If you’ve never read a lecture on the value of authenticity you may leave now. I won’t be the first to pop your authenticity cherry.

But if you have, it seems like a pretty reasonable thing, right? Authenticity is the backbone of connection, the core of every decent relationship.

Then why do we spend so much time on image?

Oooh. Image. That’s an icky word, isn’t it? So calculating. So high school.

Let me introduce you to a different one: sprezzatura. Sprezzatura is the Italian concept of studied ease. It is the ability to take the difficult and make it look easy. English equivalents are “image,” “glamour,” “sophistication,” or “elegance.”  Ballet, for instance, centres on sprezzatura, as does most art; but also business and sport depend a great deal on image. We idolize the people who make it all look so easy.

We’ve all wanted that at some point in our lives.

And why not? you think.  It’s a good goal, to have that level of mastery where you no longer have to work so hard at it.

I’ll tell you why.

Sprezzatura chokes growth.

It’s the Agent Orange of personal development.

There’s two ways to look at sprezzatura. One is of mastery, the other is of fakery. But they are two sides of the same coin.

My ex-husband is a truck driver. He’s proud of his mastery of backing up trailers. While I drove truck for several years, I never achieved the same mastery. I can back one trailer up, but not two or three, and I’m terrible going around curves in reverse, and soft ground screws me up to no end. My husband, though, does it all with grace and panache.

He’s proud of his mastery, to be sure, but he’s more proud about the fact that he can do something that many experienced truckers have never mastered. It’s the status that having sprezzatura connotes that he values. It demonstrates unequivocally that he is The Big Dawg, the top gun, and the king. He has the mastery. But he’s proud of the image.

Sprezzatura occasionally denotes “savior faire,” that is, the ability to rise to any occasion. That’s the noble reason why we strive for it. We wish to have that equinimity, the assurance to never put a foot wrong. Though I am a proponent of the “fake it til you make it” school of thought, you can fake confidence, you can fake brio, you can mime social niceties and you can learn the lingo, but you cannot fake style. You cannot fake flair.

You can only imitate those things. And it shows.

In fact, the word was initially coined by Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, and epitomizes why the fakery inherent in exuding a sense of mastery, the illusion of control, is so harmful:

Since sprezzatura made difficult tasks seem effortless, those who possessed sprezzatura needed to be able to deceive people convincingly. In a way, sprezzatura was “the art of acting deviously.”This “art” created a “self-fulfilling culture of suspicion” because courtiers had to be diligent in maintaining their façades. Consequently, sprezzatura also had its downsides, since courtiers who excelled at sprezzatura risked losing themselves to the façade they put on for their peers. — Wikipedia “Sprezzatura,” August 1, 2011

You cannot be perfect, much less at everything. And even if you could, you were not born that way. To strive for the image of mastery means you must forgo mastery. How else could you make enough mistakes to become successful?

It ‘s easy to fall into the trap of sprezzatura in this day and age, where you’re encouraged to market yourself. These days, everyone is a free agent of their own destiny, and sprezzatura can both salve the ego and smooth the path you tread if everyone is similarly dazzled by you. But at it’s core, it’s an exhausting game of deception. It breeds cynicism; you know how much of a fake you are, so everyone else much be as well. Or ARE you the only imposter?

This kind of speculation will eat at you like the Ouroboros.

As much as I would like to be Angelina Jolie-esque, I would rather have the freedom to be awkward, to screw up, to make mistakes, to reinvent, to change direction, and to be my exuberant, child-like self – – – than I would to have the understated elegance of Audrey Hepburn.

Because if you can’t be authentic, in my view, you’ve pretty much failed life.

Agree? Disagree? Wish to champion sprezzatura?


5 thoughts on “Sprezzatura”

  1. Hah-HAH! Yes – the dangers of “believing your own press”!!Believing ‘the other guy’s press’ also leads us to the slippery slope of “I’m clearly not THAT good” – therefore, I’m not worthy of your attention. Ouch!

      1. Some “need” it, and create it on purpose; some just forget that the impressions that others have are never (cannot possibly be) the same as what we know (or are afraid of) about ourselves.

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