Do you need ideal conditions to do great work?

For knowledge workers, it’s easy to get into a mode where you wait until conditions are perfect before you do anything. The word “conditions” could mean anything from your schedule, work environment, co-workers, the tools you use, etc. I have fallen into this trap many times.

In my reading over the years, I’ve encountered a lot of quotes from scientists who directly challenge the notion that you need ideal conditions to do great work. In fact, as we’ll see below, many great scientists believe that an “ideal situation” is detrimental.

Richard Feynman, in his essay The Dignified Professor, explains why he would never work with Einstein and co. at Princeton, even though the schedule and environment was designed to incubate great thinking.

When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

In similar fashion, Richard Hamming, in his well-known talk You and Your Research (required reading!), articulates a similar viewpoint and gives some examples of how poor conditions have led to key breakthroughs in his career and others.

This brings up the subject, out of order perhaps, of working conditions. What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. Very clearly they are not because people are often most productive when working conditions are bad. One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks - they did some of the best physics ever.

I give you a story from my own private life. Early on it became evident to me that Bell Laboratories was not going to give me the conventional acre of programming people to program computing machines in absolute binary. It was clear they weren’t going to. […] What appeared at first to me as a defect forced me into automatic programming very early. What appears to be a fault, often, by a change of viewpoint, turns out to be one of the greatest assets you can have. But you are not likely to think that when you first look the thing and say, “Gee, I’m never going to get enough programmers, so how can I ever do any great programming?””

Many scientists when they found they couldn’t do a problem finally began to study why not. They then turned it around the other way and said, “But of course, this is what it is” and got an important result. So ideal working conditions are very strange. The ones you want aren’t always the best ones for you.

From my own experience, I believe this issue is partly tied to fear. There could arguably always be a more scenic view from your office window, a more distraction-free culture, longer blocks of time in your schedule, more engaging and generous colleagues, and a more supportive department. But if you are not making progress where you are, believing better conditions are all that is holding you back is a convenient substitute for doing the actual work.

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