Effortless Excellence Messes With Us

Daigo Umehara

Here’s another blog post to continue on the topic of The Revolving Door—that door many people enter to pursue a dream vocation only for most of them to exit it. That blog post was and still is an absolute mess, but perhaps I was looking towards the wrong direction. It’s not about how to climb the mountain, but what makes us want to climb it in the first place.

In that revolving door blog post, I only wanted to express my frustration over seeing so many people who make the same mistake I did back when I was a doe-eyed youth trying to find something to latch onto. I was digging around to make sense of it, but all I saw at that point was what could be preventing them from being able to stick to it.

I’ve been working on drafts about topics like gatekeeping, deliberate practice, and so on. I will still finish and publish those pieces, but I then came upon something that makes a lot more sense of the whole thing. Those people get into it not because they wish to get good at the thing per se, but because they want to be like their idols who make it look so easy.

What is Effortless Excellence?

Have you ever watched someone play a sport or game, see them do something incredible, and then say, “I think I can do that.” You then try it out, and you can’t do it. You keep making mistakes or can’t even make it work at all.

This clip from the podcast Castle Super Beast goes into how many people seem to have a skewed perception of excellence. 

Woolie then talks about a word that better describes this phenomenon of effortless excellence. Someone in the comments brought up “finesse” as the word, but I then went to Google and came upon an Italian word that better describes it specifically.

This could be the word Woolie was looking for, which means being able to perform at a high level while making it look effortless. There are a few English words that may mean that, like “finesse” and “competence,” but this Italian word seems to have a more complete definition.

It’s one of those foreign words that represent a very specific abstract concept, like ennui, schadenfreude, ikigai, janteloven, sehnsucht, saudade, hiraeth, and so on.

Sprezzatura was a word made to describe courtiers, then expanded to encompass a particular aesthetic of glamor without effort. Anyone who has watched French films with female protagonists like Amelie would know of this particular aesthetic—French girls who look glamorous without even trying.

But perhaps it can be applied to just about any vocation. The entry in the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “studied carelessness,” which I find to be an interesting way to put it. Perhaps that can apply to things like fashion, aesthetics, and manner, but perhaps it works as well for more specific skills.

As Robert Greene wrote in his book, The 48 Laws of Power, as the 30th law—”Make your accomplishments seem effortless.”

Excellence Takes Years of Effort

So many people out there still never seem to realize the tremendous amount of time and effort put into practice in order to become as great as Michael Jordan in basketball, Daigo Umehara in fighting games, and so on.

A lot of the skills exhibited by pros aren’t the things beginners should focus on when they’re starting to learn something.

For instance, StarCraft players shouldn’t get preoccupied with micro tricks like marine splitting and magic boxing when their macro is still shoddy.

Digital artists shouldn’t think of being like Artgerm when their proportions are still all over the place and their lineart is far from clean.

Fighting game players shouldn’t think of hitting sick combos when their neutral game is still bad and they can’t hit anti-airs consistently.

First-person shooter players shouldn’t think of hitting no-scopes and getting aces when their aim is still bad and their movement makes no sense.

Basketball players shouldn’t think of crossing people up like Allen Iverson or Kyrie Irving if they can’t even dribble the ball properly.

Martial artists shouldn’t think of hitting turning side kicks and wheel kicks if their footwork is still bad and their stance still needs work.

Pro wrestlers shouldn’t think of doing a shooting star press if they can’t even do a decent bump without hurting themselves.

I can go on and on and on, but that will make this blog post go over 20,000 words. I can truthfully give hundreds of examples of this.

But people (myself included) get stars in their eyes and dive in too deep when they’re starting out in something because of how effortless the pros make it look.

Here’s a Ham-Fisted Anime Analogy

SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to talk about a pivotal character in Demon Slayer and his story that gets hashed out in the later parts of the manga. You’ve been warned.

For those who’ve never read or watched Demon Slayer, I apologize. As with all anime and manga, explaining everything in the lore would take too long. Just get into Demon Slayer since it’s a pretty good show.

This reminds me of that part in the Demon Slayer manga where it went into the backstory of Kokushibo, the Upper Rank One demon.

Four centuries ago, he was once Michikatsu Tsugikuni, the older twin brother of Yoriichi Tsugikuni, the samurai who would become a legendary demon slayer and the creator of the mythical Breath of the Sun style, the progenitor of all the Breath Styles in the story.

Michikatsu was envious of Yoriichi’s innate talent in swordsmanship. While an immensely skilled swordsman in his own right, Michikatsu would seethe at how effortlessly good his brother was, even though Yoriichi didn’t have the same drive for perfection as he did.

Yoriichi was a kind-hearted child who had little passion for the sword and no desire to kill, only practicing because he was told to. While not that into it, he had an instinctive understanding of fighting, right down to the minutest details in breathing and body positioning.

Meanwhile, Michikatsu was obsessed with the sword, and seeing someone who didn’t care actually be better than him at it made it worse. Perhaps his jealousy hampered his progress, only able to harshly compare himself to his twin while he needed to focus on himself.

He grew so jealous of his brother, so consumed with his desire for power, that he allowed himself to be turned into a demon by Muzan, the first demon.

That decision is made more depraved by how he and his brother were demon slayers. He was supposed to kill them, but his ambition supplanted his duty.

My Personal Experience

Funny enough, martial arts never looked easy for me. It was something else that looked easy, but I found it immensely difficult when I tried it out—skateboarding.

I remember when I was 15, watching X-Games and playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3. I got interested in skateboarding like I would in martial arts years later—the technical intricacies intrigued me.

Years later, I learned that most skateboarding tricks take tremendous amounts of practice to be proficient at. Even mastery only makes you a bit more consistent, and the best skateboarders can still fudge tricks due to the margin of error involved in making a skateboard move a certain way, compelling the laws of physics to do what you want.

The kickflip is one hell of a hurdle. The reason why “Do a kickflip!” became a meme in skateboarding is because even veterans can struggle landing a kickflip on the first try. You’re basically making a piece of plywood with wheels jump in the air and flip 360 degrees. 

I tried doing an ollie (making the skateboard jump in the air) and almost did a faceplant. I tried it standing still, and all the skateboard would do is pop its front wheels up. Now I know that it’s something all beginners in skateboarding encounter when they first learn how to ollie.

But when you watch skateboarding videos and play skateboarding video games, it all looks so easy. That was the first experience I had with this phenomenon.

Meanwhile, I also did have a similar experience when I was starting out in martial arts. Back then, in the mid-to-late 2000s, I was watching fighters like Ricky Hatton and Takanori Gomi hit body shots consistently, and it’s something I want to try as well.

But I couldn’t get them, to the point when I just went off on a sparring partner even when the round was over. I was desperate to hit one, but I realized much later on that I couldn’t do them because I still hadn’t learned a lot of the basics that would’ve made it possible.

I did get hit with liver shots in a later sparring session that year, and I got a taste of how painful body shots can be. That only made me want to learn that technique more.

I’m sure plenty of people out there have their own experience with how displays of effortless excellence tricked them into getting into something and getting a face full of dirt in the process. That in itself is the filter that separates the serious from the not-so-serious.

I quit skateboarding soon after, while I’m still an avid martial arts fan who trains sporadically. However, my brief stint in skateboarding made getting into Jeet Kune Do much easier—it informed me of my natural footedness, which made the “strong side forward” stance of JKD easier to learn.

Conclusion

This went a little too long, and that anime analogy didn’t help either. It’s too long for going over what seems like a fairly simple concept. But I wanted to go over my thoughts on the subject as much as I can to give context to where I’m coming from and what I know of it.

My blog post on “The Revolving Door” was a frustrated response to what I saw in the Philippine pro wrestling scene, which was all the kids coming in wanting to do the same moves as their idols. What then hits them square in the face and gets some of them exiled, either by themselves or by the promotions, is the mountain they have to climb in order to become the stars they wanted to become, both as athletes and as performers.

The reason why I put Daigo Umehara winning an EVO title as the thumbnail for this blog post is his influence on the fighting game scene. Many people got into fighting games because of EVO Moment 37—his famous full parry against Justin Wong in Evo 2004. It got so many people wanting to try Street Fighter III: Third Strike, and I can imagine a lot of them getting really frustrated with the process of learning how to play fighting games.

With how excellence is depicted in the media, with the best athletes, artists, and so on being featured performing their craft and earning fame and fortune, I feel that there’s even more need now than ever to show what goes on behind the scenes. If that means there’ll be more reality television, then so be it.

Some of that is already being shown, although in a more sensationalized manner with Gordon Ramsay yelling at his cooks and talent shows having that one scathing judge strip contestants down for “not being talented enough.”

The Internet has given a better look into the process of becoming excellent. It has also become the gateway for people to get into whatever they want, and they can get started with showcasing their progress by posting text, photos, and videos chronicling their struggles and triumphs.

But what really needs to change is how parents raise their kids and how schools teach their students. What future generations need is to be raised with a healthy attitude towards learning and competition, as well as support for whatever endeavors they wish to undertake.

Got Feedback?

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