The Decline of the Amateur

I went to my third likemind a couple weeks ago (and, yes, I plan to continue mentioning likemind each month because I think it’s a wonderful concept, and because I continue to enjoy it). I was chatting with somebody there who expressed the opinion that he couldn’t start a blog because he wouldn’t be able to post at least once a day, and that’s now the expectation. As a blogger who posts at wildly erratic intervals, I thought that was interesting. I tried to express the idea that blogging could be used purely for expressing one’s own ideas and not to satisfy an audience, but he didn’t really accept that.

After thinking about it some more, I think this is part of a wider trend in our society. Because of media and Internet saturation, we are now exposed to the best talent in any field in a way that can be overwhelming. Taking the example of blogging, it seems pointless to try to blog when there are sites like BoingBoing or individual bloggers like Henry Jenkins or Kathy Sierra generating fantastic thoughtful content on a daily basis. Why should I even try to compete with those people?

The same extends to almost any field. When I read the brilliant writing of David Foster Wallace or Malcolm Gladwell, I sometimes find it frustrating rather than inspiring. When I watch the fantastic exploits of professional athletes, I am in awe rather than enthused to try to imitate them. I wonder if this exposure to world-class talent in every possible field is leading to the decline of the amateur practitioner, as people give up before they even start, or are told they should give up. The media often reinforces this viewpoint by telling the story with hindsight such that it seems inevitable that the star ended up as a star. They rarely tell the story of the almost-star who did everything the same way and yet failed to be successful.

Another side of this is that the world-class practitioners didn’t get that way overnight. They were not born brilliant. David Shenk, as part of his new project The Genius in All of Us, makes the observation that “We see people being good at stuff — we don’t see them becoming good.” He also points out that the main differentiator of musical talent is deliberate practice, not innate ability.

The one exception to this trend away from the amateur seems to be that of bands. There are an insane number of people who play in bands. American Idol will never run out of singers who think they are good enough to make the show. I’m not sure why this particular arena seems to be more resistant to giving up.

I think they have the right idea, though. Doing something for the sheer joy of it, for the sense of achievement and improvement, seems far more healthy to me than constantly comparing oneself to the elite in a field. I’m never going to be a great essayist like Christopher Hitchens or a prolific blogger like Scoble, but the process of writing these posts has made me a better writer and continues to give me practice in the craft of expressing my ideas clearly and concisely. And occasionally I can sound clever in conversation because I have already worked out my thoughts in writing a post here. I enjoy playing sports for the same reason. And I need to remember this attitude when I’m starting a new endeavor – measure my own progress and don’t get discouraged by comparing myself directly to the best in the world.

7 thoughts on “The Decline of the Amateur

  1. I think you’re flatly wrong about this being a burgeoning trend in society.

    While *you* may feel that sense of ‘I’m nowhere near as good as the people who do it for real,’ and in fact many other people do as well, (it’s so common that there’s a psychiatric name for it, Impostor Syndrome), it’s by no mean dominating the culture – well, that, or MySpace and YouTube are figments of our collective imagination.

    Let me amend that though – it’s clearly a strong trend among populations who believe that you either are or aren’t good enough to do something. People who were taught that talent mattered more than practice are having a very bad day in the new world, because, as you say, they can see people who are very good at things that they are very bad at up close and very personal, and they may or may not be able to see those people talking about how they got from being bad at what they do to where they are now.

  2. Wow, I was going to comment, but Richard said it so eloquently, I’m not sure I have much to add.

    I don’t think there’s any decline in athletic participation — certainly as far as I can tell, the gym and the golf course are still full of amateurs. There are tons of people who are blogging just for their friends of course, just to keep them informed. A lot of my friends draw and paint, but with no professional ambitions. People watch the poker on TV, and also play with their friends.

    On the other hand, I do find myself a bit susceptible to the “Things are only worth doing if you do them excellently” syndrome. Which I consider in some ways a personal character flaw.

  3. There’s a strong argument in favor of a resurgence of the amateur, at least in some parts of the DIY space. Case in point: Instructables.

    I agree that you just hang out with easily dissuaded perfectionists. Move back here and I’ll peel the wallpaper off another one of your bathrooms.

  4. Hear, hear.

    One thing I have noticed is that you make most progress at the very beginning of the learning curve. I find that this is a very handy thing to keep at the top of one’s midn when attempting something new: you may not be as good as Expert X, but you are gaining on him or her at a truly prodigious velocity.

    I have also observed that I’m only truly good at things I truly love, because those are the things I enjoy doing even when there’s no one paying me to do them. (That, incidentally, is why I have taken over a tiny piece of the music instruction world and expect to take over other pieces as I continue to get better at understanding — and thereby better at leveraging — my passions.)

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