Why aren’t you working on important problems?

I just finished reading the transcripts from Richard W. Hamming’s speech ‘You are Your Research’.

“If what you’re doing is not important… why are you working on it?” he asked.

In context of the latest GTD (Getting Things Done) craze, this is a critical question. A question that should keep you up at night.

As you’re processing your inbox, tracking your next action for each project, ask yourself: What are you working on, and why?

Do your actions connect, not just to an arbitary project, but to a meaningful goal, to the greater good of your life?

The first step in managing your life, in meaningfully getting things done, should be to follow Richard Hamming’s advice and ask yourself:

What are the most important problems in your field?

Put another way, what are the important problems that you could be working on? And why aren’t you working on them?

Stepford Geeks

One of the things that makes us geeks is that we used to have too much time on our hands. We developed technical and creative skills often times out of boredom. Alone, in a dimly lit room – we made web pages, wardialed, operated a BBS, wrote an OS, designed a computer, and so on through the history of geekdom.

Now we have no time. Those geek skills have given us cool jobs. We’re no longer bored, we’re creating a new world and there’s just never enough time to do all of the things that we really want to do. The latest trend is to use our geek skills to hack at our life so that we can get more work done.

But what if this is wrong? I’m also a movie geek, so let me put it likes this:

“When you come back, there will be a woman with my name and my face, she’ll cook and clean like crazy, but she won’t take pictures and SHE WON’T BE ME!” Stepford Wives

I need to make sense of this. Let me take a step back.

This week, I started my new job at Qualcomm. For an email client, I got to choose between Eudora and Outlook. I thought to myself, did I just go back in time… people still use this crap?

I almost forgot what old mail clients were like: New messages don’t reference the conversation thread from the archive. Wait, there is no archive. But there is a 500 MB quota; meanwhile my free gmail account just hit 2700 MB.

I’ve spent so much time life hacking I forgot how complicated email can be with the wrong tools.

Like any life hacker with proper geek skills, I designed a simple system that minimizes my reliance on Outlook, by dumping email into a private Subversion controlled directory that also works as my personal file space that can be shared/searched across multiple computers. Hooray, geek skills to the rescue!

In this process, I started looking through some of the old files that I’ve kept around. You know, my old web pages from 1995. Oh and a recursive decent parser for Firewall-1 I wrote for no reason except to figure out how to do a recursive decent parser for Firewall-1. I also found some “experiments” in Photoshop and 3DSMax. Really terrible stuff. My parser was horribly slow and looking at it now, it’s some of the worst code I’ve ever seen.

But this is the byproduct of my bored youth. I used to create web pages for fun. I learned Photoshop for fun. I learned HTML/CSS/Javascript for fun. I learned to program and make cool Java applets for fun. I learned how to manipulate data with Perl for fun. The list goes on and on to include real-time environmental sensors, databases, data modeling, but it also includes photography, graphic design, comic books, movies, writing, and even television. Basically, things that geeks get excited about!

Now that I’m out of time, I wonder if I’m using my geek “life hacking” skills to destroy the part of me that makes me a geek? I get excited about odd things because I’m bored with my life, but if my life hacking makes me so good at life that life ceases being boring… then what?

When you come back, there will be a geek with my name and my face, he’ll design and code like crazy, but he won’t take pictures and HE WON’T BE ME!


I guess we should remember that if we’re going to life hack, we must always remain oddly discontented with our lives no matter how good at life we get. We should remember to hold such unrealistic and fanciful ideals for ourselves that our daily world is dull by comparison.