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Wisdom from “You and Your Research”: Leave Your Door Open

In the mid-1980’s, Richard Hamming, a retired Bells Lab scientist, delivered his famous “You and Your Research” lecture, which summarized his 40-year-long career and attempted to answer the question:

“Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?”

The entire talk is packed with wisdom, but one idea in particular has always stuck with me:

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.

As somebody who cherishes their heads down time, this was a reminder to occasionally get out of my own head and allow for more serendipity and “interruptions.”


Footnote: Here’s a full version of “You and Your Research” that he gave years later.

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