Eric Betzig is a research leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. Last month he received a surprising and life changing call: he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on high resolution microscopy (see the video above).
Everyone who wins the Nobel is impressive, but what makes Betzig particularly worthy of attention is his unlikely path to the prize. One thing that any non-partial observer will confirm is that if you had met Betzig in 1994, the idea that he would one day win the most prestigious award in science would seem strictly absurd.
In answering this question, different biographers have emphasized different traits.
Stephen Manes, in his excellent 1994 book, Gates, underscores the Microsoft founder’s fierce (sometimes bordering on sociopathic) competitive instincts.
In his 2008 bestseller, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out the exceptional circumstances that provided teenage Gates near unlimited access to computers on which to hone programming skills on the eve of the personal computer revolution.
I was particularly struck, however, by a quintessential Gatesian trait highlighted in Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators.
Here’s a quote from the chapter where Bill Gates and Paul Allen are working on the project (a BASIC interpreter for the Intel 8080) that will give rise to Microsoft:
One trait that differentiated [Gates and Allen] was focus. Allen’s mind would flit between many ideas and passions, but Gates was a serial obsessor.
“Where I was curious to study everything in sight, Bill would focus on one task at a time with total discipline,” said Allen. “You could see it when he programmed. He would sit with a marker clenched in his mouth, tapping his feet and rocking; impervious to distraction.” [emphasis mine]
(The above quote comes from minute 10 of Chapter 6 of Part 2 of the Audible audio version of The Innovators.)
I’m a professional non-fiction writer which makes me by default also a professional reader of sorts (the photo above shows my nightstand). I read (most of) five to ten books per month on average in addition to quite a few articles.
One thing that has often frustrated me in this undertaking is the inefficiency of my notetaking. My standard strategy when reading a physical book is to mark interesting passages with a pencil and then put a check on the upper right corner so I can later skip quickly past non-annotated pages.
The problem with this strategy is that if time passes after I read a book the only way to recreate what I learned or find a useful quote is to skim through all the marked pages.
This is why I was excited the other day to learn a better way.
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.”
Today I needed to finish a tough chunk of writing. The ideas were complicated and I wasn’t quite sure how best to untangle the relevant threads and reweave them into something appealing. I knew I was in for some deep work and I was worried about my ability to see it through to the end.
So I packed up my laptop and headed outside. Here’s where I started writing:
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.
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.)
David Brooks’s most recent column ends up on the subject of geopolitics, but it begins, in a tenuous but entertaining fashion, with a long digression on the routines of famous creatives (which Brooks draws from Mason Currey). For example…
Maya Angelou, we learn, was up by 5:30 and writing by 6:30 in a small hotel room she kept just for this purpose.
John Cheever would write every day in the storage unit of his apartment. (In his boxer shorts, it turns out.)
Anthony Trollope would write 250 words every 15 minutes for two and a half hours while his servant brought coffee at precise times.
To summarize these observations, Brooks quotes Henry Miller: “I know that to sustain these true moments of insight, one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life.”
He then offers his own more bluntly accurate summary: “[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”
Or, to put it in Study Hacks lingo: “deep insight requires a disciplined commitment to deep work.”
I'm a 32-year-old computer scientist exploring how people reach elite levels in knowledge work careers. I used to write a lot of student advice (which you can still find in the blog archive). If you're new to Study Hacks, start here.
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