Saturday, August 6, 2022

Good And Bad Procrastination

The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn't always bad?

Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you're not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination.

That's the "absent-minded professor," who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he's going while he's thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it's hard at work in another.

That's the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They're type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What's "small stuff?" Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It's hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there's a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes—anything that might be called an errand.

Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.

Good in a sense, at least. The people who want you to do the errands won't think it's good. But you probably have to annoy them if you want to get anything done. The mildest seeming people, if they want to do real work, all have a certain degree of ruthlessness when it comes to avoiding errands.

Some errands, like replying to letters, go away if you ignore them (perhaps taking friends with them). Others, like mowing the lawn, or filing tax returns, only get worse if you put them off. In principle it shouldn't work to put off the second kind of errand. You're going to have to do whatever it is eventually. Why not (as past-due notices are always saying) do it now?

The reason it pays to put off even those errands is that real work needs two things errands don't: big chunks of time, and the right mood. If you get inspired by some project, it can be a net win to blow off everything you were supposed to do for the next few days to work on it. Yes, those errands may cost you more time when you finally get around to them. But if you get a lot done during those few days, you will be net more productive.

In fact, it may not be a difference in degree, but a difference in kind. There may be types of work that can only be done in long, uninterrupted stretches, when inspiration hits, rather than dutifully in scheduled little slices. Empirically it seems to be so. When I think of the people I know who've done great things, I don't imagine them dutifully crossing items off to-do lists. I imagine them sneaking off to work on some new idea.

Conversely, forcing someone to perform errands synchronously is bound to limit their productivity. The cost of an interruption is not just the time it takes, but that it breaks the time on either side in half. You probably only have to interrupt someone a couple times a day before they're unable to work on hard problems at all.

I've wondered a lot about why startups are most productive at the very beginning, when they're just a couple guys in an apartment. The main reason may be that there's no one to interrupt them yet. In theory it's good when the founders finally get enough money to hire people to do some of the work for them. But it may be better to be overworked than interrupted. Once you dilute a startup with ordinary office workers—with type-B procrastinators—the whole company starts to resonate at their frequency. They're interrupt-driven, and soon you are too.

Errands are so effective at killing great projects that a lot of people use them for that purpose. Someone who has decided to write a novel, for example, will suddenly find that the house needs cleaning. People who fail to write novels don't do it by sitting in front of a blank page for days without writing anything. They do it by feeding the cat, going out to buy something they need for their apartment, meeting a friend for coffee, checking email. "I don't have time to work," they say. And they don't; they've made sure of that.

(There's also a variant where one has no place to work. The cure is to visit the places where famous people worked, and see how unsuitable they were.)

I've used both these excuses at one time or another. I've learned a lot of tricks for making myself work over the last 20 years, but even now I don't win consistently. Some days I get real work done. Other days are eaten up by errands. And I know it's usually my fault: I let errands eat up the day, to avoid facing some hard problem.

The most dangerous form of procrastination is unacknowledged type-B procrastination, because it doesn't feel like procrastination. You're "getting things done." Just the wrong things.

Any advice about procrastination that concentrates on crossing things off your to-do list is not only incomplete, but positively misleading, if it doesn't consider the possibility that the to-do list is itself a form of type-B procrastination. In fact, possibility is too weak a word. Nearly everyone's is. Unless you're working on the biggest things you could be working on, you're type-B procrastinating, no matter how much you're getting done.

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they're working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are the most important problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

Hamming was at Bell Labs when he started asking such questions. In principle anyone there ought to have been able to work on the most important problems in their field. Perhaps not everyone can make an equally dramatic mark on the world; I don't know; but whatever your capacities, there are projects that stretch them. So Hamming's exercise can be generalized to:

What's the best thing you could be working on, and why aren't you?

Most people will shy away from this question. I shy away from it myself; I see it there on the page and quickly move on to the next sentence. Hamming used to go around actually asking people this, and it didn't make him popular. But it's a question anyone ambitious should face.

The trouble is, you may end up hooking a very big fish with this bait. To do good work, you need to do more than find good projects. Once you've found them, you have to get yourself to work on them, and that can be hard. The bigger the problem, the harder it is to get yourself to work on it.

Of course, the main reason people find it difficult to work on a particular problem is that they don't enjoy it. When you're young, especially, you often find yourself working on stuff you don't really like-- because it seems impressive, for example, or because you've been assigned to work on it. Most grad students are stuck working on big problems they don't really like, and grad school is thus synonymous with procrastination.

But even when you like what you're working on, it's easier to get yourself to work on small problems than big ones. Why? Why is it so hard to work on big problems? One reason is that you may not get any reward in the forseeable future. If you work on something you can finish in a day or two, you can expect to have a nice feeling of accomplishment fairly soon. If the reward is indefinitely far in the future, it seems less real.

Another reason people don't work on big projects is, ironically, fear of wasting time. What if they fail? Then all the time they spent on it will be wasted. (In fact it probably won't be, because work on hard projects almost always leads somewhere.)

But the trouble with big problems can't be just that they promise no immediate reward and might cause you to waste a lot of time. If that were all, they'd be no worse than going to visit your in-laws. There's more to it than that. Big problems are terrifying. There's an almost physical pain in facing them. It's like having a vacuum cleaner hooked up to your imagination. All your initial ideas get sucked out immediately, and you don't have any more, and yet the vacuum cleaner is still sucking.

You can't look a big problem too directly in the eye. You have to approach it somewhat obliquely. But you have to adjust the angle just right: you have to be facing the big problem directly enough that you catch some of the excitement radiating from it, but not so much that it paralyzes you. You can tighten the angle once you get going, just as a sailboat can sail closer to the wind once it gets underway.

If you want to work on big things, you seem to have to trick yourself into doing it. You have to work on small things that could grow into big things, or work on successively larger things, or split the moral load with collaborators. It's not a sign of weakness to depend on such tricks. The very best work has been done this way.

When I talk to people who've managed to make themselves work on big things, I find that all blow off errands, and all feel guilty about it. I don't think they should feel guilty. There's more to do than anyone could. So someone doing the best work they can is inevitably going to leave a lot of errands undone. It seems a mistake to feel bad about that.

I think the way to "solve" the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you. Work on an ambitious project you really enjoy, and sail as close to the wind as you can, and you'll leave the right things undone.

Source –\

Sunday, July 17, 2022

You And Your Life

“The title of my talk is "You and Your Research." It is not about managing research, it is about how you individually do your research. I could give a talk on the other subject — but it's not, it's about you. I'm not talking about ordinary run-of-the-mill research; I'm talking about great research. And for the sake of describing great research I'll occasionally say Nobel-Prize type of work. It doesn't have to gain the Nobel Prize, but I mean those kinds of things which we perceive are significant things. Relativity, if you want, Shannon's information theory, any number of outstanding theories — that's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Now, how did I come to do this study? At Los Alamos I was brought in to run the computing machines which other people had got going, so those scientists and physicists could get back to business. I saw I was a stooge. I saw that although physically I was the same, they were different. And to put the thing bluntly, I was envious. I wanted to know why they were so different from me. I saw Feynman up close. I saw Fermi and Teller. I saw Oppenheimer. I saw Hans Bethe: he was my boss. I saw quite a few very capable people. I became very interested in the difference between those who do and those who might have done.

When I came to Bell Labs, I came into a very productive department. Bode was the department head at the time; Shannon was there, and there were other people. I continued examining the questions, "Why?" and "What is the difference?" I continued subsequently by reading biographies, autobiographies, asking people questions such as: "How did you come to do this?" I tried to find out what are the differences. And that's what this talk is about.

In order to get at you individually, I must talk in the first person. I have to get you to drop modesty and say to yourself, "Yes, I would like to do first-class work." Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You're not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that's a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn't you set out to do something significant. You don't have to tell other people, but shouldn't you say to yourself, "Yes, I would like to do something significant."

Let me start not logically, but psychologically. I find that the major objection is that people think great science is done by luck. It's all a matter of luck. Well, consider Einstein. Note how many different things he did that were good. Was it all luck? Wasn't it a little too repetitive? Consider Shannon. He didn't do just information theory. Several years before, he did some other good things and some which are still locked up in the security of cryptography. He did many good things.

You see again and again that it is more than one thing from a good person. Once in a while a person does only one thing in his whole life, and we'll talk about that later, but a lot of times there is repetition. I claim that luck will not cover everything. And I will cite Pasteur who said, "Luck favors the prepared mind." And I think that says it the way I believe it. There is indeed an element of luck, and no, there isn't. The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.

For example, when I came to Bell Labs, I shared an office for a while with Shannon. At the same time he was doing information theory, I was doing coding theory. It is suspicious that the two of us did it at the same place and at the same time — it was in the atmosphere. And you can say, "Yes, it was luck." On the other hand you can say, "But why of all the people in Bell Labs then were those the two who did it?" Yes, it is partly luck, and partly it is the prepared mind; but "partly" is the other thing I'm going to talk about. So, although I'll come back several more times to luck, I want to dispose of this matter of luck as being the sole criterion whether you do great work or not. I claim you have some, but not total, control over it. And I will quote, finally, Newton on the matter. Newton said, "If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results."

How about having lots of brains? It sounds good. Most of you in this room probably have more than enough brains to do first-class work. But great work is something else than mere brains.

One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can't, almost surely you are not going to. Courage is one of the things that Shannon had supremely. You have only to think of his major theorem. He wants to create a method of coding, but he doesn't know what to do so he makes a random code. Then he is stuck. And then he asks the impossible question, "What would the average random code do?" He then proves that the average code is arbitrarily good, and that therefore there must be at least one good code. Who but a man of infinite courage could have dared to think those thoughts? That is the characteristic of great scientists; they have courage. They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.

This brings up the subject, out of order perhaps, of working conditions. What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. Very clearly they are not because people are often most productive when working conditions are bad. One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks — they did some of the best physics ever.

I give you a story from my own private life. Early on it became evident to me that Bell Laboratories was not going to give me the conventional acre of programming people to program computing machines in absolute binary. It was clear they weren't going to. But that was the way everybody did it. I could go to the West Coast and get a job with the airplane companies without any trouble, but the exciting people were at Bell Labs and the fellows out there in the airplane companies were not. I thought for a long while about, "Did I want to go or not?" and I wondered how I could get the best of two possible worlds. I finally said to myself, "Hamming, you think the machines can do practically everything. Why can't you make them write programs?" What appeared at first to me as a defect forced me into automatic programming very early. What appears to be a fault, often, by a change of viewpoint, turns out to be one of the greatest assets you can have. But you are not likely to think that when you first look the thing and say, "Gee, I'm never going to get enough programmers, so how can I ever do any great programming?"

And there are many other stories of the same kind; Grace Hopper has similar ones. I think that if you look carefully you will see that often the great scientists, by turning the problem around a bit, changed a defect to an asset. For example, many scientists when they found they couldn't do a problem finally began to study why not. They then turned it around the other way and said, "But of course, this is what it is" and got an important result. So ideal working conditions are very strange. The ones you want aren't always the best ones for you.

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.

On this matter of drive Edison says, "Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration." He may have been exaggerating, but the idea is that solid work, steadily applied, gets you surprisingly far. The steady application of effort with a little bit more work, intelligently applied is what does it. That's the trouble; drive, misapplied, doesn't get you anywhere. 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. The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough - it must be applied sensibly.

There's another trait on the side which I want to talk about; that trait is ambiguity. It took me a while to discover its importance. Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don't quite fit and they don't forget it. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions. Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

Now again, emotional commitment is not enough. It is a necessary condition apparently. And I think I can tell you the reason why. Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, "creativity comes out of your subconscious." Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you're aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention — you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, "important problem" must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.

I spoke earlier about planting acorns so that oaks will grow. You can't always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen. And even if you believe that great science is a matter of luck, you can stand on a mountain top where lightning strikes; you don't have to hide in the valley where you're safe. But the average scientist does routine safe work almost all the time and so he (or she) doesn't produce much. It's that simple. If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea.

Along those lines at some urging from John Tukey and others, I finally adopted what I called "Great Thoughts Time." When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: "What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?", "How will computers change science?" For example, I came up with the observation at that time that nine out of ten experiments were done in the lab and one in ten on the computer. I made a remark to the vice presidents one time, that it would be reversed, i.e. nine out of ten experiments would be done on the computer and one in ten in the lab. They knew I was a crazy mathematician and had no sense of reality. I knew they were wrong and they've been proved wrong while I have been proved right. They built laboratories when they didn't need them. I saw that computers were transforming science because I spent a lot of time asking "What will be the impact of computers on science and how can I change it?" I asked myself, "How is it going to change Bell Labs?" I remarked one time, in the same address, that more than one-half of the people at Bell Labs will be interacting closely with computing machines before I leave. Well, you all have terminals now. I thought hard about where was my field going, where were the opportunities, and what were the important things to do. Let me go there so there is a chance I can do important things.

The great scientists, when an opportunity opens up, get after it and they pursue it. They drop all other things. They get rid of other things and they get after an idea because they had already thought the thing through. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it. Now of course lots of times it doesn't work out, but you don't have to hit many of them to do some great science. It's kind of easy. One of the chief tricks is to live a long time!

Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, "The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind." I don't know. But I can say 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. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing — not much, but enough that they miss fame.

I want to talk on another topic. It is based on the song which I think many of you know, "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it." I'll start with an example of my own. I was conned into doing on a digital computer, in the absolute binary days, a problem which the best analog computers couldn't do. And I was getting an answer. When I thought carefully and said to myself, "You know, Hamming, you're going to have to file a report on this military job; after you spend a lot of money you're going to have to account for it and every analog installation is going to want the report to see if they can't find flaws in it." I was doing the required integration by a rather crummy method, to say the least, but I was getting the answer. And I realized that in truth the problem was not just to get the answer; it was to demonstrate for the first time, and beyond question, that I could beat the analog computer on its own ground with a digital machine. I reworked the method of solution, created a theory which was nice and elegant, and changed the way we computed the answer; the results were no different. The published report had an elegant method which was later known for years as "Hamming's Method of Integrating Differential Equations." It is somewhat obsolete now, but for a while it was a very good method. By changing the problem slightly, I did important work rather than trivial work.

To end this part, I'll remind you, "It is a poor workman who blames his tools — the good man gets on with the job, given what he's got, and gets the best answer he can." And I suggest that by altering the problem, by looking at the thing differently, you can make a great deal of difference in your final productivity because you can either do it in such a fashion that people can indeed build on what you've done, or you can do it in such a fashion that the next person has to essentially duplicate again what you've done. It isn't just a matter of the job, it's the way you write the report, the way you write the paper, the whole attitude. It's just as easy to do a broad, general job as one very special case. And it's much more satisfying and rewarding!

I have now come down to a topic which is very distasteful; it is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell it. "Selling" to a scientist is an awkward thing to do. It's very ugly; you shouldn't have to do it. The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it. But the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you've done, read it, and come back and say, "Yes, that was good." I suggest that when you open a journal, as you turn the pages, you ask why you read some articles and not others. You had better write your report so when it is published in the Physical Review, or wherever else you want it, as the readers are turning the pages they won't just turn your pages but they will stop and read yours. If they don't stop and read it, you won't get credit.

There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks.

Let me summarize. You've got to work on important problems. I deny that it is all luck, but I admit there is a fair element of luck. I subscribe to Pasteur's "Luck favors the prepared mind." I favor heavily what I did. Friday afternoons for years — great thoughts only — means that I committed 10% of my time trying to understand the bigger problems in the field, i.e. what was and what was not important. I found in the early days I had believed `this' and yet had spent all week marching in `that' direction. It was kind of foolish. If I really believe the action is over there, why do I march in this direction? I either had to change my goal or change what I did. So I changed something I did and I marched in the direction I thought was important. It's that easy.

I've told you how to do it. It is so easy, so why do so many people, with all their talents, fail? For example, my opinion, to this day, is that there are in the mathematics department at Bell Labs quite a few people far more able and far better endowed than I, but they didn't produce as much. Some of them did produce more than I did; Shannon produced more than I did, and some others produced a lot, but I was highly productive against a lot of other fellows who were better equipped. Why is it so? What happened to them? Why do so many of the people who have great promise, fail?

Well, one of the reasons is drive and commitment. The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day. They don't have the deep commitment that is apparently necessary for really first-class work. They turn out lots of good work, but we were talking, remember, about first-class work. There is a difference. Good people, very talented people, almost always turn out good work. We're talking about the outstanding work, the type of work that gets the Nobel Prize and gets recognition.

You find this happening again and again; good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer. It has a lot, if you learn how to use it. It takes patience, but you can learn how to use the system pretty well, and you can learn how to get around it. After all, if you want a decision `No', you just go to your boss and get a `No' easy. If you want to do something, don't ask, do it. Present him with an accomplished fact. Don't give him a chance to tell you `No'. But if you want a `No', it's easy to get a `No'.

Another personality defect is ego assertion and I'll speak in this case of my own experience. I came from Los Alamos and in the early days I was using a machine in New York at 590 Madison Avenue where we merely rented time. I was still dressing in western clothes, big slash pockets, a bolo and all those things. I vaguely noticed that I was not getting as good service as other people. So I set out to measure. You came in and you waited for your turn; I felt I was not getting a fair deal. I said to myself, "Why? No Vice President at IBM said, `Give Hamming a bad time'. It is the secretaries at the bottom who are doing this. When a slot appears, they'll rush to find someone to slip in, but they go out and find somebody else. Now, why? I haven't mistreated them." Answer: I wasn't dressing the way they felt somebody in that situation should. It came down to just that — I wasn't dressing properly. I had to make the decision — was I going to assert my ego and dress the way I wanted to and have it steadily drain my effort from my professional life, or was I going to appear to conform better? I decided I would make an effort to appear to conform properly. The moment I did, I got much better service. And now, as an old colorful character, I get better service than other people.

You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.

On the other hand, we can't always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. I have observed almost all scientists enjoy a certain amount of twitting the system for the sheer love of it. What it comes down to basically is that you cannot be original in one area without having originality in others. Originality is being different. You can't be an original scientist without having some other original characteristics. But many a scientist has let his quirks in other places make him pay a far higher price than is necessary for the ego satisfaction he or she gets. I'm not against all ego assertion; I'm against some.

Another fault is anger. Often a scientist becomes angry, and this is no way to handle things. Amusement, yes, anger, no. Anger is misdirected. You should follow and cooperate rather than struggle against the system all the time.

Another thing you should look for is the positive side of things instead of the negative. I have already given you several examples, and there are many, many more; how, given the situation, by changing the way I looked at it, I converted what was apparently a defect to an asset. I'll give you another example. I am an egotistical person; there is no doubt about it. I knew that most people who took a sabbatical to write a book, didn't finish it on time. So before I left, I told all my friends that when I come back, that book was going to be done! Yes, I would have it done — I'd have been ashamed to come back without it! I used my ego to make myself behave the way I wanted to. I bragged about something so I'd have to perform. I found out many times, like a cornered rat in a real trap, I was surprisingly capable. I have found that it paid to say, ``Oh yes, I'll get the answer for you Tuesday,'' not having any idea how to do it. By Sunday night I was really hard thinking on how I was going to deliver by Tuesday. I often put my pride on the line and sometimes I failed, but as I said, like a cornered rat I'm surprised how often I did a good job. I think you need to learn to use yourself. I think you need to know how to convert a situation from one view to another which would increase the chance of success.

Now self-delusion in humans is very, very common. There are innumerable ways of you changing a thing and kidding yourself and making it look some other way. When you ask, "Why didn't you do such and such," the person has a thousand alibis. If you look at the history of science, usually these days there are ten people right there ready, and we pay off for the person who is there first. The other nine fellows say, "Well, I had the idea but I didn't do it and so on and so on." There are so many alibis. Why weren't you first? Why didn't you do it right? Don't try an alibi. Don't try and kid yourself. You can tell other people all the alibis you want. I don't mind. But to yourself try to be honest.

If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism. How can you convert a fault to an asset? How can you convert a situation where you haven't got enough manpower to move into a direction when that's exactly what you need to do? I say again that I have seen, as I studied the history, the successful scientist changed the viewpoint and what was a defect became an asset.

In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don't succeed are: they don't work on important problems, they don't become emotionally involved, they don't try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don't. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck. I've told you how easy it is; furthermore I've told you how to reform. Therefore, go forth and become great scientists!”

I would change the last line to “go forth and lead a great life”. 


Sources –

Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Importance Of Passion

Think of any successful businessman and it’s certain that they possess one trait. When the foremost executives talk about their field, they do so with an undeniable magnetism and enthusiasm. They truly and deeply love what they do. The road to success is more than just difficult -- it’s also overpopulated. Caring about what you do is necessary to successfully overcome competitors and any other adversity.

Why is passion important?

We’ve all heard the adage “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” This saying underlines the importance of pursuing your passion, but it may also be misleading to the literal-minded. Doing what you love doesn’t mean you’ll literally work less. Quite the opposite — through loving your field, you’ll naturally want to work more than anyone else. The difference lies in the fact that, when you’re doing what you love, you can avoid a sense of monotony.

When people watch their favorite TV shows, the episodes tend to blur together and the hours slip by. Doing the work you love should feel the same. If you’re passionate, you should lose track of time and never feel like you’re ready to stop. You should unwittingly find yourself staying late and throwing everything you have at your work. If you aren’t excited to spend as much time as possible pursuing your goals each day, then you owe it to yourself to reexamine whether you are engaged in what you’re doing or you need to find your passion.

How can passion help you?

Everything in life is a competition. Failing to keep up can be fatal to your ambitions. Being passionate gives you a powerful edge that you can use to stay one step ahead of your competitors. Passion means that you’ll dedicate more time and energy to work than your competitors. That translates to learning and doing more than your less-passionate rivals and ensuring that you always come out on top. However, loving what you do entails more than just dedicating time.

One can sacrifice all the time in the world, but no business only encounters smooth sailing. If someone surrenders at the first sign of difficulty, they’ll never succeed. Caring about what you do is also important in that it creates unbeatable perseverance. When the going gets tough, your rivals may throw in the towel, but struggling against the odds is easier when you care about the cause. Passion enables you to keep pursuing success in the face of adversity longer than anyone else.

Being passionate about your field has consequences that can affect other areas of your life as well. Can you truly be a happy, well-rounded person while hating what you spend the majority of your time immersed in? You spend a lot of time working. If you love what you do with that time, a more positive, optimistic outlook will naturally follow. Nothing is more valuable than time. So, why waste so much of it on something that you don’t care about?

How can you identify your passion?

Not knowing your passion is not just a problem for adults who are beginning their careers. It is also an issue for those who are employed but don't enjoy doing their work. There are several ways to uncover your passion; once you are clear about your true passion, you can move forward. The easiest way to do this is to make a list of the jobs or tasks that you absolutely loathe. These are the things that you hate the most and that make you feel lethargic. Once you have eliminated these options, your true passion may become clearer.

Fortunately, I was able to identify my passion at a young age. My passion has always been acquiring knowledge and helping others. I never realize how fast time passes because I enjoy what I do. Ask yourself, do you enjoy what you do so much that you don't know where the hours have gone by the end of the day? Do you devote any, if not all, of your free time to that particular job? If your answer is yes, then you have already found your passion.

When you do what you love, you can not only ensure success but also go home with a smile on your face every night. Doesn’t that sound better than slaving away at menial tasks and going home exhausted? Life is too short to spend chasing someone else’s dreams. Unlock both success and happiness by tapping into the power of passion.

Source –

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Boredom and Impatience

The greatest threat to results are boredom and impatience.

The only way to become good at something is to practice the ordinary basics for an uncommon length of time. Most people get bored. They want excitement. They want something to talk about and no one talks about the boring basics. For example, we know that dollar-cost averaging into an index fund is likely to generate wealth, but cryptocurrency will give us a bigger thrill. Boredom encourages you to stop doing what you know works and do something that might work.

Another way to mess up a good thing is to try and accelerate the natural pace of things into an unnatural one. A good idea taken to the extreme is always a bad idea. Working out for 15 hours a day won’t make you healthier, it will get you injured. Investing with a lot of leverage won’t make you rich faster, it will wipe you out. A lack of patience changes the outcome.

It’s hard to be above average if you can’t find a way to do the same thing over and over again. As Bruce Lee observed, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

In a world of social media, we glorify the results and not the process. We see the kick that knocked someone out but not the years of effort that went into perfecting it. We see the results, not the hard work.

The difference between good and great results is often found in consistently doing the boring things you know you should do exactly when you feel like doing them the least.

Source –

Boredom & Impatience - Farnam Street (

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Patience Pays Off

This essay could be a long-winded way of saying “good things come to those who wait.” But the saying isn’t fool proof – waiting can easily lead to decay.

The difference is between active patience and passive patience, and we believe it’s active patience that pays off. Pulling back an arrow and holding that tension may not look like much in the moment, but you’re creating the circumstances for a powerful event to take place. Similarly, active patience is about moving (and not moving) with intention, consistently weighing resources and opportunity costs, and recognizing the compounding rewards of high trust and persistence so that you’re best positioned to act on an opportunity when it presents itself. 

Most people, including us, are not naturally inclined to wait, to be content building energy and potential. In fact, “progress anxiety” is a term regularly used around the office. We balk at the idea of passive, unproductive, non-strategic waiting and also believe that “good things take time.” The quality of restraint is downstream from purpose.

The long game requires a plan. It demands clear vision, helpful structure, and healthy incentives that promote active patience and curb tendencies towards frenetic action, short feedback loops, and quick wins (over sustainable ones) in the name of showing progress. 

Patience is a choice, and it’s one that must be made continuously and rigorously, through long-term commitment and persistent discipline. Put another way, it’s hard and we’re still learning.

What It Takes

“Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow – that is patience. The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”

— Leo Tolstoy

Patience requires determination. Exercising patience without losing confidence, humility, or sense of self is hard enough, but you will also need perseverance and diligence. Mary Oliver calls it the “patience of vegetables and saints.” Others call it “grit” – that determination and commitment that drive us to long-term goals without the guarantee of short-term payoffs. Small business owners know grit. They’re the definition of durability, establishing deep roots in their communities, building companies with strong foundations, bringing consistent excellence to what they do best, and grinding toward a vision that may not materialize for decades or generations. This is patience at work, through work.

Patience requires the ability to be patient. If you don’t have the financial, mental, or emotional discipline to withstand a decline or a period of extreme underperformance, you don’t have the ability to be patient. The flip side of that coin is that you can’t lose your mind during periods of success. Also, most people lose their minds during periods of success. Patience can be interrupted by failure and uncertainty, of course, but short-term success can be even more threatening to patience, especially since luck is always involved. Success breeds confidence, which creeps into overconfidence, which leads to arrogance, which divorces you from reality, which cometh before the fall – failing in obvious, foreseeable, and avoidable ways.

Patience requires a team. But no founder is an island. Patience requires not only personal fortitude, but a team that will ride out the storm and continue to row with you. Conviction isn’t enough, and individual grit quickly devolves into stubbornness. If your significant other, investors, colleagues, employees, kids, and friends won’t go for the ride, you’re not going either. Or, you choose a life of isolation. So patience in some ways requires persuasion.

Patience is infectious. Patience begets patience, which gives everyone time to align collective postures. 

Patience requires openness. However, extreme commitment to patience can come back to bite you. Smart owners, operators, and investors know the perils of doggedly following the original strategy over figuring out what it takes to survive. Patience can be confused with stubbornness or pride. No one wants to look wishy-washy or fickle. But surviving (and, eventually, thriving) requires an open posture. There’s always a gap between the stories we tell ourselves and reality. The smaller the gap, the better our judgment, and the more likely we can be appropriately patient.

Patience requires trust – trust the science, trust the system, trust your gut, or, if you’re the Philadelphia 76ers, trust the process. Patience is waiting in light of a desire and pressure to act. When faced with a problem, in order to not act you must trust that something better is coming. But that trust isn’t naive, nor is it idle. We might tweak the old “trust, but verify” in this case to “trust, but work.” 

Finally, patience requires gratitude, compassion, and humility. These qualities combat selfish desires to profit at the expense of others. It’s hard to act out when you’re self-aware and at peace. And that, in turn, promotes patience, reinvestment, perseverance, and an overall preference for future rewards of compounding value. In this case, humility means knowing what you bring to the table and the value of investing in the future. If you’ve assessed yourself with candor and fearlessness, you have already begun to cultivate resilience and patience. 

Patience is demanding. It requires these qualities and commitments because it only works if you work it again and again. 

Why It’s Hard

“Well, we must wait for the future to show.”

— Virginia Woolf

Not to be flippant, but patience is hard because it’s hard. Even when you
know the reward is going to be bigger in the end, delayed gratification feels like a loss. And, we all hate to lose.

Patience requires endurance against obstacles, both known and unanticipated. The longer your time horizon, the more disasters you’ll experience. Most people don't bear hardship well and quit. Depending on luck, periods of extreme hardship and under-performance may come before any success, leading to an expectation of failure. And even if you’ve experienced a bit of success, or even a lot of success, the naysayers will always come out against you. See the many, many hit pieces on Warren Buffett at various stages of his career. The man has been “washed up” more times than a three-year-old’s t-shirt. 

We think that a bias towards action (not action in itself – we all must act eventually – but prioritizing action above all else) is inherently prideful; it assumes superior knowledge, perspective, position, and predictability. However, patience is hard, and most people won’t do hard, so it's therefore differentiated and potentially extremely profitable. 

Or, as Navy SEALs will tell you, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Why It’s Worth It

“The first rule of compounding is to never interrupt it unnecessarily.”

— Charles Munger

Our aim in employing patience is to adhere, as much as we can, to the missionary mindset over the mercenary mindset. John Doerr explains the difference like this: 

“Mercenaries are driven by paranoia; missionaries are driven by passion. Mercenaries think opportunistically; missionaries think strategically. Mercenaries go for the sprint; missionaries go for the marathon. Mercenaries focus on their competitors and financial statements; missionaries focus on their customers and value statements. Mercenaries are bosses of wolf packs; missionaries are mentors or coaches of teams. Mercenaries worry about entitlements; missionaries are obsessed with making a contribution. Mercenaries are motivated by the lust for making money; missionaries, while recognizing the importance of money, are fundamentally driven by the desire to make meaning.”


If you work very hard toward a goal you believe in, conclude that there is nothing worthwhile to do in the moment, and have the discipline to be patient while trusting that the time to act will come, you’re building energy and potential – the ingredients necessary to compound. Our experience and our mindset tell us that being good consistently for a long time is more valuable than being great for a short period of time, even if sprints of greatness get more attention.

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Sunday, May 15, 2022

It's (already) Later Than You Think

You work and work for years and years, you're always on the go
You never take a minute off, too busy makin' dough
Someday you say, you'll have your fun, when you're a millionaire
Imagine all the fun you'll have in your old rockin' chair


Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think


You're gonna take that ocean trip, no matter come what may
You've got your reservations made, but you just can't get away
Next year for sure, you'll see the world, you'll really get around
But how far can you travel when you're six feet underground?


Your heart of hearts, your dream of dreams, your ravishing brunette
She's left you and she's now become somebody else's pet
Lay down that gun, don't try my friend to reach the great beyond
You'll have more fun by reaching for a redhead or a blond


Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think


You never go to night clubs and you just don't care to dance
You don't have time for silly things like moonlight and romance
You only think of dollar bills tied neatly in a stack
But when you kiss a dollar bill, it doesn't kiss you back


Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think


For the musically inclined, the link is below 😊