July 25, 2002
You. What are you doing there?
Richard Hamming's 1986 talk at Bell Labs, "You and your Research" asks "Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?"
[Via Krzysztof Kowalczyk]
I have to get you to drop modesty and say to yourself, "Yes, I would like to do first-class work." Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You're not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that's a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn't you set out to do something significant. You don't have to tell other people, but shouldn't you say to yourself, "Yes, I would like to do something significant."
Hi. My name is John, and I would like to do something significant.
Seriously, reading this has caused me to think about my priorities. What code do I want to write, what systems do I want to create? What code do I not want to spend my time on? It has been good for me. Maybe it will be good for you, too.
Posted by jjwiseman at July 25, 2002 12:47 AM
Hamming answers a question about job stress: "But if you want to be a great scientist you're going to have to put up with stress. You can lead a nice life; you can be a nice guy or you can be a great scientist. But nice guys end last, is what Leo Durocher said. If you want to lead a nice happy life with a lot of recreation and everything else, you'll lead a nice life." That's not good enough for me. Still seeking just the right blend of happy life and satisfying work. Absolutely isn't an either/or decision. Can't be.
I never liked the "nice guys finish last" version of this -- esp. as having a nice life isn't at all the same thing as being a nice guy. :-) I prefer a formulation that's more like "you can have anything you want -- but you can't have everything you want". Still not even convinced this version is true, but it's better than the Leo Durocher quip.
IMHO, academics does not foster a culture of risk-takers. To get grants and to publish papers, you have to do something that people will readily understand. If you don't, you won't get tenure and you're academic career could stall catastrophically. Safer to publish a respectable stream of incremental research in established areas. On the other hand, if you're not from a top 10-15 school it is better to swing for the fences. You either do something great or leave to make more money in industry.