Notes on You and Your Research by Richard Hamming


You and Your Research is a talk given by Richard Hamming about how to navigate once’s career. It’s packed with insight and is on the short list of essays I feel like I should return to every couple of years.

Some of the perspectives that resonated with me:

  • The cost of fighting the system: “By realizing you have to use the system and studying how to get the system to do your work, you learn how to adapt the system to your desires. Or you can fight it steadily, as a small undeclared war, for the whole of your life.” Talk about something I needed to internalize when I was 20.

  • The role of courage in doing great work. A recurring theme is that you have to believe you are capable of solving important problems and work with the intention of solving them. This is definitely something I’ve felt at companies where I’ve worked; some places there is an unsaid feeling that certain things are beyond us as a company where the more successful places I’ve worked (Stripe, YouTube) felt like anything was possible and invited people to believe that.

  • The humility required to do great work repeatedly. As you become more successful, it becomes harder to work on small problems because you’re now a big person who does big things; but major breakthroughs usually start in small places. This is another theme I’ve felt places where I’ve worked. There’s something interesting, but it’s not yet at scale yet, so it gets ignored, the problem being that when it does scale, you’re too late to make an impact.

  • The role of framing ones work. You should actively be reframing your work towards what matters; even mundane tasks can be elevated if you think about what makes them mundane or where they fit in the greater context of the project or the company. Similarly, you can also use your weaknesses to uncover opportunities to do great work as other people likely share those weaknesses, so if you find a way to make this task easy for them, then you’ve done something substantial.

  • The compounding impact of effort. “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability, one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former.” Even more important when you consider the importance of picking the problems you work on (vs. just adding hours to the day).

  • Mapping the field. To do truly great work, you need to have a mental map of your field, what the great unsolved problems are, which ones on the brink of being solvable. These are the “important problems”; you also want to have ideas on likely paths for solving them. This helps you notice when there is an opportunity to step in. As an example, time travel isn’t an important problem because there isn’t a “line of attack”, but AGI is because we do.

  • Find the flaws. Almost a corollary of the previous note, you need to have a sense for where current accepted wisdom is flawed or incomplete (in Hammings words, what are the faults in the current theory). This requires tolerance of ambiguity — you accept the current wisdom but also poke at it

  • Time to think. You should be reserving time to think about big problems and big solutions to those problems. Hamming reserved Friday afternoons for “big thoughts”.

  • Be opportunistic. When an opportunity to solve an important problem opens up, drop everything to go after it.

  • Make room for serendipity Keep your door open to others.

  • Presentation and selling matters; you have to be able to convince other people of your ideas, which requires meeting those people where they are.

  • The impact of WW2 on ingenuity. He notes, speaking about WW2: “The war forced them into an uncomfortable situation and forced them to have an open mind, and then they drafted off of that. But the current generation doesn’t have that.” This is a different post, but I’ve seen this theme in a couple of different things I’ve read where the generation that lives through the effort to win WW2 learns certain habits about how to work that they struggle to verbalize. There seems to be a practicality, especially around the little details that make the difference between a successful project and a failure, a desire to see up close and do all of the steps oneself, an simplicity of communication and expectation that others will contribute to the group.