That was the question the noted mathematician and computer scientist Richard Hamming (he of Hamming Codes fame) asked and tried to answer in a talk he gave at Bell Labs in 1986. However his educational and inspiring talk, You and Your Research, went much deeper than that; offering advice on how we can make significant contributions to our own field, whatever that may be.
Why shouldn’t you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant? I’m not going to define it – you know what I mean. I will talk mainly about science because that is what I have studied. But so far as I know, and I’ve been told by others, much of what I say applies to many fields. Outstanding work is characterized very much the same way in most fields, but I will confine myself to science.
[…] Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You’re not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that’s a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn’t you set out to do something significant. You don’t have to tell other people, but shouldn’t you say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do something significant.”