I’m reading a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace called Both Flesh and Not. The book gains its name from his first essay which is about champion tennis player Roger Federer:

“Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws…. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.”

Roger - Effortless
Photo by Squeaky Knees from Cornwall, UK  [CC BY 2.0]

First, note what a masterful writer Wallace is. He is able to make any topic interesting, even tennis. If you’ve never read DFW before I’d highly recommend him. A great place to start is his commencement address entitled This is Water.

But beyond the quality of the writing, the subject matter of his essay has gotten me thinking about how elite performers in any field make their work look easy. In the case of Roger Federer, Wallace describes how unhurried he is in his motions, gracefully arriving in the proper location for each swing with time to spare. There are many other examples from the world of sports, but the same goes for great musicians and teachers and salesmen and writers: the best of the best always make their work seem effortless.

Why does it look so easy? We know, at least on an intellectual level, that these people have devoted thousands of hours to their craft. The ones who make it look the easiest are probably the ones who have practiced and worked the hardest. Here’s what I think: what makes it look so easy for the virtuosos is that they have eliminated everything in their performance that is non-essential. They have whittled down every movement, every note, every word until all that remains is precisely what’s needed. When I play tennis I look like I’m being chased around the pitch by a swarm of killer bees. When Federer plays he looks like a dancer in a ballet. Step, step, glide. Swing. Beautiful.

There’s a famous quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Expertise is knowing where that line is. The work is getting there. With time and practice we learn simplicity and begin to reject unnecessary complexity.

I was talking this morning with one of our clients about a video we are creating to explain his company’s technology. One aspect of the design is tricky to communicate, involving lots of numbers and percentages and compliance with various international standards and regulations. We were laughing together about how hard it is to tell this story in a simple animation. But by spending the hours of time upfront thinking about these issues and boiling them down to their essence we are creating something that will be easily grasped by the intended audience.

I’ll part with this: good communication requires thoughtfulness on the part of both the speaker and the audience. As a speaker, the more effort and thought you put into what you are saying, pruning your message to its essence, the less effort will be required by your audience to understand your message. When you choose your words and phrases with care, omitting anything inessential, your audience will easily grasp your meaning. It will just seem…effortless.

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