Being an Amateur is Not Such a Bad Thing After All

Amateurism is given a hard time. To be called “amateur” is to be seen as unprofessional, rather than non-professional. It’s used as a criticism or an insult about a person’s approach to their work. We’re told “if you want to succeed then you need to turn pro”.

But is this really true, and is it really that bad to be an amateur?

Amateur Photography

You wouldn’t really want to use an amateur doctor or an amateur electrician. That kind of goes without saying. I mean, there are legal standards that need to be met in certain fields and necessary qualifications that must be attained.

Amateurs Love What They Do

I know some amazing amateur chefs who create more interesting and higher quality dishes than any restaurant that I’ve been to. Coffee connoisseurs who make a much better cup than the “professionals” at Starbucks. They literally pour hours of practice and curiosity into their craft, yet have no desire or need to do it “professionally”. Same with photographers, musicians, and crafters.

Despite the way it seems in the conversations that so often go on around this topic, it’s not really an issue of being a professional or being an amateur. It’s about how we approach things, and our motives/reasons for doing them. And it’s here where I believe the word “amateur” has been given a bad rap.

The word amateur comes from its Latin root: “amare” (to love) and “amator” (lover).

Notice that it doesn’t mean “to be unprofessional”, “someone who meets a lower standard of care and quality” or “a person who hates hard work”. It’s about doing something for the intrinsic pleasure and enjoyment of it, not due to some financial or contractual commitment/obligation.

Amateurs Aren’t Sloppy

There are many reasons for a person to be or remain amateur in a particular field. At its core however, to be an amateur is to do something and care about it, regardless of the results. It is NOT the flip side of professionalism, despite what we’re often told.

“Show up”, “do the work”, and “stop waiting for inspiration”, are all common pieces of (sound) advice that go along with being told to “stop being an amateur”. But this is an unfair link. Amateurs DO show up, they DO the work, and they get stuck-in, even when inspiration is lacking. They do these things because they care deeply.

It’s the golfer who practices in the margins of the working week. She funds her own transport, accommodation, and entry fees in competition. And she plays at an incredible standard. Perhaps she dreams of turning professional one day… but perhaps she doesn’t. She just really loves playing and competing and will do whatever it takes to continue playing.

Amateurs are dedicated, committed, and prepared to make sacrifices and investments in certain things so that they can continue. They’re not sloppy or careless.

So where does this view of amateurism come from?

Amateurism vs Amateurish

Perhaps this is the important distinction. It’s all about the approach we take to the thing in question rather than whether or not there is a financial reward.

A professional can be amateurish, and an amateur can be as skilled as the professional.

I’m sure you can probably think of amateurish professionals you’ve dealt with at times in your life.

The Opposite of Amateur

The opposite of amateur is not professional but actually what we might describe as “jobsworth”. In other words, doing only what the pay will afford. It doesn’t care about extending experience or learning further than is necessary for the required workload.

The amateur on the other hand, is always seeking improvement and education. Driven by love and curiosity. They care about doing the thing for the sake of the thing, and not because they’re being rewarded to do it.

Your inner-amateur is the part of you that would do the thing regardless of whether or not you get paid for it. Embrace that important impulse and drive.

Common Misconceptions:

  1. You are Amateur Because You Dream of Becoming Professional
  2. Professionals are Better than Amateurs
  3. If You’re Amateur then You’re Struggling

An “amateurish” mindset is about mimicking what things look like on the surface without deepening how things feel at the core.

Amateurish is the Elvis impersonator who does it with the belief that it’s the way to land a record deal.

Amateur on the other hand, is the avid collector of old analogue synths who spends much of their “spare time” working out how they function, and making interesting noises. They care about what they do rather than what it may or may not result in. They may well make some unique and noteworthy discoveries along the way.

Creativity and Amateurism

One place this amateur vs professional conversation has emerged over recent years is around creativity and in particular writing.

I have read things like: “amateurs wait for success to happen to them, professionals show up to ensure it happens”, and “amateurs dream, while professionals work”.

But again, this demonstrates a confusion between “amateurish”: sloppy and entitled. And “amateur”: committed to their love of a thing, from which they don’t make an exclusive living, for a variety of reasons.

An amateur writer may actually be someone who always writes, regardless of the results. They are always learning about writing, and they are not affected by the successes and failures that come their way. They may indeed get pieces commissioned, and may have had moments of “professionalism” like a longer term writing job. But this doesn’t change their relationship to the work. They remain committed to the craft, regardless of how they’re rewarded and what they might need to do in order to fund the habit.

They Work Hard(er)

In my experience amateurs often work harder than professionals.

One of my colleagues plays darts. He’s had stints on the professional circuit during his career. At present he doesn’t carry pro status but is committed to the sport all the same. He loves it and is just as dedicated to it as an official amateur. He is still always trying to improve his game (trying different darts), learn about himself and find ways to play better. But he is not defined by his status as an amateur and is certainly not amateurish. He competes a few times a week and practices every day. He “shows up” and “does the work”, all the while holding down a full time job to make a living.

Amateurish seeks shortcuts, it wants results without effort. Amateur is dedicated to the process and more concerned with the feeling of flow that comes from putting in the effort.

It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between amateur and professional artists based on their work – in fact a lot of the time the work of the amateur is superior to that of the professional. But it’s not difficult to spot amateurish work.

Be an amateur. Stop being amateurish. If you’re being amateurish then you don’t really care about the thing in question. Either that or you’ve lost perspective on what matters.

Over to You

In what area(s) of life are you an amateur? Please leave your response in the comments below.

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