In early October, I accidentally turned my Social Studies thesis seminar into a personal therapy session. As the seminar leader reviewed the best-thesis-practices we had read about that week — start writing as soon as possible, write every day, build time for writing into your schedule — a strong sense of dread came over me: I did not want to write a thesis about my topic (modernism in mid-century American city planning).
In what might be called a controlled panic, I told my classmates about this dread, and the sense that I had squandered my summer and my academic opportunities at Harvard and any shot at an academic career. My classmates gave me the obvious advice: Change topics. But it was already October. I had spent much of the summer and the semester to date reading about New York’s highways. The thesis prospectus was due the following week. What would I even write about?
Luckily, that week, I discovered “Hamming questions.” Richard Hamming, a mathematician who wrote and spoke frequently about what made researchers productive, would ask his colleagues: What are the most important problems in your field? They would respond. And then, the dagger: Why aren’t you working on them?
Hamming reported that “the average scientist … spends almost all his time working on problems which they believe will not be important.” I applied this to my own studies and realized I did not really believe that my research question, insofar as it existed, would yield an important result. So I decided to ask myself the Hamming questions with modifications. Social Studies is just about the broadest “field” there is, and I was on a deadline. So I asked: What is the most important problem I currently have the background to work on?
The next week, I turned in a prospectus. (My new topic: The ethics of immigration policy, specifically focusing on the possibility of backlash. If it sounds interesting, listen to the episode of Vox’s “The Weeds” podcast titled “With Borders Wide Open,” which covers a lot of that ground.)
One reason Hamming questions strike me as so powerful is their deceptive obviousness. Why would anyone work on problems they don’t think are the most important they could be working on? However did I wind up reading about modern architecture instead of political philosophy? I think the answer for me and for many Harvard students is path-dependency. At Harvard, we’re presented with nearly infinite options with how to spend our time, both here and in the next seven-odd decades of our lives, and when sheer circumstance highlights one option as a path of lesser resistance, we often glide right along.
Hamming questions provide the advantage of a different heuristic, an alternative to the status quo bias wherein we only quit things if they become actively unpleasant. The consequence is that the academic, extracurricular, social, or professional opportunities that appear at critical moments can wind up shaping huge portions of our lives, without us really intending it.
For example: I joined The Crimson’s Arts Board because I arrived late to the open house my freshman fall. Only Arts and News still had representatives staffing their tables. Arts’s first meeting was earlier in the week, and I attended it and enjoyed it. Before I knew it, I had been an editor for two years, giving this organization hundreds of hours of time and focus. I often enjoyed it. But I’m not convinced it was the best use of all that time, and I’m horrified at how little attention I paid to that question. In conversations with friends, they’ve expressed similar doubts and dissatisfaction with their extracurricular choices. Maybe it’s not healthy or productive to constantly question your commitments, but we get eight semesters at Harvard, each with their own beginnings and endings — eight opportunities to actively choose to spend your time doing something important, or at least truly enjoyable or meaningful.
But extracurricular choices do not hold the highest stakes, and path-dependency is not the only source of problems. No doubt, some Harvard students choose their concentrations after asking themselves Hamming-esque questions. But our usual reason for choosing a concentration, other than financial gain — a reason so widely accepted that it seems crazy to challenge it — is that we find the subject interesting; we liked the classes we’ve already taken in it. Don’t get me wrong, this is an important factor: Hamming found that researchers who were emotionally involved in their subject were more productive within their field.
But as the only factor in choosing a concentration, it’s solipsistic. Surely, given the immense luck involved in accessing Harvard’s resources, we have some obligations to the rest of the world that our knowledge production help improve lives, even in the very long run. Actions have opportunity costs. Choosing to study, say, ancient history, a topic I personally find very interesting, would have meant foregoing research on immigration ethics, which in turn meant foregoing research on global health or climate change or other areas of immense humanitarian importance.
Even if you, like me, are long past the concentration-declaring stage of life, the Hamming questions can still clarify. Applied Rationality groups have transformed the Hamming questions for non-academics, instead asking: What is the biggest bottleneck in your productivity, or in your personal life? If you were looking back at yourself ten years from now, what is the obvious thing you should be doing but aren’t? Ultimately, the Hamming questions can do more than re-orient research. They invite reflection, a chance to zoom out. I wish I’d found them earlier in my time in the mind-bogglingly possibility-rich setting of Harvard College. But to paraphrase a (supposedly Chinese) proverb, the second-best time to ask Hamming questions is now.
Trevor J. Levin ’19, a former Crimson Arts Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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