Justin Li

A Rambling on Effortlessness


There's a quality that's been popping up in many places, and I want to take the time to, if not nail down what it is, at least feel its edges.

There are many guises to this thing. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it's called Quality. In The Timeless Way of Building, it's also called quality. Abraham Maslow calls it self-actualization. Both the Kingkiller Chronicles and the Sword of Truth series call it rare, or at least, that someone who has it is a rare person. In Finite and Infinite Games, that person would be called a player of infinite games. Buddhists and Taoists would probably call it mindfulness or presentness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might call it flow. For the lack of a better word, I will call it Effortlessness, because it's most recognizable in that form.

Think of your favorite athlete, or artist, or dancer. Imagine them doing their work: while they're focused, what they do always seems effortless. There's a simplicity and elegance in their movement, and they act as though what they're doing is the most natural thing in the world.

Except that effortlessness is not quite the word for it, in that it's not correct. Take the best climber, say, Adam Ondra. Here he is climbing one of the world's hardest routes. Except for the crux, he looks effortless - as exemplified by the need to have a disclaimer that "no adjustments have been made to the speed of the climbing". We all know that Ondra spent a lot of time and effort to get to this stage; Bill Ramsey calls it the box of pain, which is to say, you're choosing between the pain of failure or the pain of training.

There's an old joke about how, to be a great painter, all you have to do "make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally" (I stole this wording from Zen and the Art). Part of the joke is that being perfect is harder than being a great painter. To paint "effortlessly" is not, in fact, effortless; it may be effortless in the moment, but much effort is put in to make it look effortless.

That's the first hint about the nature of effortlessness. Effortlessness is never something that the participant feels in the moment; I doubt Ondra thought the route was effortless while climbing it. He might, however, think that it was easy afterwards. Psychologists call this the remembering self, as opposed to the experiencing self. I suspect it's the same reason I feel protected. I often know how much time I actually put into research, but afterwards it always seems like it's nothing. When I first realized this, I tweeted, "For someone with a pretty huge ego, I tend to trivialize my accomplishments."

We've all had moments where we're so focused on something we forget about time passing, and only afterwards can we look back and think, "that was awesome!" I had one such experience at Red Rocks last year, climbing this 5.6 crack. Usually, after I climb something, I can replay most of the moves; on that particular route, I just remember feeling awesome coming out, and have no recollection of what happened on it.

Here, the idea of effortlessness intersects with that of flow. I personally think that it's the same thing as presence - because all your energy is focused on what you're doing - but that seems contrary to what Buddhists call mindfulness, which instead brings to mind an inherent meta-level of conscienceless. I'm not trying to be mystical here; take this passage from Zen and the Art:

But the biggest clue seemed to be [the bad mechanics'] expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing - and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, "I am a mechanic." At 5pm or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. In their own way they were achieving the same thing [my friends] were, living with technology without really having anything to do with it. Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.

Of course, Pirsig here was trying to get at what he called Quality. Somehow, the internal description of "caring", of attachment and presence, shows through to observers. Pirsig also raised the example of someone who does something for amusement - and to that person's surprise, other people notice these small things. There's a sense of playfulness to this, drawing in the idea of games. This is why, I think, you cannot teach someone to be effortless. You cannot tell someone to be playful - or as Karse would put it, "to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself", as opposed to seriousness, which is to "press for specified conclusion."

It's curious that Maslow has listed all of these ideas under what he calls the metaneeds of the self-actualized. By this definition, the self-actualized desire effortlessness and playfulness. Despite this connection, it's unclear to me how these attributes are all connected. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about them, in how they cannot be taught and cannot be described. I think the point of this post is just to mention all these related concepts, so I can find them again as I keep thinking about these ideas.