Why the Best Things in Life Are All Backwards: The Paradox of Effort and Reward


Hatched by Glasp

Sep 05, 2023

4 min read


Why the Best Things in Life Are All Backwards: The Paradox of Effort and Reward

Effort and reward are often believed to have a linear relationship. The more effort we put into something, the greater the reward. However, this linear relationship only holds true for mindless and simple actions. When it comes to complex and multivariate tasks, effort and reward actually have a diminishing returns relationship.

One intriguing example of this paradox is drown-proofing. In drown-proofing, the more you struggle to keep your head above water, the more likely you are to sink. The key to survival is actually letting yourself sink to the bottom of the pool. From there, you can lightly push off the pool floor and let your momentum carry you back to the surface. It's a counterintuitive approach that requires surrendering to the physics that would normally kill you.

This concept of surrendering to achieve success is not limited to drown-proofing. In fact, it applies to many areas of life. Most activities in life are not basic or mindless; they are complex and mentally or emotionally taxing. As a result, these activities produce a diminishing returns curve. For example, studies on work productivity show that we are only truly productive for the first four to five hours of each day. Anything beyond that time frame suffers severely diminished returns. Working for 12 hours instead of 16 hours makes little difference, except for the negative impact of sleep deprivation.

Friendships also operate on a diminishing returns curve. Having one friend is vital, and having two is even better. But having 10 friends instead of 9 doesn't significantly change your life. This concept challenges the belief that more is always better. Sometimes, less is more.

The inverted curve takes this paradox to another level. It suggests that the more effort you put into something, the more likely you are to fail. Few things in life function on an inverted curve, but the most important experiences and goals often do. When the action becomes purely psychological and exists solely within our consciousness, the relationship between effort and reward becomes inverted.

Aldous Huxley once wrote, "The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed." This statement reflects the idea that the desire for a specific state of mind creates an opposite state of mind. The more we strive to control our feelings and impulses, the more powerless we feel. The constant pursuit of more freedom ironically limits us in various ways. And the desperate desire to change ourselves often leads to a feeling of inadequacy.

So, how do we navigate this paradox? How do we achieve success and fulfillment without falling victim to the diminishing returns of effort? The answer lies in letting go and surrendering. It's about recognizing that the world is beyond our grasp and that we are fragile and limited beings in the grand scheme of things.

Here are three actionable pieces of advice to embrace this paradox and find success:

  • 1. Embrace surrender: Instead of fighting against the challenges and complexities of life, surrender to them. Recognize that sometimes the best approach is to let go of control and allow the natural flow of things to guide you.
  • 2. Focus on quality, not quantity: Instead of constantly striving for more, focus on the quality of your experiences and relationships. Understand that having fewer but meaningful connections can bring more fulfillment than a large network of superficial relationships.
  • 3. Embrace multidisciplinary thinking: Just as philosophers can apply their skills to entrepreneurship, adopting a multidisciplinary approach can enhance your chances of success. Engage with different fields, perspectives, and ideas to gain a broader understanding of the world and find innovative solutions to complex problems.

In conclusion, the paradox of effort and reward challenges our conventional wisdom about success and fulfillment. It teaches us that sometimes, the best way to achieve our goals is to surrender, let go of control, and embrace the complexities of life. By recognizing the diminishing returns of effort and embracing the inverted curve, we can navigate this paradox and find true success and fulfillment.

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