If there’s one type of person we admire, it’s the person who’s able to get things done without even trying.
You know that person. He’s the student who aces the final exam “without even studying”. She’s the Instagram model who woke up with perfect hair. And both of them are in great shape by “just eating right”.
Statements like these may annoy us. But at the same time, we can’t help admiring or envying people who have things come to them easy.
It’s difficult to explain why we feel this way. The philosopher Nietzsche observed that our vanity and self-love promotes the culture of the genius. “For if we think of genius as something magical”, he wrote, “we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”
This is why we enjoy people watching talent shows and competitions at the highest level. There is a mystique that surrounds these top performers. We marvel at how they are able to do things that no one can.
Reality is a little different. But first, a story from the fifteenth century.
Putting On A Performance
Courtiers in medieval times had difficult jobs. They had to keep the support and favour of the ruler in order to remain relevant. To do so, they had to be skilled not just in arms and athletics, but also in music and dance.
It’s obvious then that they had to train relentlessly to attain proficiency in so many fields. But in an environment which valued entertainment and intrigue above all else, it was important that courtiers not be seen exerting conscious effort into the deeds they performed. This added value to their performances and allowed them to keep the favour of their patrons.
The Italian courtier Baldassare Castiglione thought that this quality — the ability to display a certain nonchalance — was the hallmark of the ideal courtier. The idea was to make every movement and statement appear to be effortless and without thought. He called this sprezzatura.
Centuries after Castiglione coined this term, we still see this, not in a court or formal setting, but in everyday interactions. The deception continues to work.
The trained observer sees sprezzatura as a sign that the individual has put in the work. The individual has attained such a level of mastery that he is able to conceal his movements and make difficult things look easy.
But to the untrained eye, the performer is simply talented. His acts are one of genius. What he sees tells him, in Nietzsche’s words, that “here there is no need to compete”.
Both people are watching the same display. But each walks away with a different interpretation.
The Work Behind The Scenes
Actor and comedian Martin Short has frequently been thought of as one of the best talk-show guests. He brings not just his charm, but amazing stories to tell at every event. You’d think that he’s a natural.
But here’s what he tells us about his preparation:
“What I do for a typical talk-show appearance, and I’m not exaggerating, is I’ll send in something like 18 pages ahead of time […] I’ll probably be on the phone with the segment producer for at least an hour-and-a-half going through ideas for material. Then you have to balance all that during the appearance by making it look improvised in the moment, not speaking too much, trying to find common ground with the host.”
The result is what Short calls “an impersonation of myself being relaxed”.
Take a look at Chris Rock as well.
The Chris Rock you see on TV is hilarious and flawless. But the Chris Rock that performs at dozens of small clubs – the Chris Rock we don’t see – is just pretty good. Every good comedian tests their material in small clubs before using it on big stages.
One newspaper profiled these small-club sessions. At a place called the Stress Factory, Chris Rock was described as thumbing through pages of material, and not all of them were landing. “I’m going to have cut some of these”, he says in the middle.
You wouldn’t know this from how he commands the stage so well. The secret is that everyone with the sprezzatura quality has their own Stress Factory Comedy Club. There, they bomb, fail, but never get hurt by these mistakes.
Where The Magic Happens
I don’t think that every top performer sets out to hide the effort that goes behind what they do. They aren’t trying to create intrigue or an air of mystery around themselves.
One reason for such behaviour is that we see things differently from others. You and I might think that someone has a crazed obsession with washboard abs if he goes to the gym six times a week and avoids carbs at every meal. But to that individual, this is a price he has accepted he needs to pay.
He doesn’t explain this to us because it’s difficult. We just don’t get it.
The other reason is that people haven’t thought of what they’ve done as practice. My peers may have trained to become excellent orators during their days in high school, but they didn’t know that. They participated in debates, public speaking, and Model United Nations conferences because it was fun. Putting in the reps wasn’t something that crossed their minds.
There’s a very thin line between talent and skill. It’s impossible difficult — if not impossible — to distinguish the two. So the next time you see someone who displays such poise that makes you think he’s naturally talented, consider that he could have just put in a lot of work to pull this off.
And if you do the same, others will call it sprezzatura too.