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Richard Hamming’s 14 Lessons For Success (As A Scientist)

Richard Hamming’s 14 Lessons For Success (As A Scientist)

These lessons come from a talk that Richard Hamming gave at the end of his university course.  He gave this talk hundreds of times and found that it generated a wonderful discussion.

In the discussion, participants agreed that although these lessons come from science, they were general lessons for success in life.

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The Path to Fame:  Do Significant Things

“Once famous, it is very easy to remain famous.  Once not famous, it is very easy to remain not famous.”
-Richard Hamming

Before we dive into Richard’s wisdom, let me give my 20,000 mile high summary:  If you want to live a life that matters, it is necessary to do something outstanding, otherwise it will all be taken away from you.  This talk is not a talk about living a happy life, nor a helpful life.  Richard himself says: “I am really trying to get you to think about doing significant things…”

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Happy or Significant?

You can perfectly well decide that a happy, helpful, enjoy-the-little-things life is your preference.  If so, these lessons must be taken with a pinch of salt.  However, if you feel that doing significant things sounds like a good use of a life, these lessons are powerful.

Richard is old enough to be brutal in his comments and judgements.  He tells participants in his course that his aim is: “…to stick a knife in your back and give it a good twist and make you say at the end: ‘If Hamming could do it, why couldn’t I?'”

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The 14 Lessons for Success as a Scientist

Hamming’s 14 lessons for success (as a scientist, but I believe easily applicable to any profession) are:

  1. Work hard – the very able people work very hard all the time, they were at the problem all the time… “Einstein, Newton did not have incredibly high IQs… they worked hard”
  2. Accept ambiguity – If you believe too much you’ll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won’t get started. It requires a lovely balance.
  3. Work on important problems – If what you are working on is not important, and is not likely to lead to important things… why are you working on it?  If you don’t work on important problems, you are not going to become important.
  4. Plant acorns to grow oaks – You have to plant small things, you have to work on small problems that can grow into important problems.
  5. When opportunity appears pursue it fully – 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.
  6. Keep your door open sometimes, closed sometimes – the guy with the door permanently open tends to work on slightly the wrong problems.
  7. Do your job in such a way that others can build on it – “Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem”
  8. Even scientists have to sell (learn to speak well) – “the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you’ve done, read it, and come back and say, ‘Yes, that was good.'”
  9. Educate your bosses – It’s a hard job.  You can learn to get what you want in spite of top management. You have to learn to sell your ideas.  You have to learn to understand their priorities, politics and burning issues.
  10. How you dress matters – “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way”, “If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, ‘I am going to do it my way,’ you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble.”
  11. Be good to secretaries – “By taking the trouble to tell jokes to the secretaries and being a little friendly, I got superb secretarial help.”
  12. Let others fight the system (you can do great work or fight the system, not both) –  You must choose.  If you fight the system, you will spend all your energy fighting the system.  If you will learn to work with the system, you can go as far as the system will support you.  Many people get drawn into petty struggles with the system.
  13. Always look for positive not negative – “by changing the way I looked at it, I converted what was apparently a defect to an asset.”
  14. Know yourself, your weaknesses, your self-delusions (we all have self-delusions) – “You can tell other people all the alibis you want. I don’t mind. But to yourself try to be honest.”

Here’s Richard Hamming himself on video

And I’d like to thank Paul Graham, the founder of Y-Combinator, who originally shared Richard Hamming’s work with me.  The full text of Richard Hamming’s remarks is on his blog here.

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Featured photo credit: Association for Computing Machinery via amturing.acm.org

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Conor Neill

Professor of Leadership, President Vistage Spain

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Last Updated on October 13, 2020

How to Get Promoted When You Feel Stuck in Your Current Position

How to Get Promoted When You Feel Stuck in Your Current Position

Have you been stuck in the same position for too long and don’t really know how to get promoted and advance your career?

Feeling stuck could be caused by a variety of things:

  • Taking a job for the money
  • Staying with an employer that no longer aligns with your values
  • Realizing that you landed yourself in the wrong career
  • Not feeling valued or feeling underutilized
  • Taking a position without a full understanding of the role

There are many other reasons why you may be feeling this way, but let’s focus instead on learning what to do now in order to get unstuck and get promoted

One of the best ways to get promoted is by showing how you add value to your organization. Did you make money, save money, improve a process, or do some other amazing thing? How else might you demonstrate added value?

Let’s dive right in to how to get promoted when you feel stuck in your current position.

1. Be a Mentor

When I supervised students, I used to warm them — tongue in cheek, of course — about getting really good at their job.

“Be careful not to get too good at this, or you’ll never get to do anything else.”

This was my way of pestering them to take on additional challenges or think outside the box, but there is definitely some truth in doing something so well that your manager doesn’t trust anyone else to do it.

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This can get you stuck.

Jo Miller of Be Leaderly shares this insight on when your boss thinks you’re too valuable in your current job:

“Think back to a time when you really enjoyed your current role…You became known for doing your job so well that you built up some strong ‘personal brand’ equity, and people know you as the go-to-person for this particular job. That’s what we call ‘a good problem to have’: you did a really good job of building a positive perception about your suitability for the role, but you may have done ‘too’ good of a job!”[1]

With this in mind, how do you prove to your employer that you can add value by being promoted?

From Miller’s insight, she talks about building your personal brand and becoming known for doing a particular job well. So how can you link that work with a position or project that will earn you a promotion?

Consider leveraging your strengths and skills.

Let’s say that the project you do so well is hiring and training new entry-level employees. You have to post the job listing, read and review resumes, schedule interviews, make hiring decisions, and create the training schedules. These tasks require skills such as employee relations, onboarding, human resources software, performance management, teamwork, collaboration, customer service, and project management. That’s a serious amount of skills!

Are there any team members who can perform these skills? Try delegating and training some of your staff or colleagues to learn your job. There are a number of reasons why this is a good idea:

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  1. Cross-training helps in any situation in the event that there’s an extended illness and the main performer of a certain task is out for a while.
  2. As a mentor to a supervisee or colleague, you empower them to increase their job skills.
  3. You are already beginning to demonstrate that added value to your employer by encouraging your team or peers to learn your job and creating team players.

Now that you’ve trained others to do that work for which you have been so valued, you can see about re-requesting that promotion. Explain how you have saved the company money, encouraged employees to increase their skills, or reinvented that project of yours.

2. Work on Your Mindset

Another reason you may feel stuck in a position is explained through this quote:

“If you feel stuck at a job you used to love, it’s normally you—not the job—who needs to change. The position you got hired for is probably the exact same one you have now. But if you start to dread the work routine, you’re going to focus on the negatives.”[2]

In this situation, you should pursue a conversation with your supervisor and share your thoughts and feelings to help you learn how to get promoted. You can probably get some advice on how to rediscover the aspects of that job you enjoyed, and negotiate either some additional duties or a chance to move up.

Don’t express frustration. Express a desire for more.

Present your case and show your boss or supervisor that you want to be challenged, and you want to move up. You want more responsibility in order to continue moving the company forward. Focus on how you can do that with the skills you have and the positive mindset you’ve cultivated.

3. Improve Your Soft Skills

When was the last time you put focus and effort into upping your game with those soft skills? I’m talking about those seemingly intangible things that make you the experienced professional in your specific job skills[3].

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Use soft skills when learning how to get promoted.

    According to research, improving soft skills can boost productivity and retention 12 percent and deliver a 250 percent return on investment based on higher productivity and retention[4]. Those are only some of the benefits for both you and your employer when you want to learn how to get promoted.

    You can hone these skills and increase your chances of promotion into a leadership role by taking courses or seminars.

    Furthermore, you don’t necessarily need to request funding from your supervisor. There are dozens of online courses being presented by entrepreneurs and authors about these very subjects. Udemy and Creative Live both feature online courses at very reasonable prices. And some come with completion certificates for your portfolio!

    Another way to improve your soft skills is by connecting with an employee at your organization who has a position similar to the one you want.

    Express your desire to move up in the organization, and ask to shadow that person or see if you can sit in on some of their meetings. Offer to take that individual out for coffee and ask what their secret is! Take copious notes, and then immerse yourself in the learning.

    The key here is not to copy your new mentor. Rather, you want to observe, learn, and then adapt according to your strengths.

    4. Develop Your Strategy

    Do you even know specifically why you want to learn how to get promoted? Do you see a future at this company? Do you have a one-year, five-year, or ten-year plan for your career path? How often do you consider your “why” and insure that it aligns with your “what”?

    Sit down and make an old-fashioned pro and con list.

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    Write down every positive aspect of your current job and then every negative one. Which list is longer? Are there any themes present?

    Look at your lists and choose the most exciting pros and the most frustrating cons. Do those two pros make the cons worth it? If you can’t answer that question with a “yes,” then getting promoted at your current organization may not be what you really want[5].

    The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. —Mark Twain

    Here are some questions to ask yourself:

    • Why do you do what you do?
    • What thrills you about your current job role or career?
    • What does a great day look like?
    • What does success look and feel like beyond the paycheck?
    • How do you want to feel about your impact on the world when you retire?

    Define success to get promoted

      These questions would be great to reflect on in a journal or with your supervisor in your next one-on-one meeting. Or, bring it up with one of your work friends over coffee.

      Final Thoughts

      After considering all of these points and doing your best to learn how to get promoted, what you might find is that being stuck is your choice. Then, you can set yourself on the path of moving up where you are, or moving on to something different.

      Because sometimes the real promotion is finding your life’s purpose.

      More Tips on How to Get Promoted

      Featured photo credit: Razvan Chisu via unsplash.com

      Reference

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