Pain is the unit of Effort

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. ↩︎