The Wrong Way to be Successful

I came across this blog post by Greg McKeown and, while I disagree with most of it, it reminded me of a transcript of a speech by Richard Hamming that I really ought to go back and read more often.

Greg McKeown advocates a disciplined elimination of clutter, along the lines of this:

First, use more extreme criteria… If we ask, “Do I absolutely love this?” then we will be able to eliminate the clutter and have space for something better. We can do the same with our career choices.

Right idea, but discarding a career path isn’t “eliminating clutter”… it’s an overhaul of your life. Besides, clutter isn’t all bad. It leaves options on the table. If you eliminate all clutter, then decide you want to toss out your career, what are you left with?

And that brings us to Richard Hamming’s 1986 talk, “You and Your Research”. One excerpt:

When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? 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.

Here’s another great quote:

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.

There is a lot of good stuff in his talk, and I can’t just paste the whole damn thing right here, so I’ll just leave this link.

You and Your Research –Richard Hamming

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