When it came to delivering a lecture, renowned Italian physicist Enrico Fermi was at the top of his game. The late MIT professor Bernard Feld, once a graduate assistant of Fermi, reminisced about watching his mentor at the lectern as follows:
“[It was] where Fermi was at the height of his powers; bringing order and simplicity out of confusion, finding connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena; wit and wisdom emerging from lips white as usual, from contact with chalk; in that clear, resonant voice that never lost the soft Italian vowel endings on a perfectly colloquial American delivery.”
Back in my school days, every student I knew—including me—was smitten with the kid who made tough subjects seem like a breeze, yet had the confidence and generosity of spirit, to help others, too. Italians have long known that making difficult tasks look easy not only brings self-satisfaction, but it also turns one into a people-magnet! Who isn’t drawn to someone who can make excellence look effortless? Who isn’t inspired by such an example to go out and be the best he or she can be, too?
Baldassare Castiglione used the term sprezzatura to denote the importance of learning complex tasks so well as to make them look easy. His Libro del Cortigiano, Book of the Courtier, in 1528, which gave the world a template for aristocratic manners during the Renaissance, recommended that a person sail through even the most complex tasks with apparent effortlessness and nonchalance. In other words: Never let ‘em see you sweat!
Sprezzatura is actually about learning to do something so well that you achieve what psychologists call “automaticity.” This means you have reached the point where you can perform the task without giving it your full attention—kind of like playing the piano while holding a conversation, or melding isolated footwork patterns into one fluid dance. Sprezzatura is not only a sexy quality (we are all wowed by someone with confidence) but it also increases your self-esteem, which can spill over from a specific skill onto other areas of your life. What a win-win situation!
If you don’t have at least one skill you can practically perform with eyes closed, here are some tips to increase your SQ (sprezzatura-quotient), and also your self confidence:
- Choose an attainable, yet challenging skill you think you’d enjoy
- Make some progress on it every day
- Get expert instruction to take you to the next level
- Find someone to emulate, as an example
- Approach failure by resolving to try harder.
Whether artisan, scientist, homemaker, or sandwich vendor, achieving mastery is an important value in the Italian culture, and it can be a powerful tool for your own benessere, too. All you need do is practice, practice, practice.
(article adapted from an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune). If you enjoy these posts and they give you a lift, please let me know by pressing the “like” button, subscribing, and/or passing the link along to your friends. mille grazie!