All entries for Thursday 12 January 2006

January 12, 2006

Working on Important Problems

Just finished reading though an essay from Richard Hamming called ĎYou and Your Researchí (linked to within this good Paul Graham article on the benefits of procrastination). A sample –

Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has one life to live. Even if you believe in reincarnation it doesn't do you any good from one life to the next! Why shouldn't you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant? I'm not going to define it – you know what I mean. I will talk mainly about science because that is what I have studied. But so far as I know, and I've been told by others, much of what I say applies to many fields. Outstanding work is characterized very much the same way in most fields, but I will confine myself to science.

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.''

Read it in full here.

The essay is geared towards researchers and how they should be concerned with the most important problems in their field. Those problems should be ones for which concrete progress is realistic; time spent on pie-in-the-sky issues isnít so useful.

Clearly, most people arenít professional academics and couldnít directly solve important problems in psychology or engineering. But there are other important problems to be solved. In a broader sense these include how to ensure peace in a given region, how to secure energy availability for future generations, how to improve the welfare of societyís most vulnerable, etc.

The future for many of us involves jobs that may be interesting and necessary, but not important in the sense that theyíre directly aimed at solving one a big global or theoretical problem. Though we may still face job-specific problems like how best to interact with clients or how best to structure a firm, they arenít on the same scale and wonít win you universal acclaim or put you in contention for a Nobel Prize.

Thatís not necessarily a bad thing. Choosing to work in other fields for motivations other than saving the world is fine. Not everyone is suited, or even interested in working in academia, politics, an R&D department or a think tank. The yearly financial reward for working in such places isnít necessarily great and the work carried out isnít guaranteed to yield concrete results any time soon if at all. Whilst others are working on saving the world, the rest of us must get on with the every day production and consumption that ultimately bankrolls them.

Still, there thereís something alluring about working on something that could have a genuine impact on others for years to come. Those who take an interest in important problems but choose not to work on them directly can make an impact by simply donating funds to relevant organisations. Over the course of a year most people will make many one-off charitable donations to disaster relief funds and television appeals. Perhaps it would be better to take a more structured approach to charitable giving and to make a long term commitment to some organisation that is helping solve whatever you think societyís most important problem is. An indirect contribution is better than none at all.

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