The most important truth about hard work, and also reading, that you can find

by on June 2, 2017 at 12:02 am in Education, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. 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 – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. 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. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

That is from Richard W. Hamming, invaluable throughout.  Hat tip is from Patrick Collison.  Here is the book by Hamming.

1 Ray Lopez June 2, 2017 at 12:09 am

Hamming, the filters guy in EE?

In other news… After 20 years of chess, I finally did a smothered mate today (I’ve gotten close before, but my opponents resigned before the coup-de-grace)

[Event “5 min blitz”]
[Site “?”]
[Date “2017.06.01”]
[Round “?”]
[White “Ray, Lopez”]
[Black “Guest, Playchess”]
[Result “1-0”]
[ECO “B01”]
[PlyCount “49”]

1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Qxd5 3. Nc3 Qa5 4. d4 c6 5. Bd2 Qd8 6. Nf3 Bg4 7. Be3 e6 8.
Be2 Bb4 9. O-O Bxc3 10. bxc3 Ne7 11. Ne5 Bxe2 12. Qxe2 Nd5 13. Bd2 O-O 14. f4
f6 15. Nf3 Qd7 16. Rad1 Qd6 17. c4 Nxf4 18. Bxf4 Qxf4 19. Qxe6+ Kh8 20. Ne5
Qe3+ 21. Kh1 Qc3 22. Nf7+ Kg8 23. Nh6+ Kh8 24. Qg8+ Rxg8 25. Nf7# 1-0


2 Tontine June 2, 2017 at 12:14 am

Here’s a guy who didn’t work very hard:

Wasn’t Trump supposed to drain the swamp on those idiots?


3 Ray Lopez June 2, 2017 at 12:25 am

And look at the reporter who tweeted this: “Alex Emmons”, “Struggling chess player”. No excuse of that Alex, sorry but no excuse. You have to study chess, zealously, all the time, every day, continuously, if you want to improve. Just a vague warm fuzzy feeling is not enough, unless you’re some sort of natural boy genius like our host was. Right now I just downloaded and will study the heavily annotated games of economist and chess master Colin Crouch, “How to Defend in Chess” (2000).


4 corey June 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

Surprised neither Tyler nor Patrick responded to this reply.


5 prior_test2 June 2, 2017 at 1:07 am

‘You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive.’

And those before roughly 1900 generally had a number of servants. The ones after 1900 in a university setting tend to have department secretaries and lots of available student labor. In both cases, married male scientists tend to dump off a lot of work on the person they live with.

As actually noted here – ‘I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.’ Somebody was doing the work that he could not be bothered to, due to his ‘drive.’


6 Thanatos Savehn June 2, 2017 at 2:00 am

Ah, you’re an Evergreen State grad then. “No European descendant ever had an original though other than violating POC”, eh? Well, the proof is in the pudding after all; and the new batch is on the boil.


7 JK Brown June 2, 2017 at 10:59 am

In his ‘The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950’ (1952), Frederick Allen Lewis does discuss to impact of the income tax on those such as professors, who prior to the income tax could afford a servant or two to run the household. He points to the large homes from the turn of the 20th century occupied by those of modest incomes but unsustainable after the income tax cut into discretionary income. By the time such income might recover, both expanding opportunities in manufacturing and the lessening of discrimination made wages for household staff prohibitive for the professors, who had social status, along with tenure, but not income.


8 Hannu June 2, 2017 at 1:11 am

The more you study, the more
you know
you learn
you can do
the opportunity
Industry & sacrifice pay exponentially
… but there are other equations involved like how to show your capabilities, availabilities, and connect and climb, depending on your area of expertise.


9 Commentariette June 2, 2017 at 1:35 am

So the computer science twittersphere lionizes a man who says that you have to neglect “things” (such as a wife) in order to succeed.

Why do I find this surprising … NOT.


10 Thiago Ribeiro June 2, 2017 at 6:07 am

Greatness demands sacrifice. Caxias, the great Brazilian general, opposed his father when he tried to overthrow Brazil’s first Emperor, neglected his marriage and his health when he spent six years leading Brazilian forces in Atrocious Paraguay and sacrificed his health, when he was too old and sick, to leadmthe Empire as President of the Ministers’ Council during one of the Empire’s worst crises. In every turn, he was backstabbed by those around him. And because he gave everything he got for the Empire, always, he is evoked as the protector of the Army, he is considered the ideal soldier and Brazilian man and, when we were young, we had to sing an anthem about his greatness. Go and do likewise.


11 Daniel Weber June 2, 2017 at 10:09 am

When I look at my coworkers who do better work than me, I realize 1. they work harder and don’t spend time on economics blogs, and 2. they don’t have families and can happily spend 5 evenings at home researching things.


12 Thiago Ribeiro June 2, 2017 at 10:31 am



13 Christine June 2, 2017 at 8:00 am

Heaven forfend.


14 Todd Kreider June 2, 2017 at 1:38 am

“What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former.”

Fun quote but zero evidence to back it.


15 Bisches Myron June 2, 2017 at 2:04 am


Indeed. Ability is not what matters. It’s working hard, grit, believing in yourself, priming yourself, overcoming stereotype-bias, power poses, magic dirt, etc.


16 Li Zhi June 2, 2017 at 2:59 am

Interesting – revealing, actually – that TC would post this nonsense. While it sounds like the same old “How to get the American Dream” stereotype, let’s consider the reverse: that the reason people aren’t successful is because they are lazy. Doesn’t that follow? Well, now we know why the poor are poor: they’re lazy. We suspected that all along. What is the term for the mine field survivor who believes he has some special skill or insight in navigating a mine field? These kind of after-the-fact explanations are nearly all the same. Of course, there’s no way to falsify their explanation. How many people have won two Nobel Prizes in the same (or nearly the same) area? Wouldn’t that follow, too? Why so many single shots? They slacked off? But Nobels are typically awarded years (decades) after the fact, so that can’t be it. My guess is right time, right place, right person all are the major factors. How long, do you suppose, would General Relativity, have been delayed without Einstein? Special Relativity was probably (unfalsifiably) just months or very few years from being someone else’s. GR was a team effort, but showed a tremendous effort on Al’s part. I also was bothered by Hamming’s silly belief that the brain is not nearly 100% active most of the time, regardless whether you’re doing crosswords, checking out that skirt flouncing by, or working on a problem of the structure of space-time near a spinning event horizon. It’s the old discredited “We only use 10% of our brains” rubbish. Is a flexible mind a better learner, or is the learned mind more flexible?


17 derek June 2, 2017 at 6:16 am

I think you are missing the point. To advance the knowledge of a field you have to become conversant in the current understanding. In physics, that is years. If one person spends an hour more a day in deep study compared to someone else, they will get there quicker.

At that point you can start contributing to the advance in knowledge.

This is why there are almost no generalist scientists; it is impossible. There is too much to learn. Scientists focus their study to a very narrow field, they have to. They then depend on the structures of peer reviewed papers to fill in the gaps.

This post is about how someone came to that realisation.


18 Georgian June 2, 2017 at 10:51 am

Generally breakthroughs come from people from adjacent fields poking their heads in. If you work merely to understand the current state then you will never move your field forward.

Our problem is that we are too specialized. I always wonder how many classes of problems have already been solved in other fields but people in a particular field haven’t heard of the solution. The advantage of a generalist is perspective the downside is what you’ve described too much too learn.

We should be working to cross-pollinate ideas better given the transaction cost is almost 0 thanks to the internet. That way we get the benefit of the generalist in the world of the specialist.


19 derek June 2, 2017 at 5:48 pm

Maybe, and I think it does occur. For example, a good friend was a professor of meteorology, and he described two instances where someone in another field came up with a solution that was recognized and adopted into his. One was a flow dynamic equation that explained an odd wind pattern in mountains, the other was chaos theory which was used to quantify uncertainty in meteorology.

But in both those instances the ones who came up with the ideas were not generalists but rather someone exploring the solutions to a problem in their narrow field. The solutions had wide application.

And they were recognized as solutions in other fields by those who had been trying to find solutions, knowable only to those fully immersed in the field.


20 Thiago Ribeiro June 2, 2017 at 6:19 am

“Well, now we know why the poor are poor: they’re lazy”
Seriously? Is it supposed to be less offensive than saying it is because they are mentally defective and can do the simpel, but well-paid work their forefathers used to do for a living, which is the explanarion the far-right pushes. There is a bit difference between using “hard work” to explain some of the performance differences between people who are roughly at the same social position (hypercredentialed researchers at one of the most respected science institutions the world has ever known) and explaining the difference between, say, Donald Trump, who apparently was very smart choosing his family, and the typical ghetto dweller .


21 AJ June 2, 2017 at 8:23 am

It is meant as a form of motivation rather than a general principle of success. The response to your comment would be a separate but similar message of motivation, which is a similar exhortation of hard work but because it is the only dimension you can control.


22 Alex June 2, 2017 at 3:06 am

I have no reason to disagree but please try to realize your authentic potential,Avoid a neurotic search for glory.


23 ChrisA June 2, 2017 at 4:15 am

It sounds a bit like the “10,000 hours of practice meme” that Gladwell was pushing a while ago. I recall this was comprehensively trashed. Truth is, genius requires both smarts and practice, either one of their own won’t be sufficient to make a mark unless you are tremendously lucky.

There is a certain slightly hidden moral message in all of this, which is very puritan sounding. Hard work is being pushed as a good in itself. But what is the logic that makes hard work a moral thing? Probably this is a survival technique like the urge to procreate. As so often morality turns out to be an attempt to rationalise a genetic drive. But maybe it is actually a harmful thing to advocate for hard work in today’s world of plenty, firstly it can distract perhaps from the importance of social bonds with family and friends, secondly it could be making people unhappy through placing undue stress on them. Lastly it could be a waste of resources, someone working hard, say, on arts related PhD thesis that is going to be read by three people is not a good thing in my view.


24 Thiago Ribeiro June 2, 2017 at 8:17 am

“Hard work is being pushed as a good in itself”
No, he says one must work hard if one wants ro achieve great things. If one doesn’t, one can sleep all the day long. As a great Brazilian writer poi ted out, people envy success, but they do not envy the hard work it usually demands.


25 Steve S June 2, 2017 at 3:35 pm

“It sounds a bit like the “10,000 hours of practice meme” that Gladwell was pushing a while ago.”

Gladwell is on record as hating the fact that people distilled his entire book into the “10,000 hours of practice” meme. He didn’t really say that in the way everyone thinks he did. Pretty sure it even came up in his conversation with Tyler. Or maybe it was the Freakonomics or EconTalk podcast, I can’t recall.


26 ChrisA June 3, 2017 at 4:10 am

Not really germane to my point, which is what people thought was the message from Gladwell’s book, but I have read that Gladwell’s current position is actually different from the one in his book, which was less nuanced. On what the Dan Plan as one example where someone without any golf experience tried to become a PGA golfer based on this meme, clearly he didn’t have the view that something more than practice was required.


27 derek June 2, 2017 at 5:50 pm

You mean that if someone actually applies themselves to something they can master it? Is that a moralistic statement, puritan?

I know for myself that what I haven’t tried to master I’m awful at. Oddly enough.


28 ChrisA June 3, 2017 at 4:12 am

The explicit statement is exactly as you say. But there is an implicit statement as well that I am referring to.


29 BC June 2, 2017 at 4:25 am

Some people learn their hard work ethic from their parents. Others try to measure that and label it “generational immobility”.


30 Thiago Ribeiro June 2, 2017 at 4:46 am

I have read it at a few years ago. Pretty interesting.


31 Ian Leslie June 2, 2017 at 6:01 am

Agree and this is why, by the way, the TED-style take on why education, repeated by Garry K in your conversation – that knowledge is redundant – is so misguided. The brain is not like a hard drive. More data speeds it up.


32 Thiago Ribeiro June 2, 2017 at 7:05 am

“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. So yes, you need to keep up. You need to keep up more to find out what the problems are than to read to find the solutions. 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. So I’ll give you two answers. You read; but it is not the amount, it is the way you read that counts.”

To be fair, he is talking about absurdly hyperschooled and intelligent people reding about their own work/interest area, not general culture, but I think the point he was making is, if you want to be great at something, work hard at it (what it takes, reading, experimenting, training, talking to other people, etc. depends on what you are trying to do). My own point of view is, if you think knowing about Roman Emperors is important, teach it by all means. If it is not, teach something important to “speed the brain up” – schooling is expensive and there is no excuse to waste time and money with trivia (for example, I wholeheartedly support teaching multiplication tables and doing it well).


33 Ben Schwyn June 2, 2017 at 6:07 am

The lecture series the book is based on is on youtube here:


34 Andrew June 2, 2017 at 7:10 am

But not just reading:

“Hamming: It depends upon the field. I will say this about it. There was a fellow at Bell Labs, a very, very, smart guy. He was always in the library; he read everything. If you wanted references, you went to him and he gave you all kinds of references. But in the middle of forming these theories, I formed a proposition: there would be no effect named after him in the long run. He is now retired from Bell Labs and is an Adjunct Professor. He was very valuable; I’m not questioning that. He wrote some very good Physical Review articles; but there’s no effect named after him because he read too much. 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. So yes, you need to keep up. You need to keep up more to find out what the problems are than to read to find the solutions. 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. So I’ll give you two answers. You read; but it is not the amount, it is the way you read that counts. “


35 Christine June 2, 2017 at 7:59 am

I hope this guy lives/lived long enough to disprove the annoying cliché, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I’d worked harder.'”

Go, work!


36 Thiago Ribeiro June 2, 2017 at 8:13 am

Why should he have wished he had work harder? Apparently, he alreasy worked plenry hard.


37 Thiago Ribeiro June 2, 2017 at 8:03 am

“If you don’t get emotionally involved, it doesn’t. I had incipient ulcers most of the years that I was at Bell Labs. I have since gone off to the Naval Postgraduate School and laid back somewhat, and now my health is much better. 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.”
The point is, coffee is for closers.


38 Greateraias June 2, 2017 at 8:12 am

This is interesting but it neglects to differentiate between types of work. For a physicist working hard means learning new things. For many career paths working hard may mean the opposite. Compound interest would only apply if you are increasing your productivity every day. If I am workings so hard I can’t be bothered to slow down to think about how to work better I will not be getting better.

Imagine two theoretical workers. One works 10 hours every day but spends no time on method and learning. The other works 6 hours every day but spends two additional hours thinking/reading about how to work better. When they start out the first will be a better employee/scientist/etc, but eventually the later will dramatically surpass the former.


39 DBN June 2, 2017 at 9:29 am

A few years ago, I had the privilege of working with one of the leaders in my field. During casual conversation one day, my colleagues and I asked her about her daily schedule. “Oh”, she said, “I get up at around 4:30 or so, and then run for an hour. Come home, get cleaned up and make breakfast for the kids. Then I come to work at around 7:30 and work with you guys until 5:00 or so. I go home, make dinner and spend some time with the children. Then around 10:30, I work on my books and publications, and usually go to be around 2:30 or so.”

And this is from someone who not only didn’t look remotely tired, but had more energy than any three ordinary people put together.

From later conversations with other highly successful people, I learned that this is not an aberration. The secret to success is being perpetually hypomanic. You can do a lot when you have an extra six hours in your day that ordinary people do not, and a continuous internal drive to stay busy.


40 Daniel Weber June 2, 2017 at 9:57 am

What we are seeing there is one of the mutants, like Elon Musk, who can survive on two hours’ sleep.


41 chuck martel June 2, 2017 at 10:05 am

A hypomanic would be very laid back. You probably mean something else and should use the term “hypermanic”.


42 cthulhu June 2, 2017 at 11:39 am

“Hypomania” is a psychiatric term meaning a mild state of mania, as opposed to full-blown mania. It doesn’t mean the opposite of mania. Some forms of bipolar disorder are characterized by the “up” state being hypomanic instead of full manic. As DBN said, controlled hypomania can be very productive.


43 chuck martel June 2, 2017 at 9:32 am

In the US, the ordinary compliment made of a person with whom only a casual relationship exists is that he’s a “good worker”. People that are perceived as working hard are extolled, those who are not are dismissed. A hard worker might very well be a wife-beater, alcoholic or shoplifter but he’ll occupy an elevated status over an honest and moral but less motivated guy that’s interesting and fun to be around.


44 Thiago Ribeiro June 2, 2017 at 10:36 am

As it should be. There are cops to deal with wife-beating shoplifters (and I hope they work hard, although it would be better if they hadn’t much work to do). Coffee is for closers. Always be closing.


45 Diana Briggs June 2, 2017 at 10:47 am

Paid work has been a bit of a conundrum for me. I’m an IT-adjacent professional working for 10 years now, but in terms of impact and productivity, I can’t say what kind of legacy I’m leaving. Nearly all of my work has been on projects that were either overhauled or dropped, decisions made far above my level. This has been true regardless of the size of the company.

Whenever I’ve been in situations where there was, in fact, an endless pile of tasks to be done, and which I was free to devote myself to as I chose in order to demonstrate my commitment, that work ultimately ended up meaning next to nothing in the grand scheme of things. At best, it demonstrated that people should continue to hire me, but that really has nothing to do with my “productivity” as a human being, or even a worker. I suspect most paid work is like this to some extent.

I think I’ve finally found a role where I have more direct impact and influence, but I have to admit that there’s a whiff of nihilism in how I’ve come to see my career. And I’ve been one of the very lucky ones who has actually found stable and decently-paid work they generally enjoy. But sacrificing personal relationships, hobbies, time to cook or exercise any more than I have really has no appeal, since the rewards of these things have been consistently more enduring than whatever elusive glory or impact I might attain spending another ten hours a week at my regular job. The past indicates that there is a much greater chance that those hours of my life will go up in smoke in the next re-org. Besides, “greatness” is relative in different careers; I could probably achieve more success as a public speaker in my specialty than another person in my role who has more encyclopedic knowledge. Heck, maybe I ought to do that instead…

From what I can tell, the relationship between duration and intensity of work and impact or reward is more like gambling than any linear relationship. And it’s gambling with all the other known quantities – safe bets – that might occupy your time. Does that make one complacent or rational?


46 hello June 2, 2017 at 10:59 am

A few year ago I read this speech that Hamming gave at Bell labs. The extract that is posted was the most memorable part for me. I agree this is the most important truth about hard work.


47 BigAl June 2, 2017 at 11:53 am

C**p! – in theoretical physics the evidence supports the opposite. The greatest breakthroughs have almost all come from young people, Einstein, Heisenberg, Dirac, Feynman, Fermi, etc etc, precisely before any such extended compounding effect during a career can take place. (Experimental physics is more mixed.) Too much knowledge and experience of a subject almost always makes one think conventionally. So Hamming is giving advice on how to be slightly above average mediocre and have a miserable life in the process. If one wants to be truly creative in later life try Schroedinger’s approach (involves pearls and suitable surfaces to rest one’s papers!) – there is evidence that it works, and is a lot of fun in the meantime.


48 Peter Lund June 6, 2017 at 9:36 am

Hamming wasn’t just “slightly above average”.


49 Work! June 2, 2017 at 11:59 am

Great article! I need to share it with my wife and kids (once they’re old enough to really read and understand it). They complain constantly about how little time I spend with them. Compound interest from hard work, baby! My parents need to read this too, though they’re quite old and won’t be around to make demands for much longer, haha!


50 ezra abrams June 2, 2017 at 2:34 pm

I was lucky enough to work at MIT biology for a while
I would say that biology scientist at that level are indeed really smart and really hardworking, but also

very very very competitive: not above a sharp elbow to get ahead
eg, you talk to any scientist, they will tell you of “peer review delay”
when you have a paper, you submit it to a journal and the editor sends it out to anonymous referees for peer review
everyone feels that at one time, there paper went to a top guy who was competing, and that top guy delayed the review so their student could get a paper in at the same time


51 Ricky Tylor June 2, 2017 at 2:56 pm

Hard work is very crucial for anyone’s to succeed. If we are not hard working enough then we will create issues for our self only. So, it is vital that we focus and work hard on getting things right, as only then we will gain good results. It’s ever easy for me through broker like OctaFX given they have outstanding set of features and facilities that counts for low spreads at 0.1 pips, high leverage up to 1.500 and much more.


52 Steve S June 2, 2017 at 3:53 pm

“You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.”

Hamming then follows this quote by saying being more productive means working 10% more than another guy. I always have an issue with “hard work” = time put in. Plenty of guys at my previous jobs put in tons of hours and got less done than me. They weren’t even investing time in learning to be more productive, they were stuck in the past doing things manually while I created spreadsheets and code to execute tasks automatically.

For every 1 guy who puts in a ton of hours and exits out the end of his career with incredible wealth, there are 100 guys toiling away at the office until 8pm, ignoring their families, who will never move up the ranks or impress anyone with their “hard work”. Maybe this is unique to my industry (engineering/manufacturing) and not academia or research but I have found it to be true.


53 Troll Me June 3, 2017 at 12:22 pm

So let’s build things up by trying to slow down anyone we disagree with to the tune of 90%.

It really adds up to something powerful at the economy-wide level.


54 MPS June 5, 2017 at 11:19 am

I suspect this is true but I think it misses an important factor: feedback.

Except perhaps in rare cases, I don’t think it’s enough to just work a lot (and have innate talent); I think it’s crucial to have exposure to people or circumstances that can react to your progress so that you can adapt. I think this is the ultimate bottleneck in developing talent: we can produce only so many exceptional scientists, because there are only so many exceptional scientists for them to train with; we can develop only so many successful business executives, because there are only so many within which they can develop. Educational institutions are supposed to solve this but I think the basic problem is that while information is easy to disseminate, quality reactive feedback is bottlenecked by the attentional available among existing talent, which is finite and scarce. You basically have to work with them.


55 MPS June 5, 2017 at 11:24 am

oops the example of developing only so many successful business executives is supposed to read “there are only so many businesses within which they can develop”.


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