The prepared mind: How to Approach Craft

The Prepared Mind: How to approach craft


Photo by  Franck V.

Photo by Franck V.

This past weekend, I attended a conference focused on one of the latest buzz terms “transformative tech.” I’ve been tracking them since they started and it appears to be nice marketing to VCs for—you guessed it—tech, but specifically tech “for mental health, emotional well being, and human flourishing.” For this group, there needs to be electricity, or a battery involved so the work of teachers, coaches, seekers, etc. are not emphasized.

One of the speakers was extrapolating on how one day, we will have tech that “gets us to flow” or “helps us jump quickly to a meditative state.” This is not the first time I’ve heard this idea being discussed and I listened intently, thinking through the potential consequences of what amounts to “skipping the [learning] journey” of learning and moving right into integration.

Learning, the kind that moves us forward in our lives and work, is fraught with struggle. There is struggle to accept a new idea, reason with it, and integrate into a new, broader understanding. Reasoning is a skill that is in precarious decline as reliance on data increases. What depth of experience (and insight) might be lost if technology could help us avoid the ungainliness, awkwardness, anxiety-prone beginner’s mind of a new idea or activity? What would be lost if we were able to skip important phases of developing mastery?

In an age obsessed with tech, repackaged ideas, and Instagram soundbites, some of the great tech thinkers get lost to history. I’d like to share some learning from the great Richard Hamming. Hamming was an American mathematician whose work had many implications for computer engineering and telecommunications. He programmed IBM’s calculating machines. He was involved in nearly all of Bell Laboratories' most prominent achievements. After retiring, Hamming took a position at the Naval Postgraduate School and devoted himself to teaching and writing books. He delivered his last lecture in December 1997, just a few weeks before he died from a heart attack on January 7, 1998.

You can see it here. I call out some of his major ideas as they relate to my research on Master Craftsmen, how they get better at what they do, and what we (in tech and in business) can learn from them.

How to Work With Craft In Whatever You Do

Insight, skill, or the state of consciousness gained by daily, deliberate practice, are rarely handed to you on a silver platter. Einstein argued that genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Picasso referred to “inspiration [existing] but needs to find you at work.” While we can acknowledge that luck plays a role, we often use that as a crutch to avoid doing what we can do to intelligently prepare for opportunities. Perspiration and work are, in my opinion, integral to effective integration.

We only get one life, “and it seems to be it is better to do significant things than to just get along through life to its end,” writes Richard Hamming in his 1997 book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn. The book and his 1986 lecture, 'Luck favors the prepared mind', You and Your Research, explore how we do great work. Specifically, he refers to “Nobel-Prize type work.” Nobel level work raises the standards of what we thought possible and teaches us to think in new ways. In many ways, Nobel prize winners are the craftsmen in their respective fields.

From cooking to coding, there are methods to engage in order to do something with Craft. That’s how LEAN, DMAIC. 6Sigma and my other methodologies came to be. There are also mental disciplines we can learn for more effective thinking. But, where to start?

Hamming suggests that preparation is what separates the good from the great. This means the way you live your life—the extent to which you intelligently prepare—makes a huge difference in what you can accomplish.

As human beings, we tend fixate on what we can see with our eyes. We think focusing on the concrete is being objective. It’s how we rationalize. When we look at transformations in other people’s lives, we see good luck, natural talent, unfair advantage, or the right connections. We concentrate on the visible signs of opportunity and success. We do this with organizations too — and it’s an illusion. 

The key to any change is insanely simple. Stop fixating on the external and focus on smaller, internal changes. It is the difference between grasping at an illusion and immersing yourself in reality. Reality is what transforms you. 

The major objection cited by people against striving to do great things is the belief it is all a matter of luck. I have repeatedly cited Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind”. It both admits there is an element of luck, and yet claims to a great extent it is up to you. You prepare yourself to succeed, or not, as you choose, from moment to moment, by the way you live your life.

Hamming, Richard R. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 209)

Luck is always part of the equation. Philosophers, political theorists, and strategists have long acknowledged the large role that luck plays in every aspect of our lives. Even Nicolo Machiavelli, the cataloger of each and every lever that a prince can pull in the pursuit of power, acknowledged that “I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half to be controlled by ourselves.” What was true in Italian politics centuries ago is just as true in management today.

Yet if life were all about luck, the same people wouldn’t repeatedly do great things. Galileo Galilei did many great things. So did Newton and Einstein. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos have been successful in multiple sectors. The list goes on.

When someone repeatedly achieves greatness, it is because they prepared in advance to recognize, work on, and fill in the blanks when necessary. This is the essence of intelligent preparation and the foundation of deliberate practice—greatness is a byproduct. So often, in the attempt to optimize and recreate, we forget that.

Intelligence comes in many forms. A lot of the time it’s not easily recognized — a lot of people who repeatedly do great things were poor students. IQ does not ensure academic success. Being smart is nice but it’s better if you know how to apply your knowledge.

Believe that you are capable of doing work that matters.

How you regard yourself and your ability to contribute determines how you experience the people in your life, the work you choose, and the tactics and strategies you choose to solve problems.  

With the belief that you can do work that matters, why is that most of us spend time on work that doesn’t matter?

…direct observation, and direct questioning of people, shows most scientists spend most of their time working on things they believe are not important nor are they likely to lead to important things.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 210).

If what you are working on is not important and aligned with your values—and a lot of what you are working on, what you are saying and what you are doing isn’t either. Think about that.

Is health important to you? When was the last time you invested in it?

Are relationships important to you? What do you do to invest in them?

Do you value the process, really? When was the last time you valued, really valued the many, many small decisions that enable you to achieve the results you are after?

The question you need to ask yourself if why are you not working on and thinking about the important problems in your area? How can we expect to achieve great things if we are not working on the right problems?

Be willing to be an outlier. 

Think of this as confidence meets courage. You might look like an idiot because you are doing something new. You might not be immediately understood by those around you because you are challenging the status quo.

[Claude] Shannon had courage. Who else but a man with almost infinite courage would ever think of averaging over all random codes and expect the average code would be good? He knew what he was doing was important and pursued it intensely. Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes”. While playing chess Shannon would often advance his queen boldly into the fray and say, “I ain’t scaird of nothing”. I learned to repeat it to myself when stuck, and at times it has enabled me to go on to a success. I deliberately copied a part of the style of a great scientist. The courage to continue is essential since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

Embrace horizonal goals. 

You have to see excellence as a pursuit not an outcome. This isn’t as easy as it sounds but it as an essential feature of engaging in Craft.

Without such a goal you will tend to remain three degrees off course. You will be headed in the right direction, almost. Three degrees seems small, but that is when you stay the course and say to yourself, “I’m ok, I can still see the hill I’m headed toward.” It isn’t until twenty years later that you realize something isn’t right. You can no longer see that hill. The cumulative effect of being three degrees off course for a long period of time means that it’s either time to backtrack, make a pivot toward that hill, or try some other approach to get you back on course.

…with the goal of doing significant work, there is tendency for the steps to go in the same direction and thus go a distance proportional to the number of steps taken, which in a lifetime is a large number indeed.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

What most people think are the best working conditions, are not—learn to dance between failure and fame.

Constraints can lead to innovation. But constraints is just another word for reality, or the lack of the ideal (budget, resources, environment, or other qualities you are seeking). The feedback of reality in order to keep your feet planted on the ground.

Age seems to have the effect it does. In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work. You may find yourself as I saw Brattain when he got a Nobel Prize. The day the prize was announced we all assembled in Arnold Auditorium; all three winners got up and made speeches. The third one, Brattain, practically with tears in his eyes, said, “I know about this Nobel-Prize effect and I am not going to let it affect me; I am going to remain good old Walter Brattain.” Well I said to myself, “That is nice.” But in a few weeks I saw it was affecting him. Now he could only work on great problems.

When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn't the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you. In fact I will give you my favorite quotation of many years. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren't good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards.

Work with your door open.

I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.   

People who do great things typically have a great drive to do things.

…most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode's office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

Focused investment of only one hour a day can double your lifetime output. 

Intelligent preparation is like compound interest, the more you invest, the more situations you can handle, the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. The advantage of investing in just one hour a day to learning new things is an overlooked gem hiding in plain sight.

This isn’t about who works the hardest but rather who focuses their limited energy on the right things. Learning things that (1) change slowly and (2) apply to a wide variety of situations could be a better use of time than learning something incredibly time-consuming, rapidly changing, and of limited application.

Hamming dedicated his Friday afternoons to “great thoughts.” Setting aside time to think is a common characteristic of people that do great things. Not only does this help you live consciously it helps get your head out of the weeds. The rest of us are too busy with the details to ask if we’re going in the right direction.

Consider that advice against a well-intended behavior not truly lived. Google’s 20% time was eventually abandoned. Only about 10% of Googlers were using it. But that didn’t matter much as long as the idea of it exists, according to Google HR boss Laszlo Bock in his new book, "Work Rules!"

Tolerate ambiguity.

Believe and not believe at the same time. You have to believe that where you work is the best place in the industry, and capable of improving.

It took me a while to discover the importance of ambiguity. Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don't quite fit and they don't forget it. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions. Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

If you find yourself blaming your (mental) tools, do something about it. Learn the mental models, learn from Craftsmen talk about how they learn and get better at what they do, and more importantly take ownership. Moving forward requires change but change does not mean that you are moving forward. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”