You and Your Research, Richard Hamming

  • Link to original text.
  • I recommend reading the full text. It may seem a bit long but I assure you that it is worth the time.
  • The talk is mainly about how to do first-class work, something significant as a great scientist.

The following is a list of quotes from the text that inspired me. Bold fonts were not in the original text, I added them on my own.

Read the full text for the full context!


And I will cite Pasteur who said, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” […] There is indeed an element of luck, and no, there isn’t.

I want to dispose of this matter of luck as being the sole criterion whether you do great work or not.

Newton said, “If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.”

I’d say luck changes the odds, but there is some definite control on the part of the individual.


One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them.

One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. […] They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.

Working Conditions

What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. Very clearly they are not because people are often most productive when working conditions are bad.


Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” […] The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity.

Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

On this matter of drive Edison says, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” He may have been exaggerating, but the idea is that solid work, steadily applied, gets you surprisingly far. The steady application of effort with a little bit more work, intelligently applied is what does it.


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 to much you’ll never notice the flaws; if you doubt to much you won’t get started. It requires a lovely balance.

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.


If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. […] For those who don’t get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn’t produce the big result.

Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

Important Problem

“What are the important problems of your field?” “What important problems are you working on?” “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?1

If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious.

We didn’t work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack.

What will be the impact of computers on science and how can I change it?2

I thought hard about where was my field going, where were the opportunities, and what were the important things to do. Let me go there so there is a chance I can do important things.

They (most great scientists) have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say “Well that bears on this problem.” They drop all the other things and get after it.

They get rid of other things and they get after an idea because they had already thought the thing through. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it.

Working with an Open Door

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.


“Is the effort to be a great scientist worth it?” […] I think it is very definitely worth the struggle to try and do first-class work because the truth is, the value is in the struggle more than it is in the result.

But if you want to be a great scientist you’re going to have to put up with stress.

You know the idea called the ‘critical mass’. […] What you want to do is get that critical mass in action; “Yes, that reminds me of so and so,” or, “Have you thought about that or this?” When you talk to other people, you want to get rid of those sound absorbers who are nice people but merely say, “Oh yes,” and to find those who will stimulate you right back.

If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do - get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you’ve thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one.

The reading is necessary to know what is going on and what is possible. But reading to get the solutions does not seem to be the way to do great research. […] You read; but it is not the amount, it is the way you read that counts.

I think it’s very valuable to have first-class people around. […] I tried to go with people who had great ability so I could learn from them and who would expect great results out of me.

  1. if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at […] working on it?” 

  2. What will be the impact of […] on […] and how can I change it? 

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