This month I started working for the School of Forestry, University of Canterbury, where I am supposed to teach, supervise and research all sort of nifty things. One of the things with research is that one needs constant change and permanent challenges. For a while I stepped outside research because I was feeling tired, but I then got back the love for the trade.
Last week I read a transcription of a very inspirational presentation by the late Richard Hamming (via Paul Graham): You and your research. In two parts of the presentation Hamming presents summaries of his experience. First:
Let me summarize. You’ve got to work on important problems. I deny that it is all luck, but I admit there is a fair element of luck. I subscribe to Pasteur’s ‘Luck favors the prepared mind’. I favor heavily what I did. Friday afternoons for years—great thoughts only—means that I committed 10% of my time trying to understand the bigger problems in the field, i.e. what was and what was not important. I found in the early days I had believed ‘this’ and yet had spent all week marching in ‘that’ direction. It was kind of foolish. If I really believe the action is over there, why do I march in this direction? I either had to change my goal or change what I did. So I changed something I did and I marched in the direction I thought was important. It’s that easy.
At the end of the talk, he stated:
If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism. How can you convert a fault to an asset? How can you convert a situation where you haven’t got enough manpower to move into a direction when that’s exactly what you need to do? I say again that I have seen, as I studied the history, the successful scientist changed the viewpoint and what was a defect became an asset.
In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don’t succeed are: they don’t work on important problems, they don’t become emotionally involved, they don’t try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don’t. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck. I’ve told you how easy it is; furthermore I’ve told you how to reform. Therefore, go forth and become great scientists!
In a non-completely unrelated post Robert Fripp explains:
We should not expect good work to be acknowledged; and where it is, we should not expect it to be welcomed. Rather, the strength of a creative impulse is measured by the strength of opposition it meets.Robert Fripp
It is not often that one is exposed to a really motivational text, which is really uplifting compared to the ‘teamwork rocks’ lame posters that one finds in most companies. I have been talking with a few people trying to, first, determine what are the ‘big issues’ in my area and, second, what would be steps toward tackling them. I am trying to combine two strategies: fishing for ideas that I can extend until they become a real contribution and, more importantly, growing new ideas into something useful.