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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 June 19, 2019

8 Life-Changing Skills You Can Learn in Less Than 6 Months

8 Life-Changing Skills You Can Learn in Less Than 6 Months

Everyone has the ability to learn a life-changing skill not just this year, but in the next 6 months.

By life-changing, I mean something that can have a positive impact in your life moving forward, even if it’s something you can’t envision today. Certain skills we can immediately reap the benefits of, while others will be life-changing when we least expect it.

In this article, we’ll share 8 life-changing skills you can learn in 6 months, where you can learn them, and how you can get started today.

1. Speed reading

Bill Gates has been known to state that if he had one superpower, it would be the ability to read faster. What Bill and the rest of the mega-successful understand is that knowledge is power. The ability to process information faster from books, articles, and reports is what will help us learn faster, and therefore improve each aspect of our life faster as well.

Where you can start learning: Speed reading courses are becoming more popular, as more people realize how important it is with the limited time we have. You can check out free courses like Read Speeder or you can start learning how to use Spritzlet, which allows you to speed read articles online with a browser extension.

2. Public speaking

Research shows that people fear public speaking more than death itself. There’s something terrifying about being in front of dozens or hundreds of people, and exposing yourself completely. It’s when you’re most vulnerable, but learning how to public speak is a life-changer.

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Warren Buffett has given advice to recent graduates that the number one skill you can have to succeed is public speaking skills. Everything from communication, confidence, and sales is developed when you develop your public speaking skills.

Where you can start learning: Luckily, there are great communities out there like Toastmasters that organize local meetups all around the world. You’ll find amazing public speakers that are looking to get to the next level to beginners that are just getting started. Check out Toastmasters’ website here.

3. Spanish

As the third most spoken language in the world, the ability to speak Spanish will allow you to reach over 500M people around the world. No matter where you live, knowing how to speak Spanish is becoming increasingly more important, with the Hispanic population and economy spreading quickly worldwide. If you’re living in the US, this is even more important, with over 30% of the population being Hispanic.

Spanish is also on this list, because it’s one of the easiest languages to learn. Sure, Mandarin is an important language to learn, but it’s an incredibly difficult one to learn. If we were to measure the level of importance and the time to learn for all the languages available, Spanish would make it to the top of the list.

One of the biggest reasons why people never reach fluency in any foreign language is: using the wrong method, and lack of time.

It turns out that humans retain only 5% of what we learn from lectures, 20% of what we learn from apps (visual cues), and 90% of what we learn from immediate immersion. Yet, how do 90% of learn a new foreign language? Language schools (lectures), books, Duolingo (apps), etc that don’t provide the real-life immersion required for our brains to learn faster.

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Where to get started: If you want the most effective way to learn a language, learning from real-life interactions is the best way to do it. There are great websites like Rype, which offers Spanish coaching for busy people, solving the issue of lack of time and bringing real-life immersion to your screen. With Rype, you can book as many lessons as you want, at any time of the day, any day of the week, allowing you to fit it into your schedule, no matter how busy you are.

4. Accounting

If you’re looking to get into business, accounting is one of the core fundamentals you’ll need to succeed. While you don’t need to be an expert, you definitely should understand the basics.

This skill can also be used to manage your personal finances, to meet your financial goals, and having more control over your life.

Where to get started learning: If you didn’t learn accounting in school, no worries. You can either teach yourself using books, or check out free accounting courses online.

5. Microsoft Excel

Most people reading this probably have a basic understanding of Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. While this is a good start, there are so many powerful functionalities that are hidden, which could make your life a lot easier.

Excel is also a great asset to have whenever you’re looking for a job, as many corporations rely on Excel to organize and manage multiple parts of the business.

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Where to get started learning: With the popularity of Excel, you can find tons of free resources and videos online to learn. Check out Excel Exposure, Lynda, and Excel with Business.

6. Blogging/Vlogging

Blogging is a powerful tool if you want to spread your ideas, build your brand, or grow your business. Since it was introduced, blogging has taken on a life of its own, and today there are ~2M blog posts being written on a daily basis.

Where to get started learning: Anyone can start blogging today. All you need is a content-management system like WordPress, which is completely free. Personally, I think the best way to start learning how to blog is to just start writing. There are techniques you can learn on how to promote your blog, but the best way to grow your blog is to write great content.

7. Weight training

Yes, weight training is a skill. It’s not as advanced as learning how to code, nor will it take as long as learning a new language, if you just want to learn the basics.

We’re not promising that you’ll get a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you will see much faster results for whatever goal you have, just by understanding how to workout properly. And of course, when you’re dealing with an activity that involves physical strain, you’ll always want to caution yourself.

Where to get started learning: There are amazing body builders that are sharing all of their secrets for free on Youtube. You can check out Bodybuilding.com’s Youtube channel to get started.

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8. Photo and video editing

In the digital world that we live in, from Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook, there is no avoiding photos and videos. In fact, social media has increasingly gone away from text sharing and almost everything to photo and video editing.

Where to get started learning: For photo editing, you can use Photoshop. For video editing, you can use iMovie or Final Cut Pro. Keep in mind, there are dozens of editing software tools for video and photo editing, but what’s more important are your editing skills, not the tool itself.

Check out education websites like CreativeLIVE or Skillshare, where you can learn from experts themselves on how to best use design and software tools.

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