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How to Win a Nobel Prize: Notes from Richard Hamming’s Talk on Doing Great Research

October 15th, 2014 · 16 comments

You and Your Research

In March 1986, the famed mathematician and computer scientist Richard Hamming returned to his former employer, Bell Labs, to give a talk at the Bell Communications Research Colloquia Series. His talk was titled “You and Your Research,” and it’s goal was straightforward: to deliver lessons for serious researchers about how to do “Nobel-Prize type of work” (a topic familiar to Hamming given the large number of Nobels won by his colleagues during his Bell Labs tenure).

This talk is famous among applied mathematicians and computer scientists because of its relentlessly honest and detailed dissection of how stars in these fields become stars — a designation that certainly applies to Hamming, who not only won the Turing Prize for his work on coding theory, but ended up with an IEEE prize named after him: the Richard W Hamming Medal.

A problem with his talk, however, is it’s length and density. It’s easy to lose yourself in its transcript, nodding your head again and again in agreement, then coming out the other side unable to keep track of all the ideas Hamming outlined.

My goal in this blog post to help bring some order to this state of affairs. Below I’ve summarized what I find to be the major points from Hamming’s address. To identify the sections of the speech that correspond to each point I use the  wording from this transcription.

I can’t claim that the following is comprehensive (among other things, I do not annotate the questions after the talk), but I’m confident that I capture most of what’s important in this seminal seminar.

Idea #1: Luck is not as important as people think.

[location: see the section that starts with the sentence "let me start not logically, but psychologically..."]

Hamming notes that luck is a common explanation for doing great research. He doubts this explanation by noting that great researchers — like Einstein — do multiple good things in their career.

As an alternate explanation, he cites the following Newton quote: “If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.”

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How We Sent a Man to the Moon Without E-mail and Why it Matters Today

October 4th, 2014 · 25 comments


The NASA Paradox

In 2008, Dan Markovitz was meeting with a group of R&D engineers at a high tech company. The engineers began complaining about e-mail.

They were overwhelmed by the hundreds of messages arriving every day in their inbox, but at the same time, they agreed that this was unavoidable. Without such intensive e-mail use, they reasoned, their teams’ efficiency would plummet.

This conclusion led one of the engineers to ask an interesting question:

If this is true, “how [did] NASA’s engineers manag[e] to put a man on the moon without tools like email?”

Think about this question for a moment. The Apollo program was massive in size and complexity. It was executed at an incredible pace (only eight years spanned Kennedy’s pledge to Armstrong’s steps) and it yielded innovations at a staggering rate.

And it was all done without e-mail.

How did the Apollo engineering teams manage something so complicated and large without rapid communication? Fortunately for this particular group, an answer was available. It turned out that a senior engineer at this high tech company had also worked on the Apollo program, and someone asked him this very question.

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Deep Habits: Don’t Web Surf During the Work Day

October 1st, 2014 · 35 comments


Swimming to the Offline Shore

By 2004, I was an expert web surfer. I had memorized a sequence of web site addresses that I could cycle through, one after another, in rapid succession. I would do this once every hour or so as a quick mental pick me up to help get through the work day.

At some point, soon after starting graduate school at MIT, I dropped the habit altogether. It’s been close to a decade since I considered the web as a source of entertainment during my work day.

Indeed, I’m so out of practice with web surfing, that I’ve found on the few occasions that I’ve recently tried to relieve some boredom online, I wasn’t really sure where to go or what to do. (Most of the articles I end up reading online are sent to me directly by readers, not encountered in serendipitous surfing.)

To illustrate this point, the image at the top of this post is a screenshot of my complete browser history for today, taken at 2 PM. (Note: I doctored the list slightly to remove redundant entries for a given visit to a given site.)

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A Personal Appeal

September 11th, 2014 · One comment

Saturday Update: Today was the charity event and it was a big success. With your support, our team ended up the top team fund raiser and I ended up one of the top ten individual fund raisers (out of 4,500 participants). This is a direct result and expression of your support. I thank you!


I don’t often allow my non-professional life to seep into this blog, so this post represents a rare violation of this habit…

elliottThis Saturday, I’m participating in a fund raising event called the Race for Every Child. My team in this event is raising money for a foundation started by our friends Gabi and John Conecker.

The Conecker’s son, Ellliott, was born almost two years ago (the same time as our son, Max) afflicted with a devastating genetic disorder virtually unknown to science. They soon discovered that families all over the country are going through something similar each year (c.f., this New Yorker article).

Their foundation helps raise awareness and more importantly fund research to better understand and treat these disorders. (The foundation directly supports the research efforts of a world class neurogeneticist at Children’s National Medical Center who is making real progress into understanding the impact of these mutations.)

Anyway, if this type of cause resonates, please consider donating something to the effort sometime between now and Saturday. You can learn more about the foundation and donate here.

If you do donate, please send me an e-mail at so I can thank you personally.

If this type of cause doesn’t resonate, please disregard. We’ll return shortly to our regularly scheduled programming.

Don’t Pursue Promotions: Contrarian Career Advice from Ancient Sources of Wisdom

July 22nd, 2014 · 39 comments


An Innovative New Voice in the Advice World

For the past six months, my friend Dale Davidson has been executing an epic project.

Eager to optimize his life, and frustrated with much of the advice he encountered online and in contemporary books and magazines, Dale decided to go back to basics and start drawing lessons from humankind’s most ancient and enduring philosophies and religions.

To do so, he focuses on one ancient philosophy or religion per month. During this month he chooses a core ritual to practice. He then extracts wisdom relevant to his  modern life from these ancient prescriptions.

The logic driving his project is simple. These systems have undergone centuries — and in many cases, millennia — of brutal cultural evolution. The ideas that survived this competition must have done so for a good reason: they work.

Why start from scratch in finding answers to life’s challenges, big and small, when you can reference the solutions human civilization has already painstakingly developed and tested?

I’ve been fascinated by Dale’s progress with this project, which he details on his Ancient Wisdom Project blog. I think more people should know about what he’s up to, so I asked him to write a guest post for me.

Below is the (epic) result. In the guest post that follows, Dale briefly summarizes the structure of his project, then identifies five contrarian tips he’s learned so far. To keep the article relevant to our recent discussions, I asked Dale to focus on tips relevant to career issues.

Some of the ideas below you may agree with and some you may not. But they should all get you thinking more deeply about how you approach success and happiness in your career…

Take it away Dale…

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How to Read Proofs Faster: A Summary of Useful Advice

July 4th, 2014 · 17 comments


Math Problem

The Wisdom of  (Math Nerd) Crowds

A couple weeks ago, I complained that my academic paper reading speed was slower than I would like given its importance to my productivity. I asked for your advice and you responded with over 60 comments and numerous private e-mails.

My goal in this post is to synthesize the best ideas from this feedback, as well as the results of my own self-reflection, into a clear answer. In particular, I’ve identified three big ideas relevant to trying to read technical papers — and in particular those containing mathematical proofs — as efficiently as possible.

Idea #1: There are no magic bullets…

This conversation helped cement an idea that I’ve long suspected to be true (but sometimes resist):

To develop a detailed understanding of a published mathematical proof is an ambiguous process that requires multiple attacks and can take an unpredictable amount of time (not unlike proving something in the first place).

As a result, you must be selective about what proofs you decide to dig into, as the time commitment is potentially serious. In the study of algorithms (my field), for example, in most cases when reading a relevant paper it’s sufficient to dive down just deep enough to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the main result and how does it compare to what was known before (or what a naive approach would provide)?
  2. What is the high-level insight/trick deployed in the bound argument that enabled this improvement?

With experience, I’ve found that I can consistently produce this level of understanding within an hour (sometimes less if the paper is well-written or building on my own results).

This knowledge is not enough by itself to deploy or extend the technique presented in the paper, but it is enough to recognize future opportunities where this technique might be relevant to a problem you care about (at which point, you’ll have to dive deeper). In other words, maybe just one out of ten papers you read will end up proving directly useful to your own work, so it makes sense to learn just enough from the papers you read to identify whether or not they’re in that crucial 10%.

Idea #2: There are ways to be more efficient…

If you must understand the details of a proof, then in addition to the high-level suggestion from above of preparing yourself psychologically for a difficult battle, the following low-level strategies might also help:

  • Instead of trying to read through the proof linearly, build a hierarchy of dependencies among the lemmata and theorems. Summarize each lemma and theorem in your own words and summarize each dependency relation; e.g., how does this theorem use the following three lemmata? Once you have this map, it becomes clearer where to begin a deeper dive and provides context for what you’re reading.
    (Last time I deployed this full proof-mapping process — which can be quite arduous — I ended up uncovering a flaw in a reasonably well-cited paper.)
  • In general, you should never start reverse-engineering a mathematical derivation until you understand what it is trying to show, why you expect it to be true, and how it will be used. If possible to assign some of this reverse engineering to a grad student, do so: it’s helpful to both parties.
  • Create your own system of notation and rewrite the relevant statements and re-derive the main results (or, rough approximations of the main results) using this notation. You’ll likely have to revise this notation system many times before you’re done, but this process will make it much easier for you to conceptualize the deeper insights of the argument.
    (I had to do this last week for a proof that I needed to understand better. It took me something north of six hours to complete! But I do certainly understand better now what is going on underneath the covers of this particular line of thinking.)
  • Form reading groups with like-minded academics. Something about collaboration has a tendency to bust open mental road blocks and incite more creative thinking.

Idea #3: But perhaps the best strategy of all…

Get the authors on the phone or pull them aside at a conference and have them walk you through the argument. Nothing is more efficient than having the original author fill in the details of his or her thoughts.

(This latter strategy, of course, becomes more available as your status in your field grows. It might not be advisable, for example, for a first year PhD student to apply it with too much regularity!)

Seeking Examples of Focus

September 11th, 2013 · 7 comments

Finding the Focused Few

I’m looking for stories of people who use radical strategies to reduce the amount of distractions in their life and improve their ability to focus on hard things (be it at work, at home, or in parenting).

If this describes you, someone you know, or someone you read about: please consider sending a brief e-mail to to tell me more.

Why Draper University Won’t Work (But Could)

August 28th, 2013 · 36 comments


School for Heroes

Every morning, the students at the Draper University School for Heroes recite an oath:

“I will promote freedom at all costs.”

“I will do everything in my power to drive, build, and pursue progress and change.”

“My brand, my network, and my reputation are paramount.”

This school was recently founded by the famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper (pictured above). Its goal is to produce “innovators” who do the “great things they are capable of.”

It’s also an idea that I am convinced will fail. And it’s what’s missing from this oath that underscores why.

Innovation is Fueled by Mastery

The program at the Draper University School for Heroes focuses on soft skills. There are classes in idea generation, painting, networking, and, for some reason, first aid and suturing.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining a robust network or hearing inspirational speeches about being the change you want to see in the world. But this is not nearly enough if your goal is producing impactful innovation.

In researching my last book, I interviewed many people who ended up making a real impact on the world, including innovative biologists, agriculturists, and education entrepreneurs. The common trait they shared was expertise. They each started by putting in a lot of work to master something hard but valuable. It was this mastery that gave them the insight and ability needed to do produce real innovation.

As currently structured, Draper University focuses on young people, who, for the most part, do not yet have any expertise. Some have even dropped out of school in their eagerness to get started in their quest to do something big. Draper would applaud this boldness. I think it’s premature.

If you fire up a group of college students to go start companies and change the world the result will likely be yet another consumer-facing start-up focused on the needs of twentysomething Californian college students (to ape George Packer’s recent critique of the Valley).

By contrast…

If you want Google you need a pair of guys who were well along in Stanford’s PhD program and who were well-versed in the state of the art Information Retrieval literature.

If you want Microsoft you need a nerd who obsessively honed his programming skills and was willing to spend sleepless months mastering the opcodes of the first microprocessors.

If you want to sequence the human genome you need an entrepreneur who first spent a decade working in academia and at the NIH mastering the latest advancements in biogenetics.

And so on.

In other words, I support the vision of Tim Draper. The soft skills he teaches are important. We need to be reminded and encouraged to take risks and think big.

But I disagree with his choice of a target market. For the most part, the people most poised to really make a difference are not the eager college students currently occupying the bean bag chair-equipped lecture halls of Draper U, but instead are more likely to be found among the senior doctoral candidates and recently tenured professors at the world-class universities that happen to be within spitting distance of Draper’s San Mateo campus.

What’s missing from the oath of Draper University, in other words, is a commitment to putting in the hard long hours necessary to master the fields from which the next big innovations will surely arise. The soft skills are meaningless without something hard to back them up.