Research advice and a search challenge


I was intending to write a post on the varied reasons mathematicians give for taking long walks as an aid to research. I couldn’t find my favorite quote, so instead I’m posting a search challenge.

I thought I remembered reading, in the book Littlewood’s Miscellany, something along the lines of the following advice:

Researchers spend the vast majority of their time feeling frustrated. To improve the ratio of time feeling fulfilled to time feeling frustrated, whenever you find a new result or succeed in completing a proof, take the time to enjoy it, preferably by taking a long walk.  Definitely don’t dive into the next problem, or go back and check the proof. There is plenty of time for that later.

However, it doesn’t seem to be in that book. Littlewood certainly approved of walking, and the tone of much of his advice is consistent with this quote, but this particular piece of advice doesn’t appear to be there.  I couldn’t find it in a web search either.

I would love to know the true source for this piece of wisdom.

Tcho chocolate bar to anyone who can track down the source!

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    Posted “Research advice and a search challenge” by Eleanor Rieffel [link to post]

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  2. I hope you don’t mind if I instead found a sort of its “corollary” from “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff.
    Yes, I’m talking about Winnie-the-Pooh.

    “…The honey doesn’t taste so good once it is being eaten; the goal doesn’t mean so much once it is reached; the reward is not so rewarding once it has been given. If we add up all the rewards in our lives, we won’t have very much. But if we add up the spaces between the rewards, we’ll come up with quite a bit. And if we add up the rewards and the spaces, then we’ll have everything––every minute of the time that we spent. What if we could enjoy it?”

    “…That doesn’t mean that the goals we have don’t count. They do, mostly because they cause us to go through the process, and it’s the process that makes us wise, happy, or whatever. If we do things in the wrong sort of way, it makes us miserable, angry, confused, and things like that. The goal has to be right for us, and it has to be beneficial, in order to ensure a beneficial process. But aside from that, it’s really the process that’s important. Enjoyment of the process is the secret that erases the myths of the Great Reward and Saving Time.”

    “…What could we call the moment before we begin to eat the honey? Some would call it anticipation, but we think it’s more than that. We would call it awareness. It’s when we become happy and realize it, if only for an instant. By Enjoying the Process, we can stretch that awareness out so that it’s no longer only a moment, but covers the whole thing. Then we can have a lot of fun. Just like Pooh.”

    Online source with more book’s excerpts of this issue:

  3. Nimit,

    Thanks for the quotes. They aren’t corollaries, but rather make a complementary point. Littlewood is saying it is important to take the time to savor the honey when you find some instead of rushing to start the difficult task of finding the next batch. Your quotes make the equally important point that we must enjoy the process of doing research, not just its results. I blogged earlier about the excellent section Advice to a Young Mathematician in the Princeton Companion to Mathematics. It struck me that two common themes were the importance of enjoying the research and the frustration of research. It is fascinating how intricately entwined enjoyment and frustration can be!

  4. Rieffel,

    You are absolutely right. Although the quotes about Pooh’s wisdom seem impressive, most of the time we cannot or should not even avoid frustration in doing research.
    This is perhaps because enjoyment is your frustration unmasked. (cf. “Happiness is your sorrow unmasked”—Kahlil Gibran)

  5. jay says:

    POINCARE the french mathematician and philosopher mentionned that he found how to demonstrate a few theorems by walking around and not even consciously trying to find the solution. It was mentioned in Zen Or The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. You can search the content of the book on

  6. There was an article in the American Airlines magazine about the therapeutic properties of labyrinth-walking. It seems to relax people and to help them concentrate. Seems like a related cognitive phenomenon.

  7. Jay – There is excellent paragraph in Poincare’s Science and Hypothesis on “sudden illumination” in research and the part played by “unconscious work” that mentions revelations coming during or after a walk. I wasn’t aware of Poincare’s writing on this subject, so thank you for the pointer!

  8. Gene – The article on labyrinth walking is a fun read. I had no idea that there was a trend to build labyrinths for hospitals that has resulted in 225 hospitals and wellness centers in the U.S. with labyrinths!

  9. […] with respect to another search I performed recently, should I conclude that I perpetrated a Matthew Effect on myself since no one has found a quote I […]

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