8 Simple Strategies To Improve Your Innovation

Published by Jonathan Wai, Ph.D. in Finding the Next Einstein

Richard Hamming, mathematician at Bell Labs for thirty years, gave a talk before he passed away on the factors that determine why a scientist does or does not make significant contributions.  Although his focus was on ideas in science, the wisdom he shared really can be applied to any area where original thought is necessary.  Here are the core insights from his talk.

 1. Don’t Think Your Success Is A Matter of Luck

 Hamming argues a major roadblock is thinking your success will be mainly about luck.  To do first rate work, you have to drop any modesty and say to yourself: “Yes, I would like to do something significant.”  Pasteur said “Luck favors the prepared mind.”  The prepared mind will eventually find something important and then do it.  One characteristic of great people is usually “when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them.”  He says: “Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can.”

 Lesson: Prepare your mind, and when a lucky opportunity comes, take advantage of it.  Have the courage to pursue your independent ideas.  You must be honest with yourself.

 2. Plant Many Small Seeds From Which A Mighty Oak Tree Can Grow

 A downfall of famous scientists is they often feel they can no longer work on smaller problems.  He argues that Claude Shannon, after inventing modern information theory, got much recognition, which was detrimental to his career.  This is because many great scientists “fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow.  They try to get the big thing right off.  And that isn’t the way things go.”

 Lesson: Always remember to work on many different small problems, because you never know which one will grow into the next big idea.  “You can’t always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen.”

 3. Turn Your Problem Around. Change A Defect Into An Asset

 Great scientists often can change a defect into an asset by turning a problem around.  Hamming explains at Bell Labs he wasn’t given the required human staff to write programs for the computers.  Other companies would readily give him staff, but he felt the “exciting people were at Bell Labs.”  From this limitation came his insight that the machines might be able to write programs themselves, which forced him into the field of automatic programming very early.  If he had the ideal working conditions he initially desired, he might never have had this insight.

 Lesson: Many scientists, when they couldn’t do a problem, started to study why not.  And from this came their interesting discovery.  “Ideal working conditions are very strange.  The ones you want aren’t always the best ones for you.”

 4. Knowledge And Productivity Are Like Compound Interest

 When he first joined Bell Labs, he met mathematician John Tukey, who had tremendous drive.  He felt he could not compare to the genius Tukey asking his boss “How can anybody my age know was much as he does?”  His boss replied: “You would be surprised…how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.”  Then he understood: 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 [consistently over time], the latter will more than twice out produce the former.”

 Lesson: To be great you must have tremendous drive.  Sometimes you will have to neglect smaller things in order to get bigger things done.  Talent matters, yet “solid work, steadily applied, gets you surprisingly far.”  But hard work and drive are not enough: they must be applied strategically.

Published by Jonathan Wai, Ph.D. in Finding the Next Einstein

Richard Hamming, mathematician at Bell Labs for thirty years, gave a talk before he passed away on the factors that determine why a scientist does or does not make significant contributions.  Although his focus was on ideas in science, the wisdom he shared really can be applied to any area where original thought is necessary.  Here are the core insights from his talk.

 1. Don’t Think Your Success Is A Matter of Luck

 Hamming argues a major roadblock is thinking your success will be mainly about luck.  To do first rate work, you have to drop any modesty and say to yourself: “Yes, I would like to do something significant.”  Pasteur said “Luck favors the prepared mind.”  The prepared mind will eventually find something important and then do it.  One characteristic of great people is usually “when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them.”  He says: “Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can.”

 Lesson: Prepare your mind, and when a lucky opportunity comes, take advantage of it.  Have the courage to pursue your independent ideas.  You must be honest with yourself.

 2. Plant Many Small Seeds From Which A Mighty Oak Tree Can Grow

 A downfall of famous scientists is they often feel they can no longer work on smaller problems.  He argues that Claude Shannon, after inventing modern information theory, got much recognition, which was detrimental to his career.  This is because many great scientists “fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow.  They try to get the big thing right off.  And that isn’t the way things go.”

 Lesson: Always remember to work on many different small problems, because you never know which one will grow into the next big idea.  “You can’t always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen.”

 3. Turn Your Problem Around. Change A Defect Into An Asset

 Great scientists often can change a defect into an asset by turning a problem around.  Hamming explains at Bell Labs he wasn’t given the required human staff to write programs for the computers.  Other companies would readily give him staff, but he felt the “exciting people were at Bell Labs.”  From this limitation came his insight that the machines might be able to write programs themselves, which forced him into the field of automatic programming very early.  If he had the ideal working conditions he initially desired, he might never have had this insight.

 Lesson: Many scientists, when they couldn’t do a problem, started to study why not.  And from this came their interesting discovery.  “Ideal working conditions are very strange.  The ones you want aren’t always the best ones for you.”

 4. Knowledge And Productivity Are Like Compound Interest

 When he first joined Bell Labs, he met mathematician John Tukey, who had tremendous drive.  He felt he could not compare to the genius Tukey asking his boss “How can anybody my age know was much as he does?”  His boss replied: “You would be surprised…how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.”  Then he understood: 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 [consistently over time], the latter will more than twice out produce the former.”

 Lesson: To be great you must have tremendous drive.  Sometimes you will have to neglect smaller things in order to get bigger things done.  Talent matters, yet “solid work, steadily applied, gets you surprisingly far.”  But hard work and drive are not enough: they must be applied strategically.

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