Pain is not the unit of Effort

(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.

[Edit: Antidotes #1 and #2 are not primarily to be interpreted as truth claims, see Anna Salamon's comment.]

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  1. If it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong.
  2. You're not trying your best if you're not happy.

I believed this firmly for most of my life, and still think there's some value in it, but I've learnt that this is a pretty privileged take on things. Targeted at a LW audience, it's probably true and useful to a majority, but that's because most of us (I believe) are living better lives than at least 80% of humanity, and thus fall into the truthish region of these ideas.

Most of humanity lives in uncertainty, instability, and the myriad day-to-day pains that are ultimately rooted in those. Most people don't have the privilege of sorting through multiple sources or spending time gaining enough background knowledge, such that learning something becomes the joy it should be.

When your very survival, barely holding together a family and a home, takes up 15 hours of your day, it's going to hurt if you're trying to advance yourself with education or other self-improvement, it's going to take a necessary toll on your physical and mental health. The reason "pain is the unit of effort" is such a common idea is that it was true for the majority and still is (if to a slightly lesser extent than ba... (read more)

I think this is an important consideration, and the picture does look different if you are living with chronic (physical or psychic) pain, but I disagree with the overall claim.

When your very survival, barely holding together a family and a home, takes up 15 hours of your day, it's going to hurt if you're trying to advance yourself with education or other self-improvement, it's going to take a necessary toll on your physical and mental health.

This seems like an over-generalization, and does not mesh with my experience talking to family members who escaped poverty. If anything they found escape and respite in working on their education, and having hope and a direction to work towards increased their subjective well-being. The mindset may be determined by personality differences more than differences in circumstance. 

I think what is true is that when you are carrying a huge amount of pain and urgency in your body day-to-day, you become numb to the amount of annoyance that is "studying for the fourth hour in a row" or "sharp pain in the wrists from bench pressing." Depending on the situation this can be either marginally effective or actively dangerous, but regardless pain is not... (read more)

I think there's a useful distinction to be made here between general mental state and specific moment-to-moment emotional experiences. Working on something, that gives hope and respite from a feeling of helplessness, increases overall well-being in the general sense, but doesn't fully make up for the difficulties and annoyances that crop up while doing the work day after day after day, so in the moment it's still pain that dominates their experience. (So maybe here is part of the answer to applying this advice in these situations - if what you're working on improves general life satisfaction, even if it's painful at the moment, then that's an indication that you're doing it right. Although, caveats: (A) it's often difficult in these situations to tell if your life satisfaction is improving or not, both because -49 to -45 isn't as easily felt as 2 to 6, and your life is unstable and fluctuating enough that there isn't much of a reliable base state to compare to, and (B) this is more an indication of whether you've made the right strategic decisions - right course or career path that you feel good about - whereas I think the original point of the advice, and its maximum effectiveness IMO, is regarding tactical low-level decisions.) I agree with your final paragraph entirely. Pain isn't a reliable unit of effort beyond a point, even in these contexts. Over time, it starts growing super-linearly for linear effort.

If you think something's supposed to hurt, you're less likely to notice if you're doing it wrong. That about sums up my experience of graduate school.

How to Do What You Love by Paul Graham

From the same essay:

A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell "Don't do it!" (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

I've been sitting with this post for a couple days and I'm starting to feel like it is only the tip of the iceberg. Here are three more pieces of the phenomenon to add some color:

1. My brain may be artificially injecting unpleasantness into effort. When engaged in activities that fall into the category of "work" I think my brain adds additional, unnecessary doses of drowsiness, anxiety, and feelings of low status and low agency. While doing the same activity, I can make these feelings disappear by remapping the activity in my head as "play." I hypothesize that this is an attempt to prove to myself that I am the kind of person who tries hard.

2. In attempts to reintegrate old memories of working hard in school, I feel a mental flinch every time I suggest the hypothesis that "In this instance, I put myself through a ton of pain for no reason." I predict that the primary immune reaction people will have to reading this post is the feeling of "This can't be true, or else all my suffering would have been pointless!" People like very much to ascribe meaning to suffering. This also maps onto behaviors like "Back in my day..." complaining and slapping people down for looking for easy weight... (read more)

Semi-related to point 2, I often think about a quote from the end of the 4th season of Six Feet Under. One of the members of the family goes through a pretty traumatic ordeal where his life was threatened by a criminal, and has been processing it through the season. His dead father talks to him and says the following, at the climax of the final episode of the season.

“You hang onto your pain like it means something, like it’s worth something. Well, let me tell ‘ya, it’s not worth shit. Let it go.” — Nathaniel Fisher, Sr.

I meditate on it sometimes, when I wonder if I'm putting myself through too much pain because it's supposed to narratively be worth it or something.

8Luke Allen
In the late 00's, I was made aware of the Hero's Journey memeplex, the sequence of all Western stories, based on Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. At some point after that, I recognized that it's the same set of instincts as the Stages of Grief -- or rather, the stages of grief, when experienced as a Hero's Journey, lead to the successful end of a particular grieving. The first stage of grief is denial, and the first step of the hero's journey is life in the "doomed village": things look normal and sound normal, but something's profoundly wrong in the world, and it's about to crash in on the hero. What really spun my head around was realizing my emotional traumas were imposed on me by someone whose subconscious was abusing my Hero's Journey instinct to make me walk through his pain to slay his demons for him. After that, I was able to let go of his narrative thread and try to find where I'd dropped mine five years before.
I have the feeling that there's a cycle most non-overachiever get stuck into, when buying in to this whole "no pain no gain" nonsense. Pain and exhausting oneself would lead people to distance themselves from whatever they are attempting. In those case where people can't just give up on something (for example, university students can't just choose to drop their studies without facing some serious negative emotions), the pain causes them to slack and then, when they try to catch up with the time loss, they try to reproduce the classic "training from hell" popular in anime applied to studying.  "See, if I'm struggling to keep awake, I'm at the tenth coffee cup, it's four a.m. and my eyes hurt like hell, it means I'm surely learning a lot, since I'm in so much pain..." and since the last study session was that unpleasant, the cycle just goes on and on...   I think this is mainly cognitive dissonance at work, trying to send away the discomfort. You might get some insight reading about it, if you aren't familiar with the process already.
3ConCave This reply to Kensho seems to be what you're talking about.

Not a direct response to the post, but on the same broad topic:

It seems to me that many people (e.g., me and several people I've discussed this with) have not so much an intrinsic aversion to pain as a fear of how we'll act if in pain. (As the main effect. I do also simply like not being in pain, but the fear of how the pain will impact my actions is/was often the larger of these two.) So, for example, a person will avoid seeking out bad news about their project not so much because they mind the pain as such, but because they aren't sure whether they'll act funny or have trouble working or similar if they're suddenly sad. Or a person will try to manage their moods not so much to avoid the mood as such, as to avoid being grouchy toward those near them, or to avoid being a downer at the party.

In my experience, increases in my ability to try in deep/effective ways have several times come via decreases in how afraid I was of being sad/upset (and/or increases in my ability to act well despite being sad/upset). Acquiring less of a need to manage my own mood was important and useful for me. When trying to put up a pretense of "everything is okay and I'm fine," I couldn't think proper... (read more)

I very recently realized something was wrong with my mental stance when I realized I was responding to work agenda items with some variation of the phrase, "Sure, that shouldn't be too painful." Clearly the first thing that came to mind when contemplating a task wasn't how long it would take, what resources would be needed, or how to do it, but rather how much suffering I would have to go through to accomplish it. This actually motivated some deeper changes in my lifestyle. Seeing this post here was extremely useful and timely for me.

My problem is less internal confusion about pain equaling effort and more of a need to credibly perform painful effort to others. I fear that if I’m happy and relaxed and don’t perform well, it will seem as though I didn’t care about my collaborators or that I cavalierly stole my employer’s money. On the flip side, I seem to think that I can purchase the right to be lazy/not expose myself to criticism by making myself suffer— conspicuously, so those to whom I am responsible see it.

I don’t think my fears of not suffering when I’m “supposed to” are entirely baseless. When your boss thinks pain is the unit of effort, it’s at the very least your unit of evaluation. But I think most of that is in my head, and that I superstitiously believe the pain of effort and self-flagellation can protect me from the pain of judgment.

"If it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong." This is just an assertion from an analogy with sports, where even the analogy is false - elite athletes put themselves through a ridiculous amount of pain.

In fact, I'd argue the exact opposite: the fact that intellectual work is currently much less painful than athletics suggests that there are still big gains to be made via painful interventions. Perhaps that pain comes from not seeing your friends as often, and spending weekends in the lab; or from alienating people by demanding higher standards from them. (Sure, not all pain is useful - but I'm arguing on the basis of a few examples that there are some good painful interventions, whereas you seem to be arguing from a couple of examples that there are almost none). People don't currently make those interventions because the rewards aren't high enough, but they would if the rewards of academic work were more heavy-tailed, like they are in sports. As evidence for this, note that the domain where rewards are most heavy-tailed (entrepreneurship) is notorious for being painful: "It’s like chewing glass and staring into the abyss."

Normatively, also, people in intellectual domains probably ... (read more)

I think the replies to this and the previous post have surprised me in how much even LessWrong readers are capable of rounding off a specific technical claim to the nearest idea they've heard before. Let me attempt just once to state what the thesis is again.

I am not saying that effort should never painful. I am also not saying that many useful interventions are painful. I am specifically saying that when you measure effort in units of pain this systematically leads to really bad places (and also that a lot of people are doing this). For example, you will discount forms of effort that are pleasant even if they are more effective.

"If it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong." This is just an assertion from an analogy with sports, where even the analogy is false - elite athletes put themselves through a ridiculous amount of pain.

Most amateur and intermediate athletes are doing something wrong if it hurts. "Most amateur and intermediate athletes" is a much larger piece of probability space than "elite athletes."

As evidence for this, note that the domain where rewards are most heavy-tailed (entrepreneurship) is notorious for being painful: "It’s like chewing glass and staring into the

... (read more)

I am specifically saying that when you measure effort in units of pain this systematically leads to really bad places.

I think this is probably a useful insight, and seems to have resonated with quite a few people.

I'm specifically disputing your further conclusion that people in general should believe: "if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong" (and also "You're not trying your best if you're not happy."). In fact, these are quite different from the original claim, and also broader than it, which is why they seem like overstatements to me.

I'm reminded of Buck's argument that it's much easier to determine that other people are wrong, than to be right yourself. In this case, even though I buy the criticism of the existing heuristic, proposing new heuristics is a difficult endeavour. Yet you present them as if they follow directly from your original insight. I mean, what justifies claims like "in practice [trading off happiness for short bursts of productivity] is never worth it"? Like, never? Based on what?

I get that this is an occupational hazard of writings posts that are meant to be very motivational/call-to-arms type posts. But you can motivate people without making blanket ass... (read more)

I'm specifically disputing your further conclusion that people in general should believe: "if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong" (and also "You're not trying your best if you're not happy."). In fact, these are quite different from the original claim, and also broader than it, which is why they seem like overstatements to me.

You are correct that the further "conclusions" are definitely on weaker epistemic grounds than the original claim. They are more of "attempts to propose solutions" than "confident assertions based on models." I tried to be clear about this in the text, but I probably wasn't.

Actually, there's something else here, and it might fall into the territory of Dark Arts. On reflection, the two proposed statements "if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong" and "You're not trying your best if you're not happy" are not primarily truth claims at all. They are primarily sequences of words that are supposed to trigger mental moves to pull you out of the damaging belief "pain is the unit of effort." To the extent that these claims are literally true, that is only instrumentally helpful for the effectiveness of the mental move. But for the purposes of this post it's o... (read more)

I appreciate you pointing this out. I'm not sure if you're already saying this or not, but IMO we on LW should work hard (on LW, at least) not to promote beliefs that are meant to be useful, as though they are meant to be true. Otherwise, we'll get into a muddle where moralism / desire not to harm others makes it difficult to acquire and share true observations about the world.

E.g., maybe I'll be afraid to say "my anonymous friend Bob seems to me to work exceedingly hard, and exceedingly effectively, while being very unhappy" lest I retraumatize people or make their antidotes ineffective.

A proposed fix to your "counterbalancing beliefs": call them "heuristics" or "questions-to-oneself," and phrase them as questions rather than truth-claims. E.g.:

  • 1'. If it hurts, is there some way the specifics of the pain/tiredness can lead me to notice wasted effort / improvable form?
  • 2'. Are there ways I can let go of some of the pain/tiredness? If I was really trying here, might I be happier?

I do personally get milage from questions like 1' and 2'. I think the thing you're after with the antidotes (whose spirit I appreciate) is to make sure that we don't preferentially look for ways to be more effective that cause pain (rather than ways to be more effective that relieve pain, or that are neutral on the pain dimension). So we can look for the search strategies directly.

(Also, thanks for the post! Some good discussion on a tricky and important topic, IMO.)

Thanks for opening this discussion! I think this conversation is hard because I was trying to talk at several levels at once, and not even consciously aware of it. Let me first explain with an analogy what was going on in my head when I wrote the previous reply.  Imagine I am writing a math paper, and the most important thing to me is that the main theorem is true. What I received from Richard was information that one of the supporting lemmas [1. if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong] in the paper is false or at least the proof was insufficient. I also received an implication that said lemma is not just a lemma but also one of the main theorems in the paper. My instinct in this position is to ditch the lemma and make sure the actual main theorem is on solid footing as the first course of action. In doing so, I argued that I only need a much weaker form of the lemma to prove the theorem, e.g. instead of a Central Limit Theorem I only needed to apply Markov's Inequality. I think where I went wrong and raised rationalist red flags is that the way I make this argument: (a) makes it seem like I don't believe in the strong form of the lemma and am intentionally stating false observations for instrumental reasons, and (b) also looks like a conversation-stopper that I'm not willing to investigate certain truth claims on their own. Neither of these are true. At least at the time of posting I was moderately confident about both lemmas as truth claims (up to poetic embellishment). After ChristianKL's comment about soreness I don't endorse the [1. if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong] statement any more, that seems like motivated blindness on my part. I will think about replacing it with the [1'] statement you proposed instead, although I feel some aversion to making deep edits of already published posts. I still essentially endorse [2. You're not trying your best if you're not happy.] and am very much open to discussing the truth value of this statement, once t

I take some responsibility for my original point being misinterpreted, because it was phrased in an unnecessarily confrontational way. Sorry about that.

I think where I went wrong and raised rationalist red flags is that the way I make this argument: (a) makes it seem like I don't believe in the strong form of the lemma and am intentionally stating false observations for instrumental reasons.

I think this falls on a spectrum of epistemic rigour. The good end involves treating instrumentally useful observations with the same level of scrutiny as instrumentally anti-useful observations (or even more, to counteract bias). The bad end involves intentionally say things known to be false, because they are instrumentally useful. I interpret you as doing something in the middle, which I'd describe as: applying lower epistemic standards to instrumentally useful claims, and exaggerating them to make them more instrumentally useful.

To be clear, I don't think it's a particularly big deal, because I expect most people to have defensive filters that prevent them from taking these types of motivational sayings too seriously. However, this post has been very highly upvoted, which makes me a bit more... (read more)

Thank you for extending more charity than you did previously. It was hard for me to respond fairly when you made arguments like "Well actually, you shouldn't use the word 'never' because no probability is literally zero." I honestly don't think point [2. You're not trying your best if you're not happy.] is specified well enough to be confused with an interesting truth claim, as opposed to a helpful heuristic. For example, one can easily make the case that that no human is "trying their best," and therefore the statement is vacuously true because a true statement is implied by anything. I think the most reasonable way to interpret the sentence is "nobody is trying their best, and happiness is a particularly high ROI dimension along which to notice this." Given that you believe this part, I suspect that we pretty much agree on every claim about the territory. If you think so too, then I think there's not much left to dispute other than word choice.
This is the second time you've (inaccurately) accused me of something, while simultaneously doing that thing yourself. In the first case, I quoted a specific claim from your post and argued that it wasn't well-supported and, interpreted as a statement of fact, was false. In response, you accused me of "rounding off a specific technical claim to the nearest idea they've heard before", and then rounded off my criticism to a misunderstanding of the overall post. Here, I asked "what justifies claims like [claim you made]"? The essence of my criticism was that you'd made a bold claim while providing approximately zero evidence for it. You accuse me of being uncharitable because I highlighted the "never" part in particular, which you interpreted as me taking you totally literally. But this is itself rather uncharitable, because in fact I'm also uninterested in whether "the probability is literally zero", and was just trying to highlight that you'd made a strong claim which demands correspondingly strong evidence. If you'd written "almost never" or "very rarely", I would have responded in approximately the same way: "Almost never? Based on what?" In other words, I was happy to use "never" in whatever sense you intended it, but you then did exactly what you criticised me for, and jumped to a "literally zero" interpretation. I would suggest being more restrained with such criticisms in the future. In any case, it's not unreasonable for you to make a substantive part of your post about "useful heuristics" (even though you do propose them as "beliefs"). It's not the best, epistemically, but there's plenty of space in an intellectual ecosystem for memorable, instrumentally useful blog posts. The main problem, from my point of view, is that Less Wrong still seems to think that insight porn is the unit of progress, as judged by engagement and upvotes. You get what you reward, and I wish our reward mechanism were more aligned. But this is a community-level issue which means yo
2Icarus Gallagher
Thank you for this comment; I was happy death spiralling around the original post to the point of starting to wonder if I should quit my job and this abruptly snapped me out of it.
I read the whole article and didn't really get a click, but this version of it somehow clicked for me: The specific thing I realized was that this might be almost THE SAME as the reasoning error where people think that "objects which cost large amounts" probably have "high quality and usability".  There are various ways to make it so that all the really extra specially good objects in a class of objects tend to have the highest prices, and equivalently for the low end of the product range, leading to a pretty clean correlation between the price (which is a cost, which is bad) and the value (which is the usability, which is good). This sort of correlation can arise in a reasonably efficient market with heterogeneously capitalized people so that rich ones have money to waste on durability or style or whatever. Or it could just be that there are people with variance in their instrumental utility for the objects (perhaps based on aiming at different goals of greater or less import)? I think the correlation always requires the pre-existence of agents engaged in means/ends reasoning who accept the cost because the value is worth it, and so each purchase is something such agents are reasonably sure will create consumer surplus for them. There's a related joke about economists knowing "the price of everything and the value of nothing". The click I had was that maybe in the same way that some people conflate "price" and "value" into something like "worth", there might also be people who conflate "painful effort" and "creative success" into something like "trying", and such people might get more "agentic surplus" by making very goddamn sure that they never optimize for pain directly, due to a motivational/conceptual conflation of "pain" with "trying that leads to success".
This goes counter to the general NHS advice for excersie Why do I feel pain after exercise?:
IME 'soreness' is pretty different to 'pain'. [EDIT: although I don't know if this is just different because my brain knows that DOMS is fine but knee pain during squats is not]
There are plenty of different sensations that people sometimes call pain. Being able to distinguish those sensations and treat them differently is useful.  Not counting the sensensation that comes with soreness as pain is an option but it's not how everyone uses the word pain and especially people without much experience of it will lump it into the general pain cluster when they encouter it.
Thank you for pointing this out. My initial reaction was that "soreness" doesn't count as pain within the context of the post because it's not as immediate, but I couldn't come up with a principled reason for doing this gerrymandering. I no longer endorse point 1 (If it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong) in the form stated and will think about how to reflect that in the post.
Small correction: DOMS is a distinct phenomenon from pain during exercise, which usually means that you are doing something wrong and may be injuring yourself. DOMS occurs 1-2 days after exercise, as mentioned in the NHS quote.

This is just an assertion from an analogy with sports, where even the analogy is false - elite athletes put themselves through a ridiculous amount of pain.

I'm not an expert on sport medicine, but my understanding is that elite athletes are often doing terribly wrong things to themselves. 

They are overexerting to achieve top performance, and can manage to outdo others that stop first, but the price is generally high and catches up after a few years. The body machine has used too much resources and some part will have burned through most of the health reserves that were supposed to last for a lifetime.


I have done fencing for eleven years, I had got pretty good at it though I never tried to reach pro level, I had some periods where I'd overtrain due to low self esteem, managed to stop that and I think that gave me a good feeling of how hard I could push my body to have an edge on the others. 

My eyebrows would shot up every time I read or heard people talking about what they were doing to reach  pro-level in mine or other sports, because I had a clear feeling that there was no way that could possibly be healthy. 

Also have a good deal of anecdotal evidence about it, though I think it would be best to look at medical research on the subject.

If most workouts are painful, then I agree you are probably overtraining. But if no workouts at all are painful, you're probably missing opportunities to improve. And many workouts should at least be uncomfortable for parts of it. E.g. when lifting, for the last couple deadlift sets I often feel incredibly gassed and don't feel like doing another one. But this can be true even when I'm far away from my limits (like, a month later I'll be lifting 30 pounds more and feel about as tired, rather than failing to do the lift). My guess is that on average 1-2 workouts a week should feel uncomfortable in some way, and 1-2 workouts a month should feel painful, if you're training optimally. But it probably varies by sport (I'm mostly thinking sports like soccer or basketball that are high on quickness and lateral movement, but only moderate on endurance). ETA: Regarding whether elite athletes are performing optimally, it's going to depend on the sport, but in say basketball where players have 10+ years careers, teams generally have a lot of incentive to not destroy players' bodies. Most of the wear and tear comes from games, while training outside of games is often preventing injuries by preparing the body for high and erratic levels of contact in games. (I could imagine that in say gymnastics, or maybe even American football, the training incentives are misaligned with long-term health, but I don't know much about either.)

Note: in its original form, this comment also attempted to predict how this post would fare next year in the 2020 LW review. After receiving feedback from alkjash, I excised this. I still want to find a way to achieve my intentions with such predictions. But it is far more important to maintain a sense of warmth and camaraderie, and my original post failed to do that. For that, I apologize to alkjash.

In my experience, the idea that "no pain, no gain" is false is extraordinarily prominent. To the extent that we have to ask why highly educated Westerners are continuing to make themselves miserable despite almost all life advice givers consistently saying that they should focus on being happy and healthy first?

I have never been seriously told "no pain, no gain," or encouraged to view pain tolerance as a virtue. Showing pain was an occasion to question whether I was making fundamentally wrong life choices, to the extent that I would hide pain that was an ordinary consequence of challenges or imperfect decision-making in order to avoid the additional irritation of misplaced concern. Even in situations where nothing can be done about a source of discomfort, it is the expected default tha... (read more)

Your comment is interesting and helpful for me because I have only a small sample of people who don't follow the "pain is the unit of effort" heuristic to a pathological extent. Perhaps this is explained by my circle of friends being dominated by Asian-Americans who went to the top universities. I definitely didn't consider what possibly ill effects it might have on others for whom this is not true. So thanks for that information!

However, enough of my brain interpreted your comment as a status move/slapdown that I'd suggest you reconsider doing these reviews, at least in the tone you're currently doing them. I don't believe you intended it this way, but your comment comes off as claiming a position of authority and also encourages too much (imo) Goodharting on the LessWrong "top 15 posts" metric. Both of these feel icky to me. I predict you will at minimum annoy a lot of authors if you continue to write these.

I'm going to send you a PM, because I appreciate your feedback and hope to get some further thoughts from you. I'm going to heavily edit my earlier comment, because I appreciate that its tone - quite unintentionally, but also understandably - feels icky. As I said, this is an exploration/experiment, and your experience of it is evidence that I'm not going about it correctly.

No worries! Perhaps it's worth reminding everyone here that asymmetric justice incentivizes inaction. I hope I didn't do this just now, I very much appreciate the spirit of your experiment and encourage more people to try to state their beliefs and move fast and break things.

Thank you for being big about it! I plan to use your feedback to refine and improve my "peer preview" concept, not to shelve it. Your forthright but charitable response will be helpful in any success it may achieve.

If you want to achieve a goal, you usually need to do many things. Some of them are unpleasant. Avoiding unpleasant parts means you will get the work half-done, and then give up.

Even if you do the right thing, being too comfortable probably means you are not doing as much as you could have.

This would suggest that the right way involves a lot of pain: you do the unpleasant thing, and you do a lot of it. So people will interpret your lack of pain as a signal of failure (either to do the right thing, or to do enough).

Unfortunately, per Goodhart's Law, you cannot find the right way by simply trying to maximize pain. Some useless or harmful things are painful, too. Also, after a difficult exercise, muscles need some rest to recover.

Unfortunately again, from outside "understanding that you cannot find the right way simply by increasing pain" seems very similar to "avoiding the unpleasant parts, and rationalizing it". If your reward depends on other people's judgment, you better include some useless pain, too.

Personal experience:

I used to be good at math. But I never studied hard. I mean, I was reading math books in my free time, I thought about math a lot, and I participated in many... (read more)

Curated. The anecdotes and antidotes shed light on what seems to me to be a pretty prevalent error mode, and I appreciate the clarity the post brought to discussing it and helping see past it.

I recently read David Goggins "Can't Hurt Me". On one level it does glorify superhuman pain tolerance. But a constructive perspective on such attitudes is: they illustrate courage. Do not tolerate pain, laugh at it! Do not tense under cold shower, relax into it. Do not bear problems, solve them.

I strongly believe there are many ways to respond to difficult sensory inputs, that we can learn new responses, and people like David Goggins exemplify some of this, but there are even more extreme examples, such as self-immolation by Buddhist monks.   I learned a first step on the path in myself, in a very trivial way, by watching my cats go out into the rain.  They completely ignored it.  So I tried that, instead of hunching up when I went out into the rain.  And the suffering - in response to the same sensory input - immediately went away.  This turned out to generalise to some of the inputs during workouts, although by no means all of them.  DOMS, for example, appears as a sign of a hard workout the day before, rather than as pain per se.  I sincerely doubt I could get even to the Goggins level, but this is clearly a learnable thing.  So maybe at least some of those who appear to experience pain and suffering are actually experiencing something else, but describing what - to you - would be pain?

I like this.  A lot to chew on for me. Especially the "optimize for the appearance of suffering" part.

A corollary of this is that when things are too easy (low pain) they are "cheating", "don't count", or somehow "illegitimate".  I may have been making things too hard on myself for just that reason. 

There are different kinds of pains. Different pains provide different signals. Some of those are useful while others aren't. 

If you do sports and stretch yourself, it comes with a specific kind of pain that's part of stretching. On the other hand there's pain that's a sign of doing things wrong. 

One of the key Radical Honesty teachings is being able to distinguish when having a touch conversation is good pain and when it's just needless suffering. The same goes for other domains. Striving to feel no pain is a bad plan as is striving to feel as much pain as possible. It's about being open for the right kind of pain in the right context. 

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.

This is basically my mindset as well. In situations where I would ask "Why is nobody actually trying?" it would mean something like "I wish everyone else would care about this outcome as much as I do." If people aren't optimizing for results, they could be optimizing for appearance of effort (which would in some circumstances look like optimizing for pain), or they could be optimizing for something else entirely, such as enjoying themselves, personal growth, or impressing a particular person or group.

The specific "happiness means you're not trying hard enough" mentally is not one I remember encountering, though I also haven't had that concept available as a hypothesis, and my prior was against it since it seemed so obviously confused, so maybe I just didn't recognize it when I saw it.

This is one of those posts, like "when money is abundant, knowledge is the real wealth," that combines a memorable and informative and very useful and important slogan with a bunch of argumentation and examples to back up that slogan. I think this type of post is great for the LW review.

I haven't found this advice super applicable to my own life (because I already generally didn't do things that were painful...) but it has found application in my thinking and conversation with friends. I think it gets at an important phenomenon/problem for many people and provides a useful antidote.

As someone with a various cocktail of (admittedly well-managed) mental illnesses, I actually find this post very helpful! I've often observed a lack of correlation between the pain someone is enduring and their overall productiveness/life enjoyment/etc. I think this is a really useful way to address that the reason this doesn't correlate is because there really isn't a correlation. 

I wonder if you have any thoughts on better units of effort to use instead (either convoluted ones to ponder or Quick Tricks that could be quickly implemented into one's mental framework) ?

For activities that feel effortful, I mostly measure effort by time put in, usually in units of 25-minute Pomodoros. I think correcting "I will work on this until I feel unhappy/tired" as the standard for satisfaction to "I will work on this for 2 Pomodoros" is a big step.

7Sunny from QAD
To answer that question, it might help to consider when you even need to measure effort. Off the cuff, I'm not actually sure there are any (?). Maybe you're an employer and you need to measure how much effort your employees are putting in? But on second thought that's actually a classic case where you don't need to measure effort, and you only need to measure results. (Disclaimer: I have never employed anybody.)

I think this post does a good job of focusing on a stumbling block that many people encounter when trying to do something difficult. Since the stumbling block is about explicitly causing yourself pain, to the extent that this is a common problem and that the post can help avoid it, that's a very high return prospect.

I appreciate the list of quotes and anecdotes early in the post; it's hard for me to imagine what sort of empirical references someone could make to verify whether or not this is a problem. Well known quotes and a long list of anecdotes is a su... (read more)

This is not quite right - pain isn't the unit of effort, but for many things it's correlated with whatever that unit is.  If you avoid unpleasantness, you'll likely be putting in less actual effort than is rewarded for many of your goals.

Unfortunately, all of the relevant inputs are hard to measure, so it's VERY hard to know when it's too much or too little.

pain isn't the unit of effort, but for many things it's correlated with whatever that unit is.

I think this correlation only appears if you're choosing strategies well. If you're tasked with earning a lot of money to give to charity, and you generate a list of 100 possible strategies, then you should toss out all the strategies that don't lie on the pareto boundary of pain and success. (In other words, if strategy A is both less effective and more painful then strategy B, then you should never choose strategy A.) Pain will correlate with success in the remaining pool of strategies, but it doesn't correlate in the set of all strategies. And OP is saying that people often choose strategies that are off the pareto boundary because they specifically select pain-inducing strategies under the misconception that those strategies will all be successful as well.

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Love much of this post.

Related realisations for me:

  1. Making my work more pleasant and cosy is not an inherently bad thing, to the contrary. If I feel vulnerable and need to get some stressful work done at home, lighting some fairy lights, putting on noise cancelling headphones with rain sounds, snuggling into a warm blanket, with a hot cup of cocoa and a bowl of berries, will make the whole experience far, far more cosy. That makes me want to happily do it longer, and feel less tense, less stressed, less overwhelmed. This makes me more effective. I could tak
... (read more)

Just to underline the fundamental question: if pain isn't a good metric (and I agree that it isn't) what is a good metric?

I'm recommending Bruce Frantzis' tai chi, qi gong, bagua etc. classes at

One of the fundamental principles is to put out reliable 70% effort-- this is enough to create progress without much chance of injury or burnout. Considerably less effort if you're sick or injured.

This is harder than it sounds, if you're from a culture which assumes that more effort = better results and is a sign of more virtue. 

Your effort leve... (read more)

I'll just paste this from my comment in case you find it useful to that question: I think that the right amount level of effort leaves you tired but warm inside, like you look forward doing this again, rather than just feeling you HAVE to do this again.
  This is probably true in a practical sense (otherwise you won't sustain it as a habit), but I'm not sure it describes a well-defined level of effort. For me an extreme effort could still lead to me looking forward to it, if I have a concrete sense of what that effort bought me (maybe I do some tedious and exhausting footwork drills, but I understand the sense in which this will carry over into a game-like situation, so it feels rewarding; but I wouldn't be able to sustainably put in that same level of effort if I couldn't visualize the benefits). It seems to me like to calibrate the right level of effort requires some other principle (for physical activity this would be based on rates of adaptation to avoid overtraining), and then you should perform visualization or other mental exercises to align your psychology with that level of effort. 

For me, the main point of the post is that the role of pain is often misunderstood. Compared to the article my perception was actually kind of the opposite: That the people I knew avoided pain more than needed. They saw it as an indication of a lack of success. But the result is the same: The role of pain is often seen either as highly correlated (positively or negatively) with effort or success. 

But the pain-space is large and non-uniform. People don't always mean the same thing with pain. It can be physical harm, exhaustion, stress, mental fatigue o... (read more)

Related: George on Seinfeld acting angry at work to make it look like he's busy.

"If sex is pain in the butt, you are doing it wrong!" was a semi-humorous reminder from one of my former coworkers in situations like you describe.

True for both metaphorical and literal butt pain!

This is a wonderful point made well. I know who have fallen into the trap of taking the path of most resistance for reasons like those you lay out.

My own (less clear) version of a similar concept was a strong dislike of the saying "work ethic". What is ethical about working?

Some comments:

(1) I have noticed some cultural correlations in this area. In my limited experience Danes approach this issue in a more healthy way that the English. A colleague who used to work in Japan complained bitterly about his Japanese colleagues making themselves (and him) misera... (read more)

I agree pretty much with everything you said, and most of this stuff applied to me at some point in my life.

In high school and for years afterwards I was really big on powerlifting. I had a friend who I trained with, and this guy was very very hard on himself. He always seemed to push himself 100% and beyond. I was by nature more lenient to myself, but the idea of trying and going really hard got stuck to me. I did get pretty strong, sure. But also at some point I started dreading the gym. But I was afraid to quit, because I didn't want to lose my gains. I... (read more)

Thank you! I needed to read this.

Also, A lot of stuff written about here are worse in communities where prosperity is recent or yet to come.

The more bitterness you swallow, the higher you'll go.

―Chinese proverb.

Do you have the original Chinese?

It is likely this one: “吃得苦中苦,方为人上人”. Lit. Eat the most bitter of the bitters, become the person above the people.
That's the one, I took some liberties with the translation.

I personaly only put 20% effort into 80% of everything. Getting in the Pain region of "how hard you try" should only be done when you know the effort is worth it.

It seems that getting into pain is not the problem. Rather contrary, i think knowing that the pain was worth it and one has achieved something incredible is fundametaly positive. At least for me. 

The problem seem, that people are constantly in pain for things they shouldnt be. Family, kids, jobs, hobbies, looking attractive, studying for best grades,... they want to reach 100% in all areas. W... (read more)

I find your first anecdote quite interesting. It speaks of a much larger fallacy: the convention of using rewards to make ourselves feel better in an emotional trough. I watched Eric Edmeades once speak on this topic. If our go-to behavior when we feel bad is to do the things we enjoy, in an understandably naive attempt to feel better, are we not reinforcing the same behavior that got us there in the first place? Although far from a full-fledged behavioral theory, I think this idea is worth contemplating.

On a different note, something my yoga teacher once ... (read more)

I think there's another aspect that you haven't mentioned.

I've found that when I've overburdened myself with work, I tend to cope through copious amounts of caffeine. Over time, this habit limits my overall productivity, and forces me to undergo painful withdrawal symptoms to return to normal. When someone turns to alcoholism to escape the stress in their life, they limit the amount of productive time they can spend solving the problems that lead to their stress. The same goes for many ultimately destructive habits: binge eating, gambling, smoking, memes (... (read more)

Wow, this post describes 100% of my life.

I may add, from experience, that this condition is quite complex to cure. I understand that there are tasks that either can't be cheated through or maybe you just need to be very-very lucky to do them without much effort, because all the tasks with that property have been automated and the world is not heaven yet. Therefore all the things that tell me "you shouldn't experience pain to make an effort towards a task" make me not believe in them, because pain IS effort, and such allegations propose to cheat the way thr... (read more)

Chinese webnovels are addictive. 

On a more serious note, in between seeing face slaps and beatdowns, I do sometime read about the overarching themes behind these novels. 

If you prefer urban novels in modern China, the focus on 'success' is lots of face slapping on people who looked down on you. Lots of "Junior, do you dare" and Jade beauties falling in love. Climbing up by stepping on others and having conspicuous signs of wealth. I take it as a sign of an ultra competitive society.

The protagonists of Chinese webnovels are sometime murder hobos a... (read more)

At one point, IIRC, I thought pain, or at least exhaustion, was meritorious. My mother and grandmother sure did. They'd have contests!

Later, I saw thru that. Play is more productive than work for the same task. Go for the joy. That sort of thing.

But think about it from the perspective of someone with chronic illness, or severely overworked, or in a great deal of emotional pain (death of a spouse or child, or other reasons). You'll have heard the analogy of spoons ( ... (read more)

I have heard the idea that some people especially regard having children as a feat, that you are a good (not frivolous) parent only if you don’t get enough sleep all the time, spend all the time cooking for the child, you can’t go to the movies, go on vacation and so on.

I enjoyed reading this. I also have a few thoughts about what it means to master something and what that journey looks like. 

Is it possible to truly become a master of a field if you're not putting in a superhuman effort? I agree that pushing yourself to the point of burnout is not the answer; but on the other hand, as a teacher, I once was with a parent who allowed their child to take a break after writing just a few letters when the assignment was to write all twenty-seven.  As long as the assignment gets done eventually, that's fine; however, ... (read more)

I'd assume it falls on the anti-fragility curve? If humans are perpetually underchallenged, they atrophy, and get worse. (Like a bone that is not used; it will become fragile, like an unused mind that will become forgetful.) If they are significantly overchallenged, they break, and get worse. (Like a bone that snaps, or the mind that hits burn-out.) Ideally, you want to target a level of work that is hard enough to be challenging, so you need to learn and grow, but still doable, so you have success experiences. (Like a bone that has frequent impacts that stress it, but not enough to break it, and that has sufficient supply of nutrients to fix itself; that bone will not just withstand the pressure, like a sturdy thing, but it will improve under pressure - it is anti-fragile, like most biological systems are. Similarly, a mind that is exposed to stress that it can handle will become brighter and more resilient.)

Shuzan held out his short staff and said: "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?"

I think the dichotomy you are proposing is one of many paradoxes where it just depends. Yes, if you break your wrists trying to bench press too much, you’re doing it wrong. If you try to bench press just under too much, you will achieve maximal strength gains overt time. You will also be very sore and experience some joint pain.

Absolutely agree we live in a culture of... (read more)

Answering emails at midnight and appearing fatigued at meetings are somehow taken to be more credible signals of effort than actual results.


I suppose this is not the point of the post, but I find this to be good advice in competitive settings with this belief. 

Not actually getting close to burn out, but just appearing like you are about to, while pretending to be trying not to show it...


Psychology has good evidence that there is an "optimal level of effort" you need to reach to improve optimally at something. If you find something to be ea... (read more)

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Is from Nietzsche (well before Clarkson or Kanye)

Nietzsche had a complete and severe mental breakdown that didn't kill him, but left him institutionalised; then he had several strokes, which didn't kill him, but left him unable to talk or walk. Kinda demonstrates that there is something off with the idea.
Fun fact, Hillary Clinton's autobiography quoted Clarkson quoting Nietzsche. 

This is nice. But of course sometimes it hurts to try to do something you should in fact do.

I completely agree.  I think, though, what alkjash is driving at is that very metric has become abused or misused altogether.  Sometimes worthwhile things really do hurt.  However, the pain which resulted for the achievement is not the same as how effective the effort was; the pain, rather, was a byproduct.  And there is truly something potent, and inspiring, to be able to make necessary sacrifices and push through pain.  But to confuse the efficacious with the sacrificial is to weaponize the pain rather than the procedure. 

As a generalization I think this is true but I think it is important to push yourself in instances not for semesters or anything but for a week or a day. This kind of pain in my experience leads to a lot of satisfaction. I agree that subjecting yourself to continued work along with sleep deprivation and prolonged periods of high stress is not a good idea. 

Occasional high stress - incl. temporary sleep deprivation, working towards a deadline that you know you can meet, but only if you really push, and then you succeed - actually has health benefits, especially against depression. It is chronic stress that is so harmful. But not being stressed at all, ever, makes you ill.

I agree that pain shouldn't measure how hard you are trying.

However, I feel like grit, while not always particularly enjoyable, is what leads to true greatness. Persevering with a challenge, that is.

Of course, there's a difference between that and meaningless suffering. I was always at odds with people working very hard on something that can be easily automated / sped up.

You don't think truly great things have ever been done by people who genuinely enjoyed what they were doing, throughout? I'd agree that with most bigger projects, it becomes impossible to succeed unless you are willing to put in the work to finish even on parts that are really not fun to finish. But for short projects that do not require a lot of editing or surrounding work, I feel they can often be done from a place of pure flow - which is, by definition, a state both highly productive, as well as pleasant and effortless.

Hello - I am new to less wrong and I thoroughly enjoyed this short essay.  Comments:

I agree with you that many people, unfortunately, equate pain with work.  The viewpoint is actually absurd given that work is an objective measure of output and pain is an internal state.  

According to Buddhism, pain is the inevitable result of expectations and desires, because anyone who has these is bound to be disappointed at least once or (more likely) many times.  In the case of work or student life, pain is caused by the expectation of happiness be... (read more)

Rule of Power 30 from Robert Greene " Make your Accomplishments seem effortless". The people who truly do succeed in building a successful life pursue a path were any unproductive pain is avoided if not all pain. 

Pain, like money, is a measurable metric compared to skill level which is a much more abstract set of metrics to be measured on. We generally use tests and competitions to measure skill level, but during the personal growth period where those options aren't accessible, people tend to equate suffering as a result of learning to measure progress. Like you said, it's not very reliable since there is really no correlation between pain and skill level. Also your speed of learning can change how much time/enjoyment/suffering you go through as you learn, but ulti... (read more)

Pain is the unit of change. Effort, including of others, can be applied to minimize the necessary pain.

Unwanted or forced change is an injury, a wound, or trauma

Wanted, natural, and needed change (including healing) might hurt as much but your actions, medicine, and technology can minimize pain.