Hard work and compound interest

Apropos nothing in particular, I was struck by an extract from Richard Hamming’s book, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering that Tyler Cowen highlighted:

“Now to the matter of drive. Looking around you can easily observe great people have a great deal of drive to do things. I had worked with John Tukey for some years before I found he was essentially my age, so I went to our mutual boss and asked him, “How can anyone my age know as much as John Tukey does?”

He leaned back, grinned, and said, “You would be surprised how much you would know if you had worked as hard as he has for as many years”. There was nothing for me to do but slink out of his office, which I did.

I thought about the remark for some weeks and decided, while I could never work as hard as John did, I could do a lot better than I had been doing. In a sense my boss was saying intellectual investment is like compound interest, the more you do the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. I do not know what compound interest rate to assign, but it must be well over 6%—one extra hour per day over a lifetime will much more than double the total output. The steady application of a bit more effort has a great total accumulation.”