GREAT SPEECHES: You & Your Research (and Career) By Richard Hamming

Intro: I have given a talk with this title many times, and it turns out from discussions after the talk I could have just as well have called it "You and Your Engineering Career," or even "You and Your Career." But I left the word "Research" in the title because that is what I have most studied.


This lecture was originally delivered to graduate students at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, on June 6, 1995. The lecture was the last lecture of a capstone course taught by Dr. Richard Hamming called “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering.”


Well this is the last lecture of the course because the next two meetings nominally I will be at Los Alamos giving a talk at a symposium.

This talk is “You and Your Research.” I've given it many times. It might as well be called, “You and Your Engineering Career” or “You and Your Career.” These are broad principles of success in many fields. So, while I will talk about research because that's what I've studied it's really fairly broadly based.

I've told you earlier about my career, but I'll remind you.

At Los Alamos I became aware that I was a janitor of science, some of the people who keep the thing going but whose opinion does not matter a great deal. They could trust me do simple things, but the major decisions I was not really involved in. To put it bluntly, and unpleasantly, I was envious—plain envious. I began to ask, “what's the difference between the really capable scientists and myself?” I began to study their work. I went to Bell Labs and I studied further.

This is really a report on what I found to be the difference between the first class and the second class. I want to remind you of something which is not in the notes of something called “The Matthew Effect” named after Saint Matthew. There is a verse in the Bible which says,


Whoever has will be given more,

and they will have an abundance.

Whoever does not have,

even what they have will be taken from them.


Or to put it more bluntly: those with God gets, and those that haven't got…you know what happens. It’s true in science. When you become famous it's easy to remain famous. For example once I became moderately famous I was invited to give talks to IBM and so on. And when I went there they would show me this or that about what’s going on. They’d show me the research labs or production lines and so on. I got to know more information than the other person. Once famous it's very easy remain famous.

Once not famous, what you do do will be taken away from you. It’s necessary to do something outstanding, otherwise what you do is sort of taken away from you, as Saint Matthew said.

Now why do I believe it's important to talk to you. Because as far as I know and as far as you know you have one life to lead. You might as well lead a life you would like to have. I suggest you a live a life of doing something significant by your definition. Your definition of significant is what makes it worthwhile. To live a life in which you got by in the back and you say, “Well, I didn't do any harm” is not terribly satisfactory. I am really trying to get you to think about doing significant things by your definition of significant.

I have to talk about my own experience, I have throughout the course because if I talk about other peoples’ experience, it doesn't have the effect. My premise is to stick a knife in your back and give it a good twist and make you say it back end. Both having to do it, and say, “why couldn't I? After all, he’s are not that much better than I am.” It’s doubtful he is better than you are. My purpose in telling direct stories is to make you conscious so that you can be at least as great or better than I was, and I didn't do badly.

Now I'll start psychologically rather logically. The first objection people have is, “Well Fame as a matter of luck.” I have cited regularly Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” Yes, there is an element of luck.

No, there isn't. For example, when I met Feynman, he was running in computing. I brought in to help get him out, so he go back to physics. And I knew he'd get a Nobel Prize for something. He was one of the people. You’ve seen the energy and ability. He was going to do something. It was in the nature of him to be something.

Yes luck favored the prepared mind but also it says, you prepare yourself, and then luck hits you. But there's lots of ways luck can hit you. For example, when I went to Bell Laboratories the first few months I was there, Shannon, Miss Sally Mead, and myself shared a very big room in the attic. Shannon went on to create information theory. I created coding theory. There were a large amount of people around. Yes, it was in the air, but why did we do it? Why was it us?

Shannon had done all the good things before then. His master's thesis had observed that Boolean algebra is what you need for switching circuits. He had made a number of very significant contributions. Einstein as famous for writing five papers in one year in a journal, several which are very great classics.

It is luck, and it isn't. It’s both. It is and it is not. You prepare yourself for the way you want to lead from day to day.  You prepare yourself for success or you don't. When the lightning strikes you are either ready or you're not. It misses you or it hits you. What will be is open to debate but I think if Shannon had not created information theory he would have done other significant things. He'd done a bunch before he would do ones afterwards. I sort of deny it’s all luck.

Sir Isaac Newton observed that if other people thought as hard as he did, they would get the same results. Edison said genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I tell you the same thing. To a great extent it is constant hard work that does it, nothing more and nothing less. The very able people work very hard all the time. At Los Alamos on Sundays when we goofed off a little bit, they went on hiking in the mountains behind Los Alamos. They still talk shop. They were at the problem all the time.

Now I'm one of the characteristics, but not always, is that when young they showed a great deal of ability. Newton did not as far as I can make out reading his biographies. He really didn't look unusual to anybody until after he came up to Cambridge in college. His mathematical knowledge was about arithmetic when he came. He's an exception and a few others.

Einstein after he got his doctor's degree he had no legitimate job, except for seven years in the Patent Office. No job in a university. He didn't get early recognition. When he got it, he did it. That indicates that the IQs or such other things which people are supposed to have it's a help but quite a few great people don't have fabulously high IQs as measured by the normal methods. Einstein certainly did not look like a good student. Pleanty other people didn't. A personal example (he's dead now so I can tell you) a guy named Bill Fan walked to my office at Bell Labs. He wanted to do Zone Melting. With zone melting you have a bar, and you have a coil round it which you heat by adduction to melt the metal. You move it down slowly. If the impurities stay in solution you drag the impurities down. If impurities trying to drop out, they're pushed the other side. Many, many passes removed the impurities from the middle of bar.

He had some equations. I put some algebra on it and some calculus and got some partial answers but I can see that he needed computing. I went around to his department and asked about him. They didn't think much of them. I go back to my office. I thought he had a good idea. I had resolved to work with important people. I wanted to do important work, and work with important people. Here was my chance to contribute to a really good idea, if it were good, but his department didn't think much of him.

I reflected, Mohammed had to leave town, flee for his life. A prophet is not honored in his own country, remember? It will be often true that your local people cannot see that you are doing great work.

I concluded I would help him. I taught him how to use the machine. I made machine time available to him and so on. He picked up all kinds of prizes. He became a famous man. His laboratory was made a national treasure. Also along the way, from being inarticulate and knowing little mathematics, and lacking confidence, he became a man who spoke clearly and well, and gained confidence.

He had lacked confidence when he was young, and that success with Zone Melting was his one great idea, but it was what Bell Labs needed. We needed to be able to make uranium without very many impurities. Then we needed to be able to put as many as we wanted in because if you now take the same zone and drag it down, you can drag down impurities about the density you want in them. You have remarkable control with zone melting. You make a thousand passes or something that's why you can't do it numerically other than with a computing machine because the thousand passes have end effects and they bounce around.

So, I was right that time. I guessed the man had something important. I worked with him and I was part of something important.

Now having disposed of psychological objections of luck and lack of high IQ because some of you say, “well I was the brightest student in our class,” so what. It doesn't matter. Let's get down to other things.

The most important thing about great people is they believe they can do great work. They have confidence in themselves. If you don't think you do good work, it's not likely that you're ever going to do it. It's that simple. You can be too overconfident, but you should have a fair amount of confidence.

Take for example Shannon. You remember when I did the information theory I pointed out how, when stuck with random codes, he averaged over all random codes and showed the average was arbitrarily good, therefore one good code had to exist? Who but a man with almost infinite courage would do that? He had it.

Now I'll tell you another story. For about a year, he came in about ten o'clock, played chess till about 2:00, and went home. At the end of year, the company gave him a salary raise. That's all you could see he was doing, but at home he was creating information theory. The way he played chess, is the following…

When you get attacked in chess you could either defend yourself or you attack back. Shannon never defended himself. He attacked back. And the game would get tied up more, more, more, and more complex. Finally he would stop and think for a long while, grab his Queen, and say, “I ain’t scared nuttin’. Bing. The whole game would collapse then because he finally precipitated all pending operations and either won or lost. I learned that expression, “I ain't scared of nothing.” I've used this several times on myself, when I was stuck and I didn't know what on earth to do. I said good for Shannon, it’s good enough for Hamming. I ain’t scared of nothing, let's go ahead and see what happens.” Sometimes by copying his style I came through to success. I deliberately copied his style.

Another example, I hope most people are dead, I guess they aren’t but they probably won’t hear this. I was in a math department and we used to go to lunch together. They played games, threw boomerangs, flew kites, and played this and that and they’d fiddle around. I want to succeed, and I said to myself, “I can't afford to waste lunch time,” so I went around to the physics table where I'd written a paper with one the physicists and asked if I could join them.

Sure, I'm welcome to. The table consists among other people of Bardeen Shockley and Bratton, nobel prize winners, JB Johnson and some others. My friend Louis and I choose to have lunch with him for years. I learned a lot. I learned a lot of tricks out of Shockley how he did things. I watched other people. I learned how to do things sensibly. Finally the Nobel Prize came through, promotion came through, jobs elsewhere came through, and all the able people left, including my friend. He promoted up line well. What was left was the dregs, hardly worthy eating lunch with.

Over in another corner of the dining room was a big table chemists and I had written a paper on nuclear Baghdad residence with one of the guys, so I asked if they minded if I joined them. I sit and we talk about chemistry and such other things for a long while. Finally one day I walk in to say, “If what you're working on is not important and it's not likely to lead to important things, why are you working on it?”

After that I ate with the engineers. That was spring. In the fall going down the long corridor Bell Labs my friend chemists stopped me and said, “you know Hemming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I've spent the summer thinking about the important problems my field. I have not changed my research, but I think it was well worth the time.” I say, “thank you Dave.” and walk on. About two weeks later I notice he's made head of the department. About ten or twelve years ago I know he is a member National Academy of Engineering. I have never heard of anything about any other person at that chemistry table. Not one. The one man who could hear “if what you were doing is not important not liking important why are you doing it” the one man who could, did become important. He did succeed. The rest of them who couldn't hear, didn't. It's that simple. If you don't work on important problems, you are not going to do important things except by the dumbest of dumb luck.

You can't work on all them the time because that's what Nobel Prize winners do. They get a Nobel Prize and then they think, like Shannon, they can also they can only work on important problems, and as a result they don't do anything. You have to plant little acorns which grow into mighty oak trees. But you have to plant the acorns which will grow. You have to learn to do small things. The great thing wrong with Nobel Prizes is you now think you only work on  important problems. You don't. You have to work on a problem which can become important and matter, which have a future, which will grow into mighty oak trees.

Another thing that ruins Nobel Prize winners, when you get famous, you get put on all kinds of committees and other things. You can't get any work done. They stop you from doing it by various promotions That’s a lot of the reason why Nobel Prize winners often don't do very much afterwards.

Confidence is important. Over-confidence is of course is a disaster. I'll put as I did the other day—the difference between being strong-willed and stubborn. There is a fine line. I’ve seen a lot of people abandon a good idea too soon. I've seen people cling to a bad idea too long. They're both difficult problems.

One of the features which you can cling to regularly is a desire to do excellent work. Whatever you do you're going to do well. In general, you try and do excellence. This the one guide I think you can say whatever I do I am going to do well. That will give you some unity. I've talked to you before about the drunken sailor who staggered a couple steps this way, and a couple this way and a couple this way, in a total of many, many steps he gets the distance to square root of n. But if there's a pretty girl over there, he staggered less and gets the distance proportional to n.

When you have a vision, you will go a long way. Without a vision, what you're going to do where you're going to be, you're not going to get very far. It's that simple. You have to get a vision of what you are going to do and be and then pursue it. An excellence is one of the best tracks you could use. “I am going to do things very well. I'm going to do more than just a good job I'm going to a do a first-class job.”

What you may consider good working relations may not be for you it's very sad but what do you think are good working relations are not. The example I've given you already is working with the door closed door open. If you work with the door closed, you won't be interrupted you get your work done. You work with your door open, people come by and stop and chat and so on so on but I've noticed very clearly at Bell Laboratories those who work with door shut may be working just as hard ten years later but they don't know what to work on. They are not connected with reality. Those who have the door open may very well know what's important. I cannot prove to you whether the open door causes the open mind or whether the open mind causes the open door. I can only establish the correlation and it was quite spectacular. Almost always the guys with the door closed were often very well able, very gifted but they seemed to work always on slightly the wrong problem.

You'll have to get wide feeling for what is going on and the supreme example of this closure is the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. They take in people who've done something great, they give them the luxury of a beautiful office, a beautiful restaurant to dine in, wonderful grounds and everything else. They have adequate salary to live on. No cares, no worries, no nothing. You're freed for life on anything at all. What happens? The bulk of them continue working on the problem they made that made them famous. They keep on elaborating on that. They've already made it famous. It doesn’t need to be added to. They got the thing going. Rarely do they change.  

von Neumann was different. He was at the Institute and he did go out in reality. He turned up in Washington and in other places. He traveled widely and was receptive of new ideas. But the bulk of the people got to a point the Institute for Advanced Study don't keep the door open on life as it were. They don't do anything comparable to what they had done before. They are very able people but the Institute in my opinion sterilized them a great extent. So what you think are the ideal working conditions, are not.

I'll give you some examples of this.

When we began with the IBM 701 computer, we programmed in absolute binary. There were a bunch of these machines at West Coast airframe companies and the rest were scattered around. It became obvious to me that the width the West Coast used for programming. Namely we’d hire an acre of girls, spread out, and they program. Typically girls, in those days. What was clear to me Bell Labs would never give me an acre of girls. They weren't about doing that kind of a thing.

What do I do? I am in computing, I want to be in the frontier. What everybody else has, I'm not going to have. I could quit, get a job on the west coast. Probably anyone airframes companies could use me out there. But Bell Labs had a lot of very good people and the airframe companies have a few good people scattered widely, but not a high density. (Remember about trying to learn how to be great, so I’m studying great people.) So I think for a long while one day I said to myself, “Hamming you believe a machine can do anything. Why don't you make the machine do the programming?”

What was the cause? The net effect was that I was put immediately right in the frontier of programming. How do I make the Machine do the programming for us? What appeared to be a defect, by turning the problem around, became an asset. Grace Hopper has told us of all the stories a similar way what appears to be a defect is an asset. Frequently when you think things are wrong and you haven't got the wherewithal to do, it if you turn the problem around you can turn into great success.

Another example is slightly different. When I was doing this 28-order system equation I told you about the Navy intercept plane, I was solving it on a digital machine because the analog machine outside of Philadelphia couldn't do the job. No analogue machine at that time could do it because they didn't have the required accuracy.

I was using a variation of Mill’s method which was pretty crummy. I'd had found Mills method was unstable had patched up a little bit. One day I realized I was going to have to fill in a report of what I did because government contracts always require reports. Everybody who had analog computer was going to try and pick flaws and what I did because I was really showing that a digital machine could beat the analog on his own home ground. That's really what I was doing, not getting the answer a problem. I was really demonstrating something much more important.

I promptly started deriving a better method of integrating the differential equations. I finally use method which for some years was known as Hammings method. I don't recommend it now but it was very suitable for the machines as they were.

So I had the girl programmer change a few of the instructions, run a trajectory once more to check the new program got the same as the old answers, and then went ahead. Thus, this report has a very jazzy method of solving differential equation. Instead of a very crummy method. Both are equally effective, but one was defensible and one was not. I changed the nature of problem. I saw that the problem although originally was, “Get the answers of these trajectories.” In fact, it was something else. It was proving that a digital machine could beat the analog machine on its own home ground of differential equations. I redefined the problem and made it a success. I would not have found the Hamming method if I had not realized that the method I was using which was adequate for me and we were all going to see if we're getting right answer, but it was not nice. It was not clean and as simple.  It was rather ugly. So I changed the problem.

…You can change the conditions that you have to make success either by inverting the problem or as I told you a second story changing the nature problem and recognizing the underlying real problem. Now that's something I've done several times.

There's one very early problem I solved spectacularly not only from a computing point of view, but from a physics point of view. The value in the transistor research was extremely valuable. I meditated over why was that successful. I studied it over and over again and I believe this statement, “you should study your successes.” You don't study your failures. Study successes because when your time comes you will know how to succeed. If you study failures, you'll know how to fail, so study success very closely. Not only yours, but other people's. Why did Galileo do what he did? How did Newton do it?? Try as best you can to study other people, how they succeed. What were the elements of their success? Which elements of that can you adapt to your personality? You can't be everybody but you have to find your own method and studying success is a very good way of forming your own style.

One day I found John Tukey with whom I working extensively was my age and the guy was clearly a genius. I went in to our mutual boss and says, “Hendrick how can anybody my age know so much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair grinned at me and said, “Hamming you'd be surprised how much you know if you worked as hard as he did.” I slunk out the office, there wasn't anything to say.

When I was home I thought, “Frankly I am not working really as hard as I could. I'll ever be able to work as hard as John does. I haven't got the psychic energy, but I can work a hell of a lot harder than I have been. Let me reorganize my life. Let me quit spending my time and reading nonsense magazines and thumbing through newspaper. They're not very important to my career let's spend my time studying things in my career.

For example, I got appointed very deliberately as a book review editor. There's always a book on my coffee table waiting to be read and reviewed. When a review is written by me, I set aside  for about a week and ask myself afterwards, is that a good review? Does that really digest the book? If it doesn't, you're rereading the book or writing a better review. This way I forced myself to get a lot wide acquaintance in computer science. Being a book review editor, I got to review the books I wanted. This was a device. Now it's true I quit reading New Yorker. I quit reading magazines. My wife complained occasionally that all I looked in at the New Yorker were the jokes. She was right. I didn't have time to do everything. I wasn't a first-class genius. I had to work hard. So I simply set aside other things and did that. It's not hard to do. You just do it.

I want to say another couple things. The race is not to the swiftest. The guy who works hardest doesn't win. The person who works on the right problem at the right time in the right way is what counts and nothing else. That's what I'm trying to do in this whole course. I can try and teach you something about style and taste so you'll be able to have some hunch of when the problem is ripe what problem is ripe and how to go about it the right problem at the right time the right way where it counts and nothing else counts. Nothing. It's easy there's a million races being run you just got to get in one time and win.

I met you earlier in regard to the chemists about one of the important problems in your field. At the urging of some other people partly and partly in my own, I used to set aside Friday afternoon for “great thoughts.” Meaning, yes I'll answer telephone, yes I'll sign a paper, but mainly what is the effect of computing on science? what the hell am I doing is computing machine? how is it going to affect AT&T? what should I be doing in computing? what is the nature of software?

My friends all after a while got to know, Friday afternoons great thoughts, what's the nature of this that the other thing. I spent 10 percent of my time trying to answer the question: what are the important problems of my field? 10 percent Friday afternoon straight through. Don't do it Monday morning because you'll be interrupted immediately. If you do it Friday afternoon some of it can linger around the Saturday and Sunday. If you do it Monday morning there's a hot conference at 10 o'clock and bingo, everything's broken up. I use Friday afternoon for many many years. I recommend you find a regular time to stop and think: what are the important things? what is going on? what is the nature of what you are doing? what is the characteristic of the job? what are the fundamentals behind it, so you'll have some idea of where you're headed so you can march in a uniform direction and get far rather being a drunken sailor and getting nowhere.

I've regularly tried to stress in this lecture, the bigger picture. I've tried to stress fundamentals. No one knows what the fundamentals will be tomorrow, but you can try to ask what are the fundamentals the things about which other things seem to depend and those things which seem to be true tomorrow, but maybe not. I've also stressed a necessity of learning new things. All kinds of new fields come up endlessly. They’re going to keep on coming up. You have to get some grip on them. You can't learn them all, but you have to understand what is relevant to my field, and what is interesting but is not relevant. Forget it. [Editing/filtering] is a very difficult problem to do.

Another thing I have to talk about great people. It took me a long, long while to discover this. After I've been studying I'd say 15 or 20 years before I realized that: tolerance of ambiguity. They both believe and disbelieve. Most people want to believe something is true or it isn't true. Great scientists believe the theory is true enough so they continue working, because if you a theory is true you won't. They disbelieve enough to notice what's wrong and make the big change to the new theory. If you believe the theory is right you won't make the big change to the next new theory. You won't make the big step forward. You'll merely elaborate and extend the old theory and that won't make you a great scientist. They'll make you just a good one, which I'm not complaining about but greatness consists of seeing what other people have missed, seizing the contradictions and making the new step forward. You have to tolerate ambiguity.

I have not the faintest idea how I'll ever teach a course in ambiguity. I've thought about many times. how will I put a course together to teach students to tolerate ambiguity? I haven't a clue. I don't know what to do. I really tell you that the tolerance of ambiguity, not being so certain everything is correct is a necessary feature.

Most great scientists have 10 to 20 problems in their minds, which when they get a clue how to attack, they drop other things and bless you that problem finish it off first. Something between 10 and 20 problems which they think import but you don't know what to do. Let me warn you about important problems. Importance is not the consequences. All the hours at Bell Labs, no one worked on the three outstanding problems in physics: time travel, teleportation, and anti-gravity. They're not important because you haven't gotten an attack. The importance of a problem to a great extent depends upon, “have you got a way of attacking the problem?”

Problems are not important per se, although they have some consequences. The most important thing that makes a problem important is that there is an attack. You have an idea how I can go about that problem. You want to watch it just because the economic consequences are great and take those three of them: anti-gravity, teleportation, or time travel. The economic consequences are unbelievably large but they're not important problems until you have an idea how to do it. When you have an attack then they may become important.

I've been quite a few times I would practically saying the following, “it is not what you do it's the way that you do it.” It's a style you go about doing things. It's inverting the problem. It’s the style of what you do that makes the difference.

Look at special relativity. Others had said it all before. But Einstein said it the right way. You only remember Einstein having done special relativity. The other guys had it all. They even gave talks on it but they had it screwed up. They didn't have it really clear and straightforward. 

When you first do a thing it is often muddled up. One of your problems is to get it clear so it can be communicated to other people. You've spent a lot of time lying in bed saying, “well gee how can I say that to Joe, if I try it this way Jill might never misunderstand?” how about that? how about this? until you finally have a way of looking the problem which looks simple  and straightforward and clear, so you can communicate it to others. It may not be the way you found it. Often is not. Getting it clear is important which brings me to the topic of communication.

You need to learn to communicate orally in talks like this, written and reports, and casual conversations in the middle of a conference. You have to be able to go up to say, “that's wrong for these reasons Bing Bing Bing Bing.” and you win. If you sit around and say, “well all right report tomorrow after I've thought about some more” the decision is made we go ahead and it doesn't matter what you do.

Then the ability communicate on three levels. how do you learn it? you can read books if you want to but forget it. The way you learn as far as I'm concerned is every time you go to a talk you listen not only to talk but to the style that's done. What talks are effective? Why were they effective? What aspects of the speaker can you adapt? For example, if you're going to give after-dinner speeches generally speaking there are three jokes: one the beginning when you get up, one the middle to keep awake, and one last one solo to remember something that you said. I had to learn jokes. I discovered that I cannot tell shaggy dog stories. I can tell one liners very well, but I had to adapt my joke-telling to what I could do. Those who told shaggy dog stories were very interesting, by I simply cannot do it very well.

You have to adapt what you learn for other speakers to you. When you find a person was very effective doing something, can you do it? why not? maybe you can't. then you have to learn something else. If you learn to criticize other talks then you will have a critical basis to correctly criticize your own and then you'll be able to give your talks. if you can only follow what books say this versus learning your own style of creativity it isn’t going to work. I think that the best thing you could do is start. as of tomorrow, when you hear lectures and talks ask yourself every time besides what was a Content what was the style? what part can I adapt that technique? why is that speech effective? why is that a speech not effective? and you can ask your friends to check that your opinions are somewhat the same as theirs and you may find sometimes they don't agree with you on what's effective.

It's a poor workman who blames his tools. I've always trapped adopted philosophy, “I will do the best I can with what I got.” Thus this school has got a great many faults. Bureaucracy in Washington periodically does strange things. Other things like the students have peculiar features—they have to disappear now and then. Well you don't blame the system. You do at each course and each lecture the best you can given the circumstances.

This course has suffered from the fact is being broadcast. So you all might have been intimidated to raise your hands and say, “Hamming I think you're crazy, what about such-and-such?” The fall of this course with the television on is that you people have been too intimidated. Well I'll do the best I can. I knew perfectly well I couldn't get you to interact very actively in the class so I gave up on that one. Though I did get you one class lecture.

There's another thing you have to recognize. If you're going to have, progress there has to be change. Change does not mean progress but progress requires change. Most people and most institutions don't like change. They resent it and therefore in order to make progress you have to sort of welcome change. You have to embrace it in spite the fact you don't like it.

If the department has been doing this for 10 years the same way, it's time you should change to find out how to do it some other way. I know it's perfectly satisfactory forget it there might be better weapons. you'll never find out who you stay in the same damn rut. needless to say most apartments Bell Labs didn't like my model but that was my model all the time. If you were doing for same thing for a long while why is there no other method of doing it better. You will never find other methods if you don't try other things. some of the ones will make them worse occasionally but without change you will not have progress.

When you're learning things I told you you need to put hooks on ideas so they can recover widely. That was the thing that John Tukey could do and I couldn't for so long. He could dredge up almost any kind of information. After he told me, I could see the what he said was true but I couldn't think of it first. So I started doing what he did. I got new piece of information. I turned it around many ways until is it were it was connected with many pieces of information so that in various situations that idea would come available, and it has worked out fairly well. You're likely to saying to yourself, “you haven’t got the freedom to work.” I didn’t either when I began. I had to do more with less respect.

When you hire a plumber to fix the plumbing you expect them do you already trained. You expect them to be able. You don't give a person or big lovely chance to do something great when they have not already demonstrated greatness. The onus is on you to demonstrate greatness and then you'll get the opportunities. It's not the other way around. Beautifully put by an instructor when I was at Nebraska. The instructor went to the head of the Department said I want to be relieved as some teaching so I do some research. The Department head said when you've done the research I'll relieve you of the teaching. You have to demonstrate your ability first and then you'll have the freedom to do it. otherwise no I had to do error correcting codes at home on my own time. After I became more able, management left me alone. In fact the management clearly had to believe the more we left Hamming alone the more he'd worry about what should be done, the more likely he's going to do the right thing. That applied to a guy like Hamming who had a conscience and was worried. It doesn't apply to some people. Some people you give him freedom they'll do nothing. But I was compulsive and I was worried about doing a great job so I did.

I have to ask the question, “is effort to be a great person worth it?” Now great is by the definition of what you think is great, not mine. Is it worth it. I will claim yes. I've talked to various people who tried to succeed and didn't. I was afraid to ask but those who didn't succeed and were famous I asked, was the struggle worth it and they said yep “it's better than wine women and song put together” I didn't ask any women. They might have said it was better wine men and song I don't know. but they all thought that doing something really first-class and knowing you've done it is better than anything else they could think of. I can't give you a report of the guys who didn't do it, as I said I was afraid to ask. I didn't want to embarrass them.

well let me come down now to a saying of Socrates who lived about 470 to 399 BC and Greece. he said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I heard it while I was crossed first time I heard while crossing the campus at Yale behind a professor and a student for us to turn the student again said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” and before we crossed the whole quad he incited three times the unexamined life is not worth living.

you should examine your life you've only got one life to lead as far as any of us know. why shouldn’t it be the life you want to have instead of whatever happens to you? to come down the back end and say, “well I didn't do any harm I had an enjoyable life” is that what you want to say your old age? you just had a good time in life? or do you want to say, you know “I did something was important at least something that I thought was important.” that's your problem therefore to pick these things up and do it if you want to have a happy life in the back end.

I think all these questions are style I kept saying several times: you've got to work on the right problem at the right time in the right way, otherwise you're doomed. style is everything and is not communicable in words. I cannot tell you what makes a great painting I can show you once I can show you success which I've done this class.

I want to give you a different view of the whole course particularly this lecture. I'm a revivalist preacher if you want, I'm saying, “repent your idle ways and get down and be somebody worth being.” this is what this lecture is all. about revivals preacher preaching.

well now I've told you things how to succeed no one ever told me these things I've been telling you. nobody. I had to find it for myself. I've told you how to succeed. you have no excuse for not doing better than I did.

thank you.

Still Interested? Check my Hamming compendium.

GREAT SPEECHES: “Solitude and Leadership” by William Deresiewicz


This speech was delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009. This speech was originally published on The American Scholar.

Speech Transcript

My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.

Leadership is what you are here to learn—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.

We need to begin by talking about what leadership really means. I just spent 10 years teaching at another institution that, like West Point, liked to talk a lot about leadership, Yale University. A school that some of you might have gone to had you not come here, that some of your friends might be going to. And if not Yale, then Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and so forth. These institutions, like West Point, also see their role as the training of leaders, constantly encourage their students, like West Point, to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society. Indeed, when we look around at the American elite, the people in charge of government, business, academia, and all our other major institutions—senators, judges, CEOs, college presidents, and so forth—we find that they come overwhelmingly either from the Ivy League and its peer institutions or from the service academies, especially West Point.

So I began to wonder, as I taught at Yale, what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even ex­cellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me.

See, things have changed since I went to college in the ’80s. Everything has gotten much more intense. You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. We didn’t begin thinking about college until we were juniors, and maybe we each did a couple of extracurriculars. But I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school. Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12.

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea. To explain why, I want to spend a few minutes talking about a novel that many of you may have read, Heart of Darkness. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen Apocalypse Now, which is based on it. Marlow in the novel becomes Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen. Kurtz in the novel becomes Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. But the novel isn’t about Vietnam; it’s about colonialism in the Belgian Congo three generations before Vietnam. Marlow, not a military officer but a merchant marine, a civilian ship’s captain, is sent by the company that’s running the country under charter from the Belgian crown to sail deep upriver, up the Congo River, to retrieve a manager who’s ensconced himself in the jungle and gone rogue, just like Colonel Kurtz does in the movie.

Now everyone knows that the novel is about imperialism and colonialism and race relations and the darkness that lies in the human heart, but it became clear to me at a certain point, as I taught the novel, that it is also about bureaucracy—what I called, a minute ago, hierarchy. The Company, after all, is just that: a company, with rules and procedures and ranks and people in power and people scrambling for power, just like any other bureaucracy. Just like a big law firm or a governmental department or, for that matter, a university. Just like—and here’s why I’m telling you all this—just like the bureaucracy you are about to join. The word bureaucracy tends to have negative connotations, but I say this in no way as a criticism, merely a description, that the U.S. Army is a bureaucracy and one of the largest and most famously bureaucratic bureaucracies in the world. After all, it was the Army that gave us, among other things, the indispensable bureaucratic acronym “snafu”: “situation normal: all fucked up”—or “all fouled up” in the cleaned-up version. That comes from the U.S. Army in World War II.

You need to know that when you get your commission, you’ll be joining a bureaucracy, and however long you stay in the Army, you’ll be operating within a bureaucracy. As different as the armed forces are in so many ways from every other institution in society, in that respect they are the same. And so you need to know how bureaucracies operate, what kind of behavior—what kind of character—they reward, and what kind they punish.

So, back to the novel. Marlow proceeds upriver by stages, just like Captain Willard does in the movie. First he gets to the Outer Station. Kurtz is at the Inner Station. In between is the Central Station, where Marlow spends the most time, and where we get our best look at bureaucracy in action and the kind of people who succeed in it. This is Marlow’s description of the manager of the Central Station, the big boss:

He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold. . . . Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy—a smile—not a smile—I remember it, but I can’t explain. . . . He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause.

Note the adjectives: commonplace, ordinary, usual, common. There is nothing distinguished about this person. About the 10th time I read that passage, I realized it was a perfect description of the kind of person who tends to prosper in the bureaucratic environment. And the only reason I did is because it suddenly struck me that it was a perfect description of the head of the bureaucracy that I was part of, the chairman of my academic department—who had that exact same smile, like a shark, and that exact same ability to make you uneasy, like you were doing something wrong, only she wasn’t ever going to tell you what. Like the manager—and I’m sorry to say this, but like so many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy of the Army or for that matter of whatever institution you end up giving your talents to after the Army, whether it’s Microsoft or the World Bank or whatever—the head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, as Marlow says, her position had come to her—why?

That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

I tell you this to forewarn you, because I promise you that you will meet these people and you will find yourself in environments where what is rewarded above all is conformity. I tell you so you can decide to be a different kind of leader. And I tell you for one other reason. As I thought about these things and put all these pieces together—the kind of students I had, the kind of leadership they were being trained for, the kind of leaders I saw in my own institution—I realized that this is a national problem. We have a crisis of leadership in this country, in every institution. Not just in government. Look at what happened to American corporations in recent decades, as all the old dinosaurs like General Motors or TWA or U.S. Steel fell apart. Look at what happened to Wall Street in just the last couple of years.

Finally—and I know I’m on sensitive ground here—look at what happened during the first four years of the Iraq War. We were stuck. It wasn’t the fault of the enlisted ranks or the noncoms or the junior officers. It was the fault of the senior leadership, whether military or civilian or both. We weren’t just not winning, we weren’t even changing direction.

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

Now some people would say, great. Tell this to the kids at Yale, but why bother telling it to the ones at West Point? Most people, when they think of this institution, assume that it’s the last place anyone would want to talk about thinking creatively or cultivating independence of mind. It’s the Army, after all. It’s no accident that the word regiment is the root of the word regimentation. Surely you who have come here must be the ultimate conformists. Must be people who have bought in to the way things are and have no interest in changing it. Are not the kind of young people who think about the world, who ponder the big issues, who question authority. If you were, you would have gone to Amherst or Pomona. You’re at West Point to be told what to do and how to think.

But you know that’s not true. I know it, too; otherwise I would never have been invited to talk to you, and I’m even more convinced of it now that I’ve spent a few days on campus. To quote Colonel Scott Krawczyk, your course director, in a lecture he gave last year to English 102:

From the very earliest days of this country, the model for our officers, which was built on the model of the citizenry and reflective of democratic ideals, was to be different. They were to be possessed of a democratic spirit marked by independent judgment, the freedom to measure action and to express disagreement, and the crucial responsibility never to tolerate tyranny.

All the more so now. Anyone who’s been paying attention for the last few years understands that the changing nature of warfare means that officers, including junior officers, are required more than ever to be able to think independently, creatively, flexibly. To deploy a whole range of skills in a fluid and complex situation. Lieutenant colonels who are essentially functioning as provincial governors in Iraq, or captains who find themselves in charge of a remote town somewhere in Afghanistan. People who know how to do more than follow orders and execute routines.

Look at the most successful, most acclaimed, and perhaps the finest soldier of his generation, General David Petraeus. He’s one of those rare people who rises through a bureaucracy for the right reasons. He is a thinker. He is an intellectual. In fact, Prospect magazine named him Public Intellectual of the Year in 2008—that’s in the world. He has a Ph.D. from Princeton, but what makes him a thinker is not that he has a Ph.D. or that he went to Princeton or even that he taught at West Point. I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.

No, what makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

It wasn’t always easy for him. His path to where he is now was not a straight one. When he was running Mosul in 2003 as commander of the 101st Airborne and developing the strategy he would later formulate in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and then ultimately apply throughout Iraq, he pissed a lot of people off. He was way ahead of the leadership in Baghdad and Washington, and bureaucracies don’t like that sort of thing. Here he was, just another two-star, and he was saying, implicitly but loudly, that the leadership was wrong about the way it was running the war. Indeed, he was not rewarded at first. He was put in charge of training the Iraqi army, which was considered a blow to his career, a dead-end job. But he stuck to his guns, and ultimately he was vindicated. Ironically, one of the central elements of his counterinsurgency strategy is precisely the idea that officers need to think flexibly, creatively, and independently.

That’s the first half of the lecture: the idea that true leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions. But how do you learn to do that? How do you learn to think? Let’s start with how you don’t learn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.

One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Now that’s the third time I’ve used that word, concentrating. Concentrating, focusing. You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

You and the members of the other service academies are in a unique position among college students, especially today. Not only do you know that you’re going to have a job when you graduate, you even know who your employer is going to be. But what happens after you fulfill your commitment to the Army? Unless you know who you are, how will you figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life? Unless you’re able to listen to yourself, to that quiet voice inside that tells you what you really care about, what you really believe in—indeed, how those things might be evolving under the pressure of your experiences. Students everywhere else agonize over these questions, and while you may not be doing so now, you are only postponing them for a few years.

Maybe some of you are agonizing over them now. Not everyone who starts here decides to finish here. It’s no wonder and no cause for shame. You are being put through the most demanding training anyone can ask of people your age, and you are committing yourself to work of awesome responsibility and mortal danger. The very rigor and regimentation to which you are quite properly subject here naturally has a tendency to make you lose touch with the passion that brought you here in the first place. I saw exactly the same kind of thing at Yale. It’s not that my students were robots. Quite the reverse. They were in­tensely idealistic, but the overwhelming weight of their practical responsibilities, all of those hoops they had to jump through, often made them lose sight of what those ideals were. Why they were doing it all in the first place.

So it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

But let me be clear that solitude doesn’t always have to mean introspection. Let’s go back to Heart of Darkness. It’s the solitude of concentration that saves Marlow amidst the madness of the Central Station. When he gets there he finds out that the steamboat he’s supposed to sail upriver has a giant hole in it, and no one is going to help him fix it. “I let him run on,” he says, “this papier-mâché Mephistopheles”—he’s talking not about the manager but his assistant, who’s even worse, since he’s still trying to kiss his way up the hierarchy, and who’s been raving away at him. You can think of him as the Internet, the ever-present social buzz, chattering away at you 24/7:

I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt. . . .

It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.

“The chance to find yourself.” Now that phrase, “finding yourself,” has acquired a bad reputation. It suggests an aimless liberal-arts college graduate—an English major, no doubt, someone who went to a place like Amherst or Pomona—who’s too spoiled to get a job and spends his time staring off into space. But here’s Marlow, a mariner, a ship’s captain. A more practical, hardheaded person you could not find. And I should say that Marlow’s creator, Conrad, spent 19 years as a merchant marine, eight of them as a ship’s captain, before he became a writer, so this wasn’t just some artist’s idea of a sailor. Marlow believes in the need to find yourself just as much as anyone does, and the way to do it, he says, is work, solitary work. Concentration. Climbing on that steamboat and spending a few uninterrupted hours hammering it into shape. Or building a house, or cooking a meal, or even writing a college paper, if you really put yourself into it.

“Your own reality—for yourself, not for others.” Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.

Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today. And when I say “revolutionary,” I am deliberately evoking the American Revolution, because it was a result of precisely this kind of independent thinking. Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.”

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.

This is what we call thinking out loud, discovering what you believe in the course of articulating it. But it takes just as much time and just as much patience as solitude in the strict sense. And our new electronic world has disrupted it just as violently. Instead of having one or two true friends that we can sit and talk to for three hours at a time, we have 968 “friends” that we never actually talk to; instead we just bounce one-line messages off them a hundred times a day. This is not friendship, this is distraction.

I know that none of this is easy for you. Even if you threw away your cell phones and unplugged your computers, the rigors of your training here keep you too busy to make solitude, in any of these forms, anything less than very difficult to find. But the highest reason you need to try is precisely because of what the job you are training for will demand of you.

You’ve probably heard about the hazing scandal at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain that was all over the news recently. Terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer. What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?

How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?

These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself—morality, mortality, honor—so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.

How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

Looking for more? You might like Leadership Lessons and Learning How to Think posts.

Great Speeches: Creativity by Richard Hamming

Intro: Creativity, originality, novelty, and such words are regarded as "good things," and we often fail to distinguish between them - indeed we find them hard to define. Surely we do not need three words with exactly the same meaning; hence we should try to differentiate somewhat between them as we try to define them.

Creativity, originality, novelty are words that our society tends to value. I'm going to have to distinguish to some except between the meanings of those words before I go too far.

Primitive tribes don't appreciate originality, creativity, and novelty. You are supposed to do what the elders in the tribe always did. That is not too different in a good many large organizations. Management knows how things should be done and young people who come around wanna do it differently. “I'm not always appreciated.” It's got the same reasons in primitive tribes as in corporations. But it's obvious also that we do value these things and we do expect to have people be creative.

One the purposes of this talk is to increase the chance you'll be a creative person. Long ago friend of mine said he'd like to use a computing machine to do something no one had ever done. I thought a moment and said, “hmm why don't you take a ten-digit number multiplied by another ten-digit number?” It's almost certain that product has never been calculated, and you do subtract the envelope calculation, and decide that I'm right. A random product and two, ten-digit numbers has probably not been calculated. It was new. But it wasn't what he wanted. He said he'd rather do something like find the biggest prime number so he would go in Guinness Book of Records for a little while.

But what's the difference? One thing is we expect that something getting in a book of records is either very hard to do or to remarkable coincidence. Easy things to do don't usually rate as a record. So picking a random product is not exactly hard to do. Finding the biggest prime number is rather hard to do so there is a difference between them. Some difficulty in doing it seems me one of the things we talked about.

Evidently not done before doesn't really count. It's got to have more than that. This is a problem that modern art has grappled with. I assume you're all familiar with some modern art and you've seen it. The art galleries have grappled with it. I can clearly paint a picture and it will be novel and new and different but it won't be great art. Whether what they produce in the art galleries for modern art now is art or not is up to your opinion. It's a difficult question. There used to be a time when our agreed upon cannons of art. But there always been changes and it's very difficult to cope with particularly in art where you know the history. You are well aware that various artists died miserably in poverty. They couldn't sell their pictures and now the pictures will sell for millions of dollars. It's a common phenomenon. It's so common as being discouraging.

A great many artists use this and what is called a Robert Fulton complex. Fulton was trying to build a steamboat, and everyone called it Fulton’s Folley. The argument goes they laughed at Fulton and they were wrong. They're laughing at me, and therefore they're wrong. I'm a great artist. It's a very common argument given. But obviously it's not legitimate reasoning at all. You're going to say if it is going to be something important, it must be widely appreciated.

Let me take new theorem in some branch of mathematics, an important theorem. It maybe only ten people in the world can appreciate that moment. I can't go around saying it's got to be understood by many people. Significant contribution may be made at a time when very few people to understand it. In fact you remember for a while was maintained that only ten people the world who understood relativity. Yet it was regarded as important contribution. So breadth of understanding will not do the trick of telling you one good thing from a bad thing.

In women's fashions I’ve decided after watching Vogue magazine for many years that fashion should be different, but not too different. This is what we often mean it should be different but not too different. I cannot tell you the differences. You see in art alone the great problem of the difference. Now in ballet you will see that ballet still retains some classical ballet and some very modern quite different ballet. One form has grown from another but it's not discarded the old version. In modern art you will find very few people painting in the style of the Renaissance.

In 1838 a guy named Dick wrote a book in which continental drift occurs. In 1905 or something like that Wagner wrote a book on continental drift. These were ignored by the experts until after the Second World War when they can find a mechanism and could literally see the oceans splitting. They can see the magnetic ripples on both sides to convince themselves that in fact the continental drift occurred. They had plenty of other evidence earlier. The biologist has had to make GunWanda land so they can account for why various species on widely remote continents resemble each other. Then some people invoked land bridges. But the land bridges weren't visible so who can believe in those? But it's true that the scientists have not done so much better than have the artists.

Mendel. He did the work. It was published and it was ignored. In 1900, three different people found the same sort of phenomena but connected it with fruit flies and other topics. Then they found out Mendel had done it first. In Mendel's case we generally give Mendel credit for having started genetics even if it didn't but we don't generally give Dick credit for having started the continental drift. You can't tell how it's going to come out. We all have our failings recognizing new things very badly.

Discussing creativity one time a friend of mine said if he took results from three different fields which were well developed and put them together, that would be a great contribution. After thinking over a while, I had agree it would be. I can give you a simple example from my own experience.

At Bell Labs the expert who written a very thick book on magnetics came to me with a problem. One thing another, we worked on it back and forth and finally due to the contributions of my own we got the thing worked out. He wrote the whole thing up and put his name and my name on it and he came down to me to sign because you couldn't get a release without my signature. I went down to a very shrewd physicist friend of mine who I had great respect for and said look I cannot put my name to a paper which my contribution was simply applying least-squares. That's all I really did. He said Hamming my most requested reprints in solid-state physics was for a paper which I simply applied network circuit theory the problem. Sign and let it go ahead. It’s new in their field, they aren't used to it, so just sign and let it go. So I did. I merely applied well-known techniques in one area to a different area and apparently an expert of the field though it was worthwhile. Other people thought it was worthwhile. I still l have my reservations about the matter.

Creativity should be useful to us. But the problem of creativity also involves what I will call the psychological distance. How difficulty is to associate two things together? How difficult was it for me in error correcting codes to say I really want the math likes one plus one is zero? how difficult is it? Once told is very easy. Your creativity is in fact bringing things which are psychologically far apart and bringing them together and saying “look these are related.” This is all we're really doing. Often it is the basis of a great contribution.

I don't know what creativity is. I can't say it I'm convinced I cannot put into words. In fact if you want the whole book is devoted to creativity or as you want style. I became convinced that people are not taught about how to do engineering. There's lots of able engineers out there and they never really do anything great. Why can't they? Why can't they be trained to do great things? So I sell to try and do something about these courses. Reading it in an attempt to get you to think in more creative ways, make bigger contributions than you would if you just go along the same old rut.

If I can't say it why am I writing about it or talking about it, well because you'll find lots of books author and the subject and I'm convinced the bulk of them who write the book never did a creative act. I figured it's better I should try to tell you what creativity is about because you know I’ve done it.

I think frequently creativity is something like sex. You would tell a boy of 14 all about sex. You can give any number of books. He can read all he wants to. But you have a suspicion he isn’t going to understand sex until he's been income involved in himself.  Even then he may still not know it. There are things which you can talk about and read but you have to experience. I think creativity is one of those things you really need experience. The best I've been able to do is to tell you stories about myself so you will be vicariously experience creativity. This is why I've talked so much about myself. The attempt to get you to see and  experience to some extent what creativity is so you've got a better chance of doing it.

Introspection which was frowned on for a long while in psychology but has come back into favor is one of the things you can do in studying creativity. I learned somewhere in the early years of Bell Labs, when I'd done something creative, to stop. Look. Ask myself immediately why. Ask how did it happen.

As in sports you don't keep that in mind while you're doing it. You don't keep that in mind “just how I had baseball bat” while you're batting. You practice. When you're up at bat you just swing. In the same way you're doing creative work you just do it. Then you look back and see. You ask yourself, how could I have done it? how should I have done? but you can't really think about that at the same time you're doing creative. I've only got memory back from what happens. Nevertheless, all the reports say, “it suddenly appeared my mind.”

I recall telling you that the error correcting codes. I couldn't tell you why suddenly thought about a triangle code. frequently you cannot say what made you think of this little thing but there it is. Suddenly you can rationalize it afterwards and say well I should have thought because so and so. But it may not be true. It comes down to the subconscious and by and large I would say all the people who talked about creativity, except a few people think you can manage it and just practice it mechanically, most of us say it comes out of the subconscious somehow or other.

What you know about your subconscious? Not much. The main clue you have is your own dreams. They're clearly what you mean by the subconscious. One thing you notice is that particularly you're young the dreams elements come out of events that happen recently. Not exactly the same, they’re distorted. But many things are somewhat related to episodes from the past couple of days. Once the subconscious works on that, what can you do? A very simple thing which I've advocated to you several times already. You think about the problem you want to solve. And you think about it, and you think about it, and your subconscious hasn’t got anything else to think about when it goes to bed and go sleep. You saturate your subconscious with the problem. You haven't let your subconscious get much else. So while you were happily sleeping it's got to work on your problem. Maybe in the morning, there it is. One of the few ways I know to manage my subconscious is simply saturation.

This is what Newton said “if other people minded it but as I did they would do similar things.” This is really why I say Pasteur’s remark, “luck favors the prepared mind.” The person who's thought about it constantly is more likely to find the answer than the person who has not. The person who's thought about it a lot very intently finds his subconscious delivering the goods later on. If subconscious couldn't do anything else. That's one way about you. Of course, you have to eat sleep and so on but you keep your mind more or less intently involved on one thing. You keep the high emotional content of the day on that problem. You don't let other things get in the way. Then you can manage sometimes to come up with it.

If you can't, and the persistence doesn't work after a reasonable length of time, and I can't tell you just what reasonable is at the moment, you set it aside and go do something else. Sometimes left alone, the subconscious will still deliver the answer weeks later when you haven't been thinking about it. Sometimes you have to bring a problem again and go at it. But these mono-maniacal pursuit of an idea, intently week after week, after week, seldom results.

Now a classic example of the dream business helping you out is a chemist. He dreamed about snakes biting their own tails or rolling in hoops down the hill. He thought about a little while and so yes that's really the carbon atoms in a cycle. That's where the idea that carbon atoms form a ring, came from Kelly's dream of the snakes biting their tail and rolling down a hill. He saw a connection between his problem of what he dreamed of. This is the characteristic of Dreams. They don't give it to you right square out. Sometimes you have to see what the dream is telling you.

I want to delve into the importance of emotional content. If you don't have emotional content it doesn't happen. I dwell on it I was talking about error crafting codes. I've said other times. It’s partly because I have a friend at Bell Labs who was a very very good mathematician. Very skillful. Very able. But he would go home play the guitar. He did very good work but not the very best. Yet he could have I think. But he was never emotionally involved heavily the way some of us were. By and large those who care greatly are more likely to do something than those who don't care greatly. Emotional involvement is one of the things necessary. Its the same as I told you, keeping your mind saturated with it, those are different ways of saying the same thing.

Sometimes you get an answer. You're sure it's the answer and you work a little further you find this no good at all. All right go back to the drawing board. Except you now know what you don't have, can't do. You know that that path doesn't work. You know more of things not to do so you have a more focused view. Another thing you can do, which I often do when I'm stuck, I ask myself what would an answer look like if I had it. Are there conservation of energy laws? is there conservation momentum? What would an answer look like if I had it? This also helps you greatly to solve the problem.

Another thing you can do is ask, have I got all the information? what does it really depend upon? must I really know the position of the earth when I'm trying to calculate the satellites of Jupiter, or do I not need to know that? and what effect is position the earth got on the timing of satellite Jupiter's?  Robert Dicke found the velocity of light that way. You have to ask all kinds of questions.

A false starts and false solutions are common. Find you have an answer. You've found an answer in your own quaint way that is peculiar to you. You find you have trouble saying it. You also find the explanation doesn’t make much sense to other people. So you have to rework the idea for the other people. For example, Maxwell's equations. Maxwell originally derived them using all kinds of gear trains and everything else. A very wild mechanical model. That's how he found them. But he stripped out all the nonsense and gave you the equations directly without the mechanical model behind it. And that's often necessary to clean up your idea. Remove the nonsense. Remove the unimportant parts. In the process you will often understand the problem much better yourself by removing the irrelevant material.

For example, you assume the function is continuous and you look at the proof and you say, “where and the proof did I use continuity?” well I didn't. well then why do you assume continuity? I don't have to. that kind of a thing happens continually as you strip down the idea once you got a solution. and you gradually come up with a clean solution and you publish it finally.

Probably the most useful thing in creativity is analogy. This is like that. Maxwell in his head was thinking about a bunch of gear trains when he thought about how things might work. He finally decided gear trains were irrelevant but that's how I got there. you may think the analogy has to be close but frequently the analogy is very loose and weak. it's just a suggestion. “oh that reminds me of how it works over there.” “yes like that but of course it's different this way or like that.” “that's like that but you know that corresponds to that.” I see what to do next.”

It happens that way frequently, a very loose analogy like the snake biting his tail. loose analogy like that will often get you there. very good ones, not too often, but it happens. If you had an exact analogy you wouldn’t have something new. you’d be saying the same old thing again. There's always bound to be some difference but analogy is one of the things we work on. so how can we do this?

I worked with John Tukey for many years. You heard his name many times now. He was clearly a genius. He used to infuriate me frequently. We'd be doing something and he say, “well you know about the polarized light?” “well yeah I know about polarized light.” but I didn't occur to me to think of the situation where our own radar, that that would be relevant. When he says it, I see it. Why didn't I think of it?

I've spent a lot of years on it. Why was he so able to do it and I wasn't? Partly because he was smarter I was. Partly he had done something I had not done. Up until then I had learned things in the framework in which I had learned them in. I saw that when he learned something in the act of learning he asked himself, “what other things does it look like? In other words, he put little hooks on the idea so it had many ways of being recalled. I can only recall the framework in which I learned it. You see the difference? If in the act of learning, you simply learn in the framework which you're told, you can only recover in that framework. But if you think it over yourself and turnover and associate with it many other things in your mind, then when the time comes to recall it there are many more hooks. You can pull up the fish the other guy misses. This is what John did. Now I started doing that.

When I learned something new I said, let me stop and think and that's why I told you about digital filters. I told you how I went at it rather differently I said what is basic going on? what are fundamentals? how is this like that? I told you the story how walking out of my office and saying oh I know how to kill Gibbs phenomena down such a couple stories - that's nothing else than the fracture. Go a little further, that's the fraction electron microscope because that's where I'm headed for.

I have gradually learned to do these kinds of things. That's why I say several times that what you learn from others, you learn to follow. That which you learn for yourself, you learn to lead. You have to decide when you learn things to think them over. In the act of learning I look at in many different ways and then you'll have this lovely ability recall a relevant thing to the situation. You have a sense as I was with early days with John Tukey when he told me I knew but until he told me I didn't. And as I say that infuriated me. I didn't like that. Once or twice I know why, but when this happens ten times a year you do get rather infuriated being so stupid.

Many books were written on a topic of creativity. There are whole talks, seminars, everything else. There was maybe 15 20 years ago the idea of “business and brainstorming.” You assemble a bunch of people and they all brainstorm ideas without regard to details, just think wonderful thoughts and it was supposed to produce great ideas. We all have had the experience of talking with a friend or two about something, batting and idea around, and out of that comes some insight. But it appears these scheduled creativity sessions of Barnes brainstorming did not work very well because they've been pretty well abandoned. They just don't work, not scheduled. On the other hand talking, your ideas over to friends is help. I find what i have an idea i often go down the hall and explain to my friend. In the act of explaining I remove some of my confusion and get it in a cleaner neater form. Sometimes if you pick your friends well, they say, oh yeah that's just like so-and-so and then you've got another clue what to do.

I've always searched wherever I was to find those people who would stimulate me to think better, who are the people to whom i told something they would say something back to instead of “yeah that's interesting isn't it?” doesn't help you a bit. what you want is a person who's goes “yes that reminds me of so-and-so or that sort of like so” or “I remember that happened back in 08.” you seek those people out. you'll find those are people you go to lunch with. you avoid the other people. you pick your friends so they will stimulate you to think. you don't pick them necessary for a polite nice people. you pick them for ability assimilate. several people I found most stimulating were as people awkward difficult people to get along with. but if they will stimulate two good ideas they're beautiful. if they don't they're not.

Back to this topic mainly: can we teach creativity? I think the answer is both yes and no. I would not have devoted a lecture I would have not devoted the whole course to it if I did not think I can do something about it. but it's the analogy I've used many times, if you want to run the for minute mile you have to do the work. I have to get you to change yourself. I have to get you to change yourself. Physical habits you're familiar with. you put your left shoe on before the right shoe. But you have mental habits which are just about as rigid. You habitually think this way or that way. I have somehow or other to get you to break down these things and think in new ways, to accept new ideas. To search for them. To prepare yourself to find them. In short my job is to change you and how you think. The only way I've known is the method I've used. I tell you stories that you more or less have to believe because I tell them about myself. If I told you about somebody else they would not have the effect. I told you this the first lecture I'm telling you again. The necessity of lecture on direct experience is overwhelming if you're going to try and teach art.

A person teaching painting can show how they’d paint and they’d remark, “well da Vinci's painting with so-and-so” but when the artists said well I'd painted this way why don't you put something in like this, it's more convincing you see it done in front of your face. I've done this. I've tried very hard to get underneath your skin and I'm going to work on it further before we're through, trying to get you to change your ways.

In applying a change, you have to know yourself. It's very easy to promise reformation. I promise reformation to myself many times. Lots of times I failed. You know how difficult is. Anybody who has gone on a diet knows how difficult it is to stick to it, or quitting smoking, or something else. It's not easy to change your habits. Nevertheless, people do. People do succeed in going on diet and keeping our weight down. People do quit smoking. People do change things. You can change your mental habits the same way you can change your physical habits, provided you set down and start working on a project. But it isn't going to be easy.

It's better to practice on small steps than assume impossible ones and become discouraged. Frequently people who start dieting want to lose 10 pounds the first 5 minutes. Of course they don't. They get discouraged. Same way you have to pick small things to try and change small things and gradually build up a different pattern of thinking, a different way of living your metal life, and then you can be more creative than you have been.

In order to do this I have to really get down to something I've said it once or twice in this course. You have to take charge of yourself. You’re responsible for yourself. You're responsible for the way you behave. You're responsible for the way you think. You're responsible for yourself. You have to change yourself. You have to make yourself into the person you want to be. One of the things I've watched in my own life a lot:  do I want to be that kind of a person? no. then don't behave the way.

For example do I want to be a liar? no. then don't tell lies. if you don't want to be a liar then don’t start telling lies. When you find yourself telling lie, say hey I was not going to be a liar that's not right. I got to stop it. You have to stop a lot of things and start a bunch of other ones. You are responsible for yourself not the thing. I've got to get you to realize that more than you have. You are the one who must change yourself. I can't do anything about it.

I have not talked about a delicate topic. That is, dropping a problem. If you pick up problems and work on them and you get success, that is fine. You work one up and then another. But if you can't drop problems, the first time you meet a bad problem, that's the end. You'll never get it solved. The classic example is our boy Einstein. He had lots of good ideas. He produced a lot of things. But once he hits unified field theory, the second half of his life went down the drain and that problem he didn't get anything. It was the wrong problem, at the wrong time, in the wrong way. Not that it will not perhaps be unified field theory, I don't know but half his life went on a problem which he got nothing for it. Perhaps most creative fizzes we ever had in many respects

I have often argued that Oppenheimer at the Institute should have called Einstein into his office and said, “Al, old boy, do me a favor. Drop that unified field stuff for six months a year and work on anything else at all, but just drop that. Would Al have been able to do it? I'm inclined to think he could have, but who thinks they got enough nerve to tell Einstein how to run his own business. Oppenheimer might have but he didn’t, as far as I know. I sometimes thought Einstein could have been saved.

On several occasions at Bell Labs I've been asked to do that kind of a job, and one of them which is a failure, I can remember distinctly. This man thought well he was working on nonlinear filters, nonlinear filter is everything, with no restriction on this area. It's like looking at the moon and a falling Apple and saying “oh, gravity, common thing.” That's nonlinear filter ha you aren't going to build one.

He had the characteristic syndrome. He was going to get the results in 18 months. He'd made some progress for a while. But he thought he might get there fine at 18 months. A year passes he's made some more progress, he will better get there in another 18 months. That's a very characteristic syndrome.

You've got an idea, you're working on it, but you're the solution all always receding. We see it at about a fixed distance. It's not a guarantee but it's a suggestion you have the wrong problem. If you don't drop it there goes the rest your career. On the other hand if you drop problems too soon somebody else comes by and doesn't it. It all comes down to one of my favorite expressions: the difference between strong-willed and stubborn. George Washington was strong-willed. Had a lost the revolution, he would have been stubborn. It's a small, thin thing but it's essential that you understand when to drop a problem.

I think I've told you some cases the other day, I thought of how many times I have walked for a problem that looked too hard to do at the moment, and I should go off and do something else. Later on other people did it. Fine I'm glad they did. I couldn't because the working circumstance which I had were inadequate to the problem. The working circumstances is very common.

You may think you haven't got the right working conditions. Very common thing for creativity. Forget it. What the average person thinks is good for creativity is not. The evidence I will give you is the Institute for Advanced Study. There you're given a lifetime appointment, more than adequate salary, beautiful restaurants, and beautiful offices, everything else. Everything is laid out for you. If you compare what the people at the Institute did before they got there and what they did afterwards I think you'll be with me. The Institute has killed more good people than anyplace else has ever created. What you think of as ideal working conditions, are not. Frequently, very unpleasant work conditions are the ones that will stimulate you so don't give an excuse, “well I can't work until I have ideal working conditions.” when you get deal working conditions you probably will not find the answer. it's done under difficult circumstances.

One of the methods I've managed myself with and I think it works very well on me, I'm not saying it will work on you, is what I call the cornered rat theory. It's based on two principles which you know about me: I'm rather egotistical; I don't like being wrong. At the same time I got a fair amount of self-confidence.

Thursday comes and I’ll say, “well I'll have the answer for you Monday.” Sunday afternoon comes by and Monday morning we’re meeting soon, and I haven't got an answer. I started thinking about it well Monday night I still haven't got the answer. I thought really because I don't want to walk in Monday morning and say I haven't got the answer. Like a cornered rat more often than not, I've risen to heights of effort and produced an answer. I would not have done it if I had not promised “I'll have it to you by Monday.” I managed to convert what I consider a couple of character defects in many respects of me into an asset. I used myself. I deliberately would promise people answers why I didn't know how I was going to do it because experience taught me that was the way to be much more creative.  “I'll see if I can get you an answer.” oh I promise “I'll see you get you an answer” now maybe I get it by Wednesday, maybe I'll forget it by then. Something else well I promise I have Monday morning and Monday morning is a good time do it because you got the weekend to start working on it. With Monday morning you have very good time to promise an answer I'll be in your office in o'clock with the answer. it powerfully makes you think Saturday Sunday night on Saturday night if you've got those attributes I have that's one way of managing yourself. If you haven't then you have to find some other ones but you have to know yourself to manage yourself.

I'm coming back to this expression I said, “you have to take responsibility for yourself. You have to understand yourself and what you can and cannot do.”

I should also tell you the circumstance of changing things. When I went out to Nebraska to graduate school, I was going out where I knew no one. In those days you took a train because airplanes cost so much. On the way out I thought about myself. I thought I had had a quick smart answer for a lot of things. I was very clever quick-witted guy. When you do those things 9 times out of 10 it’s funny. But the 10th time it's only funny but it hurts the other guy's feelings a lot. I think you know it. These people have a quick answer. Sometimes the answer is really painful but it's funny so you have to laugh but it isn't good. I thought more and I realized I had lots of acquaintances but no really close friends. With a long trip out there by train through Chicago and Lincoln Nebraska I had plenty of time to think. I decided, you know it's because you had this snotty quick answer that you've gotten yourself in trouble, you've lost friends. Sooner or later you're going to say something which is going to hurt their feelings and they'll gradually drift off.

I decided I'll reform. Going to a place where no one knew me, no one turned to being expect me to make a quick remark. In among friends you expect to behave the same, when you move to a new situation you have a better chance of changing your behavior pattern then you have in a fixed static situation. Since you people get moved around a lot you have more opportunities than most of us have for deciding, “I am going to change some aspect of myself.” You have built-in opportunity to do it which I had far fewer than you did. After all 30 years of Bell Labs in 20 years here isn't exactly a lot changing around much it's pretty well fixed in a rut. Nevertheless you can do this and I say that when you change situations that is one of the best times you can change yourself because you no longer are automatic expect to behave the way you have.

You can behave differently and that includes not only physical material things but also ways of thinking. If you get a reputation for having answers in a new situation then people will turn to you. At Bell Labs I had a reputation for solving analytic integration of all kinds. The whole labs. When they got really stuck they would call me up and say I got an integrator, I hear you can do something. I would say yes and he tells me over the phone and I'll copy down the information and get the phone number and say I'll see what I can do. I got an enormous practice of that. Now you have a machine to it. But those days we didn't.

There were people around Bell Labs, people you knew. For example I knew two people who really knew Bessel functions very well. When I got stuck on an idea

they could tell me all about Bessel functions. I have other people who knew various things as I stayed in the organization. I knew to whom to go. They build reputation. How do you build a reputation for giving you answers a given kind? I think on the back end I had a reputation for the following: when nobody knows what to do at all, then you call Hamming. He is probably best when he nobody knows anything. We don't want to dwell where we're totally lost. Hamming  somehow or other can do something in those situations where other people are stuck. I think that's the reputation I had. Certainly that’s the way I probably worked best. You would have other traits. What are your best traits? Emphasize those and get a reputation for and bingo there you are. You're known as a person who does these kind of things. What kind of things do you wanna be known to be able to do, things that you can do.

There's no use to want to do some things you cannot do. I mean if you've one arm you can't become a great juggler. If you’ve got some other physical defects there are things you cannot do. Likewise mentally if you get some peculiar features. If you've got features I told you about mine I told you confessing it I got ingot ISM is pretty big and I got great self-confidence. I turn around and use those things for my advantage. You need to study yourself. Take charge yourself and find out what the heck is going on and go do it.

I have to say some things about careers. In mathematics, theoretical physics, and astrophysics, in the past, the best work was done by the person very young. Newton after all got much of stuff during the plague when he was sent home from Cambridge. He went back to where he father was and he spent time at a farm thinking. For 18 months as the plague went around. Most of the ideas are traceable directly from that period. Most great scientists their best work was done surprisingly young.

On the other hand, with music composition, politics, and novel writing, often the last is best. We value the last compositions of many of the great composers. That doesn't mean the composers did. The composers sometimes like some early composition that other people don't like. They like it because it was to them something of a breakthrough. People don't see it that way so in some fields maturity is the best thing but it's astrophysics mathematics and theoretical physics where raw creativity counts youth is a great advantage and experience is not. Other fields different. I don't know about your field.

There are a few exceptions. ?? Charles in mathematics taught high school for years and years years and he finally got to college became highly creative later on. There are one or two examples in mathematics where creativity was late in life, but by and large it's very young. If you want to go in a field like mathematics and you're 40, forget it. You're not going to do much.

What did I do in my career? Let’s look at a couple of stories.

After I came here Bell Labs I rolled sheet of paper like that with ten columns. Great research went across, and the years went in the down column. I unrolled it and looked at it. Boy was I good. I was connected with a lot of things. I been out of any transistors but there I was helping the bastards. I mean really good. Because it was rolled up tight, I scotch taped it on my office door so I can read it look at it. I come in and look at, admired it. I came in one day and looked. Everything the historians marked down that I did was important or connected with important things was in the first 15 years. There wasn't associated with a single important thing in the last 50 years . I couldn’t say I was reasonably closely associated with anything important. Needless to say, I tore it off the door and through the waste basket.

That's how historians judged my work. I knew this age business. What can you do?  You can do what I did and what ballet dancers do and aging athletes. When you no longer do it because of age, you become a coach. That's what I did. I came out here teaching which is really coaching. I can't do creative work anymore in my field. I'm too old. I can try and coach you into it. This is exactly what I'm doing. I'm trying to convince you you can do it. My error cracking codes occurred when I was 31 but my excuse is that I was working my way through college and the war tore up anything I might have done and got me involved in other things.

I got a little late start 31 is kind of late for a math teacher to do his best work. But probably error correcting codes are regarded my best work and they were don then. All the things the historians value were in the first fifteen or thirty years. I know more now. I got more skill technique than I ever had. That doesn't count. Creativity is something else. Originality is something else. I don't know how it comes out painting. I think in poetry often the best poetry is fairly young. TS Eliot made a great big splash when he was in his early 20s and 30s. Most posts get started very young. Others will get started late. Sometimes the age is a help sometimes is not. Your business depends on what aspect you're in in your business. You need to look the situation to say it over take charge of yourself and decide, “I am going to be great in these ways, I can do what lies within my ability, no I can't now suddenly at 40 become a great mathematician (almost surely).” yes I can do such and such.”

One other thing you can do which is worth doing because you've got one lousy life to live on earth as far as I know and if you do come back through reincarnation you won't remember what you to the first time anyhow so you've got one life to live here, what are you going to do with it? You might as well be creative.


Our lecture today is on the subject of experts. There's one definition of an expert: it is a person with a briefcase at least 50 miles away from home. The one I gave is an expert is one who knows everything about nothing, whereas the generalist knows nothing about everything. The expert tends to be so narrow they know everything about that a little small subject and nothing else, the generalist doesn't know anything.

I have been both an expert and a generalist. I can tell you the expert wins against the generalist almost always by the following devices. one you use a lot of jargon which the generalist doesn't know. secondly you invoke basic principles in your field which may be totally irrelevant but sound good. You snow the generalist and you lead them astray. Most times in an argument the generalist loses by those two methods. The specialist does not come down to the generalist level but rather stays as high-level. That leaves the generalist losing. It's a problem you will face. You people are by and large supposed to be generalists so we face a different problem.

A fellow named Kuhn wrote a famous book “scientific revolutions”  and he looked at the structure of science and the revolutions and he gave the name “paradigm” to name a pattern of what is going on. Typically when you are taught physics, you are taught not only the formulas but you taught a style of thinking about it. The style is not mentioned. It's just delivered. The kind of problems you can ask. The kind of answers you get, are all implied in this style. People by and large operate within the paradigm of the field. Suddenly there may be upsets. In physics there were two of them, relativity and quantum mechanics. Both can provide a different framework of thinking and different kinds of questions. Relativity opened up the whole field of cosmology, the origin of the universe. It really opened up the field now so there's lots of speculation. Dfficulty with cosmology is you have one sample only and you're supposed to account for how it happened. You haven't got a bunch of different samples and you haven't any power to experiment. So cosmology is a very interesting science if you think it's a science.

The contradictions will arise the field. In late eighteen hundreds there were numerous contradictions. I told you in discussing quantum mechanics how some of these led to something else. Most people in the field will ignore contradictions. They will dismiss them. They will do anything at all but face them. As they go on they don't do anything. It's only by noticing their contradictions and building up that you have a chance of making the big change. It's a very difficult thing to pay attention to.

What doesn't agree we'll accept the doctrine is because you are not popular if you bring up “yes but”. For example I brought up to you with regard to thinking. That although we talk all the time about the neural system neurons storing knowledge here there and yawn. One celled animals can apparently learn, and they don't have a nervous system. By and large that is totally ignored. It may or may not be relevant but I keep it in mind saying well you know maybe what I'm being told is not the complete story. Most people in the field ignore the fact and go on thinking within their framework, that the nervous system explains everything.

When a change occurs, it is resisted by almost everybody in the business. I can find no figures reliably or how much relativity and how much quantum mechanics was resisted. I can tell you that in late 1930s I saw in library in University of Nebraska quite a few books trying to claim that Euclid was a true geometry and all the other things were all wrong. Consequently, relativity was wrong. There was a lot of relativity books written against relativity. It indicates quite a few people did not accept relativity. If you go back to our boy (Max) Planck about adopting quantum mechanics there's a classic sentence of his, “we didn't convert them, we outlived them.”

I thought about that many times. The bitterness must have been in his voice, “we didn't convert them, we outlived them.” that's how we won. by and large entrenched people would not pay attention to new ideas. this is normal process. new ideas are greatly resisted.

It was supposed by (Thomas Samuel) Kuhn that new ideas oughta triumph. well yeah they oughta but I told you back in 1838 (Thomas) Dick wrote about what amounts to continental drift. In the early 1900s (Alfred) Wegener whole book about it but it got nowhere. It was adopted in the 40s well after the war or perhaps early 50s. Learned physicist wrote against why it couldn't possibly happen. of course, they assumed the wrong model. based a wrong model they proved continents couldn't drift.

The other one I mentioned to you is genetics, Mendel’s Peas. he might as well have not done it. But it was rediscovered in 1900 and then people found out he had done it earlier. it is not clear that a new idea will triumph. I cannot possibly tell you how many new ideas were lost and didn't triumph because there's no way of finding them. but my suspicion is that the idea that people have that all of the truth triumphs in science may be true if the element is long enough but it may be well past your lifetime. so the idea that we would like to have that we really went out early is simply not correct. it's a very great resistance when you have a new idea.

beyond just the continental drift because South America fitted Africa there was the fact that biologists had found the same kind of remnants of animals in the rocks in Australia in South America and Africa. IT’s natural to suppose they must have been connected together because the animals were in one place. to account for some of these things there was a belief that land bridges came up and sank down so the animals get across and they sank again, but there is no evidence. and there was the theory biologists had of one unified land Pangaea breaking up in the Gondwanaland and so on, other geologists wanted no part of it. until they finally had seen right with our eyes practically the split in the continents where the new land is being made right above the oceans. and then suddenly it was accepted. when you read down history, they say oh we always believed it, we just didn't have the final evidence. they were very very resistant to the idea. it's one of the best ones in my lifetime of total resistance to an idea which apparently now is fairly triumphant. most of us people believe something like plate tectonics is the way the planet is built. but it could be changed tomorrow I don't know.

I have one of my favorite one, a guy went to the Patent Office and applied for a patent it would lift water more than 33 feet. now you read in your physics book that vacuum will lift water 33 feet, no more. they wouldn't give a patent. because all the books so you couldn't. so he brought some equipment in and put it on top of the roof. a little valve here, a little valve up there, and a short-stroke pitched piston. the best is going so fast the standing waves are set up in the column. when is a rarefaction water comes in. well as a compression the valve shuts. and when is the compression the water goes out the top. he lifted two water 100 feet. they had to give a patent. but they didn't believe it because all the book said you can't lift water more than 33 feet because the air pressure outside is so much it's only going to push up so far. but you see he saw genius ways of producing perfect rarefaction and compressions and proceeded to lift water a hundred feet instead. I'm not saying it's a good method. I'm saying it's typical that the Patent Office knew that the books all said you can't lift water. but you see everything like that is based upon something. no possibility proof rests on one statement. it rests on a whole bunch. if any one of them is wrong…. and they never visualize. they thought if I simply tried to suck the water up yes I could only lift about 33 feet to perfect vacuum won’t lift it any further. what if I produce local vacuums. then I can. so you see one of the troubles with the expert, you're proposing to do something he knows can't be done. but you may be doing a different way and he cannot hear or she cannot hear. it's a very very great troublesome thing.

I said the geologists claimed everything is right. and well they had to revise themselves. as a well-known saying, “if an expert tells you something can be done it is probable it can be done. he tells it can't be done, it may pay to get another expert who may tell you you can.” certainly my experience of Bell Laboratories had many experts that have been marvelously wrong lots of times. they don't understand the problem. I had a young fellow working for me for a while, a bright energetic nice guy, but he didn't understand. he grabbed the wrong problem, solved it very elegantly and as a result his work had to be undone before he can get to the right problem.

The misidentification will problem is very great. the expert sees some parts of it. that’s that and this is this…they forced the situation into a situation they know or think they know, and then look at it that way from their trained eyes, and they don't see the problem has got some elements which are different. the expert sipping cannot see it. that's the same words I told you earlier this lecture that they can't remember there are small contradictions in any theory. they conveniently forget them.

well this guy was very nice but I found frequently he was a nuisance. what he said was correct. but he had the wrong problem. he had the right answer to the wrong problem. and trying to find a reasonably good answer to the right problem is something very difficult to do when the guy is given the exact answer to the wrong problem. it's very hard to undo that. but that's one of the things they do.

now Kuhn and historians of science have concentrated on the big changes of science. it's my impression that the smaller changes science work the same. there are many small changes of current science and they don't get adopted frequently. for example one that I didn't succeed with. working at Bell Telephone laboratories it was natural that I would meet the frequency approach. you remember in several mechanisms you analyzed by frequencies. you imagine a transmission and you're worried about the frequency bandwidth. I told you earlier I had tried to do what I observed a half by Max Planck. I tried to use the right formula so my calculation would fit with their beliefs in their field not just approximately polynomials which is traditional. so I gradually developed the technique of approximating not by polynomials but by frequencies. sines and cosines are complex exponential's. and you know how powerful Fourier series really is since you're more or less electrical engineers.

my friends in computing kidded me about it. they never listened. they never adopted it. they just never did. in fact I wrote a book which is reasonably well expounded but most American Alice's books now will mention the fast Fourier transform. that’s all others will say about the fast frequency approach. yet by calculating that way on several occasions because the calculation returns a frequency the person for whom I produced the numbers could understand the numbers better they could if it were polynomial. if I said well I passed 70 frequencies if I use a polymer degree 5 all over b5 wouldn’t mean anything to him. “these were the frequencies we passed through” that he could understand. frequently not always so I led some people to small things not as great as quantum mechanics but to small help, by trying to adjust the computation who fit the person's beliefs.

there's other ones I also occasionally used. real Exponential's for some things. In some other fields., sometimes, I talk in the person over lunch I found out the kind of functions they believed in. I try to use those kinds of functions to help them find insight. I didn't succeed. there was an episode where I think to this day that I'm right but that idea didn’t yet not percolate into computing. although it is widely used by physicists.

I'm not bringing up these troubles just to poke fun. but for four reasons why I bring up the role of expert. first as you go on you'll have to deal with experts you ought to know the faults and good parts of experts. they know a lot. secondly many of you will become an expert. I'm hoping somehow or other that you won't be as bad as the average expert. there appears to me the rate of progress is increasing and will continue increasing your period therefore will be more need for you to adjust to new things and more off the experts will be wrong because the situation isn't like it was yesterday. fourth if only I could say the right things to you I would make you stay ahead and not let you become obsolete. that is a very sensitive point for me. I have had several my friends good friends left behind because they didn't adopt new things. I told you roughly about a friend of mine who was a great analog person. I learned a great deal from him but he wouldn't really convert to digital and he was left behind. we retired the same time him by encouraged retirement little extra money and me to go out to a different job. later on when we met it was clear that our attitudes toward our life careers at Bell Labs were quite different. mine was pleasant. his was unpleasant because he was sort of pushed out. since coming here I met quite a few captains in Navy who retired. they didn't make Admiral. someone reasonably happy what happened to him but some show good deal being disgruntled and unhappy. I think you one who when you get him drunk enough he's always back commanded a flotilla off South America. he didn't like being passed over several times retired. my problem is how do I get you people to rise to as far as you wish to rather being pushed out.