We spent the last five years studying the life of one of the world’s great geniuses: Claude Shannon. Part of the reason we were drawn to him was that, of the geniuses we studied, he seemed to be the one we could learn the most from. Einstein and Turing seemed to us to be a bit distant and otherworldly; Shannon, on the other hand, always seemed like a guy who you could spend time with.
We did as close a look at his habits as two biographers could. While not all of us will do high-level mathematical research or build ground-breaking machines, many of us can benefit from the lessons and habits that stood behind Shannon’s work. Here are just a few:
1) If it feels like work, you may want to rethink what you’re doing. We called our book A Mind At Play because that’s what Shannon was: A mind playing. He saw everything he did–from theoretical mathematics, to building robots, to playing chess, to writing about artificial intelligence–as a vast and interesting game.
He had tough moments, of course, but there are remarkably few of them for a life in which he achieved so much. Part of that is that he was rigorous about pursuing projects that he felt would bring him joy. He saw his work as a series of games and puzzles; he wanted to figure out “what made things tick.” That spirit of curious play drove him to extraordinary achievement, an example that all of us could benefit from.
2) Know when to stop. Shannon had an attic stuffed with half-finished papers. There were contraptions all over his house that he never got around to completing. He was invited to give lectures that he never gave and he won awards he never formally accepted.
Shannon wasn’t a “finisher” of everything he touched—and while that might run counter to a lot of modern advice on productivity, we actually think there’s real wisdom in it. Not everything you make needs to ship. Some things you do for you.
Shannon would work until he felt satisfied—and then move on to other things. Where some people see a dilettante, we see a fertile mind that knew exactly how far to take a project before moving on.
3) Don’t worry about external recognition. For someone who won so many awards, Shannon seemed not to care about them at all. He collected so many honorary university degrees, for instance, that he hung them all from a sort of rotating tie rack he built himself. He never chased prizes, or tenure, or awards, at least not in the way that a lot of people of his caliber do.
When he won something, he was always surprised that he won–and in some cases, surprised that he was considered at all. Even in college, he won a big award for his Master’s thesis. It turned out that his mentor put him up for it. As Shannon wrote to his mentor in a letter, “I have a sneaking suspicion that you have not only heard about it but had something to do with my getting it,” Shannon wrote to Bush. “If so, thanks a lot.” Shannon’s indifference to external recognition ran bone deep: When he said “I don’t really care about prizes,” he meant every word.
Why does this matter? Because it gave him tremendous flexibility in what to work on and how to work on it. He didn’t walk around caring about what proper professors did or did not do. He just went about his work, pursued his passions, and managed to wring remarkable breakthroughs out of his research.
4) Work with your hands. From the time he was a boy, Shannon was building things. In his childhood, it was a barbed wire network that allowed him to talk to a neighbor a half mile away. He and a friend built a makeshift elevator in a barn. This hobby stuck. All his life, he was making real objects, often to answer questions that seemed to him to require a physical representation.
We think there’s something to that. How many of us would feel comfortable these days taking apart our cell phones or laptops, or fixing our cars, or getting into the guts of an appliance? There’s been some decent writing on this topic (Matthew Crawford’s Shopclass as Soulcraft comes to mind), but the general idea is that we’re impoverishing ourselves by not understanding the objects all around us and trying to make sense of how they work.
Maybe it’s too much to ask that we crack open our iPhones (and of course, we’d violate Apple’s terms of service if we did), but we can’t help but think that Shannon’s hands-on tinkering helped to contribute to his genius. We could probably all benefit from something like that in our lives.