Plant Acorns. Grow Oaks.

This post is inspired by a talk “You and your research” by Richard Hamming.

One life to live

Richard Hamming

“Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has one life to live. Even if you believe in reincarnation it doesn’t do you any good from one life to the next! Why shouldn’t you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant? I’m not going to define it – you know what I mean.” Richard Hamming speaking to Bellcore, 7 March, 1986.

My summary of Hamming’s lessons for success (as a scientist, but I believe easily applicable to any profession) are:

Hammings 13 Lessons for Success

  • Work hard
  • Accept ambiguity
  • Work on important problems
  • Plant acorns to grow oaks
  • When opportunity appears pursue it fully
  • Keep your door open sometimes, closed sometimes
  • Do your job in such a way that others can build on it
  • Even scientists have to sell (learn to speak well)
  • Educate your bosses
  • How you dress matters
  • Be good to secretaries
  • Let others fight the system (you can do great work or fight the system, not both)
  • Always look for positive not negative
  • Know yourself, your weaknesses, your self-delusions (we all have self-delusions)

All the talent, but don’t deliver

Richard Hamming says about people who have greatness within their grasp but don’t succeed:

  1. they don’t work on important problems (Bad work, good work, great work)
  2. they don’t become emotionally involved,
  3. they don’t try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and
  4. they keep giving themselves alibis why they don’t. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck.

How success and fame can ruin you

“When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you.”

How to keep it going for life

“Somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field. Thus, I shifted from numerical analysis, to hardware, to software, and so on, periodically, because you tend to use up your ideas. When you go to a new field, you have to start over as a baby. You are no longer the big mukity muk and you can start back there and you can start planting those acorns which will become the giant oaks.”

“It is better to solve the right problem the wrong way than to solve the wrong problem the right way.”

Thanks to Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator for sharing this talk on his blog.  The full text of the talk is here.

What do you think?

Are you planting acorns?  Are you fighting the system? or doing great work?  Is it true that you cannot do both?  (sometimes the system is wrong…  what should I do?)  Join the discussion here.

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