Richard Hamming on aiming for greatness, education and developing style

I have to get you to quit your modesty. I have to get you individually to respond to my challenge that you’re going to be great. You have to say to yourself, “Yes, if that guy Hamming can go out and become a great scientist, I can. Or I can become a great person. I have to get you to say to yourself that you want to. That it’s worth the effort, and that you’re going to try to be something more than just the average person.

I cannot make you a great stylist. I can criticise style and other things, but I cannot by mere words make you a great stylist. You – just as in running a four minute mile – must do the work. Which means you have to take what you hear and read, think it over carefully, discuss with your friends, and see what you can adapt to yourself.

There is no one style that is successful – painters paint in many different styles. You have to find a style that fits you. Which means you have to take what fragments you can from other people, use them, and adapt them and become yours.

In painting once you’ve learned colour mixing and form and sketching and so on, you study under a master who you temporarily accept as knowing what he’s talking about.

Well, there are limits as to what can be done. You know that if you copy the master’s style exactly, you will not be a great painter. You know also that if you paint in the style that he did, or she did – it’s too late: the future wants a different style. Thus I can tell you about the style I used in the past, but that won’t be the style you’ll have to have to cope with the future. You must manufacture the style that will make you a significant person in the future.

So it’s not easy. While I can only talk about past ones and make reference to possible future ones, it’s a problem you face. What I did would not make me successful if I were starting now, just as my predecessor got successful on other things that I couldn’t do and get successful from.

Richard Hamming – Introduction to the Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn

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