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10,000 Hours With Claude Shannon: How A Genius Thinks, Works, and Lives

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Jimmy Soni writes at Medium:

For the last five years, we lived with one of the most brilliant people on the planet.

Sort of.

See, we just published the biography of Dr. Claude Shannon. He’s the most important genius you’ve never heard of, a man whose intellect was on par with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.

We spent five years with him. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, during that period, we spent more time with the deceased Claude Shannon than we have with many of our living friends. He became something like the roommate in the spare bedroom of our minds, the guy who was always hanging around and occupying our head space.

Yes, we were the ones telling his story, but in telling it, he affected us, too. Geniuses have a unique way of engaging with the world, and if you spend enough time examining their habits, you discover the behaviors behind their brilliance. Whether or not we intended it to, understanding Claude Shannon’s life gave us lessons on how to better live our own.

That’s what follows in this essay. It’s the good stuff our roommate left behind.

Claude, Who?

His name may not ring a bell. Don’t worry, we didn’t know who he was either when we started.

So who was he?

Within engineering and mathematics circles, Shannon is a revered figure. Claude Shannon’s work in the 1930s and 1940s earned him the title of “father of the information age.” At the age of 21, he published what’s been called the most important master’s thesis of all time, explaining how binary switches could do logic. It laid the foundation for all future digital computers.

He wasn’t done. At the age of 32, he published “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which has been called “the Magna Carta of the information age.” Shannon’s masterwork invented the bit, or the objective measurement of information, and explained how digital codes could allow us to compress and send any message with perfect accuracy.

But that’s not all he did.

Claude Shannon wasn’t just a brilliant theoretical mind — he was a remarkably fertile, fun, practical, and inventive one as well. There are plenty of mathematicians and engineers who write great papers. There are fewer of them who, like Shannon, are also jugglers, unicyclists, gadgeteers, first-rate chess players, codebreakers, expert stock-pickers, and amateur poets.

He worked on the top-secret transatlantic phone line connecting FDR and Winston Churchill during World War II and co-built what was arguably the world’s first wearable computer. He learned to fly airplanes and played the jazz clarinet. He rigged up a false wall in his house that could rotate with the press of a button, and he once built a gadget whose only purpose when it was turned on was to open up, release a mechanical hand, and turn itself off. Oh, and he once had a photo spread in Vogue magazine.

Think of him as a cross between Albert Einstein and the Dos Equis guy.

Asking the questions he probably wouldn’t

We aren’t mathematicians or engineers; we write books and speeches, not code. That meant we had a steep learning curve in making sense of his work.

But that was sort of the point: We had to learn everything from scratch and make it sensible on the page. Had we approached this book as experts, we might have been tempted to go deeper and deeper into the details of Shannon’s theorems, diagrams, and proofs.

But because we approached this book as learners, we were particularly interested in a broader, more generalist set of questions: how does a mind like Claude Shannon’s work? What shapes a mind like that? What does a mind like that do for fun? What can we take from it to be just a bit more brilliant in our own pursuits, whatever they happen to be?

Claude Shannon wasn’t especially interested in offering direct answers to questions like those. If he were alive to read this piece, he’d probably laugh at us. His mind was a heat-seeking missile targeting problems. What got him up in the morning was dissecting how things worked, not digressions into creativity and productivity.

No matter how many people came to him for advice, he never felt that he was in the advice-giving business. During his days as a professor, he was particularly nervous about the mentoring aspect of the job. “I can’t be an advisor,” he once protested. “I can’t give advice to anybody. I don’t have the right to advise.”

As usual, though, Shannon was being excessively modest. He can teach us a lot, even if he approached the whole business of teaching reluctantly and indirectly. To that end, we’ve distilled what we’ve learned from him over these last few years into this piece. It isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but it does begin, we hope, to reveal what this unknown genius can teach the rest of us about thinking — and living.

12 Lessons Learned, Over Five Years, Writing One Book

1) Cull your inputs.

We all know how the constant distractions of social media and buzzing smartphones destroy focus and productivity. We also know that the problem is considerably more difficult than it was in mid-20th-century America (and yes, we suppose Claude Shannon bears some inadvertent blame for this).

But distractions are a permanent feature of life, in any era, and Shannon shows us that shutting them out isn’t just a matter of achieving random bursts of focus. It’s about consciously designing one’s life and work habits to minimize them.

For one, Shannon didn’t allow himself to get caught up in clearing out his inbox. Letters he didn’t want to respond to went into a bin labeled “Letters I’ve Procrastinated On For Too Long.” In fact, we pored over Shannon’s correspondence at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, which keeps his papers on file — and we found far more incoming letters than outgoing ones. All of that time saved was more time to plow back into research and tinkering.

Inbox zero, be damned.

Shannon extended the same attitude to his time in the office, where his colleagues regularly expected to find his door closed (a rarity in Bell Labs’ generally open-door culture). None of Shannon’s colleagues, to our knowledge, remembered him as rude or unfriendly; but they do remember him as someone who valued his privacy and quiet time for thinking. One colleague remembered, “You would knock on the door and he would talk to you, but otherwise, he kept to himself.”

On the other hand, colleagues who came to Shannon with bold new ideas or fascinating engineering puzzles remembered hours of productive conversations. That’s just to say that Shannon, as in so much else, was deliberate about how he invested his time: in stimulating ideas, not in small talk. Even for those of us who are more extraverted than Shannon was (and, to be honest, that’s nearly all of us), there’s something to learn from how deliberately and consistently he turned his work hours into a distraction-free zone.

2) Big picture first. Details later.

In his mathematical work, Shannon had a quality of leaping right to the central insight and leaving the details to be filled in later. As he once explained it, “I think I’m more visual than symbolic. I try to get a feeling of what’s going on. Equations come later.” It was as if he saw solutions before he could explain why they were correct.

As his student Bob Gallager recalled, “He had a weird insight. He could see through things. He would say, ‘Something like this should be true’…and he was usually right…You can’t develop an entire field out of whole cloth if you don’t have superb intuition.”

Occasionally, this got Shannon in trouble — academic mathematicians sometimes accused him of being insufficiently rigorous in his work. Usually, though, their critiques were misguided. “In reality,” said the mathematician Solomon Golomb, “Shannon had almost unfailing instinct for what was actually true.” If the details of the journey needed filling in, the destination was almost always correct.

Most of us, of course, aren’t geniuses, and most of us don’t have Shannon-level intuition. So is there anything to learn from him here? We think there is: even if our intuitions don’t lead us to develop an entirely new field like information theory, they often have a wisdom that we can choose to tune into or to shut up.

Worrying about missing details and intermediate steps is a sure way to shut our intuitions up, and to miss out on some of our best shots at creative breakthroughs. Expecting our big ideas to unfold logically from premise to conclusion is a misunderstanding of the way creativity usually works in practice. As the writer Rita Mae Brown put it, “Intuition is a suspension of logic due to impatience.”

It’s one thing to clean up and fill in the details after the fact. It’s another thing to mistake the neat-and-tidy way we present our ideas to others, and others present their ideas to us — in an article, a slideshow, or a talk — for the messy process of getting to those ideas. Waiting for a neat-and-tidy breakthrough usually means waiting for a train that’s never arriving.

3) Don’t just find a mentor. Allow yourself to be mentored.

A lot of articles like this preach the value of mentorship, and we don’t want to belabor the point. Of course mentors matter. But a lot of writing about mentorship tends to treat a mentor as something you acquire: find the right smart, successful person to back your career, and you’re all set.

It’s not that simple. Making the most of mentorship doesn’t just require the confidence to approach someone whose guidance can make a difference in your development. It requires the humility to take that guidance to heart, even when it’s uncomfortable, challenging, or counterintuitive. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Shannon’s most pivotal mentor was probably his graduate school advisor at MIT, Vannevar Bush, who went on to coordinate the American scientific effort in WWII and became the first presidential science advisor. Bush recognized Shannon’s genius, but he also did what mentors are supposed to do — he pushed Shannon out of his comfort zone in some productive ways.

For instance, after the success of Shannon’s master’s thesis, Bush urged Shannon to write his PhD dissertation on theoretical genetics, a subject Shannon had to pick up from scratch and that was far afield from the engineering and mathematics he had spent years working on. That Bush pushed Shannon to do so testifies to his trust in his protege’s ability to rise to the challenge; that Shannon agrees testifies to his willingness to stretch himself.

There’s a whole set of possible responses Shannon might have had to that moment (“Genetics, huh?”). But Bush knew what he was doing, and Shannon was humble enough to trust his judgment and let himself be mentored.

Accepting real mentorship is, in part, an act of humility: The best of it comes when you’re actually willing to trust that mentor sees something you don’t see. There’s a reason, after all, that you sought them out in the first place. Be humble enough to listen.

4)  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 July 2017 at 6:46 pm

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