May 27, 2023

Improvement is a Lethal Trap. Difficulty is the Antidote.

Improvement is a Lethal Trap. Difficulty is the Antidote.

I was always obsessed with being better than my friends.

We played video games, did sports and activities...

You name it, we tried it.

I still remember the feeling. A friend would buy a frisbee, and then we played frisbee for the next 2 months every day after school.

My close friend bought a skateboard. Next thing you know we all had skateboards learning tricks on YouTube to show off.

We enjoyed the friendly competition, but there was something else going on.

I was developing a habit that I would soon find was not very beneficial.

In fact, it was crippling.

I was developing an addiction.

Looking back, I was chasing after the dopamine provided by passing others. That was how I determined I was improving.

I would become better than my friends, and then the motivation to improve would diminish.

When you start something new, your rate of improvement is incredible. Think about how fast you can move through the skill ladder in a video game...

At the beginning, you are in the bottom 10%. Play for 20 hours and it's likely you'll be able to compete with the average player.

Play for 3 months and you continue flying through the ranks.

The rate of change is stellar. An amazing feeling as you reward yourself for your "hard" work.

There is a point where the progression slows. It is inevitable. It always comes.

Things get hard and the competition gets tough.

This is the law of diminishing returns in full swing. The difficulty curve shoots straight up, and the rate of improvement diminishes.

People correlate dopamine with improvement. The more improvement, the more happiness.

As the rate of improvement decreases so does the dopamine associated with each gaming session.

You can no longer see your rank increase each day or each week. Now it takes 2 months to rank up, a year.

There is a particular point where it's easier to switch to something new and receive that insane growth rate again.

For me, I would switch when I was better than all my friends and I reached the ~95th percentile or so.

I had nobody around me that I could compete with, and I found it difficult to find the motivation to compete with the top players.

It was easier to switch.

What's the Issue?

I mentioned this realization to a friend of mine, and he asked me why it was a problem.

"Why is correlating dopamine with improvement a bad thing? Wouldn't it drive you to become better?"

He also pointed out that it makes you "well rounded" if you become good at many things.

Although my gut told me there was a lot wrong with this, I didn't have an immediate answer for him.

I thought about it for a long time. Here are the problems I have discovered:

  1. You develop the habit of quitting.
  2. You don't become respected.
  3. You don't develop pride.
  4. You don't become fulfilled.
  5. You live a worse life.

I would like to focus in on number 1, the most important by far. Points 2-5 are results from point 1.

At first I was having trouble identifying why relying on improvement was a bad thing.

In a vacuum, there is nothing wrong with it.

The issue is it will cause you to take the route that produces the highest rate of improvement.

Why wouldn't you go after more improvement if that is the thing that creates fulfillment?

As we showed in the graph above, the rate of improvement is highest at the beginning. This is before you get great at the thing.

To see real results that matter, you need to master the thing that you are doing.

You can not achieve mastery by chasing rate of improvement.

It's impossible.

You will switch to a new activity before you get results that matter.
Switching is the same as quitting.

It is not a strategic pivot.

You have quit.

When you don't achieve true mastery you don't gain respect, you don't develop pride, and you don't become fulfilled. (And you don't make money.)

This was me for a long time. I wondered why I didn't respect myself as much as I thought I should.

Then I realized what was going on. I was afraid of difficulty.

The New Value Equation

We can all agree that value comes from scarcity — things that are rare are valuable.

If diamonds were easy to find, nobody would care about the price.

If becoming an NBA player was easy, nobody would care about the achievement.

The point is, value = scarcity.

There are few billionaires. This means that the achievement is scarce. This makes the achievement valuable, which makes the individual that achieved it valuable.

Now that we have established value = scarcity, how does that tie in?

Scarce achievements are scarce because they are difficult to achieve.

That means that scarcity = difficulty.

By using some 6th grade algebra we can conclude value = difficulty.  

The more difficult the thing is, the greater the value.

Few people are willing to take on the difficulty of true greatness. They are not willing to sacrifice and do what it takes.

That is why we all love the stories of greatness. It is rare and admirable.

The Antidote

Correlate your dopamine with difficulty instead of with improvement.

That is the solution. That is the antidote.

If you can do this, you can achieve mastery. With mastery comes respect, pride, fulfillment, and a ton of money.

The beautiful thing about this is that you still get to enjoy the improvement. The only difference is when it gets hard, you get harder ;)

Improvement gets you going — Difficulty keeps you going.

If you are able to map your dopamine to difficulty, it only gets easier and easier!

Need More Proof?

If you are not convinced of the fruits of difficulty, this part is for you.

I'd like you to go back through your memory. Remember the times that you felt the most proud of something you did.

Why are you proud of it? Why EXACTLY?

At first it may be tempting to attribute the feeling to improvement.

I beg to differ.

Improvement happened, but it was a side effect. The real reason is because it was hard.

Think back to a time where you made improvement, but it was super easy to do so. Are you as proud of that? Doubt it. I know I'm not.

Difficulty is the root of fulfillment and pride.

Great, Now What?

All that sounds great, but it also sounds impossible. Up until now, I have been speaking theory only.

How can we decide to map our dopamine to difficulty?

The good news is that we already will receive dopamine from doing difficult thing, we simply need to do them.

So lets ask the better, more practical question: How can we start doing difficult things?

Before we dive in, I have to mention patience. If you do not practice patience this will be almost impossible. 

Step 1. Start Small (1% more)

I wrote an entire newsletter on the topic of doing 1% more and its importance for building habits. View it here.

Find something that is difficult for you, but very small.

Something you know you should be doing.

It's likely something you don't think is difficult. (P.S. If you're not doing it, then you're making excuses and deluding yourself. It must be difficult if you're not willing to do it.)

For me, this was flossing.

Flossing is actually super "easy". It takes like a minute.

We all have that thing that we should be doing, but we don't do. We don't have a good reason for it. It's gotta be laziness or not caring.

Well now we have a reason to care. Don't floss for the health benefit. Floss to prove to yourself that you can do hard things.

You have to admit to yourself that it is hard, otherwise you would have already been doing it.

Find what your flossing is, and do it.

Warning: there will come a time where you go to do it and say something like "nah ill skip today, no biggie".

Or it will be something like "This is stupid and not hard and not worth it".
Well if you quit then looks like it was too hard for you after all ;)

It happened to me at about the 1-2 week mark. It will happen to you around the same time.

Fight this. For the love of god fight this feeling.

If you thought something simple like flossing is not difficult, you thought wrong.

When this feeling creeps in, you will see how hard it is.

Remember my words here, and stick it out. Remember, you are proving to yourself that you are not a quitter.

If you can do this, the snowball effect has began.

Step 2. Pivot and Iterate

Once you make it this far, the first thing you did is second nature now.

For me, I haven't missed flossing in months. Not once. It is so easy. My gums are healthier.

But much more important — I learned so much.

I learned about the way my brain works. Why and when I wanted to quit, what happened when I ignored it, and the result.

I now know what the pattern is, and how to overcome it. I was so excited, I iterated this over and over again.

I drink a gallon of water every day now. Eat the same things at the same time. Hit the gym without a second thought.

Do one difficult thing, and you learn how to do more.

The first is the hardest.

Side note: Some habits like the gym take a much larger time commitment than flossing. For those kinds, try your best to just do 1% more. Regardless, the lesson you learn from flossing is still applicable. Notice when your brain tells you to quit, and remember what happened when you didn't.


There are two main things that I want you to take away from reading this:

1. It is east to use improvement as your source of dopamine. (click me if online)

  • This is not ideal because you hit a point where it no longer serves you.
  • You will switch to something new.
  • Difficulty is the ideal source of dopamine.

2. The way you begin doing difficult things is by doing something that seems easy, but is difficult in a sneaky way.

  • Trust me, do the thing. You will learn so much about the way your brain makes excuses to not do the thing.
  • Do it for the intangible benefits.
  • Let the snowball roll downhill.

I hope you got something useful from this...

See you in the next one.

Take care everyone,