Hamming Questions

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[from the CFAR Handbook: https://www.rationality.org/files/CFAR_Handbook_2021-01.pdf]

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:

HAMMING QUESTIONS • What are the most important problems in my life? • What’s the limiting factor on my growth and progress? What’s the key resource I have the least of, or the key bottleneck that’s preventing me from bringing resources to bear? • What do I feel I’m “not allowed to care about,” or that I generally don’t think about because it feels too big or impossible? • If my life were a novel, what would be the obvious next step? Where is the plot dragging, and what do I need to do to move the story forward? • What sorts of goals am I already pursuing, but in a bad/convoluted/inefficient/distorted way? • Which problems in my life are the largest order of magnitude? What changes could I make that would result in a 100x or 1000x increase in either personal satisfaction or positive impact on the world? • If I say “Everything in my life is fine, and I’m on track to achieve all of my goals,” what feels untrue about that? What catches in my throat, that makes it hard to say that sentence out loud? • What feels most alive to me right now? Alternately, what feels most endangered?

We encourage participants to occasionally ask “the Hamming question.”

Checking in on the match between your beliefs and your actions is a reasonable thing to do a few times a year. It can lead to increased motivation, positive shifts to better strategies, and a clearer sense of where your deepest priorities lie.