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Hamming Questions


There should be something like "motivation engineering" and have downlinks to both Hamming Questions and Spinning Plates

As important as how we work on problems is what problems we choose to work on.

Richard Hamming was a mathematician at Bell Labs from the 1940’s through the 1970’s who liked to sit down with strangers in the company cafeteria and ask them about their fields of expertise. At first, he would ask mainly about their day-to-day work, but eventually, he would turn the conversation toward the big, open questions—what were the most important unsolved problems in their profession? Why did those problems matter? What kinds of things would change when someone in the field finally broke through? What new potential would that unlock?

After he’d gotten them excited and talking passionately, he would ask one final question:

“So, why aren’t you working on that?”

Hamming didn’t make very many friends with this strategy, but he did inspire some of his colleagues to make major shifts in focus, rededicating their careers to the problems they felt actually mattered. It’s valuable to occasionally pose an analogous question to oneself:

While powerful, this approach has blind spots. Sometimes, a deep focus on your most pressing problems can create a sense that everything else must go on pause. When we’ve just asked ourselves the Hamming question, it’s easy to fall into the trap of turning all of our resources toward direct approaches to the problem.

Therefore: Periodically ask yourself what your most important problems are, and make sure they don't go unattended.