R.W. Hamming On Creativity

In 1995, R. W. Hamming taught a course at the Naval Postgraduate School titled “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering.” The textbook is here and the lectures are here. My notes on his “Creativity” lecture are below:

  • Creative solutions to problems are like how women’s fashion evolves from year to year based on Vogue magazine: different but not too different.
  • Creative solutions often involve applying standard tools and techniques from one field for the first time in another field. This seems obvious but is very difficult to do because there is a great psychological barrier to pulling together two things from very different fields.
  • When you do something creative, stop and ask yourself how you did it.
  • Saturate your thoughts with the problem and be emotional involved with the problem. This forces your subconscious to work on problem when you are not actively thinking about it (i.e. sleeping, showering,…)
  • Spend time thinking about the problem that you want to solve and, after a reasonable amount of time, then put it to the side. This implies that you regularly switch between multiple problems.
  • False starts and false solutions are common and an important part of the process. It slowly helps you focus on the right direction.
  • When you are stuck, ask yourself what would the answer look like if you had it? What does factors does it really depend on?
  • Once you find the solution, you’ll have to remove all of the irrelevant scaffolding that you used to get to solution before you present it to others.
  • Use analogies. They are meant to have a loose connection to your problem and are really just a suggestion. To reiterate, the connection does not have to be very tight.
  • During the act of learning something new, think about how this topic is related to something else outside of the framework that you are currently thinking about. What other things does it look like? Put hooks on the idea so that you can recall it more easily when thinking in another framework.
  • That which you learn from others, you learn to follow. That which you learn yourself, you learn to lead.
  • Pick your work colleagues based on their ability to help simulate good ideas (“hey that reminds me of this other thing”) and not how pleasant they are to be around (“hey that’s an interesting idea – you are so smart – keep at it”).
  • Learn to develop good habits – take charge of yourself. This requires self-discipline, curiosity about new ideas, and a consistent system of thought.
  • Practice on small problems and then gradually build up to something bigger. In other words, narrow the scope of the problem if you are not making progress and expand the scope only after you’ve made some progress.
  • Learn when to drop the wrong problem, but also have the self-discipline to not drop a good problem too early. There is no textbook for this – you just need the experience.
  • Creative work does not require and often does not benefit from ideal working situations. It often results from and requires difficult circumstances. “Cornered rat theory:” give yourself a real deadline (i.e. negative consequences if you fail to make the deadline) to work towards.
  • Moving to a new situation will allow you to change your behavior since there aren’t preconceived expectations of your behavior.
  • Some creative work can only be done when you are young. When you are too old to do creative work, become a coach to mentor to younger people.

Compare to:

This talk is worth comparing and contrasting with Gallagher’s Shannon lecture. Remarkably, they were both driven to think deeply about the creative process because of their relationship to Shannon as a friend & colleague as well as their appreciation of his deep & influential body of scientific work.  -JTS

  1. […] Similarity to a known problem (experience helps); compare to Hamming […]

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