What Makes Great Scientists Great?
In March of 1986, an overflow audience of over 200 researchers and staff members from Bell Laboratories piled into the Morris Research and Engineering Center to hear a talk given by Dr. Richard Hamming, a pioneer in the field of communication theory. He titled his presentation “You and Your Research,” and set out to answer a fundamental question: “Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?”
Hamming, of course, knew what he was talking about, as he had made his own significant contributions — you can’t even glance at the field of digital communications without stumbling over some eponymous Hamming innovation.
But his original interest in the question came from his years spent in Los Alamos at the height of the Manhattan Project. “I saw Feynman up close. I saw Fermi and Teller. I saw Oppenheimer. I saw Hans Bethe,” Hamming notes. “I saw that although physically I was the same, they were different. [T]o put the thing bluntly, I was envious.”
Forty years later, as he took the podium at the Bell Labs auditorium, he set out to describe, in plainspoken detail, everything he had learned…
The Hamming Ambiguity
I know Hamming’s speech well as Study Hacks readers send me a copy, on average, about once per month. I originally encountered the speech, however, during my first semester as a graduate student at MIT.
At the time, I was underwhelmed.
Hamming starts by emphasizing courage: “Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can.”
He then pivots to the role of environment. “What most people think are the best working conditions, are not,” he says. “One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks — they did some of the best physics ever.”
“Now on to the matter of drive,” he continues, using the metaphor of compound interest to explain the growth of ability. “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.”
As the speech rolls forward, Hamming continues to jump, somewhat abruptly, from topic to topic. We hear about problem choice (“if you don’t work on important problems, it’s unlikely that you’ll do important work”), and the surprisingly tricky decision of whether to keep your office door open (“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”).
He promotes the importance of producing widely applicable results (“I made the resolution I would never again solve a problem in isolation”), and emphasizes the “distasteful” necessity of selling. “When I first started, I got practically physically ill while giving a speech,” he admits. With practice, of course, he got better.
To me, the speech’s impact diluted among its many disconnected insights. I didn’t come away with a clear new model for how to structure my research career, so I ignored Hamming’s advice, responding politely, but somewhat dismissively, as readers continued to point me toward the talk as a potential source of wisdom.
Now that I’m over a decade into my training as a professional scientist, however, I’m finally beginning to notice the elegance behind Hamming’s words. With this talk, I came to realize, he’s capturing a crucial truth: in many fields, including research science, the path to becoming excellent is messy and ambiguous.
The fact that his advice is disjointed and varied is exactly the point: there’s no simple model for becoming great, uncountable variables matter, and you’ll never be confident that you’ve found the “best” configuration.
Beyond the 10,000 Hour Rule
The messiness of Hamming’s speech contrasts with the rational cleanliness of another popular model of becoming excellent: the 10,000 hour rule. This “rule” has been studied since the 1970s, but Malcolm Gladwell brought it into the mainstream with his 2008 book Outliers. Here’s how he described the idea in a recent interview:
When we look at any kind of cognitively complex field — for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon — we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours.
This rule reduces achievement to quantity: the secret to becoming great is to do a great amount of work. What Hamming emphasizes, however, is that quantity alone is not sufficient. (“I’ve often wondered why so many of my good friends at Bell Labs who worked as hard or harder than I did, didn’t have so much to show for it,” he asks at one point in his speech.) Those 10,000 hours have to be invested in the right things, and as the disjointed nature of Hamming’s talk underscores, the question of what are the right things is slippery and near impossible to nail down with confidence.
In other words, becoming excellent is not the result of a well-behaved tallying of hours, it instead emerges out of a swamp of roiling ambiguity. If you’re not ready for this reality, he implies, you’re unlikely to last long on a path toward greatness.
My Working Rules
Over time, I’ve made peace with this ambiguity. I’m never going to feel completely anchored in my quest to become excellent in my own field of theoretical computer science — every rejected paper or publishing coup of a colleague will continue to flush my system with doubt — but I have managed to cobble together several working rules that help me maintain forward momentum. These aren’t the magic right answers, but I thought I would share them with you as a portrait of one individual’s battle with Hamming’s necessary ambiguity:
- Embrace Ambiguity: You’ll never be fully confident in your approach to becoming excellent. Embrace this ambiguity and your ability to recognize it and still move forward; this resolve separates you from most other people who are fearful of such messiness and soon retreat to the comfort small projects with small (but immediately apparent) results.
- Stay Specific: Always follow a specific written plan for becoming better, even if you’re not sure if it’s the best plan. Specificity focuses your efforts and gives you the possibility of growth. Without a plan, it’s difficult to progress. (I maintain, for example, a detailed strategy for stretching my ability to translate algorithmic insights into deep results.)
- Tinker Often, But Not Too Often: Use moments of feedback — for me, for example, learning whether a research paper was accepted or won an award — to make educated adjustments to your plan. Don’t do this too often, however, or you won’t leave enough time to make progress. I find, on average, that I adjust my plan around once per semester.
- Seek Resistance: At the core of getting better is deliberate practice — stretching yourself beyond your current capability. This work is hard and draining, but also necessary. Seek this mental resistance. If you’re not regularly experiencing long stretches of mind-melting hard focus, then you’re wasting your time.
- Revel in the Crafstmanship: The path to becoming excellent is so long and messy that a goal-oriented motivation can only carry you so far. Top achievers find enjoyment in practicing their craft along the way.
“Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well,” Hamming says. “They believe the theory enough to go ahead; [but] they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory.”
This is perhaps the most important advice from among Hamming’s many suggestions. The path to excellence requires this balance between confidence and doubt, and though this balance is challenging, it’s tractable so long as your recognize what you’re facing.
At least, I think this is true. As always, when it comes to these issues of growing ability, the right way forward is never quite clear. If it was, there would be a lot more stars out there.
(Photo by stuartpilbrow)
61 thoughts on “Beyond the 10,000 Hour Rule: Richard Hamming and the Messy Art of Becoming Great”
Awesome! Great blogs. And I’m currently reading your latest book Cal.
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Being sure of what you are working on, clearly having a goal in mind, that is what a lot of people want I guess, it is within your comfort zone. Reaching out, embracing ambiguity, is way out of our comfort zone. That is why it is so hard to embrace it and to become excellent! And that is why so few are actually excellent and why we can still call it excellent, instad of normal.
Becoming the best of the best is really hard, we could say: ‘why can’t it be easier’, but there will be another standard if becoming excellent is easy.
Awesome article Cal, makes me think, as always. Thanks
You should write books or tutorials on programming. C++,C,PL/SQL. I imagine it would be a treat.
As far as I understand the article according to Hamming on should:
Believe in him/herself & Work harder than others & Find the most promising problem & Cooperate & Sell his/her ideas.
According to the author one should: keep calm and carry on & stay at one problem a time & reevaluate his/her long-term plan regularly, but not too often & learn new things & improve him/herself
Jet, if one was to follow all those advices one may or may not become better than his peers, because in the end what really matters is unknown.
I guess I will follow those advices simply because they seem to raise my chances of achieving great things.
Have a passion and go-for-it! Good intentions-action = squat
Awesome post Cal!!! I think you capture the ambiguity part really well. As an entrepreneur, I find a lot of the principles run parallel.
Great Post! It is cool to see someone challenge the 10,000 hour “rule” as you pointed out, it is more so about the quality of work rather than quantity. The right things I guess is more of a personal intuition thing and the will to do it. Keep up the good work.
In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb puts forwards the idea that as people we are only really good at choosing ‘the right thing to focus on’ with the benefit of hindsight. Knowing which problems are the important problems is essentially impossible.
Taking this perspective alongside your post, we have a greater chance of success if we expose ourselves to many random influences and follow multiple areas of interest. Ambiguity and probability can work together really well. So can following our often fickle interests as we move from one point of focus to another.
Great post & insights. Nice translation of the theory to the practice.
Just FYI: The Malcolm Gladwell interview appears to be actually BottomLineSecrets article_id=47955; the link you provide (using article_id=48315) produces file not found.
Thanks for the rules.
Very cool. Thanks for doing that.
Notice that even your summary was long and qualified: this emphasizes my point that the real takeaway message is that there isn’t a simple strategy to follow…you have to be loose and adaptable.
This is an interesting way of looking at it. Of course, too much exposure, and not enough hard work on the same thing, and you’re never going to get far enough. That’s the tricky balance!
Hmmh I’m surprised you were underwhelmed by the paper initially! How about the question of work life balance? One of the things he talks about in his speech is how he neglected his wife in order to attain greatness. I recently had the occasion to listen to Jack Welch speak and for all his achievements in the business world he seemed to regret his failed marriages and neglected kids.
Actually, I think Gladwell acknowledges the corollary to the 10,000 hour rule- that 10,000 hours aren’t going to guarantee greatness, but are necessary for anyone to achieve greatness.
You just write the best damn stuff, period.
Brilliant article. I also find life to be messy… but there is an order to the chaos. I wonder if it is the same with greatness in a particular field. I don’t feel I’m great at any one thing so I wouldn’t have the first clue, but I would guess that after some time, the master begins to see the order in the chaos.
Gladwell is pretty careful about this distinction, but my broader point was that the way the 10,000 hour rules is being consumed by people is in the context of “quantity is what matters.”
“Greatness” doesn’t seem to be well defined. How would you know if you achieved it?
People keep giving you awards. 🙂
Great article, Cal. I went and read the speech by Hamming immediately, and it’s one of the best things I’ve read. Wisdom from one man who has observed greatness up close is more potent to me than 1,000 research studies. Success is too messy for rules. I like it.
I agree, I think that too much emphasis has been placed on the number of hours and not the QUALITY of effort in those hours. In my own academic experience, one hour with flashcards and/or practice tests where I have to actively work things out and concentrate deeply beats 3 hours of re-reading chapters and studying notes.
Cal, this is a wonderful article. I’ve enjoyed many of your articles and books over the past year. As a neuroscience student who hopes to go into research, I was wondering what might be good ways to gain deliberate practice. Right now I work in a research lab and like to read books about neuroscience, biology, and psychology in my free time, but I was wondering what might be approaches to stretch myself further.
Five years ago I heard a similar speech by a student of Shannon’s, and colleague of Hamming. It was also inspiring, but much more focused: how to choose a problem and work on it. It helped emphasize to me that the big picture is messy but the small steps are strategic and planned.
Give talks on important results and master difficult techniques.
Hi Cal, nice post! What you described as ‘tolerance for ambiguity’ here reminds me of a psychology construct called ‘need for closure’, which is like a frame that seizes people in times of uncertainty and stress, and a poison for creative thought. Seems like great scientific work and tolerance for ambiguity can’t live without each other.
“Seek Resistance: At the core of getting better is deliberate practice — stretching yourself beyond your current capability. This work is hard and draining, but also necessary. Seek this mental resistance. If you’re not regularly experiencing long stretches of mind-melting hard focus, then you’re wasting your time.”
Strangely I was thinking about exactly this last night in bed. I thought that I should be getting to the end of the day feeling spent and tired. That mental resistance “can I really be bothered to do this?” is a pretty good sign of being on the right track for me.
But this is much harder to achieve when working/studying alone as opposed to within a team, where there’s no or less accountability. I think drive is such an important variable for this reason (for me at least). My feeling is that there should be high amount of motivation to begin with (otherwise the process might be unfulfilling), and then create supports for motivation on top, goal setting, tinkering etc.
I guess for some people, lack of drive isn’t the problem; but I don’t see this very often!
I’m struck by the emphasis Hammer places on public speaking. Writers are like scientists, they just want to do their work quietly and let someone else go out and publicize it. But Hammer says to be successful scientists have to get over that and learn to talk persuasively in public about their own work. Learning to give presentations is also “stretching yourself beyond your current capacity”!
Cal, I was wondering if you could write a post on how to escalate your insider connections and get a superstar project, with examples.
Fascinating connection. I hadn’t heard of that before, but now I’ll definitely look into it.
If so, this is an area where I could use some stretching.
There’s a chapter in my new book title “The Tale of Three Innovations” that describes exactly what you’re looking for.
Seek “Resistance”. (Hmm – wheels turning in my mind.)
I just finished reading Steven Pressfield’s book “The War of Art” who describes “Resistance” as the anti-Muse. That to create involves a war to overcome resistance as it naturely arises.
Actively seeking “Resistance” takes it to another extreme. That could deinitely mean the difference between ordinary and great.
Excellent post and I will now read Hamming’s speech – disjointed or not. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!
I’m a first-year postdoc in the quantitative biological sciences. Your post is interesting because it implies a slightly adversarial and competitive view of success in research (“publishing coup of a colleague,” cf. contributing to important discoveries). I think there’s some good theory to back the idea that as our problems become more complex, which they on average do, collaborations among people with diverse skills sets become increasingly important. The longer I’ve been in my field, the more I’ve realized how there are some serious tradeoffs between the advancement of individual scientists and the progress of the field–data- and algorithm-sharing are poor, and people sometimes hoard their ideas too. This hoarding is partly motivated by the short supply of jobs but more, I think, for the desire for personal fame. It can get very ugly. I also don’t buy the idea that great science can’t be done without this incentive. Intellectual property and recognition are important, but they should be tempered by an awareness of the dramatically larger issues at stake. The NIH is at least moving in this direction by requiring that all publications be freely available, and journals are moving to increased data-sharing.
I’ve also become increasingly convinced that there’s no “right way” to become a good researcher. Senior scientists in my field disagree on the appropriate prerequisites. There’s also simply a lot of luck in being in the right place (in skill space and, more mundanely, in the right lab w/ access to data) at the right time. Having the right questions in mind, of course, helps.
Finally, I think there’s some critical psychology involved in being a good scientist. I try to remember that whatever I believed last year should not a priori be more credible than what the data suggest now, even if I put my former beliefs in print. Admitting you are or might be wrong publicly helps loosen colleagues up so that they focus on ideas rather than allegiance to their hypotheses. Courage is essential too. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I’d followed up on my suspicions.
Interesting observation. I wonder if he means resistance in the same way that I do: mental strain?
Actually, the person who originated the “10,000 Hour Rule” (later cited by Gladwell and many others), Anders Ericsson Ph.D. a professor of behavioral psychology at Florida State, stated explicitly and emphatically that sheer volume of practice isn’t sufficient. What all Masters and Experts have in common is a committment to what Ericsson and his colleagues called Deliberate Practice. That is practice that is keenly targeted to improvement, includes rigorous measurement and feedback and is focused on process–rather than outcomes.
This actually coincides nicely with David Shenk’s book, The Genius In All Of Us. His larger thesis is pretty much the same as yours, but you do an excellent job of distilling this into a practical approach.
You also reminded me of How a Child Becomes a Scientist, by John Brockman. His profiles of a number of scientists demonstrate no clear, straight path to a life of science: Some had an avid interest in science very young; some were indifferent. Of course there were some highly academic, early readers; others were lackadaisical, even dysfunctional scholars.
We all want a magic bean, a silver bullet, a genie in a bottle. Damn! There isn’t one.
Hi Newport Cal,
I am a fan. I’ve read Superstar and Win at College. I like both and this post very mcuh.
Concerning ambuguity, uncertainty, messiness etc, I’ve written a series here (so, short and plain it saves you a lot of time):
Nice read! Perhaps the most important message here is that Goal oriented motivation has it’s set of flaws when it comes to long term forward movement. Not only would you get fearful of the unknown(Just outside your comfort zone) but even worse, not facing the same will destine you to a life of professional mediocrecy.
Hard core Proponents of 10,000 hr rule should definitely get more acquainted with the work of Dr. Richard Hamming.
This is interesting and you might want to look into it.
Some great advice here for anyone in any field, after reading this I feel like I definitely need to try harder and do things better.