Among the important properties to have is the belief you can do important things. If you do not work on important problems how can you expect to do important work?
If what you are working on is not important and not likely to lead to important things, then why are you working on it?
In science if you know what you are doing you should not be doing it. In engineering if you do not know what you are doing you should not be doing it.
The main difference between those who go far and those who do not is some people have a vision and the others do not and therefore can only react to the current events as they happen.
You will probably object that if you try to get a vision now it is likely to be wrong – and my reply is from observation I have seen the accuracy of the vision matters less than you might suppose, getting anywhere is better than drifting, there are potentially many paths to greatness for you, and just which path you go on, so long as it takes to greatness, is none of my business.
In forming your plan for your future you need to distinguish three different questions: What is possible? What is likely to happen? What is desirable to happen?
I am preaching the message that, with apparently only one life to live on this earth, you ought to try to make significant contributions to humanity rather than just get along through life comfortably – that life of trying to achieve excellence in some area is in itself a worthy goal for your life. It has often been observed the true gain is in the struggle and not in the achievement – a life without a struggle on your part to make yourself excellent is hardly a life worth living.
The growth of most, but by no means all, fields follows an “S” shaped curve. Things begins slowly, the rise rapidly, and later flatten off as they hit some natural limits.
Almost everyone who opens up a new field does not really understand the way the followers do.
Of course as you go through life you do not know what you are preparing yourself for – only you want to do significant things and not spend the whole of your life being a “janitor of science” or whatever your profession is. Of course luck plays a prominent role. But so far as I can see, life presents you with many, many opportunities for doing great things (define them as you will) and the prepared person usually hits one or more successes, and the unprepared person will miss almost every time.
You establish in yourself the style of doing great things, and then when opportunity comes you almost automatically respond with greatness in your actions. You have trained yourself to think and act in the proper ways.
What it takes to be great in one age is not what is required in the next one. Thus you, in preparing yourself for the future greatness, have to think of the nature of the future you live in. The past is a partial guide, and about the only one you have besides history is the constant use of your own imagination.
Again, a random walk of random decisions will not get you anywhere near as far as those taken with your own vision of what your future should be.
Rarely do the experts in a field make the significant steps forward; great progress generally comes from the outside.
When stuck I often ask myself, “If I had a solution, what would it look like?” This tends to sharpen up the approach, and may reveal new ways of looking at the problem you had subconsciously ignored but you now see should not be excluded.
If an expert says something can be done he is probably correct, but if he says it is impossible then consider getting another opinion.
Where the question looms so important I suggested to you long ago to use in an argument, “What would you accept as evidence you are wrong?” Ask yourself regularly, “Why do I believe whatever I do”. Especially in the areas where you are so sure you know; the area of the paradigms of your field.
What you did to become successful is likely to become counterproductive when applied at a later date.
In a sense my boss was saying intellectual investment is like compound interest, the more you do the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. I do not know what compound interest rate to assign, but it must be well over 6% – one extra hour a day over a lifetime will much more than double the total output. The steady application of a bit more effort has a great total accumulation.
But be careful – the race is not to the one who works hardest! You need to work on the right problem at the right time and in the right way – what I have been calling “style”.
Most great people also have 10 to 20 problems they regard as basic and of great importance, and which they currently do not know how to solve. They keep them in their mind, hoping to get a clue as to how to solve them. When a clue does appear they generally drop other things and get to work immediately on the important problem.
The importance of the result is not the measure of the importance of the problem, a problem is important partly because there is a possible attack on it, and not because of its inherent importance.
Change does not mean progress, but progress requires change.
Finally, I must address the topic of: is the effort required for excellence worth it? I believe it is – the chief gain is in the effort to change yourself, in the struggle with yourself, and it is less in the winning than you might expect. Yes, it is nice to end up where you wanted to be, but the person you are when you get there is far more important. I believe a life in which you do not try to extend yourself regularly is not worth living – but it is up to you to pick the goals you believe are worth striving for.