Pain is the unit of Effort

by lsusr5 min read25th Nov 202016 comments

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Rationality
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This is a ripoff of alkjash's excellent and 100% correct post Pain is not the unit of Effort.

(Content warning: self-harm, parts of this post may be actively counterproductive for readers without certain mental illnesses and idiosyncrasies.)


舍得一身剐,敢把皇帝拉下马

Willing to endure the death of 1000 cuts; dare to unhorse the emperor.

―Chinese proverb

[I]f you want to make a million dollars, you have to endure a million dollars' worth of pain…. You do tend to get a certain bulk discount if you buy the economy-size pain, but you can't evade the fundamental conservation law.

How to Make Wealth by Paul Graham

Anecdotes

1. Parenting

I love my parents but my mother can't do calculus and my father (despite his anomalously high ASVAB score) can't do engineering at the level of enlisted men in the US Army. I spent my childhood hiding my homework from my parents and my education from my teachers so as to keep adults from interfering with my studies.

2. Football

I played football in middle school. I was at the top end of my weight class. I could go to my proper weight class where I would dominate but if I gained any weight then I would be disqualified. Or I could go to the weight class above just in case I gained weight. I chose to play it safe and jump to the weight class above mine.

Weight is causally associated with strength. Strength is important in American football. I was[1] the skinniest, weakest player on my team.

A typical football team has 11 players on offence, 11 players on defense, a few substitutes plus kickers. The offensive players rest while the defensive players play and vice-versa. Our team has 12 players. Usually skinny players run and you throw the ball them but I couldn't catch so they put me on the defensive line.

I was slow too. When I ran my throat constricted and filled with mucus. It became hard to breathe. Every practice began with a warm-up jog. Every practice I came in last and had to run an extra lap. Eventually I began conserving my limited oxygen supply for that second lap.

My parents took me to the doctor. She said I had asthma and issued me an inhaler. The inhaler didn't noticeably improve things so I threw it away.

This post is not medical advice.

Weeks later, I wondered what would happen if I made a desperate all-out effort. So I did. The next warm-up lap I sprinted as hard as I could. My throat constricted and my nose filled with mucus. I coughed my way around the rainy, muddy field. For the final stretch I gave up breathing entirely. I came in 2nd on my team and collapsed onto the ground where I resumed coughing up phlegm.

Did I mention THIS POST IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE?

"Are you okay?" my coach asked.

"I'm fine," I choked out in-between coughs, "I just can't breathe."

The coach found that last bit funny (something along the lines of "how we all know how unnecessary breathing is") and awarded me a Best Sportsmanship trophy at the end of the season.

Anyone who speaks the words "I'm trying" has not yet dedicated his or her last breath to the objective.

3. Overachiever

In my sophomore year of college, I signed up for 18 credits when the recommend full-time courseload was 15. My easiest class was taught by an ex-Soviet nuclear physicist who likened his exams to running from a bear. The mode midterm score was 0. My hardest class was for math majors who felt "honors calculus" was too easy. I worked a part-time job too and volunteered at a laboratory.

I would frequently work with classmates well into the night on homework. It was my favorite schoolyear.

4. Confucian Archetypes

The King's Avatar 《全职高手》 is based off of the Chinese webnovel of the same name. The hero Ye Xiu (叶修) is a standard Confucian hero. He is the best videogame player in the world so the corrupt bureaucrats seize his account and maneuver him out of the professional league.

Ye Xiu walks over to the nearest Internet cafe and, with a gentle smile, starts over as an amateur. He never shows the slightest hint of resentment.

The is the model I aspire to. When my legal team tells me a lawsuit will bankrupt my company even though I'm in the right I incorporate the information into my strategy and get back to work. That wasn't a real disaster. Neither was that time I got threatened with a gun while trapped under a motorcycle in the rain. Real disasters don't threaten to hurt you. You simply die.

The first time my startup crashed and burned it took me 50 seconds to mentally recover. It took me 5 seconds to get over the years I had invested in the second one. The third took me 0.5 seconds.

Five years ago, a manager-turned-entrepreneur with million of dollars worth of funding lectured me about how Sunzi's The Art of War is irrelevant to startup entrepreneurship. Four and a half years ago he quit. I'm still in the game.

5. Personal Problems

Sometimes people ask me how they can do the kinds of things I can do. I explain my savage trials of pure will. Then, without exception, they cower away from the gauntlet.

We are the angry and the desperate

The hungry and the cold

We are the ones who kept quiet

And always did what we were told

But we’ve been sweating

While you slept so calm in the safety of your home

We’ve been pulling out the nails

That hold up everything you’ve known

Prayer of the Refugee by Rise Against

Antidotes

I often wonder "Why is nobody actually trying?". I think the problem is with me. I'm an autistic genius hyped up on natural amphetamines with a deathwish who has built discipline by repeatedly exposing myself to physical pain like enduring hypothermia, mental marathons like learning Chinese and social embarrassment like goofing up magic tricks in front of large crowds. What I consider "trying" may be beyond the biological potential of ordinary people.

1. Isshoukenmei (一生懸命)

When I talk to other startup founders, I sometimes mention how I'd rather die than give up pursuit of a worthy goal.

Earlier this year, I was working on a tool to reduce the spread of COVID. Lives were at stake. I said "Ten Thousand Years" (万歳) to my co-founders, a reference to the suicidal battlecry of the Japanese Empire. My health collapsed in our desperate all-out effort but we were first to market.

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.

—alkjash

Yes! And the way to get happiness is to dedicate everything to a cause greater than yourself. If you are unhappy that means you are wasting your life. The world is in danger. We need heroes.


  1. A decade later, I succeeded in gaining weight by drinking a gallon of whole milk everyday for months. ↩︎

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16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:35 AM
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Note: survivorship bias warning. We don't know how many counterfactual lsusr clones died or were permanently disabled after pushing too hard.

Note 2: privilege bias warning. Lsusr doesn't mention how much of a financial and social safety net he had, but given he had a failed startup and tried again implies way more Maslow level 0-2 stability than most people.

Note 3: Just because you achieved your goal through hard work and dedication doesn't mean it was worth it in the end. This is what they don't tell you in self-help books.

"We don't know how many counterfactual lsusr clones died or were permanently disabled after pushing too hard."

This is not only a clever and concise way of putting this thought, but putting it concisely and cleverly really helped to crystallize it in my brain, whereas before, it was amorphous.

Sometimes people called Moody 'paranoid'.

Moody always told them to survive a hundred years of hunting Dark Wizards and then get back to him about that.

Mad-Eye Moody had once worked out how long it had taken him, in retrospect, to achieve what he now considered a decent level of caution - weighed up how much experience it had taken him to get good instead of lucky - and had begun to suspect that most people died before they got there. Moody had once expressed this thought to Lyall, who had done some ciphering and figuring, and told him that a typical Dark Wizard hunter would die, on average, eight and a half times along the way to becoming 'paranoid'. This explained a great deal, assuming Lyall wasn't lying.

―Chapter 63 of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky

I note that Alkjash's post

  • had a structured model with gears
  • told me something about why the world is the way it is
  • provided mental techniques to counter a problem

I don't think this post did any of these things. At least I didn't extract them if they were there.

I'm not saying the message here is wrong or that a post like this couldn't provide those three things. I just think this post didn't achieve that.

In what way is pain the unit of effort?

What are people missing about the world when they don't see this?

What TAPs can we implement in light of these things?

What TAPs can we implement in light of these things?

I have one of these.

  1. Find yourself in a thing which is frightening, humiliating, or painful.
  2. White-knuckle it.
  3. [TRIGGER] The thing ends, meaning you are no longer actively presented with the fear, humiliation, or pain.
  4. [ACTION] Do a literal, physical health check:
    1. Run your hands over your face and through your hair, as though checking for blood.
    2. Pat down your torso and legs, as though checking for entry wounds.
    3. Examine your (mostly) bloodless hands.
    4. Take a deep breath, and strongly assert you are fine.

Note that here fine includes any injury from which you can expect to fully recover. This has a raft of benefits in my experience. The big payoff is that it directly reduces future suffering in the same situations because I know - through experience - that I will be fine. In terms of broader benefits, once I have done it a few times on a particular event, it starts to have an impact on similar situations I haven't encountered before. Deploying it across multiple domains has helped me separate uncertainty about how to succeed from uncertainty about risks.

Eventually there is a kind of feedback loop, the mechanisms of which I am not certain, which further reduces suffering and can convert it into pleasure/pride/satisfaction. It feels to me like it turns on the question of hesitation, in kind of a combined beware trivial inconveniences and signalling sort of way. The short version is that the less anxiety I have about it the less I hesitate; the less I hesitate the better I perform; better performance further reduces anxiety and fear/pain/humiliation. I may be putting too much weight on this, because I feel about man of action approximately the same way the rest of the community feels about 1000 year old vampire.

They say imitation is the highest praise so thanks for writing this. :D 

A substantial chunk of my heart identifies with this post, but what I think it's pointing to is that pain can be a reasonable measure for a certain kind of effort. The difference between this post and mine feels close to the difference between making a desperate effort and making an extraordinary effort

When I imagine making a desperate effort, it feels like exactly what your post describes: pushing my body to the point of physical exhaustion and reaching a level of achievement I didn't think possible. When I imagine making an extraordinary effort, I see instead: sitting back in an armchair and surreptitiously saving the world by writing a fanfiction while following my heart's desire. Reality doesn't care how much pain you're in. Perhaps you can tell by my language, but the latter is what I aspire to. 

If you live in a world where nobody is trying and you find in yourself the ability to try in one particular way by making a desperate effort, your body might learn that this is the only way to try. I would offer that if you sat back and did only things that came easily, you might learn an altogether different way of trying with all the extra slack that saves you.

I intended my post as the highest praise. :D

There many situations one can be in. Some require desperate effort. Some require extraordinary effort. Some require neither. Some require both.

There is also performative effort—what I call breath to spare and what you describe as "loud public complaining contests". Performative effort is not effort at all. It is pathetic childish whining.

I found your anecdote about doorknobs funny. I don't have time for doorknobs. I don't even turn on lights. I just memorize my home's layout and then fumble about in the dark. On the one hand, this is stupid. On the other hand, I don't need a flashlight when I'm out in the wilderness.

If you can save the world by sitting back in an armchair then that's great! Sometimes I want to jump in a frozen winter lake just because it's there. From my understanding of human psychology, the less you torture yourself the more your brain will misconstrue minor inconveniences for torture.

I would offer that if you sat back and did only things that came easily, you might learn an altogether different way of trying with all the extra slack that saves you.

This is good advice I possibly ought to heed.

One more elaboration on this "avoid pain" mode of thinking: avoiding pain is not necessarily easy. For example in practicing this mode I have refused to do things that are merely slightly unpleasant, at moderately large social cost. This did not come easily to me. 

(I suppose one could quibble about whether the path I took was actually more painful because of the psychological discomfort of going against social pressure, but I'm talking more on the level of "what do you do if you take the spirit of the heuristic seriously." I admit to being confused here which probably means I'm using the wrong words.)

"Performative effort is not effort at all"

I've seen people sacrafice a lot to gain the appearance effort. It looked legitimately painful and I think it was.

To me to shows a willingness to endure physical and emotional pain rather than the mental pain of grappling with uncertainty. All they can do is signal that they do care on some level

A great example of advice reversal

FWIW I suspect I personally need this advice more than alkjash's advice. I've always had a feeling that most people are doing it wrong (e.g. managers who are always working late instead of learning to delegate) but I'm conscious that I want to be better at committing to things and seeing them through even if they're hard (or just inconvenient!).

We need more posts like this that lay out how different people deal with the pain space. 

There are at least four quadrants (I'm in the lower middle I guess):

 Low painHigh pain
Low happinessWithdrawn depressed peopleThe example from from Pain is not the Unit of Effort where you signal pain
High happinessNormieslsusr is here I guess

I know the title is based on alkjash, but I'm not sure it really captures the idea of the post. A lot of your anecdotes are more about doing a lot of things and pushing oneself to her limits than about pain.

The way I see it, this is more a post about when giving up is not the right choice, which is pretty useful. But it's not the defense of pain in effort that I expected from the title.

I assumed this was some kind of pastiche of the judgy-overarchiever trope, and I was quite entertained under that reading. But now I've come to the comments and everyone seems to interpret the post earnestly. I'm confused.

It was written earnestly, but if you're entertained that's fine too!

It worked! Also now that my interpretation has been confirmed, I can bask in the warm afterglow of rightness. What a day.