The Amateur

Or, why you should avoid professionals

The original definition of an amateur is someone who does something for the sake of enjoyment, rather than money or status.

Unfortunately, the way that we use the word amateur no longer matches this definition. Being called an amateur today implies you’re unskilled or untalented.

I’m happy to challenge this definition. I believe that being an amateur is an advantage in a world filled with people trying to be professional.

Amateurs spend time pursuing ideas that are interesting (instead of just lucrative). This lets amateurs take on much more ambitious projects than professionals weighed down by expectations.

Amateurs are not afraid to say “I don’t know”. It’s okay to be wrong when you’re not expected to know everything. An amateur is someone willing to ask questions, even if it makes them seem foolish.

The Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific association, was founded in 1660 to bring together “gentlemen of independent means” who were interested in “promoting Natural Knowledge”. These amateurs formed the nucleus of the modern scientific community.

The Wright Brothers built the first airplane as amateurs. Henry Ford was an amateur mechanic, Alexander Graham Bell was a tinkerer, and Thomas Edison experimented until he got it right.

Amateurs have been credited with helping to build the Olympics. The ancient Greeks considered the Olympic Games a place where amateur athletes could compete freely, without the influence of money or politics. The amateur was someone who combined earnestness with talent in a way that produced results.

Amateur astronomers discovered a new planet, Pluto. Amateur radio operators have been credited with helping to save lives in disasters. The list goes on.

Despite all of this, the pressure has never been higher to seem professional. Amateurs are seen as not being “good enough”. The idea that an amateur can contribute to a field dominated by professionals seems foreign.

But being an amateur is an amazing thing. The word comes from the Latin root for “love.” When we love what we do, success follows naturally. It’s only after the fact that we recognize amateurs as professionals.

If you’re waiting to do something because you’re not a professional, this should be good news. It means that you’ll be judged based on the quality of your work, not your status.

Kitto had more to say about this arête of the ancient Greeks.  ‘When we meet arête in Plato,’ he said, ‘we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavor of it.  ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; arête on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.’ - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance