“knowledge and productivity are like compound interest”

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Richard Hamming was a mathematician and computer programmer who worked for 30 years at Bell Laboratories. In 1985, he gave a talk called “You and Your Research” in which he shared insights from his career doing mathematics research and, at Bell Laboratories, working near scientists at the leading edge of their field in math, physics, and chemistry*. Hamming’s talk is aimed at the researcher at the beginning of their career, and really any scientist who is interested in taking their work from “good” to “truly outstanding.” Although it keeps focus on research on fundamental math and science problems, Hamming notes, “Outstanding work is characterized very much the same way in most fields.”

Hamming’s talk is packed with clear insights about all sorts of things, from the importance of surrounding yourself with sharp people, the trade-off between pushing to reform bureaucracies and getting your own work done, aiming at the hardest problems in your field, to the ego issues that prevent people from doing their best work. I want to highlight a couple—although I could have chosen five or ten other ideas to focus on just as well.

we are socialized to value luck over work

In order to [reach] you individually […] I have to get you to drop modesty and say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do first-class work.” Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You’re not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance.

I initially bumped on the harshness of Hamming’s phrasing, mistaking it for contempt. As I read further, I realized that Hamming wasn’t making a value judgement on those who are not interested in doing the extraordinary work that Hamming is talking about, merely noting that the wider society does not value the kind of sacrifices and trade-offs that come with choosing ambitious work. Most of the stories that our society tells about people who do extraordinary work tend not to focus very much on the large amounts of time and focus invested in the work in favor of easier-to-dramatize storytelling devices like divine favor, transformational episode, or divine intervention.

(One red-hot example of this is the Netflix show Queen’s Gambit, which basically turns a story of a chess prodigy into a superhero origin story. Her progression from not knowing how all of the pieces move to a level of mastery such that she only loses two games in the whole show takes place in a single scene.)

A side effect of over-representing the role of luck in great work is that it imputes a kind of arrogance to those who are interested in pursuing that kind of work, as though they were saying not “I want to do great work” but “I’m a special person who can do great work.” Thinking of yourself as special is not a popular attitude to take in American society, but it’s a barrier to ambition that is completely artificial.

there is no quality time without a quantity of time

Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outperform the former.

The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunity—it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give a rate, but it is a very high rate.

Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

One idea that I encounter over and over in many domains (mastering an instrument and parenting are coming to mind) is the idea that, while not all time spent has the same value, the idea that a small amount of high-quality time can be a shortcut for large quantities of time is a delusion. In a cultural context in which we are pressured to monetize every spare moment and talent and in which economic pressure seems to never stop increasing, that delusion is very attractive. There is just no pathway to mastery of any field that skips investing lots and lots and lots of time and attention.

I felt a little implicated by this remark. I am well aware that I have things in my life that are “time vampires,” that keep me from following my curiosity and learning to its fullest potential. I feel very much that my challenge at this point in my life is learning how not to chase every rabbit, how to continue to focus, and preserve the conditions where my mind can do its best noticing and best synthesis.

That’s all for today. I hope you’ll check out the rest of the talk if any of this resonates.

*This talk was brought to my attention by Spencer Wright, in his excellent newsletter called The Prepared about various news, problems, and cool facts relating to physical manufacturing. Even though I have nothing to do with that field, I have learned so much about what is coming down the line in the coming decades as the internet and the build environment will continue to converge. Wright wrote his own post about the Hamming talk on his personal blog.

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