The hard parts about making it look easy

Bill Clinton was known for projecting warmth in a way that Hillary Clinton didn’t. Yet, when journalists would speak to people who knew them both personally, the story they’d get back was the opposite: one-on-one, it was Hillary Clinton who was the warm one.

We use terms like warmth and authenticity as if they were character attributes of people. But imagine if you were asked to give a speech in front of a large audience. Do you think that if you came off as wooden or stilted, that would be an indicator of how authentic you are as a person?

The ability to project authenticity or warmth is a skill. Experts exhibiting skilled behavior often appear to do it effortlessly. When we watch a virtuoso perform in a domain we know something about, we exclaim “they make it look so easy!“, because we know how much harder it is than it looks.

The resilience engineering researcher David Woods calls this phenomenon the law of fluency, which he define as:

“Well”-adapted work occurs with a facility that belies the difficulty of the demands resolved and the dilemmas balanced.

Joint Cognitive Systems: Patterns in Cognitive Systems Engineering (p20)

This law is the source of two problems.

First of all, novices tend to mistake skilled performance that seems effortless as innate, rather than a skill that was developed with practice. They don’t see the work, so they don’t know how to get there.

Second of all, skilled practitioners are at increased risk of undetected burnout because they make it look easy even when they are working too hard. This is something that’s easy to miss unless we actively probe for it.

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