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Thinking is Uncomfortable but Exciting

Eric_Havelock - 320 pxThoughts on Thinking

“Thinking [is] a very special type of psychic activity, very uncomfortable, but also very exciting…”

This quote comes from the influential twentieth century classicist, Eric Havelock. It’s taken from a book in which Havelock argues that the invention of writing in the ancient world was a prerequisite for the activity we now call “thinking” (he’s talking here about thought in its most rigorous form in which we embrace abstraction and attempt to understand truths beyond specific concrete encounters with the world).

What strikes me is that Havelock describes demanding cognition as both uncomfortable and exciting.

These two adjectives sum up well the sometimes complicated experience of deep work. This activity is not fun in the sense that it can cause mental strain and discomfort, but at the same time, the rewards it produces are richer than anything that the addictive digital bazaars of the attention economy can offer.

I don’t have a specific suggestion to offer here. This is just a meditation to keep in mind as we enter a season of New Year’s resolutions and begin to ask, as we do most Januarys, how we should define a working life well lived…


The quote comes from pages 283 – 284 in the 2009 Harvard University Press edition of Havelock’s influential Preface to Plato. It was first brought to my attention by James Gleick’s ambitious 2011 book, The Information.



18 thoughts on “Thinking is Uncomfortable but Exciting”

  1. Yes, indeed. Sometimes, when I’m struggling with a complicated topic, the discomfort I feel is almost – almost? – physical. However when you’ve wrapped your mind around it, the exhilaration is unbeatable.

    This is the main motivator that drives me through the discomfort.

    I know that if I give up before the solution, all that remains is the experience of discomfort. If I stick with it through the end, the exhilaration by far outweighs the discomfort and makes me forget it altogether. Knowing of the reward in the end makes it easier to bear the discomfort of the process.

  2. Happy New Year Cal.

    Here’s wishing you and all of us who read your blog a year of “mental strain and discomfort” –along with the rich rewards and excitement that brings.

    Thanks for your continued investment in this blog.

    • So glad you posted that Housman quote. It was on the tip of my tongue as I read this post, and because you sourced it, you saved me at least several minutes poking around to recall it exactly. BTW, Google said there’s 598,000 instances of this memorable line on the internet.

  3. What a lovely reflection on the topic:
    thinking is indeed both the work of the discomfort of the process, and the exhilaration of the new destination..
    wondering about the neural pathways and if the forging through a mental challenge is actually creating new neural paths (we know if is) but if that can be part of the discomfort, and the new firing along a new pathway being the exhilarating joy?
    I remember reading Milton for the first time at university, and the almost painful struggle, the process becoming easier, and then the enjoyment of a new-found ease of understanding and enjoying what i read..

  4. Hi Cal,
    This is just to wish you, and all your other followers, a Happy New Year.
    I’ve been following your blog for quite a while now.
    Thanks for sharing your reflections, they are real food for thought, and I definitely agree: “thinking is uncomfortable but exciting!”

  5. In my experience, this ‘meaning-making strain’ occurs when you are engaged in reasoning about more than two conceptual relationships -or- when you are setting a conceptual concept into more than one meaning meta-contexts, both of which are when meaning is made or deepened. This is how our individual/collective meta-cognitive system works.

  6. What’s relative for me goes back to middle school. I used to think there was something wrong with me for experiencing ‘mental strain.’

    I think the beliefs we embrace about this are critical in many directions. –Especially when growing, as they can set-up ingrained attitudes.

  7. Hello Cal,

    First time commenter. I’ve been following your posts for a while now, they have been really helpful. And your book “So good they can’t ignore you” is amazing because it so logically explains that going after passions isn’t worthwhile in the long run. Or as Lord Henry said in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “Passions aren’t lifelong, caprice is”.

    Anyhow I came across this article in Brain Pickings about the fixed and growth mindsets, and I guess what you are doing with your books and blog is trying to change the people from the former to the latter: where people come to understand that the experiences are going to be challenging, and learning is going to be tough, but still make the jump.

    Excellent articles, keep them coming. 🙂

  8. I agree with the times it is so uncomfortable that it feels like a curse.Like thinking about upcoming exams.By the way I just finished reading your book”How to be a straight A student” it was lovely and very very very helpful..

  9. Very helpful. I’ve often wondered if there was something wrong with me for feeling the discomfort part, especially moving toward producing something useful for others. Thank you for the post.

  10. A good metaphor for this is exercise. Running a few miles can be quite uncomfortable at times, especially for the inexperienced. However, the “runners high” is very rewarding. As you get more practice, the faster and farther(deeper) you can go.


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