Effort Shock and Reward Shock

One of the most useful concepts I’ve come across in recent times is the idea of effort shock. It’s in a great post by David Wong of Cracked, How ‘The Karate Kid’ Ruined The Modern World.  

It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious. Every adult I know–or at least the ones who are depressed–continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder. Like losing weight. You make yourself miserable for six months and find yourself down a whopping four pounds. Let yourself go at a single all-you-can-eat buffet and you’ve gained it all back.

Effort shock captures the nature of what I called the The Valley in Tempo, which roughly corresponds to the montage phase of many movies built around the character learning somethingThe insight Wong adds to the party is the tendency to actually think of the phase as a five-minute montage set to music, instead of the long, arduous phase with no music. Due to this tendency, we vastly underestimate the effort involved even in modest projects, to the point that when we actually understand what’s involved, we wonder whether the reward is worth it at all.

The good news is what I’ve started calling reward shock. In some (not all) domains, it is more than enough to offset effort shock.

When you overcome effort shock for a non-trivial learning project and get through it anyway, despite  doubts about whether it is worth it, you can end up with very unexpected rewards that go far beyond what you initially thought you were earning. This is because so few people get through effort shock to somewhere worthwhile that when you do it, you end up in sparsely populated territory where further gains through continued application from the earned skill can be very high.

Programming, writing and math are among the skills where there you get both significant effort shock and significant reward shock.

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  1. Goes both ways though. I thought beating 2048 would be a lot more fun than it was. As it turns out, it’s not. you just get a button saying ‘keep on playing’ Weirdly, for me at least, almost beating it was way more satisfying.

    Such a great metaphor for life though. The end is either more of the same or just the end. The effort is the reward. Also: be careful what you get good at.

    Reminds me of ‘Only You Can Save Mankind’ by Terry Pratchett. In the book, there’s a game called ‘Voyage to Alpha Centauri’ where your computer has a black screen for the 3000 year voyage and then it displays the message: “Welcome to Alpha Centauri. Now go home”.

    • Heh, 2048 is not exactly a life-defining game. I think you might have had a teensy bit of over-anticipation there.

  2. Have to admit, this inspired me to get back to a Rails project I started – I’m a total amateur programmer and was struggling with something pretty basic, but picked it up again last night and pushed through it. Then spent an hour adding another (probably also pretty basic) feature, and jumped in the air when it finally worked.

  3. Aubrey Keus says

    It seems as I get older, and become moderately better at evaluating the requirements of skill acquisition, sticker shock becomes less of an issue. I am not longer shocked because I have suffered the pain of learning a skill in the past.

    One consequence of this learned behaviour is that I am much less likely to start on the path of acquiring a new skill. It is almost as if I am experiencing the pain in advance as I weigh the decision to start learning something new. “Future Skill Acquisition Pain Awareness” I guess (FSAPA).

  4. A few years ago I formulated this goal for parenting: by the time a child leaves home he should have had several significant episodes of what you call Reward Shock. I think it subsumes a lot of other wisdom in a dense manner.

  5. “Programming, writing and math are among the skills where there you get both significant effort shock and significant reward shock.”

    Programming and math are moving toward the opposite of effort shock, gamification (Codecademy, Khan academy) while writing well still requires massive effort shock. Will this result in an outsized reward shock for writing in ten years?

    • I think coding and math will be automated by AI before they’re meaningfully gamified.

      Writing is actually closer to being turned into an algorithm. Save The Cat type stuff.

      • “I think coding and math will be automated by AI before they’re meaningfully gamified.”

        In 1968 I have been promised by IBM programming instructors “in a few years computers will be able to program themselves directly from users specifications, we apologize for teaching you a soon to be obsolete skill…”

  6. Kartik is spot-on — it is actually one’s duty as a parent to create situations where Effort Shock/Reward Shock situations that severely test one’s children’s mettle — not so daunting that they can never conquer said situation, and not so easy that the exercise is all for naught.

    This is a non-trivial challenge for parents.

    Also this ties into ‘learning from success begets success’ line of thought too.

  7. Seth Godin’s The Dip (http://www.amazon.in/The-Dip-Little-Teaches-Stick/dp/1591841666) is a nice visual way to capture the idea of effort shock and reward shock. A short and useful explanation is here: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2005/11/understanding_l.html

    I find this curve rather useful in introducing people to both, the effort shock (points B and C on the graph) and the reward shock (the big max on the graph).