The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Objective, Apparent and Intentional Ease

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Objective, Apparent and Intentional Ease

Effortlessness involves an element of difficulty, or so I have argued, but what is it that we admire about this difficulty? In certain cases of natural effortlessness, such as the seagull’s effortless soar, the action is not difficult to perform for the one who is performing it. Yet we are in awe that it can be done at all—we certainly could not soar—and done with such ease. However, how are we to understand the effortlessness of actions that require long hours of deliberate practice to perfect? In particular, when we admire the effortlessness of a dancer or athlete, do we marvel at the fact that someone has mastered a movement to such a high degree that it has actually become easy for her to perform? Or is it that we value the apparent ease of the movement – that is, the artist’s or athlete’s ability to make what is difficult for her appear easy? In most sports, athletes do not deliberately try to make their movements look easy (exceptions might be gymnastics, figure skating, and other such endeavors). However, even in basketball, one can still ask: do we cherish the actual ease of the athlete’s movements, or the (unintentional) appearance of effortlessness in movements that are, for the athlete herself, extremely difficult to perform? Finally, in cases where there is a deliberate attempt to create effortlessness, do we, in addition to treasuring the beauty of the apparent effortlessness of the movement, treasure the ability to create the guise of effortlessness?

I suggested earlier that our attributions of effortlessness to the medium (such as the bodily movements of a dancer) depend on our familiarity with how difficult the action is to perform. And if you fully understand that a movement is difficult to perform, for the performer, you may be inclined to not see the movement as effortless. But sometimes, even if you are familiar with the difficulty of a movement, you may be able to perceive it as (merely) apparently effortless. Or at least, this is what my own experience suggests. With dance movements that I am very familiar with, and that I know are difficult, I am less likely to think that the movements have actually become easy for the performer, though I still may relish the apparent ease of those movements. Similarly, sports journalists, who I assume frequently have practical knowledge of the skilled movement they write about, often couple their praise of an athlete’s effortlessness with an acknowledgement that the effortlessness is only apparent. For instance, the 2012 U. S. Women’s Open tennis champion Na Yeon Choi was lauded for her “easy swing that makes her game look effortless;” “yet,” it is pointed out, “it was anything but” (Manovan, 2012). Choi’s game may have looked effortless, “yet,” it is pointed out, “it was anything but.” It seems that what is being noted in such cases is not that the athlete’s movements are easy for her to perform, but rather that they appear easy. Thus, it might be that the more one knows about a type of highly skilled movement, the less likely one is to see it as actually easy, rather than as merely appearing easy.

It may be that in thinking about the effort of one’s own movements, we place more weight on whether the task requires effortful will power (than, say, whether it requires great muscular strength), and thus whether we judge an action as requiring great effort often turns on whether we judge it as requiring great will power. And whether we determine that an action requires great will power often depends, it seems, on whether the action is pleasurable. Doing the dishes, though in some objective sense an easy task, is an activity I find unpleasant (especially when I have waited until midnight); thus it requires will power to do, and thus I judge it as effortful. A dancer, in contrast, may perform something that is in some objective sense effortful; in watching him I might think of his movements, not as presenting the guise of effortlessness, but as truly effortless (with regard to the will) if I assume that the movement is pleasurable and thus requires little will power.

Over and above the appreciation of apparent ease is the appreciation of the guise of ease, that is, the deliberate creation of ease. Castiglione held that a courtier’s manner should not only appear effortless, but also give no indication of the great pains the courtier must take in order to create this appearance, for it was believed by him that the courtier’s effortlessness, or sprezzatura, would be destroyed by any suggestion that the process of creating an effortless manner itself required effort. The great artists of Castiglione’s time, influenced by his work, believed this as well and kept their labors carefully hidden from view in order to preserve the effortlessness, or sprezzatura, of their paintings105. No doubt, there is something correct about this; as I have been emphasizing, our background knowledge seems to affect our attributions of effortlessness. However, it might be that one can see a bodily movement as effortless, even if it is produced by mental effort, or will power; we might call this a “studied effortlessness”. Yet, distinct from this, at times one might appreciate the guise itself – that is, not the effortlessness of a movement, but the difficult process of making an action appear (to those not in the know) effortless.

The writer Edna O’Brien’s (1979) short story “Violets” is an amazing example of an individual whose actions, though apparently effortless, are performed only with excruciating thought and effort. The story is a dramatic monologue in which a woman awaits the arrival of a potential lover, and the reader is privy to her inner thoughts and turmoil: Will he come, or will he stand her up?  What will she say to him if he does appear? Will she have the courage to say what she feels? He does knock at the door, and she is so frantic she is barely able to open it. Yet she presents herself with apparent nonchalance. "We like it," she says in response to his comment on her apartment; “keep him wondering," she thinks (p. __). Here, what we are appreciating is not the ease of her actions; we know that they are not easy for her. Rather, although her gentleman caller falls for her effortlessness, the reader appreciates the guise.

Is the woman in O’Brien’s short story an expert in my sense, or does she merely exhibit everyday expertise of the sort involved in tying her shoes? Romantic expertise does not naturally fit into the category of that of the professional athlete or musician; yet it may be that in the domain of wooing a mate, unlike that of tying one’s shoes, one may dedicate a good number of years to improving, and so might count as an expert in my sense. In any event, O’Brien paints a picture of a character that was performing at her best, yet whose mind was working effortfully nonstop all along.

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