Musings: The Paradox of Effort — Between The Exceptional And The Great

Musings: The Paradox of Effort — Between The Exceptional And The Great

Various pieces of research about the reward of effort made me think a lot about what makes exceptional stand out amidst a sea of great.

One common theme I’ve observed: there is a certain effortless elegance—almost a nonchalance—in the exceptional performance — almost devoid of arduous effort — that is completely absent in the great performance.

I’m not the first to observe this pattern. In the 15th century, an Italian courtier and author named Baldassare Castiglione coined the term “sprezzatura” to describe a studied, effortful nonchalance.

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In his words from The Book of the Courtier (which is considered the first book on etiquette):

“It is an art which does not seem to be an art. One must avoid affectation and practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, disdain, or carelessness, so as to conceal art, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”
Baldassare Castiglione
Baldassare Castiglione

In simple terms: Sprezzatura is earned effortlessness — without conscious effort.

I have come to refer to this as the Paradox of Effort:

You have to put in more effort to make something appear effortless. Effortless, elegant performances are often just the result of a large volume of effortful, gritty practice. Small things become big things. Simple is not simple.

Once you internalize the concept of the Paradox of Effort, you’ll see it all around you. Here are some of my favorite examples:

Picasso in the Market

There is a famous tale of Picasso’s interaction with a woman in a market.

Picasso was walking through the market one day when a woman approached him. She pulled out a piece of paper and said, Mr. Picasso, I am a fan of your work. Please, could you do a little drawing for me?”

Picasso smiled and quickly drew a small, but beautiful piece of art on the paper. He handed it back to her. “That will be one million dollars.”

“But Mr. Picasso,” the woman protested, “It only took you thirty seconds to draw this little masterpiece.”

“My good woman,” Picasso smiled, “It took me thirty years to draw that masterpiece in thirty seconds.”

The ease and effortlessness of his drawing performance masked the years of input that led to that moment.

In Sports

The elegance of elite athletic performers is another perfect example.

Roger Federer and Lionel Messi are masters of the Paradox of Effort. Their elegance on the court and pitch is the stuff of legend.

Federer and Messi
Federer and Messi

Bruce Lee expressed the sentiment behind the Paradox of Effort well.

The highest state of performance is attained when there is no interference from the mind to make something appear effortful. Achieve the maximum, with the minimum.

“Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum,” Lee stated.

In Nature

One final (and perhaps favorite) example: the Chinese bamboo tree.

It doesn’t break through the ground for 5 years, but once it breaks through, it can grow up to 100 feet in 5 weeks.

The growth appears effortless but is the result of years of effort below the surface.

Chinese Bamboo Tree
Chinese Bamboo Tree

Concluding Thoughts

The Paradox of Effort teaches us that it is only through the consistent compounding of small daily actions that we can ever hope to deliver exceptional, effortless performances.

We have to work and work to get our flywheels spinning fast and efficiently such that they generate incredible incremental speed from a tiny unit of incremental effort. At this level, our output per unit of input simply builds upon itself.

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