In Defense of Amateurism

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The word amateur has become a pejorative in our society. Its use has evolved from its literal meaning of engaging in an activity for the love of it to a common insult. If someone watches me play chess and says, “What an amateur,” it’s unlikely intended as a compliment. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on being the best, winning, and competition. There are a lot of benefits to this, yet also limitations.

When I tell people I play chess, or piano, or another of my interests, people assume I must be great at each of these activities to stake claim to them. For those of us who engage in certain activities for pleasure, we tend to be apologetic about it: “I play, but I’m not very good. I’m just an amateur.” But the reality is we all start out as amateurs. None of us were born with the rudimentary abilities to crawl or talk. Some of us stay at intermediate levels in some activities, and yet find enormous gratification and growth through those activities. Others continue to attain proficiency, or even mastery, at various activities.

I think an important step in understanding our place in the world is to stop apologetically stating, “I’m just an amateur,” and starting to appreciate the immense benefits of that word. Being an amateur comes with few expectations, little pressure, and great opportunities for enjoyment.  Often, when we spend time engaging in an activity as an amateur, we gain valuable insights that lead to more broadly applicable success, rather than focusing solely on achievement. This pushes us out of our comfort zone and helps foster a sense of accomplishment by letting us feel we’ve gotten the most out of a moment, the most value out of an experience.

I’ve recently taken up chess, having realized that I missed out on developing some understanding of one of the world’s most popular games. I’m fascinated to learn about openings, defenses, tactics, and strategies, and on the occasion that I’m able to apply any of them, it’s particularly gratifying. Yet when I play someone 10 percent better than I am, I consistently lose—and that’s okay.

A significant part of success in life is learning to grow from losses; to realize that you can’t be the best at everything, but everything still has the opportunity to bring out the best in you.

A key benefit of becoming an amateur in a diverse number of fields is the cross-sectional learning it enables. Learning how to keep open lanes for rooks or how to fork pieces applies to business situations that require the maximization of resources. I’ve found that leveraging lessons and applications from different disciplines and amalgamating them in unexpected settings can enhance creativity and lead to novel, and often superior, decisions. Perhaps an amateur chess player applying lessons on strategy toward a difficult negotiation can result in a more beneficial deal. Likewise, executing a martial arts form well requires focus, discipline, and practice, all virtues that can be applied to enhance one’s life in innumerable ways.  

Another benefit of being an amateur is engaging in the process of learning from a blank slate. We’re all encumbered by beliefs based on past experiences; some of which are true, some of which serve us well, but many of which are neither true nor serve us well. Being an amateur exercises our mental (and physical) muscles to continually learn and build new understandings. To learn more about the benefits of being an amateur, I recommend you take a look at Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning by Tom Vanderbilt, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein, and Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant.

I encourage everyone to look at being an amateur, being a beginner or novice, in a new light; to find the joy and benefits in it and start to appreciate its freedom and potential for growth. Rather than using the word as a way to belittle or diminish, I hope we can use this word as a sign of our joyful engagement, our development, and as a way to let us find meaning, fulfillment, and happiness through what we do.

And the next time you encounter an amateur in action, choose to be inspired by their passion to learn, grow, and broaden themselves rather than dismiss them as a newbie. Then ask yourself, “How can I find opportunities to be an amateur?” There are countless options; photography, music, languages, and drawing, just to name a few. Those first few learnings as a novice will be deeply gratifying, yet don’t forget to celebrate the mistakes, blunders, and stumbles. These inevitable missteps breed compassion and are the hallmark of growth.

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