Sprezzatura: Ignoring the weight of life’s burdens

There is a term for those who live vitally, with passion and humor: élan.

Italians give special praise on people who ignore the weight of life’s burdens, and live with its lightness. Sprezzatura

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprezzatura (roughly translated as nonchalance)

Sprezzatura is the signal trait of successful people.

From Derek Sivers’ review of You, Inc. by Harry Beckwith. Check it out here.

Harry was that guy

When I was young and first hit New York City the pay was decent for being literate. Proofreading was an easy freelance gig for educated ne’er do wells still casting about for their Big Thing.

You sloshed around from industry to industry. From magazines to law firms to investment banks to the dingy back rooms of businesses you had no idea what the hell they did until you got there. Some you left hours later still wondering what they were up to.

Sometimes a freelancer would enter a building and never leave. Ten years later they were still there. Working their way up the ladder at NBC or in the same job, proofreading every boilerplate document sifting through the organization.

In the proofreading world no one was a proofreader. Maybe it’s the same with the pole dancing world. All had their sights set on the horizon. You met artists and musicians and pirates and belly dancers and body builders and outlaws and historians and writers and chefs and . . . so many aspirations tucked into that freelance community.

Harry was that guy. A slightly older 30-ish man of good looks, charm and indeterminate background. He had a law degree but didn’t practice law. Beyond that, any questions about his past were batted away laughingly, vaguely.

Max: So Harry, you’ve got to have a Mom. What’s she like?

Harry: She’s in prison.

It always came back to prison. Maybe he’d really been there he mentioned it often enough.

When I texted my friend Russell for Harry’s last name, he responded: “Harry ____, international jewel thief.”

Someone else: What did you do before proofreading?

Harry: Prison

Harry exemplified sprezzatura. You felt he harbored commitment, deep thought somewhere in the recesses of his being — but he wasn’t going to share any of it with you.

The 20-something women leaned coyly in his direction. We 20-something males admired his ability to remain unknown. It’s as if he’d ingested the Don Juan dictum to cultivate mystery. Don Juan is the Toltec medicine man mystic warrior at the heart of the Carlos Castaneda books who advocated looseness. Undefinability.

You know who else embodies sprezzatura?

Will Smith. Cary Grant. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan. Starlord. Tony Stark. Han Solo. Michael Jordan. Richard Branson. People who make it look easy. Like you on your best days.

Young Elvis. Definitely not fat, bloated and prescription drug-addled Elvis.

The term sprezzatura sprang from an observation about what made for a successful courtier. (An attendee of the court. When royalty was also the seat of governance, courtiers were the powers and functionaries behind the throne. Had media existed then, they would have been the unnamed sources behind many a leak.)

Successful courtiers cultivated jaunty effortlessness. They may have spent hours in rigorous training, but it was the offhanded and casual way they displayed their skill set that impressed.

Among the accomplished of today the sprezzatura stand out. They are not the bitchers. They are not the ones wearing the weight of their responsibility heavily. There is no sense of burden. They are unpanicked.

The sprezzatura are fluid and gracious. They are effective with the exact right amount of effort. And no more.

Like an athlete whose years of practice has eliminated superfluous movement, the sprezzatura waste not. Excess motion, excess emotion, undue concern, a sense of struggle . . . these impurities have all been burned off.

Why does it matter to you?

Because the sprezzatura are exemplars. They are way showers for the rest of us. They study the actions that give them the most leverage and focus there.

Before we knew the Pareto Principle — that 20% of our efforts yield 80% of our results — the sprezzatura lived it innately.

They also understand above all, lightheartedness. In the daily grind or under pressure, there is a diffusing power to nonchalance. To be calm and affable when a situation seems dire is to diffuse the energy of the obstacle.

I believe that sprezzatura is a visible effect of wei wu wei — a Daoist meme meaning effortless effort.

A master aligned with the Dao — The Way — takes action in such an efficient manner no effort seems to be required.

The way I take a nap. Yeah.

The way a trained butcher cleaves and parts the meat from the bone with nary an impediment.

The way a top bull rider glides atop the bucking beast.

If you’re interested, here are three quick posts on this Daoist concept that will help burn it in a little more:

Wu Wei and The Law of Attraction

Wei wu wei: A demonstration

Ease, flow, wei wu wei, grace and allowing

Though we’re tossing a term from post-feudal Italy into a spiritual concept developed during the Warring States Period in ancient China, it fits.

A courtier of note would have recognized that the essence of a job well done is to appear as though it were not work at all. That the task at hand is but a piffle. Impishness might be in the air.

Your work will appear to be non-work one day. To you and to those observing you.

It’s what we’re aiming for: wei wu wei. To be so at one with the work that it proceeds from itself, as though called from us.

It will dance from you. GeniusJoy will course through you — through your work — and others will feel it.


You will feel it too. The lightness born from deep immersion in your creative play.

In fact, you’ve felt it. It’s what compels you to continue the work you do. The work you’d do for free but are giddy the world pays you for it.

Do more of that. Do it again tomorrow. Do it again and again and again. GeniusJoy will find its way to you. You will be its conduit.

Note: The paradox of possibility
Note: Your time