We live in a do-it-yourself age. … Not only is the world more competitive than twenty years ago, there’s also our expanding life span, growing levels of education, a more open society in which people can seek individual fulfillment, and the trend towards second careers later in life. Not to forget the impact of the digital revolution—just look at how blogs and social media are changing journalism.
It’s worthwhile that amateurs are learning from professionals. It makes society more fluid and varied, and individuals more fulfilled, even in difficult economic times. As Jack Hitt writes in A Bunch of Amateurs, “the cult of the amateur is the soul of America. It’s really in our DNA that you can walk away from everything and start again in your metaphorical garage. Just think of Steve Jobs as one of the most iconic amateurs turned superstars.”
But while we’re busy competing and comparing, and setting the bar ever higher, are we still having fun in our spare time? Getting up at 5am in the morning to train for a marathon before going to your office job is not everyone’s idea of a leisure activity.
On the eve the Olympics, when it will rain numbers and personal records while the whole world is watching, I find it a fascinating thought that until very recently only amateur athletes were allowed to participate in the Games. Amateurs! Those who were in it for fun, not for the money.
Big contracts and sponsorship have changed the rules over recent years. But today the professionals can still learn something from amateurs: enjoyment. It’s precisely that careless joy, in combination with vitality and passion, that sometimes lets the underdog win against their betters. As Intelligent Life [magazine] wrote recently on the dangers of over-thinking, “experienced athletes and artists often complain that they have lost touch with what made them love what they do in the first place.” Sometimes we need to train ourselves to get more skilled at ignoring information in order to get that pure joy back.
Dusting off the roots of the word amateur (the Latin for ‘lover of’) could relieve some stress in our professional and personal life.
The article in Intelligent Life referenced above, Non Cogito, Ergo Sum (I don’t think, therefore I am), by Born Liars author Ian Leslie is also worth a read. It makes a solid case, supported by Novak Djokovic and Bob Dylan, for unthinking.
➻ The other fine insight from The School of Life comes from a post in which Hugo Whately reviews How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff. From that review:
Here is John-Paul’s message of liberation: we do not have to be leaders. Try by all means, but remember we do not necessarily have to inspire the masses, live saintly lives, galvanize revolutions, reverse climate change, stop wars, save the children or stamp out malaria. Rather, we can bring the big ideas home. Small changes matter; history is nothing but small changes happening everywhere all the time, and the world we might wish to change is but a tangled mass of the details of everyone’s lives. So we are freed from thinking top-down, which can be dispiritingly daunting. This is an ode to domesticity; albeit with a health-warning: as misanthropic philosophers the world over have often found, it can be easier to love humanity than to keep loving specific people.
So keep giving to charity, and keep voting and shopping to support the organizations you believe in, but take a little time too to think about what kind of life you hope to be able to look back on. “Changing the world” is such a nebulous phrase that it is hard to pin down: Whose world? Which bit of it? How much? What John-Paul asks is a rather more personal set of questions: What really matters to you? What is there in your own life that jarrs or violates your own sense of what matters? Once you know, start with one do-able and realistic act to put that right.
And even if I weren’t ardently pro-feminist myself, I believe I would still agree with this:
If one of the universal insights of feminism is that the personal is the political, then John Paul is a fantastic feminist. It is humbling to think that whatever we may say in public, however we may vote, however we shop and consume, whatever our professed allegiances, values and careers, it is our domestic arrangements that speak most powerfully of our own politics. The economic, cultural, moral and behavioral patterns that mark our home lives are the building blocks of the wider world. Our true politics are but our home lives writ large.
As Gandhi once said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change” (often paraphrased to “be the change you want to see in the world”). Or as Q-Tip so famously put it, “If you got knowledge and dolo of delf for self, see there’s no one else… who can drop it on the angle, acute at that, so do that, do that, do do that that that (come on). Do that, do that, do do that that that (okay).” Actually, maybe both of them were just bragging.
➻ Rob Walker at the Design Observer Observatory suggests a counter-intuitive approach to telling your story, The Bizarro Storytelling Exercise:
As Adam Gopnik suggested on The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog the other day, there’s not much new in pointing out that stories are important to humans. When this time-worn observation gets repeated in a marketplace context these days, it’s usually freshened up by tying in some reference to technology: You can tell your brand or product’s story online, via social media, or interactively, and ergo stories are more important than ever. [...]
[S]o here’s my thought: The Bizarro Storytelling Exercise.
The Bizarro Storytelling Exercise would entail devoting serious, systematic, hard thought to the question: What is the very worst story someone could tell about our company/brand/product?
I don’t mean what’s the worst pack of lies, I mean the company/brand/product-makers asks itself: Based on what we do and how we do it, what is it that we are least likely to bring up in telling our story? And why is that, exactly—why wouldn’t we bring it up?
It may also be instructive to uncover the worst story in your personal life right now. Don’t let it debilitate you; just turn the page, and start a new chapter.
➻ Stephen Pressfield, the author of numerous novels and a famous book on The War of Art, has some thoughts on this and on our original topic today—amateurism. He strongly suggests against it. His new, self-published book, Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work, argues for, well, turning pro—in whatever you’re truly passionate about:
Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. The shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.
Are you pursuing a shadow career?
Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan Studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life, without actually writing the music? Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk being an innovator yourself?
If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for.
That metaphor will point you toward your true calling.
I appreciate Pressfield’s passion, and I love his thoughts on art. I love the novels of his that I’ve read, and I’m glad he had the ambition to get them out into the wider world. But I also think that as inspirational as the message above is, and as Seth Godin’s and many others’ are, that it shouldn’t make us feel like a failure if we make our wage doing something other that what we’re most passionate about in life. After all, just because we love food doesn’t mean we should open a restaurant. And even if we do, it doesn’t mean we’ll be good at it.
The inspiration to break out of a 9-5 existence, pursue our passion, to build a career out of it—and get rich doing so—is great, but I think that we must also know that it’s okay to struggle with our passions while we continue making a living in other ways. The struggle is often the greatest blessing. To never be recognized for your passion is not to have failed in its pursuit.
I had a chemistry teacher in high school who was one of the happiest and most alive people I’ve ever known. His real passion was in the visual arts, but he chose a career as a chemistry teacher solely because he didn’t want his passion to become his job. Sometimes remaining an amateur is the healthiest decision we can make. Maybe true engagement with the world lies at the heart of non-attachment, and the only thing we can do is continue—or not. And, maybe no matter how hard we try, the struggle will always show.
➻ Which is why I absolutely love Josh Linker. He is a phenomenal writer, who has a widely read and well regarded blog, has published a few books, but still struggles with his writing as he works a day job and raises a family. He writes about his life by writing about his baseball cards, and the struggle of life is on the surface of his work. He recently wrote about Luis Tiant:
I spent some time recently writing an essay on Luis Tiant for a forthcoming compilation. It was impossible. I always feel like I fail whenever I try to write about something I really love. There is too much to say, so whatever ends up getting onto the page feels like a reduction, a diminishment, a mistake.
I have to balance my writing—well, balance is the wrong word. I have to jam my writing life into the rest of my life, going to and from work, working at a job where I am responsible for locating and correcting mistakes, looking after my baby, a wobbly lurching being who makes me want to maim myself when I make a mistake and allow him to fall down and bang his head. I try to allow the writing to be the one place where mistakes are okay. That is why I’m writing right now, beyond the end of my work on the Luis Tiant essay. By the way, I just misspelled Tiant and went back and corrected it, so I’m full of shit on my open invitation for mistakes and some kind of unreachable freedom. The way I keep misspelling Tiant is Taint, which is kind of funny. Taint is kind of like a mistake, meaning a flaw in something. [...]
I can’t find the right words. I can only make one mistake after another.
That was one of my failed plans for the Tiant essay I just finished, that it would be organized around the Zen notion of shoshaku joshaku, first coined by Japanese master Dogen and brought to my attention years ago in the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. The phrase means “one continuous mistake.” I wanted to describe Luis Tiant’s unorthodox and unforgettable pitching delivery in those terms, everything about it wrong but somehow beautiful and more than that somehow, hitches and pauses and twitches and all, continuous, and his career, too, with his exile and his injuries and his releases and his comebacks, one continuous motion, too, Tiant untainted by surrendering to the life of one continuous mistake, the mistakes not the point of this all but rather the will to continue. This was the point of these words, and all my words, and all my mistakes: continue.
Hopefully, through all the mistakes and all our struggles, we’ll be moving forward.
➻ I Believe in You.