Friday, October 28, 2011

The Destructive Myth of Effortlessness

No matter how down on myself I have gotten in my life (and there have been some pretty black-dog days. And weeks. And months. And etc.), the feeling has always been tempered with another idea: That I am awesome.

Or rather, that I SHOULD be awesome. And not only awesome, but effortlessly so. 

I should be able to do everything, and make it look easy. As an employee, I should be the rock, the most well-oiled cog, so reliable you don't even have to think about what I'm doing. Oh, and creative, innovative, supportive, and all the other -ives they want you to have on your resume these days, without looking like I'm trying too hard.

As a friend, I should always remember your birthday, always get you the exact right thing, know when you're down and what to do about it. If you come to my home, I should know exactly how to set you at ease, without appearing to try to, because then you would know I was trying and that might make you uncomfortable, which would make me try harder, and from there it just gets meta and messy.

As a woman, I should be able to stay fit without appearing to diet or be seen working out (don't even get me started about body hair). As a wife, I should be able to keep the house so well as to be invisible, as if elves put out clean towels and take out the trash.

Basically, I think I'm mostly a smart, competent person. So I should be able to do everything that is asked of me, with grace and good humor, and not the slightest sign of struggle.

The magic of a great dancer is that they make intense discipline look like weightless ease. What's wrong with applying that model to my own life? Plenty. And before you suggest this is merely Superwoman syndrome run amok, this same problem nearly cost one of my dearest male friends his identity and his sanity. 

This idea that we, that I, should be effortlessly awesome, at all times and in all contexts, leaves me wracked with guilt and shame when I fall short. And I frequently fall short. 

It makes me struggle, stubbornly and stupidly, alone and in silence instead of asking for help. It makes me push everything to the brink of crisis, and sometimes over it, before I say "I think I have a problem here."

The other nasty little surprise in the myth of effortless is this: If you make it look easy, people will assume it is. And this leads them to take your achievements for granted. And this leads you to anger, resentment, and generally hating their guts.

I've seen it with moms who want to know why no one appreciates all they do, but don't want to seem too invested in "doing it all." And I've seen it in bands when one person shoulders all the not-fun-bits (booking shows, making flyers/t-shirts/website, PR -- basically anything that is not playing music and drinking). The other guys don't see it happen, they just get a call that there's a show. I've seen it in myself, and I'm here to tell you, that WILL boil over, and it won't be pretty.

But I've had an epiphany. I was watching So You Think You Can Dance this summer (I know, but I love it. Don't judge!). After a moving performance, judge Lil' C told the dancer, "Don't be ashamed of your struggle." And that about broke me. Because I recognized myself in that, recognized how I felt like effort, or struggle, having to try, made me a failure before I'd even begun. 

And that is less than a myth. That is a damn lie. And I am not going to let it stand a single day more.


  1. "The other nasty little surprise in the myth of effortless is this: If you make it look easy, people will assume it is. And this leads them to take your achievements for granted. And this leads you to anger, resentment, and generally hating their guts."

    this is why i generally don't like sewing for people who have never created something in their life. When i make it look good, they give me shit about the price.

    The struggle is what makes us. It is the artistic process--in WHATEVER we do that defines us--not the end product. But only those who appreciate the struggle know this.

  2. I remember this from when I used to sew for money. Even worse, I would underprice and undervalue my time, in order to try and do an end-run around actually *hearing* that my time, effort, skill, and creativity weren't worth it.

    Seriously, who needs other people to grind us down when we do such a great job of it ourselves?

    Process, not product. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. My brother (Brett) and I have always referred to the whole "curse of making it look easy" as "Dean Martin Syndrome"

  4. Nice! It's a hard act to pull off. Puts Dean's drinking in context, frankly.

    And possibly mine, as well ;-)