Donald Knuth – My advice to young people

Here is a video by Donald Knuth which I find very important for me.


If somebody said what advice would I give to a young person, they always ask that funny kind of a question. And I think one of the things that I would, that would sort of come first to me is this idea of, don’t just believe that because something is trendy, that it’s good. I’d probably go the other extreme where if something, if I find too many people adopting a certain idea I’d probably think it’s wrong or if, you know, if my work had become too popular I’d probably think I’d have to change. That’s of course ridiculous but I see the other side of it too often where people will do something against their own gut instincts because they think the community wants them to do it that way, so people will work on a certain subject even though they aren’t terribly interested in it because they think that they’ll get more prestige by working on it. I think you get more prestige by doing good science than by doing popular science because if you go with what you really think is important then it’s a higher chance that it really is important in the long run and it’s the long run which has the most benefit to the world. So usually when I’m writing a book or publishing a book it’s different from books that have been done before because I feel there’s a need for such a book, not because there was somebody saying please write such a book, you know, or that other people have already done that kind of thing. So follow your own instincts it seems to me is better than follow the herd. My friend Peter Wegner told me in the ’60s that I should, for “The Art of Computer Programming” I shouldn’t write the whole series first, I should first write a reader’s digest of it and then expand on the parts afterwards. That would probably work for him better than me, much better, but I work in a completely different way. I have to see something to the point where I’ve surrounded it and totally understood it before I can write about it with any confidence and so that’s the way I work, I don’t want to write about a high level thing unless I’ve fully understood a low level thing. Other people have completely different strengths I know but for me, you know, I wrote a book about a few verses of the Bible, once I understood those verses and sort of everything I could find in the library about a small part of the Bible, all of a sudden I had firm pegs on which I could hang other knowledge about it. But if I went through my whole life only on, without any in depth knowledge of any part then it all seems to be flimsy and to me doesn’t given me some satisfaction. The classic phrase is that liberal education is to learn something about everything and everything about something and I like this idea about learning everything about an area before you feel, if you don’t know something real solid then you never have enough confidence. A lot of times I’ll have to read through a lot of material just in order to write one sentence somehow because my sentence will then have, I’ll choose words that make it more convincing than if I, if I really don’t have the knowledge it’ll somehow come out implicitly in my writing. These are little sort-of-vague thoughts that I have when reflecting over some of the directions that distinguish what I’ve done from what I’ve seen other people doing.

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