In his illustrious career, mathematician Richard Hamming contributed significantly to the fields of computer engineering and telecommunications. He won plenty of awards for his work. (They even named an award after him.)
Hamming spent most of his productive years at Bell Labs (or AT&T). About four years after joining the company, he came across John Tukey, a scientist at the same firm.
By Hamming’s admission, John Tukey was a genius. What irked Hamming was the fact that Tukey was younger than him. One day, Hamming stormed into his boss’s office and demanded to know how John Tukey could know so much at such a young age.
His boss leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.”
Hamming also built a notorious reputation for himself at Bell Labs by asking his peers the following question:
“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?”
It’s a profound question, and an underrated one. Rather, an uncomfortable one. It also explains why the likes of Hamming, Tukey, and others created a long-lasting impact.
What Are You Working On?
Each of us has goals. Getting fitter, pursuing our passion to build a meaningful career, being part of a team that designs cool products.
Yet, most people don’t achieve such goals. Why?
Do they lack motivation? No. They have access to content, coaches, and apps to inject it into them.
Do they lack the means? Again, the answer is no. They can learn anything and access any tools with a few clicks on their screens.
Do they lack the desire to work hard? Hardly. The sheer volume of people burning out today shows that hard work is the norm.
But Tukey and Hamming had one trait that most people lack — the ability to work hard on what was important.
We know the important tasks that will help us achieve our goals. For someone who wants to get fit, the important actions include regular exercise and a healthy diet. For a writer, they’re reading a lot and writing a lot. For a team launching a new product, they involve collecting user feedback and refining the product.
Important activities don’t just fast-track our efforts and the outcomes. They also let us learn more and build the courage to move forward despite difficult circumstances.
But they also push us into the uncomfortable territory of pain, rejection, and failure. And most people would rather walk barefoot on burning coal than expose themselves to such discomfort.
So we default to doing what’s easy. We say no to tasks that push us outside our comfort zone and yes to the ones that keep us in it.
We make other plans that coincide with our workout schedule or spend more hours at work so we can escape the gym. We binge-read articles, check the fridge every few minutes, and clean the house to avoid sitting down and writing. We search for urgent-but-trivial fires to douse instead of speaking to customers.
Each time we sweep what’s important under the carpet, we walk a few meters on the road to hell.
“The safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” — C.S. Lewis
As humans, we overestimate what the future will look like. We envision it as one where we exercise daily, have meaningful relationships, and catch up with tasks we always postponed. At least we hope it’ll turn out like that.
But your life is not what you say or what you hope it will be. It’s a result of your daily actions that compound over the long term.
What you allocate your time, energy, and resources to decides whether you end up in hell or become the person you wanted to be.
Don’t Say No, Say Yes
A popular hack to increase productivity is to say no to most things.
On paper, this sounds great. But in real life, it leaves your schedule vacant and causes anxiety and FOMO. You revert to your default behavior in no time. None of this is helpful.
Weighing the consequences of each “no” can take a huge mental toll on you. Here’s a simpler option: reverse the order. Say “yes” to what’s important and let it drown everything else out.
Don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let that terrifying longing crowd everything else out. — David Brooks
The more you focus on what’s important, the more progress you make, the more you learn, the more you can do, and the more opportunities present themselves.
Important goals also serve as a prism to examine your decisions and actions. Elon Musk views each decision at SpaceX through the prism of whether it’ll help colonize Mars. Jeff Bezos views each new idea at Amazon through the prism of whether it’ll improve customer satisfaction.
You can ask yourself the following questions: Is what I’m doing important? Does it lead to my goal? If it doesn’t, is it even worth doing?
Important actions get you closer to your goals. Increase the time you spend on them.
If you want to get fitter, focus on your exercise regime and diet. If you want to be a better writer, sit down and write. If you want your product to storm the market, spend more time with customers than in a cubicle.
These will crowd out everything else, including the bells and whistles.
“If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.” — Isaac Newton
Richard Hamming believed that everyone has the potential to do first-class work. You only have to look around to agree. People who create amazing art today had skills no better than ours when they started off. What separates them from the rest is that they stuck to what’s important.
Discover what’s important to you and go for it. Be shameless in your desire to do awesome work.
When you’ll succeed, people will congratulate you for being lucky. And you’ll smile because you’ll know the truth… that you made your own luck.