There’s an Italian word for making everything you do seem effortless

No sweat.
No sweat.
Image: Ottavo/Eponym
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There’s a rarified group of people who always look put together without looking like they’ve spent the whole day in front of a mirror. Italians call this blessed quality sprezzatura, a kind of “studied carelessness,” “careful negligence,” “effortless ease,”—or in Beyonce-ism, #IWokeUpLikeThis.

Compared to the Taoist concept of wu-wei (non-doing), duende (virtuosity) in Spanish, or shibui (subtle beauty) in Japanese, the term originates from a 16th century etiquette book written by the northern Italian count, Baldassare Castiglione. Describing the ideal “gracious” member of the king’s court, Castiglione writes in The Book of the Courtier (Il Libro del Cortegiano):

I find one universal rule concerning it, which seems to me worth more in this matter than any other in all things human that are done or said: and that is to avoid affectation to the uttermost and as it were a very sharp and dangerous rock; and, to use possibly a new word, to practice in everything a certain nonchalance (sprezzatura) that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought.…

These days, sprezzatura is often used in fashion, as an antithesis to coiffed perfection. “It’s like wearing your Rolex over the cuff of your shirt, or men wearing crazy, pink shoes and not caring about it,” explains Milan-born graphic designer Matteo Bologna who designed the branding for Ottavo, a line of chic but unbranded reading glasses that aspires to give wearers instant sprezzatura. 

The term also applies to work. According to the Renaissance fantasy, one should gloss over the sweat and struggle and make everything look easy or God-given. “It brings to mind a swan on a lake, smooth and graceful on the surface, but paddling hard underneath,” writes Australian career coach Darren Poke on his blog. Workers who embrace sprezzatura never appear stressed out. Always calm and composed, they’re overachievers who will deliver quality work first thing in the morning and will never hint at how much they worked the previous night.

But as Castiglione explains, the point is to shroud the public from the great lengths one takes—hours studying, calling a battalion of beauticians (or plastic surgeons), burning the midnight oil—to appear so naturally chic and smart. “It is an art, which does not seem to be an art,” he explains. “Obvious effort is the antithesis of grace.” While the point may be to look effortless, sprezzatura requires even more work than, well, just doing the work. Oversharing is crass, the behind-the-scenes story is droll—arguably a more challenging feat of self-censorship in the age of social media. As author Brad Miner observers, “Implicit in sprezzatura is not only an effortless elegance but also a strenuous self-control.”