Hamming Was Right

Posted on October 24, 2008, in advice, imported

I’m clearing out some unfinished posts I have. Here are two points that struck a cord with me from a speech by Richard Hamming.

From You and your research.

I think this first bit is good advice for all of us. Instead of summing it up, I’ll just let you read it the way Hamming intended it to be said:

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.” And I suggest that by altering the problem, by looking at the thing differently, you can make a great deal of difference in your final productivity because you can either do it in such a fashion that people can indeed build on what you’ve done, or you can do it in such a fashion that the next person has to essentially duplicate again what you’ve done. It isn’t just a matter of the job, it’s the way you write the report, the way you write the paper, the whole attitude. It’s just as easy to do a broad, general job as one very special case. And it’s much more satisfying and rewarding!

This next bit is very personally humbling. I’ve lost track of the number of times in my life when I’ve found myself as the “second-rate fellow” he describes below. For me it often comes up in dealing with things that I label as “political”. I don’t mean Republicans versus Democrats, but by political I mean things which matter but are related to policy not theory or technical details.

Many a second-rate fellow gets caught up in some little twitting of the system, and carries it through to warfare. He expends his energy in a foolish project. Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody’s has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be? Be clear, when you fight the system and struggle with it, what you are doing, how far to go out of amusement, and how much to waste your effort fighting the system. My advice is to let somebody else do it and you get on with becoming a first-class scientist. Very few of you have the ability to both reform the system and become a first-class scientist.

Hamming is absolutely right. If you want to be good at a particular thing, don’t fight your battles else where. Be balanced, objective and reasonable. Bark less and wag more :)

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