The Paradox of Effort, Innovation Waves, & More
Today at a Glance
- Quote: Live and learn.
- Framework: The paradox of effort.
- Tweet: How to sleep.
- Article: Innovation cycles through time.
- Podcast: Where did human intelligence come from?
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"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever." - Mahatma Gandhi
Learning is the true fountain of youth.
We only get old when we allow ourselves to stop learning.
The Paradox of Effort
I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes *exceptional* stand out amidst a sea of *great*.
One common theme I've observed: there is a certain effortless elegance—almost a nonchalance—in the exceptional performance that is completely absent in the great performance.
I'm not the first to observe this pattern. In the 15th century, an Italian courtier and author named Baldassare Castiglione coined the term “sprezzatura” to describe a studied, effortful nonchalance.
In his words from The Book of the Courtier (which is considered the first book on etiquette):
"It is an art which does not seem to be an art. One must avoid affectation and practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, disdain or carelessness, so as to conceal art, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it."
In simple terms: Sprezzatura is earned effortlessness.
I have come to refer to this as the Paradox of Effort:
You have to put in more effort to make something appear effortless. Effortless, elegant performances are often just the result of a large volume of effortful, gritty practice. Small things become big things. Simple is not simple.
Once you internalize the concept of the Paradox of Effort, you'll see it all around you. Here are some of my favorite examples:
Picasso in the Market
There is a famous tale of Picasso's interaction with a woman in a market.
Picasso was walking through the market one day when a woman approached him. She pulled out a piece of paper and said, “Mr. Picasso, I am a fan of your work. Please, could you do a little drawing for me?”
Picasso smiled and quickly drew a small, but beautiful piece of art on the paper. He handed it back to her. “That will be one million dollars.”
“But Mr. Picasso,” the woman protested, “It only took you thirty seconds to draw this little masterpiece.”
“My good woman,” Picasso smiled, “It took me thirty years to draw that masterpiece in thirty seconds.”
The ease and effortlessness of his drawing performance masked the years or input that led to that moment.
The elegance of elite athletic performers is another perfect example.
Roger Federer and Lionel Messi are masters of the Paradox of Effort. Their elegance on the court and pitch is the stuff of legend.
Bruce Lee expressed the sentiment behind the Paradox of Effort well. The highest state of performance is attained when there is no interference from the mind to make something appear effortful. Achieve the maximum, with the minimum.
You can find great examples among actors:
“There are a whole bunch of roles where people say, 'Oh, you're playing yourself.' I guess it's kind of a compliment. Or people say, 'Oh, man, you just roll out of bed and do that.' The work is to make it look effortless. That's the hard part.” — Matthew McConaughey
You can find a lot of examples of the Paradox of Effort in ancient architecture and design.
This doorway in Jaipur is simply spectacular. An incredible body of effort to create something that simply flows elegantly.
One final (and perhaps favorite) example: the Chinese bamboo tree.
It doesn’t break through the ground for 5 years, but once it breaks through, it can grow up to 100 feet in 5 weeks.
The growth appears effortless, but is the result of years of effort below the surface.
The Paradox of Effort teaches us that it is only through the consistent compounding of small daily actions that we can ever hope to deliver exceptional, effortless performances.
We have to work and work to get our flywheels spinning fast and efficiently such that they generate incredible incremental speed from a tiny unit of incremental effort. At this level, our output per unit of input simply builds upon itself.
A few questions for you:
- What are your favorite examples of The Paradox of Effort?
- What tiny thing are you doing today to build towards a big thing?
Tweet your responses to me @SahilBloom or reply to this email and I'll do my best to get back to everyone!
This was a tactical thread on improving the quality and consistency of your sleep. As a fully-recovered “sleep when I’m dead” guy, I’m very much with this.
Anecdotally, my ability to get into sustained periods of deep flow focus has increased ten-fold since I started getting 7-8 hours of high-quality sleep per night.
The few key changes I made that had the highest ROI:
- Morning Sunlight: Getting 15-20 minutes of sunlight first thing in the morning is a huge unlock. It sets your circadian rhythm and helps establish solid sleep patterns. Pro parenting tip: it also seems to work for babies, as my 2-month old seems to sleep much better since I started getting him this same morning sunlight.
- Cool Temperatures: We sleep best in a cold environment. Ideal temperatures for falling and staying asleep are between 60-67 Fahrenheit (about ~16-19 Celsius). It may feel uncomfortably cold at first if you aren’t used to it, but it makes a meaningful difference right away.
- Journal Before Bed: I find that doing a quick pre-bed brain dump is a great way to unload my anxiety and fall asleep faster. When my mind is racing at night, it’s usually because I have something that’s bothering me. The journaling gets that out before I hit the pillows.
There’s something for everyone to improve on, so I recommend reading the thread even if you’re sleeping well.
Really cool infographic and article on major innovation cycles through history.
My reactions and favorite insights:
- Creative Destruction: This is a theory proposed by economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 that business cycles have long waves of innovation during which key industries have outsized disruptive effects on the broader economy. The classic example is the rail transportation industry, which reshaped everything from logistics to city planning to travel.
- Waves Shortening: In looking at the infographic, it’s clear that the waves are getting shorter and shorter, presumably because of the rapid evolution and adoption of new technologies in the Digital Age. It makes me wonder—and marvel at—how fast the innovation waves of the future will be.
- Role of Regulation: The continued acceleration and shortening of these waves may also rely on loose regulation that allows market forces to reign supreme. This also means outsized profits for the few who manage to create moats on the front of these waves. I imagine we will continue to see more and more regulatory and political fights on this front in the years ahead (like those already underway with Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc.).
- The Rise of Nuclear: I would bet on the widespread proliferation of nuclear energy being a big part of the Sixth Wave. I’m still trying to figure out how to appropriately invest in this mega-trend. Send me any ideas you have (and stay tuned if you’re interested).
This all reminds me of the concept of "directional arrows of progress" from my friend Josh Wolfe. If you can identify the arrows of progress, you should invest (time, energy, and capital) in front of them.
Worth giving this piece a read!
Where Did Human Intelligence Come From?
Some really cool stuff in this episode.
A few miscellaneous, fun learnings:
- Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees. We share a common ancestor, but split off from the shared ancestor 6 to 8 million years ago.
- Human intelligence as we know it today began evolving just 30,000 to 60,000 years ago.
- Our ability to walk upright is a huge energy saver. We only use 25% of the energy to walk upright that a chimp requires to walk on four legs.
- In order to walk upright, our pelvis structure had to change, which made the female birth canal smaller. This meant our brains had to be smaller (and our skulls unfused) when we were born.
- Human babies are much less intelligent (and much more helpless) than baby chimps at birth, but the human baby brain grows dramatically in the years after being born before the skull fuses.
A ton of interesting evolutionary insights. Worth a listen!