Article Reviews, Trading

How to Be a Great Trader (Or Achieve Greatness in Your Field)

I came across a very interesting talk by Richard Hamming (inventor of Hamming Code) titled ‘You and Your Research’ (link here).

Hammond worked at Bell Labs, and subsequently worked on the atomic bomb project in the U.S. and interacted with many of the great scientific minds of his time. He felt that he was a ‘stooge’ compared to those great intellectual minds and wanted to figure out what makes them so different. In his words, he had a great interest in “the difference between those who do and those who might have done”.

I find his points on how to do great work as a scientist, equally relevant towards being a great trader, or becoming successful in any other field for that matter. The themes always come back to having a clear vision of what you want to do, having total drive, commitment, and a laser focus to achieve it, and accepting the sacrifices that are necessary to get there.

The original article is a very good read, so I recommend readers to check it out.

Do Significant Work

  • 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 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.’

Have Courage and Confidence

  • One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can’t, almost surely you are not going to.
  • That is the characteristic of great scientists; they have courage. They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.

Knowledge and Productivity Are Like Compound Interest

  • You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive… Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former.
  • The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest.
  • I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

Drive and Deep Commitment Are Necessary

  • The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day.
  • They don’t have the deep commitment that is apparently necessary for really first-class work. They turn out lots of good work, but we were talking, remember, about first-class work. There is a difference. Good people, very talented people, almost always turn out good work. We’re talking about the outstanding work, the type of work that gets the Nobel Prize and gets recognition.

Drive, Misapplied, Doesn’t Get You Anywhere

  • The steady application of effort with a little bit more work, intelligently applied is what does it. That’s the trouble; drive, misapplied, doesn’t get you anywhere.
  • I’ve often wondered why so many of my good friends at Bell Labs who worked as hard or harder than I did, didn’t have so much to show for it. The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough — it must be applied sensibly.

Have an Emotional Commitment to Your Problem

  • When you find apparent flaws you’ve got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions. Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place.
  • It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don’t become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

Leverage on Your Subconscious

  • Now again, emotional commitment is not enough. It is a necessary condition apparently… If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there’s your answer.
  • For those who don’t get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn’t produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don’t let anything else get the center of your attention — you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

Work on Important Problems

  • If you don’t work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious.
  • If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea.

Be Aware of What Might Be Important

  • People who work with the door closed are more productive than most, but 10 years later somehow you don’t 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.
  • 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.

Don’t Work on Isolated Problems, Work on the General Problem

  • You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it, so they will indeed say, “Yes, I’ve stood on so and so’s shoulders and I saw further.” The essence of science is cumulative.
  • By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work. Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class [of problems].
  • Now if you are much of a mathematician you know that the effort to generalize often means that the solution is simple. The business of abstraction frequently makes things simple. Often by stopping and saying, “This is the problem he wants but this is characteristic of so and so. Yes I can attack the whole class with a far superior method than the particular one because I was earlier embedded in needless detail.”
  • It’s just as easy to do a broad general job as one very special case. And it’s much more satisfying and rewarding!

Seize Opportunities With a Laser Focus

  • Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say “Well that bears on this problem.” They drop all the other things and get after it.
  • The great scientists, when an opportunity opens up, get after it and they pursue it. They drop all other things. They get rid of other things and they get after an idea because they had already through the thing through. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it. Now of course lots of times it doesn’t work out, but you don’t have to hit many of them to do some great science.

Sell Your Work

  • The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it. But the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you’ve done, read it, and come back and say, “Yes, that was good.”
  • Most of the time, the audience wants a broad general talk a nd wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give…. You should paint a general picture to say why it’s important, and then slowly give a sketch of what was done.

Have Consistency Between Thoughts and Actions

  • Friday afternoons for years — great thoughts only — means that I committed 10% of my time trying to understand the bigger problems in the field, i.e. what was and what was not important. I found in the early days I had believed ‘this’ and yet had spent all week marching in ‘that’ direction. It was kind of foolish.
  • If I really believe the action is over there, why do I march in this direction? I either had to change my goal or change what I did. So I changed something I did and I marched in the direction I thought was important. It’s that easy.

You Pay a Price to Assert Your Ego

  • You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to… An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.
  • John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility. It’s wasted effort!
  • If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble.
  • Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? My advice is to let somebody else fight the system and you get on with becoming a first-class scientist. Very few of you have the ability to both reform the system and become a first-class scientist.

Use Your Ego as an Asset

  • I am an egotistical person; there is no doubt about it. I knew that most people who took a sabbatical to write a book, didn’t finish it on time. So before I left, I told all my friends that when I come back, that book was going to be done! Yes, I would have it done — I’d have been ashamed to come back without it! I used my ego to make myself behave the way I wanted to.

Use Your Faults to Manage Yourself

  • If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism.
  • Knowing many of my own faults, I manage myself. I have a lot of faults, so I’ve got a lot of problems, i.e. a lot of possibilities of management.

Stress is Inevitable

  • I had incipient ulcers most of the years that I was at Bell Labs. I have since gone off to the Naval Postgraduate School and laid back somewhat, and now my health is much better.
  • But if you want to be a great scientist you’re going to have to put up with stress. You can lead a nice life; you can be a nice guy or you can be a great scientist. But nice guys end last, is what Leo Durocher said.

Don’t Read to Find Solutions

  • If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do — get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you’ve thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one.
  • You need to keep up more to find out what the problems are than to read to find the solutions. The reading is necessary to know what is going on and what is possible. But reading to get the solutions does not seem to be the way to do great research.
  • You read; but it is not the amount, it is the way you read that counts.

Be Clear of Your Vision and What You Need to Get There

  • When your vision of what you want to do is what you can do single-handedly, then you should pursue it. The day your vision, what you think needs to be done, is bigger than what you can do single-handedly, then you have to move toward management. And the bigger the vision is, the farther in management you have to go.
  • It depends upon what goals and what desires you have. And as they change in life, you have to be prepared to change…. But when you do choose a path, for heaven’s sake be aware of what you have done and the choice you have made. Don’t try to do both.

It Is Not All Luck

  • Luck favors a prepared mind; luck favors a prepared person. It is not guaranteed;
  • I’d say luck changes the odds, but there is some definite control on the part of the individual.



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