How to Succeed in your Career Without Really Trying

By Asking the Right Question

Every year, high schools and colleges across the U.S. send doe-eyed students to career centers to offer counsel on how to pick a career.

Students rely on the advice of counselors whose responsibility is to have a survey knowledge of all jobs available. Much of this survey knowledge is outdated or just plain wrong, and yet schools continue to treat their career center as an oracle.

Some students are fortunate to have passionate inclinations towards a specific line of work. Others are fortunate to be "a natural" in some skill or another. Others have no idea what a career could look like, and they simply follow the path that their friends or older siblings took before them.

Anecdotally, my career counsel in high school was awful. The counselor answered none of my questions, and pushed me away from pursuing my curiosity due to her own biases against certain career paths.

Fast forward a decade or so from these career center meetings, and you'll find disillusioned twenty-somethings that feel cheated. They're a few years deep into their careers, and they don't feel the drive or motivation to work the paths they've chosen any longer. Some go back into higher education with a renewed zeal to pursue their "passion", others yet run off to go join some ashram in Denver.

After some soul searching (sometimes quite literally) those with enough dedication find a niche that satisfies their desires, and helps them reach towards a goal that they want.

My anecdotal knowledge ends around here (as of writing this August 2020, I am in my mid-twenties). Although, I have it on good authority that my older peers also have serious concerns about the state of their careers.

Since a career takes up a person's entire adulthood, and is the legacy that we all leave behind, it is of utmost importance to get it right. Pursuing a wrong career can have a significant impact on how fulfilling your life ends up being.

If you ask people who love their jobs how they got there, many attribute it to luck. But luck is a terrible proxy. It can't be directly addressed, it's extremely inflexible, and it promotes a self-victimizing mental state.

But what if there were a way to circumvent luck?

What if there was some type of question one could use at any stage of life to help make a major positive impact in our career at the point we currently are?

The Hamming Question

The Hamming Question isn't really a singular question. It's more of a methodology.

First though, a bit of history.

Richard Wesley Hamming was a mathematician who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and at Bell Labs. A lion's share of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century were born out of these two laboratories. While at Bell Labs Hamming met many of the brightest minds at the time including: Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer.

By fortune of being around all these bright minds as well as doing great work of his own, Hamming got a great look at what the top minds in field were pursuing and what made their contributions significant to the field of science.

During this time, Hamming learned about the importance of working hard to solve the right problems. He saw many of his colleagues, all equally as smart as the aforementioned minds receive no acknowledgment for the work they did. His theory was simple.

They were working on the wrong problems.

The Wrong Problem

From Hamming's 1986 speech on finding significance in a career:

"...Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, "Do you mind if I join you?" They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, "What are the important problems of your field?" And after a week or so, "What important problems are you working on?" And after some more time I came in one day and said, "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?" I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring."

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, "Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research," he says, "but I think it was well worthwhile." And I said, "Thank you Dave," and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, "What are the important problems in my field?""

The problem many of Hamming's colleagues faced is that they were spending effort not working towards the most important problem that they could solve. These minds were working at the nation's best laboratory, and they spent time working on the wrong things, basically.

The Utility Delta

How can we make sure we're working on the right thing at all times? The short answer, is of course we can't. No one has the premonition to be able to predict which problems will be pivotal to society and which won't be. The longer answer is that we can develop an intuitive sense for these things.

Let's take a look at Elon Musk's Utility Delta. The total usefulness of an endeavor is the usefulness to one person minus the next best option to solve that problem times the number of people affected.

X = total usefulness (Utility Delta)
U = Usefulness to one person
C = Comparable item in usefulness & cost
P = Number of people this item would be used by/affect
X = (U - C) * P

In other words, you can have a similar delta by affecting a small number of people massively or a large number of people in a minor way.

By priming our minds to keep an eye out for important problems and opportunities, we can be ready to assign our effort to the right problem when we see it.

The beauty of the Hamming Question is that the right problem is one that you can work on today.

It's not the hypothetical biggest goal you'd like to achieve, whether that's owning a villa in Santorini, or being the first person to do a keg stand on Jupiter, but the biggest, most important problem that you can make headway towards today.


Back to our young friends out of high school and college. The problem that they face is that there are so many potential career paths to pursue.

What might the Hamming question look like for them?

For a high schooler, the important question might be: "what are the top 3 fields that I can do good work in given my favorite class was Biology and I was a great running back on the football team?"

For someone in their 30s, the important question might be: "how do I show my boss at work that I can use my psychology background to bring the firm new clients?"

For someone in their 50's, the important question might look like: "how can I pass on what I have learned in a digestible way so that young people in my field can continue to find new discoveries?"

The Ladder is Real?

The "career ladder" is a concept that we use to talk about how one progresses in their field.

The Hamming Question is equivalent to taking a break on the ladder and looking around before you move again.It's important to do these checkins to make sure you're building the ladder in the right direction.

Take time out of your week and dedicate it to Hamming “Great Thinking Time”.

Great Thinking Time is an hour or so weekly dedicated to thinking really grandiose questions within your field.

Don't fall in love with an outcome, fall in love with the process. Take one rung at a time and do what's important. A successful career will come.

As Isaac Newton said:

"If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results."