Learning and Productivity Compound Over Time

Mathematician and computer scientist Richard Hamming on how learning and productivity compound over time

How are some people more industrious and prolific than others? Are they merely smarter or do they just toil a bit harder than everyone else?

In 1986, mathematician and computer scientist Richard Hamming gave a talk at Bell Communications Research about how people can do great work, “Nobel-Prize type of work.” One of the characteristics he talked about was possessing great drive:

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity—it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

Thinking of investing your time and energy in terms of this compounding effect can be a very useful way to go about life. Early and rigorous investment in anything you are interested in cultivating—friendships, relationships, wealth, understanding, spirituality, know-how, etc.—often generates exponentially superior results over time than even marginally less effort.

Success begets success, and that counts for small investments, too.

Try to have “more experience” than someone else, but it’s not by itself enough. It’s about how well you can draw the appropriate lessons from the experiences. It’s about how well you can distinguish specific experiences as generalizable versus anomalies.

Knowledge Compounds

Someone once asked Warren Buffett how to become a better investor. He pointed to a pile of company annual reports. “Read 500 pages like this every day … That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

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