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

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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 November 15, 2021

20 Ways to Describe Yourself in a Job Interview

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20 Ways to Describe Yourself in a Job Interview

“Please describe yourself in a few words”.

It’s the job interview of your life and you need to come up with something fast. Mental pictures of words are mixing in your head and your tongue tastes like alphabet soup. You mutter words like “deterministic” or “innovativity” and you realize you’re drenched in sweat. You wish you had thought about this. You wish you had read this post before.

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    Image Credit: Career Employer

    Here are 20 sentences that you could use when you are asked to describe yourself. Choose the ones that describe you the best.

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    “I am someone who…”:

    1. “can adapt to any situation. I thrive in a fluctuating environment and I transform unexpected obstacles into stepping stones for achievements.”
    2. “consistently innovates to create value. I find opportunities where other people see none: I turn ideas into projects, and projects into serial success.”
    3. “has a very creative mind. I always have a unique perspective when approaching an issue due to my broad range of interests and hobbies. Creativity is the source of differentiation and therefore, at the root of competitive advantage.”
    4. “always has an eye on my target. I endeavour to deliver high-quality work on time, every time. Hiring me is the only real guarantee for results.”
    5. “knows this job inside and out. With many years of relevant experience, there is no question whether I will be efficient on the job. I can bring the best practices to the company.”
    6. “has a high level of motivation to work here. I have studied the entire company history and observed its business strategies. Since I am also a long-time customer, I took the opportunity to write this report with some suggestions for how to improve your services.”
    7. “has a pragmatic approach to things. I don’t waste time talking about theory or the latest buzz words of the bullshit bingo. Only one question matters to me: ‘Does it work or not?'”
    8. “takes work ethics very seriously. I do what I am paid for, and I do it well.”
    9. “can make decisions rapidly if needed. Everybody can make good decisions with sufficient time and information. The reality of our domain is different. Even with time pressure and high stakes, we need to move forward by taking charge and being decisive. I can do that.”
    10. “is considered to be ‘fun.’ I believe that we are way more productive when we are working with people with which we enjoy spending time. When the situation gets tough with a customer, a touch of humour can save the day.”
    11. “works as a real team-player. I bring the best out of the people I work with and I always do what I think is best for the company.”
    12. “is completely autonomous. I won’t need to be micromanaged. I won’t need to be trained. I understand high-level targets and I know how to achieve them.”
    13. “leads people. I can unite people around a vision and motivate a team to excellence. I expect no more from the others than what I expect from myself.”
    14. “understands the complexity of advanced project management. It’s not just pushing triangles on a GANTT chart; it’s about getting everyone to sit down together and to agree on the way forward. And that’s a lot more complicated than it sounds.”
    15. “is the absolute expert in the field. Ask anybody in the industry. My name is on their lips because I wrote THE book on the subject.”
    16. “communicates extensively. Good, bad or ugly, I believe that open communication is the most important factor to reach an efficient organization.”
    17. “works enthusiastically. I have enough motivation for myself and my department. I love what I do, and it’s contagious.”
    18. “has an eye for details because details matter the most. How many companies have failed because of just one tiny detail? Hire me and you’ll be sure I’ll find that detail.”
    19. “can see the big picture. Beginners waste time solving minor issues. I understand the purpose of our company, tackle the real subjects and the top management will eventually notice it.”
    20. “is not like anyone you know. I am the candidate you would not expect. You can hire a corporate clone, or you can hire someone who will bring something different to the company. That’s me. “

    Featured photo credit: Tim Gouw via unsplash.com

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