Be Guided by Beauty

Jim Simons in a nutshell:

Dr. Simons received his doctorate at 23; advanced code breaking for the National Security Agency at 26; led a university math department at 30; won geometry’s top prize at 37; founded Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, at 44; and began setting up charitable foundations at 56.

— The New York Times

In the video below, Simons shares some guiding principles with MIT students. I liked one piece of wisdom in particular:

Be guided by beauty. Everything I’ve done has had an aesthetic component to me. Building a company trading bonds…what’s aesthetic? If you’re the first one to do it right, it’s a terrific feeling and a beautiful thing to do something right, like solving a math problem.

My other notes and takeaways from the talk:

  • Be first: do something no one else is doing. 
  • Powerful insights on data everyone else has = success. Powerful insights on data no one else has = tremendous success. As Simons recounts:

In those days, we sent people down to the NY Federal Reserve to copy histories of interest rate numbers. They didn’t exist in the ‘70s. You couldn’t buy data, and there certainly wasn’t online delivery. To build the original models, you had to collect a lot of data by hand, which we did.

"What’s the secret to our success?"

  • People. "We start with great scientists. We start with first class people that have done first class work, or that we have reason to believe will do first class work. Because I was there at the beginning with a few other people that were pretty good at math and science, we had pretty good taste."
  • Infrastructure. “We provide people with a great infrastructure. It’s easier to get to work here than anywhere else.”
  • Open environment. “The most important thing we do is have an open atmosphere. My belief is that the best way to conduct research on a broad scale is to make sure as much as possible that everyone knows what everybody else is doing. (At least as quickly as possible. Sometimes you want to keep an idea to yourself for a bit so you don’t look like an idiot.) The sooner the better, start talking to other people about what you’re doing. Because that’s what will stimulate things the fastest. No compartmentalization. Everybody meets once a week. Any new idea gets brought up, discussed, vetted, and hopefully put into production. It’s an open atmosphere.”
  • Alignment to firm success. “And people get paid on the overall profits, not on their own work. Everyone has an interest in everyone else’s success.”

"Those policies—no one of which seems remarkable—turn out to be a pretty winning combination: great people, great infrastructure, open environment, and try to get everyone compensated roughly based on overall performance."

"My guiding principles"

  • Different. “Do something new. I love to do something new. I don’t like to run with the pack. For one thing, I’m not such a fast runner. If you’re one of n people working on the same problem in different places, I know if it were me I’d be last. I’m not going to win that race. But if you can think of a new problem or a new way of doing something, that other people aren’t all working on at the same time, maybe that would give you a chance.” 
  • People. "Collaborate with the best people you possibly can. When you see a person, or get to know a person, that seems like a great guy or a great gal to work with at something, try to find a way to do it. Because that gives you some reach and some scope. And it’s also fun to work with terrific people.”
  • Beauty. "Be guided by beauty. Pretty much everything I’ve done has had an aesthetic component, at least to me. Now you might think, building a company trading bonds—what’s so aesthetic about that? What’s aesthetic about it is doing it right. Getting the right kind of people, approaching the problem, and doing if right. If you feel you’re the first one to do it right—and I think we were—that’s a terrific feeling. It’s a beautiful thing to do something right. It’s also a beautiful thing to solve a mathematics problem or create some mathematics that people hadn’t thought of before. 
  • Persistence. "Don’t give up. At least, try not to give up. Sometimes it’s appropriate to be at something, trying to do something, for a hell of a long time."
  • Luck. "Hope for some good luck."