- Important, Not Important
- One Question to Rule Them All
One Question to Rule Them All
Once you ask it, you can never go back
I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.
Every week, I help 27,000+ humans understand and unfuck the rapidly changing world around us. It feels great, and we’d love for you to join us.
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What Would You Say You Do Here?
INT. BELL LABS - NEW JERSEY - DAY
These hallways aren’t quiet. They never are.
Inside the famously multidisciplinary Bell Labs, the world’s SUPER NERDS intentionally work in close proximity, no matter their specialty.
That, in fact, is the point.
Physicists, early software developers, chemists, graphic designers, electrical engineers and material scientists hustle back and forth from end-to-end, door-to-door, bouncing otherwise-unrelated questions, ideas, and equations about wireless communications, cosmic waves, and lasers off each other like pinballs.
Anyways, at Bell Labs, it’s been sixty years of this chaos, and the proof is in the pudding.
They have already invented much of the underlying technology we rely on today, from transistors to UNIX and the C programming language, to DSL modems, fiber optic cables, f’ing LASERS and — the backbone of our future — the solar cell.
INT. BELL LABS - NEW JERSEY - LUNCH TIME
Mathematician RICHARD HAMMING, father of a bunch of math concepts I couldn’t even begin to understand, much less explain to you, stares off to the other side of the cafeteria where his COLLEAGUES chow down at the physics table.
Today he finds himself dismayed, reluctant to join them for the usual banter.
HAMMING (to himself)
I already know math. Like, so much math. I have invented various kinds of math. I’m not learning much by sitting with those math dorks. Sure, it’s lunch time, and I could just chill out and not have to learn something for an hour or whatever, but YOLO, you know?
Scanning the room, Hamming spots an empty seat at the CHEMISTRY table and wanders over, a sudden gleam in his eye, his red plastic lunch tray packed with pudding and sloppy joes.
Mind if I join you?
The CHEMISTRY JOCKS look up into the face of a man who has a whole bunch of math concepts literally named after him and quickly approve his request, not having any idea his true intentions.
(making room for Hamming)
Now we’re cooking with gas!*
*insert your own chemistry joke here, maybe something about compounds
Hamming sits, and a few bites of proto-Hamburger Helper later, he breaks the ice with a simple question for his new friends.
What are the important problems of your field?
A moment of hesitation, and then all at once, 1986’s chemistry luminaries fill him in, talking over themselves. Hamming basks in their rabid enthusiasm, so similar, and yet so different from his own.
Minutes later, the chemists clear their trays and go about their work day. Hamming watches them go, his trap set.
INT. BELL LABS - NEW JERSEY - LUNCH TIME
A week later.
Hamming plops down again at the chemistry table and, chewing his way through some questionable-looking bolognese, asks his new friends another question, super cool-like:
What important problems are you working on?
Once again, the world’s best chemists (this is back when we permitted and even promoted immigration, you remember) fall over themselves to answer Hamming. But this time (they’re not morons) they maybe reach a little bit to justify the absolute necessity of their projects.
Hamming is no fool either, but is disinterested in revealing his game — yet.
He asks questions, prods and connects some easy dots, but mostly listens, absorbing their knowledge like Rogue (who should really, finally have her own spin-off movie) did to Mystique, Ms. Marvel (and Captain Marvel!) and the Human Torch. Anyways.
ONE WEEK LATER
Hamming, who is irrationally starving for both JELL-O and accolades, stalks over to the chemistry table — the same table that had welcomed him so warmly not long ago — and finally reveals his true intentions.
The chemistry sheep look up to him, eager to share more, to connect, to—
If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it’s going to lead to something important…why are you at Bell Labs working on it?
They are crushed.
Hamming looks deep into each of their beady little eyes, having called their bluff. Sure yeah, one of these guys (Ohl) basically shepherded in the silicon revolution, but you get the point.
He demanded of them one answer:
What are you doing with the time you have?
You don’t need to be a chemist or a legendary mathematician who picks fights with chemists to do “important” work.
But you do need to question what you’re doing with your talents and your time.
I love love love sci-fi level cool new shit. But it’s really, really, really important to understand that from medicine to clean energy, and from public health to food and water, we have already invented most of what we need to level up.
Most of what we need is truly basic shit, and I mean that in the most supportive, constructive way possible. “Basic” in that we already understand it, we already know how to build it, we’re already doing it, or we’ve done it before, even if the work isn’t relatively simple or easily accomplished.
Most of the more advanced shit we have to do or need to figure out is because we’re not doing the basic shit anymore, and haven’t in a long time. Examples include promoting, teaching, and celebrating blue collar work; keeping track of and repairing — much less upgrading — our infrastructure; or reinventing our policies with old-school carrots and sticks so we can build the fundamental infrastructure of tomorrow.
In my most deluded moments, I used to imagine that all of the “Make America Great Again” red hats were in fact yellow hard hats, and when they said “America”, they were referring to American infrastructure, like when we once built transmission lines at the rate we need to build over the next ten years. Huzzah!
Your interests, skills, and work — truly, whatever you do — has a place, already, right now. You might not necessarily feel like you work directly on the frontlines of the future, but in nearly every industry, there’s a “supply chain” of more niche industries, NGO’s and companies, small-town chefs and Midwest entrepreneurs, high school shop teachers, university social workers, elementary school nurses, and brand-new solo operators, all of whom do and can contribute to an out-sized impact throughout the supply chain, like that Ashton Kutcher movie about the butterfly or whatever.
There’s never been a better time to work on the world’s hardest problems, whether you’re a CEO, nurse, policymaker, poet, epidemiologist, grant worker, third-grade teacher, or wind turbine technician.
Everybody comes to us asking, “What can I do?” And the most direct answer is always, “What CAN you do?”
Not just, “What are you capable of?” but, more specifically, per Hamming:
Because here’s the thing: we don’t have a lot of time to fuck around.
Frank Jewett, the founding Director of Bell Labs, said his aim was for the place to be:
It’s time to work, together, to work on our biggest problems, many of which result from not doing the basic shit that lifts everyone up. We have to do this work every single day.
Look, we’re happy to provide you with a growing list of the most effective organizations, companies, policies, legislation, educational resources, campaigns, and, I don’t know, e-bikes you can donate to/support/buy/march in the streets for.
And that’s all great.
But when you’re done with those, it’s time to work.
It’s time to ask questions of ourselves and our time like, “What the hell do I do all day?”
And “What does my organization make?”
And “Ok, but why?”
From transmission to childcare to nursing to fusion to air cleaning to solar permitting to immigration to climate fiction to wastewater monitoring to reinforcing aqueducts to writing ad copy — this is it.
This is the moment.
Sure, transistors and such have been transformative for everything from personal computers to genome science, making everything more convenient everywhere. But as I argue to nearly everyone, and as Tyler Cowen recently discussed, we are only now — after all of that, and because all of that — entering an era of “truly radical technological change.”
The climate era and AI era converging all at once mean we’re barreling into a time none of us can predict and none of us are prepared for, so, to me, the very, very least we can do is work that rebuilds, reinforces, and drastically expands the underlying safety net so many of us have been so lucky to rely upon.
I promise you: You can not only do this work. You can lead. And as Kevin Kelly said, “When you lead, your real job is to create more leaders, not more followers.“
Again, I love more than (almost) anything talking to young people who are working on truly cool, ground-breaking shit.
But what truly gets me going is all the folks doing the less sexy work that VC’s won’t touch.
Folks who’ve made it their work to write and/or defend books, to expand reading and internet access, to run for state office and that get Medicaid money or write your bodily autonomy into the constitution, to productize community health clinics, to uncover the money behind disinformation, to simplify solar permitting, to care for the elderly, to report on redlined city blocks, to monitor wastewater, to expedite universal flu vaccines, to feed the people, to electrify school buses, to create offices of environmental justice, train more nurses and electricians, to write solarpunk fiction, to whip for child tax credits, to make a better burger.
The world is changing at a rapid clip, friends, and will continue to do so. Also Kevin Kelly: “Today, the vast majority of us are doing jobs that no farmer from the 1800s could have imagined.“
But at the same time, the work required to make sure the most basic needs are fulfilled, for everyone, isn't all that different. The questions — “Is the work I’m doing ethical? Is the work I’m doing helpful?” — aren’t new.
Whether you’ve got a job right now or not, we’ve got some choices to make — and fast — about what we work on and how we spend our time. We might each have precious limited time here on Earth, but the important work to be done is everywhere around us, every day, all of the time.
So ask yourself this question before Monday, before going out on that next interview, before accepting a raise or promotion:
“If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it’s going to lead to something important, why the hell are you here on Earth working on it?“