The Myth of Effortless

Alexa Chung doesn’t just pull items from her closet and dash out the door. Oprah doesn’t just show up on a couch and chat with her friends, either. I think we all know where I’m going here. We’ve heard about the merits of good, hard work. We know that – to produce change in ourselves – we must do the work. There’s no way around it.

But what about producing change in a collective society? How do we encourage effort in a culture where effortless is the goal?

We talk about flow and acceptance and peace, all of which are high and worthy causes. Yet we talk about these in a very non-committal way, as if they’re human nature. As if we’ve either got it or we don’t. Mother Teresa had it. Martin Luther King Jr. had it.

We don’t.

(But we do.)

We do have it if we’re willing to make a choice. And sure, perhaps Mother Teresa was more predisposed to kindness and sacrifice and servanthood than the rest of us, but I don’t believe that. I believe she woke up in the morning and made a choice. A choice to serve and to give and to love. And I think she made that choice each and every morning, with great, great effort in her human, finite mind.

In other words, there is no effortless. We are always putting forth effort in some area of life – speaking gentler words to our children, putting our spouses first, finishing a project with diligence. Some of us put forth effort toward effortlessness, hoping that if we practice it enough, it will become second nature.

Our favorite guitarists appear to strum effortlessly. Ballerinas dance with ease and grace. Designers make it look simple. And we watch, clapping, cheering – wondering when we’ll arrive at their destination. Wondering when it will all seem effortless to us.

We have an immense need in our culture to define ourselves. To wear billboards for causes; tattoos for identities. We brand ourselves, stand up on our soapbox and we shout. We defend our beliefs and honors and values and passions, and we develop a tribe of like-minded followers.

And then, we sit in our circle. We breathe stale oxygen and pass around dog-eared books and we stay for a bit. For a long bit. We get comfortable and our feet fall asleep and we assume we’ve got it by now. We rely on our collective merits; we coast a bit in our individual growth. It’s second nature, this way of life. It’s effortless, comfortable. We’ve figured it out.

But then, on a cloudy morning, we wake up with a feeling of unease. It no longer feels effortless. We think we’re doing something wrong, and we look to our tribe to give us a boost, a hidden secret, a morsel of wisdom. We call it a slump. It’s just a block. A mid-life crisis. It’s only natural.

And that’s the trap of effortless, I think. We felt the immediate warmth from the comfort of our community, so we – somewhere along the way – stopped stocking protective layers. We stopped filling the oil lamp in the mornings, stopped preparing for a drought. We circled in closer, seeking warmth – approval. And we turned our faces in, not up.

Life wasn’t created to be effortless. It can’t be. Every step forward, every word spoken – they take effort.

So perhaps effortless isn’t the goal. Perhaps faith is. Faith and work and growth and intention. And the decision to make that choice each and every morning, with great, great effort in our human, finite minds.

  • I really liked this! Thank you for sharing. I think the toughest thing sometimes is seeing that we actually have the choice to do different and live a life in line with our values, beliefs, interests, strengths and goals. Put how nice comfort can feel and how dangerous vulnerability can feel and it’s easy to see how so many of us can get stuck from time to time.

    • Oh Ryan, this was beautifully put! Yes, you’re right – this is often the toughest thing. :) Life is tricky for sure!

  • “And we turned our faces in, not up.”

    Yes. I find that many times when I am discontent, that is the root cause. I love the direction your writing is taking! Keep it up :)

    • That was my favorite line! So beautifully put. I really enjoyed this post and the humble reminder that we all need to keep trying if we want to grow and feel that comfort throughout our lives. It’s comforting to know that all people experience this — that everyone must make a choice to move forward.

  • Oh Erin, how you capture what I’m thinking and feeling so appropriately will never cease to amaze me. Thank you for putting this in words. Thank you for capturing the myth of the effortless – and redefining what we should truly aspire to.

  • OH my goodness. How beautiful is this post. So wonderful. So many beautiful lines- about looking in when we should be looking up, and drawing comfort from those around us instead of working with effort and relying on faith. Goodness I just love these words! xo

  • Word. No, but really, Preach it. I know that as I type this reply on my cellphone, which has autocorrect, I am doing everything to reply to this the easy way. Whether it’s a cause, a job, a philosophical debate, or just connecting with people I think this next generation of children are going to have to be taught something we learned from watching our parents and grandparents. And that teaching is going to take extra effort on our part. It ALL only works if we keep our head facing up. Thanks Erin, your the bestest.

  • You know…I needed to hear/read this. Work, marriage, a home…it all takes effort. And especially when changes are wanted or needed. I have so many things I’ve wanted to ‘upgrade’ my life with – make my own safer cleaners for the house, streamline my work flow, be a better ‘wifey’ to the hubbs. I can’t just keep doing what I’m doing…gotta put out some effort if I expect to create the change. I know this isn’t the global scale…but it’s my own little globe. thanks erin :)

    • Oh, I think you’re exactly right, Desiree – I think change happens in our own little globes first. Wishing you a productive, fruitful, effort-filled day! :)

  • I am reminded of a bit of a quote– No sitting back on your fat laurels…

    We must be ever vigilant in this quest we are on as makers + community builders + (insert life’s passion here). We must keep pushing: to keep connecting, to keep pushing ourselves, to keep tickling our inspiration, to keep getting into that studio when it seems like other things more urgent, pressing, important….

    It’s a helluva struggle, but a worthy one.

    Thank you for this Erin. It came across my feed at a time that really resonated.

  • I love the dog eared book being passed around analogy. We do want it to be a training wheel life and it never is. There are moments. But nothing good ever came from anything less than a lot of humping and gratitude. Thank you Ms. Erin for your honest hustle.

  • Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I think the word that struck me most was right at the end: Intention. A strong word and a tool, to start and end the day with. Every day a new chance to take a small step towards where you want to go and think about how you want to get there. Lots to think about today ;)

  • This is such a great post Erin. I find myself falling into the trap of believing everything is easy and, yes, effortless, for other people—especially things that are difficult for me. Watching people run I think is a perfect example. Every time I go for a run, it’s a slog. I feel like I’m running through quicksand, and every step is a huge effort. I’m not a good runner. And when I see those people who are just bouncing along, with what seems like no effort, I fall into that trap. I think, man it must be nice to have running be so effortless. But in reading your post, I realize, that’s not what it is. They just already made all the initial effort. But they’re out there, probably daily, and have been so for a much longer time than me. They still make the effort though. They still have to put on the clothes and go out of the house and do the run—no matter whether it feels like quicksand or like they’re floating. They still make that effort, and they make it regularly, and that’s why it seems effortless. A good reminder that we’re all human, we all start as beginners, and the only way to achieve “effortlessness” (or at least the illusion of it) is to put in a hell of a lot of effort for a hell of a long time.

  • Oh Erin,

    This has been the most uplifting article I’ve read all year. It reminds me of a good old-fashioned Sunday sermon. The kind of sermon that just lifts my spirit. I’ve also enjoyed reading the contributions from your readers. I believe they’re feeling just as good as I am about this article.

    Thank you so much for sharing. You have made my day.

  • Thank you Erin, this article is just wonderful. It reminds me of something I read the other day about “overnight success”, how there is really no such thing, how it takes years and years of work to create a seemingly “overnight” success. The key is consistency and, I too believe, faith. Trusting that doing the work is enough, and the rest will come, eventually, in a way that is right for your life.

    Looking forward to more on your blog! – M

  • Thank you Erin for these words. I never thought of it that way and you really made me look at things differently now.
    I’ve been really unsure on what to do with my life, thinking I was in pursuit of something that would make me happy, when in fact I was in pursuit of the effortless – ‘hoping that if [I] practice it enough, it will become second nature.’
    Well as you said, it doesn’t exist!
    Everyday takes a new challenge, and if we in fact did something effortless everyday, I believe we would get sick of it pretty soon!
    Thank you :)

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