The Stripe Press just published a beautiful reprint of Richard Hamming's The Art of Doing Science and Engineering, which led me (and quite a few others, I imagine) to read some of his work for the first time. The written form of his lecture, "You and Your Research", is chapter thirty of the book (go read it if you haven't).
It opens with Hamming admitting that the lecture could just as easily be called “You and Your Engineering Career,” or even “You and Your Career". He suggests that we should try to do significant things in our careers, rather than insignificant things. Hamming means 'significant' in the 'significant to mankind' sense, what he says applies to the 'personally significant' just as well. To do significant things, we need to:
Not everyone can chose to work on they believe to be the Important Problems. Being able to do so is definitely a sort of privilege. However, there will always be problems that are the most important within your ability to solve. Hamming says to work on those.
You can apply this recursively. What's the most important piece of the important problem you're solving? Focus on that. It sounds simple, but is everyone you know working on the problem most important to them? Are you?
Being consistent, determined, driven -- that's harder to change. Everyone has some minimum they can do consistently. Hamming talks about finding that minimum, and then growing from there. Everyone can be consistent to a different degree, but we can all improve.
The final point is the one that resonated with me the most. Be excellent. So much of the field I work in is filled with bloat, workarounds, hacks, "good enough", and crumbling towers of complexity. The reality is that excellence isn't a prerequisite for generating profit. Excellence is, however, a prerequisite for doing significant things. This is the clearest goal, and yet the hardest to achieve. We all know what excellence looks like -- some even make a habit of excellence already. But it's easy to do mediocre work, and in some ways it's even easier to do good work. Excellent work is usually hard work.
Hamming concludes on the point of excellence. For him, the most important thing about the work we do is how we do it:
"... it is nice to end up where you wanted to be, but the person you are when you get there is far more important. I believe a life in which you do not try to extend yourself regularly is not worth living—but it is up to you to pick the goals you believe are worth striving for."