Thursday, September 26, 2013

No pain, no gain: the foolish striving for a shock-free world

It is a very old adage, "no pain, no gain." Anyone who has ever spent time working out has likely heard it on multiple occasions. And it is, in fact, very much true. Make no mistake about that. The phrase became popular during the 1980's exercise craze, along with other similar expressions like "feel the burn," but its history extends back much farther in time. Benjamin Franklin--writing as Poor Richard--said something similar in 1734. Before that, there are theses words in the teachings of the Mishnaic rabbis, as compiled in the Ethics of the Fathers, dating from the second century (and likely the source used by Franklin):
Ben Hei Hei would say: According to the pain is the gain.
While this was largely a call for a greater spiritual life, it was intended as a general life lesson as well. Hard work and industry, these things required one to give greatly, to commit oneself to what was required. And such a commitment meant sacrifice, as a matter of course. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the reward in the end.

Words to live by and the basis of the Protestant work ethic theory, as conceptualized by Max Weber: the promise of the spiritual fulfillment through sacrifice and effort was transposed to the material world to the extent that hard work as a means of improving one's station in life became an actual philosophy of life, to not only guide one's work, but to also be passed on to successive generations.

But with the exercise craze, the saying was strictly about the physical. And again, it is very much true, very much sound advice. For the human body--any living organism, really--improves itself by reacting to pain (or at least it can). Incremental increases in thing like weights being lifted or distances being run cause muscle pain and the body reacts by adding strength/endurance to the muscles so afflicted. Indeed, bone strength can also be improved in the same way. No where is this process so evident as in courses of physical therapy to regain strength after an injury.

Recently, I broke a bone in my wrist after a bicycle accident (all my fault, no one else's). After surgery, I has to undergo several months of physical therapy (which included daily exercises) in order to return my wrist and hand to full usage and flexibility. And that meant pain. It meant forcing my wrist and fingers to bend farther than they would by themselves, day in and day out.

But as in all things, moderation remains key. There are limits to the pain, to how hard or how far one pushes their body in this regard. Too much pain indicates a serious injury or worse. Yet no pain means no improvement. And in the long run, no improvement is just as detrimental, for it leads to atrophy and death, metaphorically and even literally.

At an individual level, this process is one of simple growth; we utilize it to improve ourselves over time. But for the collective--the sum total of all people, all of whom approach life in different ways--the process is evolutionary. The more successful approaches tend to be repeated but at the same time, failures represent information that can be used to improve future actions. Consider stretching. We know--or at least some of us know--that a good period of stretching before and after, say, a long run is very important, improves performance and lessens the chance of injury not only for that run but for the next run, as well. This isn't due to a scientific study (though studies confirm it) but rather to the appreciation of the consequences for those who fail to take this tack.

Such knowledge can be gleaned both firsthand and secondhand, but note something important in this regard: first hand knowledge is better, not only because it is more easily processed but because it is individualized. I know (learn) from such knowledge how much I need to stretch, just as I know (learn) when I have pushed myself far enough in the actual activity (in this case, running). The pain I experience is itself a signal, a warning sign, that I have reached a necessary point for improvement and I know (learn) how much past that point I can or should go.

Of course, we all have different thresholds in this regard, thresholds that are both mental and physical. Some will go farther, will achieve more, because they are willing to push harder. At the same time, they are exposed to greater risk of injury, as well. But such injuries are not career or life-ending, as a matter of course. The occasional injury from "over-doing it," from the added risk of pushing harder, is just more information; it conditions and improves future activity.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

All of the above is no less true in other aspects of existence, particularly economic existence. How many times have you read and heard the stories of self-made millionaires and billionaires who failed, failed, and failed again, learning from their failures each time until they hit it big? Each time, they pushed harder and harder, exposing themselves to greater risk.

This is why the economy--well, a predominantly free market one at any rate--is an evolutionary system, as well. The cumulative successes and failures of the individuals therein lead to economic growth. Why? Because there is more information being added to the system as whole, information that influences choices at the individual level (as long as there are no impediments in this regard).

Just as is the case with any other evolutionary system, there can be moments of greater widespread failure, of larger collective shocks so to speak. While painful, they are still necessary for the system to proceed, for it to grow.

But we have reached a point in our own evolutionary growth where some believe our supposedly vast intelligence is sufficient to control these kinds of systems (it's not, of course). We delude ourselves into thinking there is a way around the shocks, both at an individual level and at a collective level. Which is of course supremely foolish: dampening either dampens the system as a whole. When it comes to personal health, there are chemicals, specialized equipment, exercises, "tricks," and the like all promising improvement without the effort, without the pain. And what all of these methodologies share is that none of them impart any new information into the overall process, into the system. They're counter-evolutionary as a matter of course.

So to is the case with all sorts of efforts to flatten out other aspects of life, to remove shocks at every level. The growth of state-sponsored welfare programs and the like is a primary example. In the name of doing good, such programs deprive both the individual and society as a whole opportunities to both fail and succeed. Large corporations operating under the protection of government--because they are too big to fail or are just good at lobbying--are really no better in this regard. The whole idea of "too big to fail" is in fact toxic to the system and indeed equally counter-evolutionary. But it goes farther than just economics; the pattern extends deeper into things like education, as well.

For instance, look at the current Great New Thing there: Common Core Standards. Ostensibly about improving education, this kind of program is, once again, about flattening out the system, about making a once-size-fits-all program that is both shock-free and shock-preventative. Such a program removes individualization, both with regard to learning and to teaching. It stifles true creativity--again, for both the teachers and the students--by assuming all needs can be most effectively served when methodology is mandated from on high.

Amazingly, all of this is taking place after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which provided ample evidence on the consequences of centralized planning, of establishing a shock-free society. If early man't life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (which it was), collective man's life was--and is--dreary, hopeless, and uniformly grey. And that would appear to be the larger goal of those who imagine they know what's best for everyone else, who imagine that they can both understand and control all aspects of life. Yet, they tell themselves it's exactly the opposite, that they're making life better by smoothing it out, by removing all the bumps in the road.

But we need those bumps. Not only do they make life interesting and worth living, they are what makes improvement possible, both for the individual and society as a whole.

If that's not reason enough, consider the reality of the Soviets once again. No matter how hard we try, we're not going to be able to predict the future. There will be unexpected events, unplanned-for events, that will shock the system. And with no learning curve available, such shocks will end up being catastrophic or near-catastrophic in nature. In responding to such large shocks wrongly--as we have been and are now doing with respect to the Financial Crisis of 07/08--by trying to mitigate their impact into the future, the next shock will be That. Much. Worse. It's a recipe for disaster.

And that's just in the economy. We're doing the same thing everywhere else to the extent that we might not even make to the next big economic crisis. If we do, we'll probably be too physically helpless and addle-minded to recognize it, regardless...

Cheers, all.

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