L’Alzana, Cagnaccio di San Pietro
In Netflix’s 2009 culture deck, CEO Reed Hastings reflects on corporate value statements by reminding that Enron, “whose leaders went to jail, and which went bankrupt for fraud”, used to claim their values to be integrity, communication, respect and excellence. This is retroactively hilarious, but it is also a good reminder of the gap between one’s words and their actions. That is the reason why scientists do not take self-report studies at face-value. “Values are what we value”, the Netflix deck says. “The actual company values, as opposed the nice sounding values, are shown by who get rewarded, promoted, or let go”. What is true for individuals and companies is also true for society, as a whole. Some qualities and behaviors are superficially heralded while actually being detrimental to who exhibits them. Being nice, for example may sounds like a desirable trait, but niceness does not help people get ahead professionally or romantically. The idea of effort is subject to the same contradiction.
At first glance, popular culture lionize those who expend effort — the struggling, the underdog, the sleepless… But these types of effort are peculiar in that they’re always, retroactively, a display of strength and stamina ultimately resulting in the success of the protagonist. This doesn’t mean society value effort per se, but rather success against the odds.
One of my former boss often explained the entrepreneurial journey with a metaphor: To be an entrepreneur means to cross the sea on a pedal boat. You will cross path with people on cruise ships wondering why on Earth would anyone do that. Just get on the boat! You’ll be mocked and people will be disappointed in you. But if you are lucky enough to make it to the other side, the very first step you’ll make on the ground will shift your status from lunatic to hero. You’ve become That Person Who Crossed The Sea On A Pedal Boat. Your story is not one of delusion anymore, but determination. However, it is the success, not the effort, that people will praise. There’s no fondness for those who drowned. Their attempt is perceived as stubbornness in the face of evidence.
The Stanford University community coined the term Duck Syndrome to describe the phenomenon of students trying to appear nonchalant when they are actually overwhelmed by their workload, like a duck may look peaceful on a pond but paddle hard under the surface.
“[…] this syndrome stems from a variety of phenomena — that appearing to work hard isn’t cool because REAL geniuses come by it effortlessly”.
Actually, the very origins of the concept of coolness oppose it to effort. To be cool is to do things offhand and being detached. It is also interesting to note the various versions of the expression “Try-hard” in many languages.
The point I’m making is not that effort is not good, but that signalling how much of it we put into something is not always a sound strategy because of this strange perception. There are exceptions. When we’re tasked to fix something, for example, people don’t take speed and effortlessness as an indicator of quality — they like to see some sweating and hear some cursing. But when we want to attract people, whether it is for finding clients, gaining subscribers on Youtube, followers on Instagram, making friends, etc… it’s important to keep in mind that appearing as a try-hard will most likely backfire. Think about the cringiness of big brands using memes or wannabe artists begging you to listen to their mixtape and follow them online. It doesn’t work because nobody cares about whether or not they’re trying. The opposite it true: it lowers their perceived value. They’ll be more intrigued by the reclusive artist who doesn’t use social media. Only then, his backstory of hardships will matter.
There’s something luxury companies understand very well: Sometimes, it’s wise to artificially keep people at arm’s length to compel them to make to make a step forward.