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The #1 Law for the Self-Improvement Journey

Let’s talk about a powerful concept that I’ve discovered after years on the self-improvement journey.

This is my Law of Proportional Reward, and it applies to all areas of the self-improvement journey, whether it’s career, relationships, finances, spirituality, or indeed learning.

It even explains our levels of fulfilment and zest for life. We tend to think that a comfortable, easy life is what we want. This law turns that idea on its head.

I’ve had this concept built into my psychology for a long time, but only recently have I realised that it drives much of my growth on the self-improvement journey.

If you want to experience positive gains in any area of life, you simply need to know – nay, live and breathe – my Law of Proportional Reward.

Proportional Reward on the Self-Improvement Journey

This law is very simple: the reward you gain is proportional to the challenge you undertake to achieve it.

Here’s a lovely visual way to remember this:

the law of proportional reward: the #1 law in personal growth

You might think this is a fancy version of the old adage “you get out what you put in”, but this law is much more nuanced.

I suggest you have this formula constantly in mind as you go about your life.

Before we unpack this and discuss why it’s so crucial to the self-improvement journey, let’s get very clear on what I mean by reward, challenge, and a couple of other crucial terms.

Key Concepts

Reward = jump in competency, fulfilment and external signs of achievement gained by improving in a field or skill.

Challenge = difference between current level of competency and target level of competency.

Effort = work required to succeed at the challenge and bridge gap between current and target skill.

So the Law of Proportional Reward says that the greater the jump in competency we want to attain, the greater the reward we’ll gain as a result.

What This Law Means For Your Life

On one hand, this law is hugely empowering. If we have a huge gap to bridge, we have to change and grow to a similar degree, otherwise we simply won’t be able to reach the goal.

New experiences on the self-improvement journey bring great rewards – they open new opportunities, contain new experiences, and have us expand. Our mind opens. We must expend a lot of effort to overcome the new challenge, and doing this successfully is inherently rewarding.

Yet by extension this law also tells us a couple of daunting truths:

No challenge brings no rewards
Small challenges bring small rewards

These are also intuitive. If your task requires no effort, how can you possibly improve? It’s analogous to exercise: if you don’t exercise, you can’t expect to see any results.

If all you do is sail along in your pursuit, shut inside your comfort zone with no ambition, you won’t see any reward. Your levels of passion will stagnate, as your will results.

This goes for your self-improvement journey. If you never try to achieve anything, to grow, to learn, to undo old habits, to explore new areas of life, you will stagnate. Years will go by and you’ll stay the same, as will your finances, your relationships, and your sense of fulfilment.

In fact, you might even go downhill. We humans are aspirational creatures. If we have nothing to fuel and excite us, we start to wither and die.

Now we’ve covered the basic law, let’s look at how to apply it.

Transform Your Attitude: Embody the Law of Proportional Reward

If you want to tap into the power of this principle, you need to adopt an attitude of swimming upstream. What does this mean?

  • you set ambitious goals, knowing they’ll take years to achieve,
  • you’re patient and have a long-term view,
  • you avoid quick shortcuts and flimsy solutions,
  • you’re willing to experience pain and struggle.

Let’s look at each of these points in detail.

Set Ambitious Goals

I find that most people are way too modest when they set goals. What’s worse, they don’t really believe in them. The goal is more of a hope or a vague desire rather than a real tangible target they’re working towards.

The crux of this issue is that we humans base our goals on our current competency. If we suck at a language now, we’re biased to believe that we’ll never get good. Instead of aiming to become a master speaker, we aim just to order coffees or ask directions. We lower our ambition so that it fits with our current self-image.

You have to undo this habit. Small goals tend to be uninspiring, unfulfilling and predictable. They don’t challenge you enough, meaning your rewards are inevitably puny, as the Law of Proportional Reward predicts.

Forget about knowing all the steps involved. If you know them all now, your goal is too piddly. Forget about whether you’re good enough or not. You become good enough as you put in the effort required to overcome the challenge, and I guarantee that you drastically underestimate your capabilities.

Get into the habit of setting ambitious long-term goals that seem impossible for you right now. Set a grand, motivating destination. Make sure you feel inspired. Do this right, be willing to work, and you’ll eventually achieve those goals.

And never forget the Proportional Reward Principle: these big goals are a huge challenge, so they’ll bring huge reward when you reach them.

Alter Your Time Horizon for the Self-Improvement Journey

While it’s true that big goals are the way forward, they’re incompatible with the typical view of time in goal-setting.

Many of our goals revolve around short-term needs. We want to learn a new language because we’re going travelling in six months. We need to learn this new skill in two months so we can start that new job and pay the bills. We’ve got to cram for an exam that’s coming up in a month.

These contingencies are fine for meeting our basic needs, and you should take them seriously, but do not base your idea of human potential on them. When it comes to the self-improvement journey, sometimes you have to forget about short-term contingencies.

It’s crucial you know that we tend to dramatically overestimate what we can achieve in one year, and dramatically underestimate what we can achieve in five years. When it comes to 10, 15, 20 years and beyond, forget it. We’re completely ignorant of our potential on this time scale.

Most of us struggle to think five years into the future. I’m one of them. But when it comes to lasting personal growth and change, five years is the minimum viable time horizon.

I’ve found that after several years of sustained effort, we start reaching levels of competency we never dreamed of. We look back and can see our progression, how every hour of practice and effort added up to produce an incredible result. At this point, you’re reaching the realm of permanent competency and transformation.

My experience: learning Spanish. During one of my first Spanish classes, I suddenly blurted out my ultimate long-term goal to my teacher and peers. I told them I wanted to get the DELE C2 certificate, the highest Spanish certificate available for foreign learners. Part of me saw this as unreasonable and felt silly for sharing it, while the wiser part knew that ambition is healthy and empowering, and that over the long run I’d achieve things I’d never dreamed of. Just over four years later, I passed the C2 exam.

When you’re setting goals, let your mind wander into the future and imagine what you could become after five years of sustained effort. Though you’ll likely still wildly misjudge the outcome, you’ll open up your mind and start to see the bigger picture of your pursuit. You’ll see your current struggle as a necessary step in the path. And the rewards you attain will be proportional to your challenge.

Dispense with Easy Step-by-Step Formulae

No matter what self-improvement journey you undertake, you’ll come across people who pedal “simple”, “easy”, “step-by-step” formulae.

This creates the illusion that for little effort, you can experience equal amount of reward. We know that this violates the Proportional Reward Principle.

The truth about these get-good-quick schemes is that they benefit one person: the person who is selling them to you. They might coax you into a false sense of achievement, but they won’t help you reach your goals.

They’re easy because they don’t reflect the reality of your pursuit. Anything worthwhile is not easy. And we already know that no challenge means no reward.

Train yourself to swim upstream, to do it the difficult way, to aim for true mastery, rather than flimsy results and a veneer of competence.

My Experience: Learning Maths. When I studied maths at university, I was seriously averse to the cramming and exam-paper obsession that I witnessed all around me in the build-up to big exams. While I would go deep and try to understand all the concepts, my friends would simply memorise formulae. While I would pour over the lecture notes and study all the topics in the course, my friends would study past papers and use them to predict the content of our exam. My comprehensive approach almost always came up trumps.

Open Yourself to Pain and Struggle

Whenever you trying to improve in some area of life, you’ll experience pain and struggle. Don’t try to avoid them – in fact, take them as a sign that you’re doing something right. If there is no difficulty, it’s likely your goals are too small.

That doesn’t mean you fall into the trap of the Obsessive and start pushing your body beyond unreasonable limits, work or train every minute of the day, or never take holidays. Aim for slow, steady progress, while having enough challenge to stimulate and motivate you.

My Experience: learning Chinese. When I started learning Chinese in 2020, I knew what I was getting myself in for. Having already learned Spanish, I knew that learning a language is a long, hard climb, but a rewarding one. As I made my way to my first ever Mandarin class, I contemplated what awaited me. I could almost feel the pain and struggle that was to come. But I realised that at the other end was a huge reward: fluency, and all its perks. And I was right.

The Comfort Disease & How it Hamstrings Your Self-Improvement Journey

We know that reward is proportional to challenge, and that when faced with a challenge we must expend effort to overcome it.

When I came up with the Proportional Reward Principle, I immediately noticed that it perfectly explains why modern technology is so dangerous to our wellbeing.

Why take on a challenge when instead we can spend hours watching YouTube shorts on our sofa? Why spend one hour every day learning a new language to watch films in the original language when instead I could turn on the subtitles instead? What’s the point of all that effort?

In fact, nowadays we don’t even have to leave our house to meet our basic needs. We can have our shopping delivered, order takeaways, buy things on the internet, and even socialise and do exercise, from the comfort of our home. Why make life any more difficult than it needs to be?

My formula explains why this comfortable lifestyle doesn’t work: our organism thrives, physically and psychologically, in the face of challenge. This makes us feel more alive. We adapt and grow. We come into contact with the magic of life.

Many of our mod cons, such as TVs, smartphones, social media, Spotify and YouTube, do one thing: they feed our tendency to avoid effort. This means we never overcome challenges, and never experience the reward associated with them.

Comfort is a self-imposed disease that slowly empties us of verve, excitement and passion for life. Lacking the sense of reward we gain from overcoming challenges, we look for it wherever it seems instant and easy to attain. Whether we try alcohol, drugs, partying, TV, gaming, or pornography, this strategy doesn’t work.

The only viable strategy is to expend the effort required to improve our level of competence and experience the deep lasting rewards and personal growth this brings.

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