Pain is not the unit of Effort

by radimentary

(Content warning: self-harm, parts of this post may be actively counterproductive for readers with certain mental illnesses or idiosyncrasies.)

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. ~ Kelly Clarkson.

No pain, no gain. ~ Exercise motto.

The more bitterness you swallow, the higher you’ll go. ~ Chinese proverb.

I noticed recently that, at least in my social bubble, pain is the unit of effort. In other words, how hard you are trying is explicitly measured by how much suffering you put yourself through. In this post, I will share some anecdotes of how damaging and pervasive this belief is, and propose some counterbalancing ideas that might help rectify this problem.

I. Anecdotes

1. As a child, I spent most of my evenings studying mathematics under some amount of supervision from my mother. While studying, if I expressed discomfort or fatigue, my mother would bring me a snack or drink and tell me to stretch or take a break. I think she took it as a sign that I was trying my best. If on the other hand I was smiling or joyful for extended periods of time, she took that as a sign that I had effort to spare and increased the hours I was supposed to study each day. To this day there’s a gremlin on my shoulder that whispers, “If you’re happy, you’re not trying your best.”

2. A close friend who played sports in school reports that training can be harrowing. He told me that players who fell behind the pack during for daily jogs would be singled out and publicly humiliated. One time the coach screamed at my friend for falling behind the asthmatic boy who was alternating between running and using his inhaler. Another time, my friend internalized “no pain, no gain” to the point of losing his toenails.

3. In high school and college, I was surrounded by overachievers constantly making (what seemed to me) incomprehensibly bad life choices. My classmates would sign up for eight classes per semester when the recommended number is five, jigsaw extracurricular activities into their calendar like a dynamic programming knapsack-solver, and then proceed to have loud public complaining contests about which libraries are most comfortable to study at past 2am and how many pages they have left to write for the essay due in three hours. Only later did I learn to ask: what incentives were they responding to?

4. A while ago I became a connoisseur of Chinese webnovels. Among those written for a male audience, there is a surprisingly diverse set of character traits represented among the main characters. Doubtless many are womanizing murderhobos with no redeeming qualities, but others are classical heroes with big hearts, or sarcastic antiheroes who actually grow up a little, or ambitious empire-builders with grand plans to pave the universe with Confucian order, or down-on-their-luck starving artists who just want to bring happiness to the world through song.

If there is a single common virtue shared by all these protagonists, it is their superhuman pain tolerance. Protagonists routinely and often voluntarily dunk themselves in vats of lava, have all their bones broken, shattered, and reforged, get trapped inside alternate dimensions of freezing cold for millennia (which conveniently only takes a day in the outside world), and overdose on level-up pills right up to the brink of death, all in the name of becoming stronger. Oftentimes the defining difference between the protagonist and the antagonist is that the antagonist did not have enough pain tolerance and allowed the (unbearable physical) suffering in his life to drive him mad.

5. I have a close friend who often asks for my perspective on personal problems. A pattern arose in a couple of our conversations:

alkjash: I feel like you’re not actually trying. [Meaning: using all the tools at your disposal, getting creative, throwing money at the problem to make it go away.]

alkjash’s friend: What do you mean I’m not trying? I think I’m trying my best, can’t you tell how hard I’m trying? [Meaning: piling on time, energy, and willpower to the point of burnout.]

After several of these conversations went nowhere, I learned that asking this friend to try harder directly translated in his mind to accusing him of low pain tolerance and asking him to hurt himself more.

II. Antidotes

I often hear on the internet laments like “Why is nobody actually trying?” Once upon a time, I was honestly and genuinely confused by this question. It seemed to me that “actually trying” – aiming the full force of your being at the solution of a problem you care about – is self-evidently motivating and requires zero extra justification if you care about the problem.

I think I finally understand why so few people are “actually trying.” The reason is this pervasive and damaging belief that pain is the unit of effort. With this belief, the injunction “actually try” means “put yourself in as much pain as you can handle.” Similarly, “she’s trying her best” translates to “she’s really hurting right now.” Even worse, people with this belief optimize for the appearance of suffering. Answering emails at midnight and appearing fatigued at meetings are somehow taken to be more credible signals of effort than actual results. And if you think that’s pathological, wait until you meet someone for whom telling them about opportunities actively hurts them, because you’ve just created another knife they feel pressured to cut themselves with.

I see a mob of people walking up to houses and throwing themselves bodily at the closed front doors. I walk up to block one man and ask, “Stop it! Why don’t you try the doorknob first? Have you rung the doorbell?” The man responds in tears, nursing his bloody right shoulder, “I’m trying as hard as I can!” With his one good arm, he shoves me aside and takes a running start to lunge at the door again. Finally, the timber shatters and the man breaks through. The surrounding mob cheers him on, “Look how hard he’s trying!”

Once you understand that pain is how people define effort, the answer to the question “why is nobody actually trying?” becomes astoundingly obvious. I’d like to propose two beliefs to counterbalance this awful state of affairs.

1. If it hurts, you’re probably doing it wrong.

If your wrists ache on the bench press, you’re probably using bad form and/or too much weight. If your feet ache from running, you might need sneakers with better arch support. If you’re consistently sore for days after exercising, you should learn to stretch properly and check your nutrition.

Such rules are well-established in the setting of physical exercise, but their analogs in intellectual work seem to be completely lost on people. If reading a math paper is actively unpleasant, you should find a better-written paper or learn some background material first (most likely both). If you study or work late into the night and it disrupts your Circadian rhythm, you’re trading off long-term productivity and well-being for low-quality work. That’s just bad form.

If it hurts, you’re probably doing it wrong.

2. You’re not trying your best if you’re not happy.

Happiness is really, really instrumentally useful. Being happy gives you more energy, increases your physical health and lifespan, makes you more creative and risk-tolerant, and (even if all the previous effects are unreplicated pseudoscience) causes other people to like you more. Whether you are tackling the Riemann hypothesis, climate change, or your personal weight loss, one of the first steps should be to acquire as much happiness as you can get your hands on. And the good news is: at least anecdotally, it is possible to substantially raise your happiness set-point through jedi mind tricks.

Becoming happy is a fully general problem-solving strategy. And although one can in principle trade off happiness for short bursts of productivity, in practice this is never worth it.

Culturally, we’ve been led to believe that over-stressed and tired people are the ones trying their best. It is right and proper to be kind to such people, but let’s not go so far as to support the delusion that they are inputting as much effort as their joyful, boisterous peers bouncing off the walls.

You’re not trying your best if you’re not happy.