Look at Instagram and you’d think everyone woke up perfectly imperfect. Fashion, beauty, social media, pop culture, all cultivate a myth of effortlessness. In this package, ELLE.com acknowledges, dissects, and celebrates the effort. Because effortlessness is a privilege that not everyone can afford. And there’s no shame in admitting you actually love putting in the work.
Growing up, I never got the message that success should be effortless. At my competitive prep school in New York, my classmates and I competed over who had stayed up latest studying and how much coffee we’d downed to compensate. One eighteen-year-old had an entire gray curl, which we attributed to stress, and which impressed us very much.
College was something of a culture shock. My new friends were perplexed by my visible fretting over minor assignments, and I was equally baffled by their nonchalance. “Just bash it out,” one classmate—who claimed to bash out his own essays in between rugby practices—had the unhelpful habit of advising.
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It was an important adjustment. In the real world, most people would rather be around someone calm than someone panicky. Appearing not to try conveys a confidence that everything will work out, whereas making an obvious effort can signal a lack of faith in your natural abilities. “When you feel insecure, it creates a sense of insecurity around others, either because they empathically don’t like feeling that way themselves, or because they feel they are being pulled to support you in a way they may not feel comfortable doing,” said Mitch Prinstein, psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships. “It’s an interesting paradox. We are built to care what other people think of us, but there’s something about people trying too hard that comes across as needy.”
Those who make too much of an effort may pose a challenge to the existing social order—and that can come across as threatening. “Some people are skeptical of work, as if you’re trying to upend some natural system,” said Maurice Schweitzer, professor at Wharton and co-author with Adam Galinsky of Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both. Most of us wouldn’t cop to a belief in predestination, but we might still want to match our lot in life to our natural gifts and limitations. “If we’re extremely successful, it’s nice to believe, ‘I’m special. I have these great gifts.’ And if I’m less successful, I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t really need to get off the couch. I don’t need to go to the gym or send out 500 resumes—this is just God’s plan for me.” Trying too hard can make others suspicious of our motives: “If you’re making strategic decisions, you might be engaged in strategic behavior that is selfish,” Schweitzer said. “We’ll become concerned that they’re not a team player, that they’re not out to help out the broader group.”
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And we tend to rate others’ talents more favorably if we think they haven’t fully exerted themselves or reached their full potential. For a 2012 paper,
Tormala replicated this finding across a broad range of scenarios. More people clicked on and “liked” a Facebook page promoting a comedian if critics said he “could become the next big thing” than if he “has become the next big thing.” When volunteers where shown paintings by two different artists—one who had won a prestigious prize called the “Freddleston” and one who only had the potential to win this award—nearly two-thirds said they preferred the second picture.
Ambiguity may be interesting—and when the limited information we have is positive, we tend to fill in the gaps with flattering guesses. “The uncertainty surrounding potential stimulates interest and processing, which attunes people to the information available and gives it more impact,” Tormala wrote. “When that information is compelling… the result is a more favorable attitude or impression.”
On a more basic level, failing to hide the effort you’re making usually constitutes a violation of the social norm—which, according to Prinstein, is “an easy route to becoming disliked.” If we show that we can conform to cultural conventions, even when they’re arbitrary and subtle—what shoes to wear, what greeting to use—people assume we are socially capable in more important ways, too. But the good news for strivers is that those norms vary: the same habit that made me an outlier in college helped me fit in in high school. And now, I work alone in my apartment, where there are no norms. I do complain on Twitter about how hard it is to write—but Twitter is probably not a model for any other social world.