Sprezzatura: The Art Of Making Difficult Things Look Simple 

If there’s one type of person we admire, it’s the person who’s able to get things done without even trying.

This isn’t something new. Long before Instagram models who woke up with perfect hair, courtiers in medieval times kept the attention of their royal patrons by displaying skill in various crafts. Some were skilled at arms and athletics, others at prose and poetry, and the remaining at music and dance. The common denominator amongst these courtiers was that everything they did was effortless. 

Remarking on this observation, the Italian courtier Baldassare Castiglione wrote that it was important for courtiers to display a certain nonchalance. They needed to do things effortlessly, and with a gracefulness that would make them seem a natural nobleman. This was what he called sprezzatura, and it’s a term that has lived on till today. 

The Essence of Sprezzatura

A rule of thumb is that when something looks extremely natural and polished, there’s a good chance that a lot of work has gone into concealing the effort underneath, whether the person does so intentionally or not.

Take Martin Short. He’s a stand-up comedian, which is almost the modern equivalent of a medieval courtier. He has to entertain, improvise, and cater to a fickle audience whose mind is impossible to read. He’s also famous for being one of the most entertaining talk-show guests because he has amazing stories to tell at every event. Yet, he’s not as much of a natural as we’re led to believe. Here’s what he says 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.”

Prepare just so he can look improvised in the moment? That’s another way of saying that he has to put in effort so that his performance will look effortless. 

But this is exactly what happens behind the scenes for every top performer. They put in immense work to make what they do look effortless, including things such as spending a million dollars a year on their body and memorising words from the dictionary. It’s things that you and I consider ridiculous but what those with sprezzatura do everyday as part of their routine. 

We think there’s a divide between what counts as talent and what counts as skill, but most of us underestimate just how much the two domains can overlap. Talent is a meaningful advantage, but so much of getting good at anything is still pure labour. You have to figure out how to get better at something, and then offer up the hours. Do it the wrong way and you’re still at square one even if you put in the 10,000 hours.

Math, Not Magic

I think the reason most of us cling on to the belief of effortless performance is because of vanity and ego. 

If everything can be achieved through effort, the only reason we aren’t like these top performers, is that we haven’t done enough. “For if we think of genius as something magical”, Nietzsche wrote, “we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.” 

But set ego aside, and you might be surprised at what you find. Like most things today, sprezzatura can be explained better by math than magic. 

So the next time you see someone who displays such poise it 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 put in the work, then maybe you could do just the same thing.