The day of the amateur

Most of us, if we are over twenty, have been raised in a world where the word “amateur” was a slam. Amateurs were looked down on – OK – maybe tolerated, but not considered very good. If you wanted to be recognized for something, you either had to be very very good at it or you had to become a professional. If not, you at least had to bow down to the professionals and pay homage to their “mastery.”

The sad thing was (and still often is) the professionals may not have been that much better. They may not be any better at all. But they were perceived as being better – because they got paid for what they were doing – or because they carried an expensive-looking piece of equipment that had the word ‘professional’ on it somewhere.

People were supposed to stand in awe. And many did.

That is the world of hierarchies – an industrial and business world of castes, jump-through-hoops career paths and card-carrying, dues-paying memberships in some system that somehow was supposed to mean one had earned the right to excel.

Many did, and we have much to thank them for. But what we do not have to thank anyone for is inheriting a world where the barriers to entry in doing something one feels passionate about are high, where the gatekeepers and rituals are many, and where due credit often is not given to simple, natural talents that we all possess.

According to Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in their book: Wikinomics – How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, that world is going away. At least to some degree.

I have commented on this before in some previous readings. The readings are all pointing the same way. Cluetrain Manifesto, with its “Markets are conversations” theme – The Long Tail with its vision of the death of the mass market and end of the celebrity ‘hit’ pop culture – and even McLuhan’s “Global Village” ideas I read back in 1983 – all point the same way.

Our society – and societies around the world – are getting away from some of the ugly effects of the Industrial Revolution and the stratification and alienation it brought our world for the past 150 years. At least they are straining to do it, if not quite reaching there yet.

Let’s correct one perception up front. The word “amateur” means someone who does something out of the love of doing it. That, I am told, is the etymology of the word. It has nothing to do with quality of work. If anything, someone who does something because they love it and put their heart into it probably will do it better than someone doing it simply for the love of money.

Call me an idealist – I have been called that before. I have especially been called that over the past 12 years I have been involved in the Internet, and have been told by innumerable people that so many things “would not work” that are simply exploding with success today. Many of these things are collaborative things. Linux. Giving out free information on a web site. Starting a poetry circle on CompuServe. Hiring a web designer in Brazil and a programmer in Russia, neither of which I ever met face-to-face. Looking for help on forums (free) when I could not get the answers I needed on paid tech desk help ($100 an hour). E-commerce (“no one will ever pay with a credit card online..”) – yes I go that far back and I heard it many times.

I cannot tell you how many business owners I tried to convince to put their company’s knowledge online – for free – to share – to get customers to trust them and come to their web sites. Some got convinced – and they gained audiences. Others held it close to their vests and ended up with nice brochure Web sites with 3 visitors a day.

The authors are right. The world seeks collaboration. People want to share and they do not all want to be paid all the time. Most people really want to contribute more than they want pay.

I am talking about amateurs of course (the kind that ‘love’ what they do).

And guess what? Many of them are pretty darned good. Put together in a crowd , they can be awesome. I have not paid a $100-an-hour help desk in 10 years.

Speaking of amateurs, I remember something I saw on TV some years ago. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, was being interviewed about his life and career. He told a long tale of starting out in Hollywood, working all sorts of odd jobs, doing carpentry work, delivery, whatever he needed to do to stay there and try to get his hands on a camera every once in a while. He stuck it out. Then he made it big – made Star Wars – the rest is history.

The interviewer asked him a question at the end: “What bit of advice would you give our viewers?” I’ll never forget the answer:

“Do what you love, no matter what.”

“Keep doing it.”

“Eventually you will figure out a way to make money at it.”

Yea, he is a pretty good amateur.

That is what this blog is all about. The business of life. For the lucky ones of us, myself included, our business is our life and our life is our business. And we love it.

Become a collaborator and join us.

2 thoughts on “The day of the amateur

  1. I like the distinctions you make…

    That the difference between pro- and am- is a matter of money, but not quality. And that passion is a more valuable indicator of commitment than a title. Here’s a story you’ll like: my friend (who loves process and software development) was asked to sit in (as a favor) on a bizdev meeting and pretend to work for a graphics company that didn’t know anything about software development, so the graphics company could sell a software development contract from a prospective client. Of course, he ended up fielding most of the questions. At the end of the meeting, the prospective client asked, well really said, you don’t work for these guys, do you? He dodged the question, but spent the next week writing up a comprehensive strategic plan (including what type of vendors to hire) for the client to go through the software development process. He mailed it anonymously. Just because he had the knowledge and passion. Asked for nada. Expected zippo. Really wasn’t playing any angle. Guess what…the client figured it out and called him and gave him a $2m contract.

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