Hamming Questions

Richard Hamming was a mathematician at Bell Labs from the 1940’s through the 1970’s who liked to sit down with strangers in the company cafeteria and ask them about their fields of expertise.

At first, he would ask mainly about their day-to-day work, but eventually, he would turn the conversation toward the big, open questions—what were the most important unsolved problems in their profession? Why did those problems matter? What kinds of things would change when someone in the field finally broke through? What new potential would that unlock?After he’d gotten them excited and talking passionately, he would ask one final question: “So, why aren’t you working on that?”

Hamming didn’t make very many friends with this strategy, but he did inspire some of his colleagues to make major shifts in focus, rededicating their careers to the problems they felt actually mattered.


Hamming Prompts are a guide to bringing out the answers, some will work for you, some wont. Find the ones that resonate and take it from there. Different questions may resonate at different times in your life.

0. Initial thoughts

Did anything come up already? Is anything staring you in the face right now? Now that you have the idea of a “Hamming question” in mind: is anything obvious as your most important problem?

1. Rate-limiting step

The speed of a chemical reaction is determined by the speed of the slowest step – the rate-limiting step.

What is yours? Or: what's your bottleneck? Is there a problem where solving it would be the equivalent of “wishing for more wishes?”

What’s the limiting factor on you growth and progress? What’s the key resource you have the least of, or the key bottleneck that’s preventing you from bringing resources to bear?

2. Impossibilities

What are you not allowed to care about? Or: Is there some good outcome that you generally don't think about because it's too big to picture? Or too impossible?

3. Genre-savviness

When you're reading a novel, sometimes it seems like the book is dragging/stuck because there is an obvious thing that the character needs to do next in order to advance the plot (e.g., clearly she needs to go talk to the magician – can't she just do it already?). If your life is a novel: what is that obvious next thing? Where is the plot dragging? What do you need to do to move the story forward?

4. Convolutions

Pica is a medical condition in which people who are iron deficient (for example) eat things like ice cubes, because the signal to eat things with iron is getting distorted into an urge to eat things which share superficial properties with iron. So: what is everything you're doing a pica for? What sorts of goals are you already pursuing, but in a bad/convoluted/inefficient/distorted way?

5. Scope Sensitivity

Which problems in your life are the largest order of magnitude? What changes could you make that would result in a 100x or 1000x increase in either personal satisfaction or positive impact on the world?

6. Focusing

If you say “Everything in my life is fine, and I’m on track to achieve all of my goals," what feels untrue about that? What catches in your throat, that makes it hard to say that sentence out loud?

7. Final go:

So, having now gone through all of that: What feels most alive? What is the most important problem, for you right now? Alternately, what feels most endangered?