Thursday, July 31, 2008

Are you working on one of the most important problems in your field?

...and if not, why?

Republishing a story by Richard Hamming


"Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, ``Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, ``What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, ``What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, ``If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, ``Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research,'' he says, ``but I think it was well worthwhile.'' And I said, ``Thank you Dave,'' and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, ``What are the important problems in my field?''"


Also, see :-).


Yi Li said...

There's something called "responsibility". Although my bosses handled those unimportant jobs to me, I must do them well. Those things must need somebody to get them done.

"Why not change a job?" I cannot always change jobs frequently. I need to at least take the job for several years. If a person changes his job too fast, people are not going to welcome him/her.

Anonymous said...

In academia, many young faculties face the publish-or-perish problem. It's not that they don't know the big open issues in their areas, but they choose not to risk their career by working on something that won't produce enough results in 3 or 6 years when tenure evaluation comes.

There are many people with little education in China who claimed to have resolved famous math problems with elementary math techniques. Sometimes knowing your limit is not a bad thing.

DzembuGaijin said...

Excellent point.:-) For most people this is not a question at all. I can ask you : Are you exercise REGULARLY? Do you have 6-pack? Can you run 100m in 10 sec? Is this your priority at all?

Most work for paycheck. They optimize it size and job location/brand, benefits and try to find job that is not too boring. Also,what is important ? Important for what? For who? Humanity or Paycheck? :-)

It all come down to your "life mission". If you think that it is "working on most important problem in the field", then this question is valid. If this anything else : say, rise happy kids or master skydiving, question became irrelevant.

In ideal world, your life mission and your job are the same, but this may be exception, not rule :-)

As they say:"Not everybody was born to be an astronaut" .

But for me, "your question", if I just take the basic idea do have meaning. I ask it myself for a while now :-) As it seems I do know the answer. :-)

BadTux said...

In my case, the answer is "yes". It is an unexpected approach to a common problem taking advantage of some new functionality recently added to one of the major server operating systems. And you don't get to find out about it until it's ready, heh :-).

But even if I wasn't, I'd be happy doing what I'm doing. As someone else in this thread has pointed out, doing something you enjoy for a paycheck is reason enough for most folks to show up at work every day (or telecommute, whatever).