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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 November 5, 2018

20 Best Places to Work for a Great Career in 2018

20 Best Places to Work for a Great Career in 2018

Looking for a job? There’s no doubt to the fact you will want to work with a company that appreciates you for who you are.

Well, good news. The labor market today is one that has peened up with more opportunities for advancement and personal employee improvement. This is partly due to the fact that a lot of companies have been made to understand the value of their biggest assets: the employees.

To wit, here’s a list of companies- across a wide array of industries- that have been able to develop working environments that are healthy and accommodating to workers.

Take a look at these 20 best place to work for a great career:

1. Salesforce, San Francisco, California,

    Salesforce is in the information technology business and the company ranks highest due to their commitment to learning and innovation. They are ready to try new things and everyone with a new idea is always welcome to share it at the company. The company has also been known to exhibit an exceptional approach to alignment.

    Find out more about careers in Salesforce

    2. Wegmans Food Markets Inc.,Rochester, New York

      Based in Rochester, New York, employees have been known to enjoy a sense of purpose from working here. The company has been able to achieve an optimal level of engagement across all working tiers and they’ve been able to achieve great things together. They even do deliveries.

      Find out more about careers in Wegmans

      3. Ultimate Software, Weston, Florida

        Employees get amazing benefits here but that’s not the only reason why this place is so awesome to work. Whenever there is a need or a death of an Ultipeep or any of other family members, the company shows love and support like no other.

        Find out more about careers in Ultimate Software

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        4.The Boston Consulting Group, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts

          Development is at the center of anything that goes on here. The business is about people and employees are the company’s biggest asset. Employees are able to challenge the status and also leave impacts on clients.

          Find out more about careers in The Boston Consulting Group

          5. Edward Jones, St. Louis, Missouri

            Edward Jones is admired for their ability to acknowledge history without being mired down by it. The company builds on a solid foundation but there is also a level of flexibility that allows for innovation.

            Find out more about careers in Edward Jones

            6. Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, San Francisco, California

              Kimpton is a trendsetter in the hospitality industry. The company always strives to try something different and that perspective is welcomed there at all times. Enjoy the weekends with luxury rooms, conformable mattress, furnished and well dressed service staff. A great opportunity for job seekers.

              Find out more about careers in Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants

              7. Workday, Pleasanton, California

                Newbies will find no issues with feeling welcome and at home here as this has always been a core culture component of the IT giant. Everyone is treated like family and this fosters a sense of oneness.

                Find out more about careers in Workday

                8. Genentech, South San Francisco, California

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                  Here, employees are encouraged to be themselves. There is a feeling of care, safety, and acceptance that you get here that you can’t get at many firms. The development of an all-inclusive environment has always been foundational.

                  Find out more about careers in Genetech

                  9. Deloitte, New York, New York

                    Deloitte is one of the biggest professional service providers in the world, noted for their focus on constant learning, development and improvement. They invest in their employees and are concerned about their well being.

                    Find out more about careers in Deloitte

                    10. Baird, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

                      Baird is a financial services provide that is known for adopting a “no asshole policy’ which guides the way people relate with and respect each other, regardless of their position on the company’s hierarchy.

                      Find out more about careers in Baird

                      11. Quicken Loans, Detroit, Michigan

                        At Quicken Loans, the views and opinions of everyone are respected and heard. The organization is revered for the amount of investment they put in their team members and everyone looks for ways to grow and be better.

                        Find out more about careers in Quicken Loans

                        12. Capital One, Mclean, Florida

                          Capital One has adopted a culture that encourages employees to take risks and try new things. They foster a healthy work-life balance and associates are challenged to live better lives.

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                          Find out more about careers in Capital One

                          13. Cooley LLP, Palo Alto, California

                            Cooley LLP is a law firm known for their ability to care about the company culture and being able to develop a working environment that is empowering and fun. Cooley is known to go for the best when it comes to their employees, regardless of the occasion.

                            Find out more about careers in Cooley LLP

                            14. Southern Ohio Medical Center, Portsmouth, Ohio

                              The medical center has been known for their propensity to delegate so much to their employees, thereby providing them with the ability to grow and learn on the job. In the end, you get a workplace that is all-engaging and super fun.

                              Find out more about careers in Southern Ohio Medical Center

                              15. American Express, New York, New York

                                American Express is a firm that celebrates wins, no matter how small. Everyone is made to share the same attitude towards service and the people they are to serve, thereby making people care about what they do.

                                Find out more about careers in American Express

                                16. Adobe Systems Inc., San Jose, California

                                  The culture at Adobe Systems is one that encourages employees to develop their own ideas and get a strong viewpoint. As opposed to encouraging competition, work-life balance is fostered everywhere here.

                                  Find out more about careers in Adobe Systems Inc.

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                                  17. The Cheesecake Factory Inc., Calabasas, California

                                    The Cheesecake Factory rewards dedication and hard work. Promotions come pretty easy, and there is always space for guidance to develop your experience and skills.

                                    Find out more about careers in The Cheesecake Factory Inc.

                                    18. Sap America, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania

                                      If you’re looking for a new career path, SAP might be the best bet for you. The company is adept at recognizing value and transferable skills. And you can always look for a new path while maintaining your employment.

                                      Find out more about careers in Sap America

                                      19. NVIDIA Corporation, Santa Clara, California

                                        NVIDIA is known for looking after even the smallest of things. With even a “pets allowed” policy this company accepts you for who you are, and helps you to work within your personality. Advancement is also fostered, and you are able to collaborate effectively.

                                        Find out more about careers in NVIDIA

                                        20. KPMG LLP, New York, New York

                                          Communication and progressive collaboration are the foundation of this company’s workforce treatment. Regardless of the level you are, someone is always at the ready to help and the company rewards extra effort with gratitude.

                                          Find out more about careers in KPMG LLP

                                          All in all, it’s safe to say that you will be able to find somewhere to apply your skills (whatever they are) that is all inclusive and highly accommodative. Companies today are being made to understand how much they can get when they treat their employees right and this has opened the door to an encouraging work environment for all.

                                          Happy job hunting!

                                          Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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