Elsewhere in his talk, Hamming outlines how to determine whether a question is important, the importance of being clear about what you want, and how the broadness or narrowness of one's goals can affect whether one ought to consider a managerial role. If you can't read this soon, do yourself a favor and bookmark the lecture. And don't neglect to read the Q&A at the end.

My thanks go to Paul Graham for posting this on his site. I have other things to do today, but I don't regret spending big chunks of yesterday evening and this morning reading this.


-- CAV


Adam Reed said...

Thank you for noticing this article and posting a link. Hamming was near the top of my list of coworker-heroes at Bell Labs. Eight years later I still miss that place.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're quite welcome!

And thank you, incidentally, for introducing me indirectly to your blog, which I look forward to visiting in the future.

And, more so, for making the extra effort to work on a Big Problem that is unfortunately becoming common to almost all careers.