Open or Closed

A closed door shields us from our shortcomings, but robs us of humanity’s greatest currency ― sharing ideas.

Richard Hamming left many insights about learning to learn from his career as mathematician. Hamming retrospectively concluded that his cloistered colleagues had made less impact.

Bell Laboratories, where Hamming worked from 1946 to 1976, capitalized on the physical proximity of brain power combined with a floor-plan that co-mingled multiple-disciplinary thinkers and doers.

Bell Laboratories

“Traveling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.”
Jon Gertner

The mixing of disciplines at Bell Laboratories, attributed to Bell Laboratories President (1951-59) Mervin Kelly, orchestrated harmony and tension that incited change. It was the frequency of change that sped up the flurry of innovation.

“If you’re going to have progress, there has to be change. Change does not mean progress, but progress requires change.”
Richard Hamming

Traveling the halls of Bell Laboratories, Hamming observed the difference between those whose doors were open and those whose doors were shut.

I cannot prove to you whether the open door causes the open mind or whether the open mind causes the open door.
Richard Hamming

An open door is an apt metaphor for an open mind. Hamming argued for diversity of input.

“You have to get wide cleave of what’s going on.”

He observed,

“Those who work with the door shut don’t know what to work on. They’re not connected with reality.”

A closed door leads to fewer interruptions, and fewer interruptions allow one concentrated time to knock off problem-solving tasks. What if it’s the wrong problem?

“The guys with their doors closed were often very well able, very gifted,but they seemed to work always on slightly the wrong problem.”
Richard Hamming

Learning is our imperative. The door is our metaphor. Today we have many channels vying for our attention or what Linda Stone calls Continuous Partial Attention. Paradoxically we must be both open and selective.

Being Open and Selective is a discipline of that demands daily exercise and vigilance.


  • True Innovation, by Jon Gertner, New York Times Opinion, February 25, 2012
  • You and Your Research, lecture by Richard Hamming recorded June 6, 1995. This lecture was from the capstone course “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn” for graduate students at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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