It’s OK To Be An Amateur

Amateur astronomersI thought I would start this post with some definitions.

Professional – A person following a profession, especially a learned profession.

Amateur – A person who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession.

As concrete as these definitions appear to be, I believe there is more and more overlap these days. People with hobbies in Astronomy, Art, Sport, Computer programming etc are making greater and greater contributions to their fields of interest.

For example, amateur astronomers are discovering exo-planets many light years away. Enthusiasts are building and engineering solutions to problems using open-source technologies built on top of Arduino microcontrollers and the Raspberry Pi. 3D printing will soon be cheap enough that people can print almost any 3D object they can imagine.

Amateurs can lift their heads high, above the stigma of tinkerers and dabblers. Amateurs often have several hobbies and interests. They’re sometimes labelled as Jacks of all trades, masters of none – a derogatory turn of phrase, that I believe amateurs should no longer need to endure.

The 80/20 rule that seems to rear its head a lot in the universe can be applied quite well here. Amateurs can obtain 80% of the knowledge of a professional in the same field whilst dedicating perhaps 20% as much time as a professional.

Do you need to need to gain 100% knowledge in a field to make valid contributions. No, I don’t think so.

And by not trying to become a professional in a field, you open up so many more possibilites for learning. You can become competent in many fields. This is something employers are looking for more often these days due to cuts in the economy. People who are multi-skilled are valuable. And not only in the job market. Multi-skilled amateurs can combine their skills to come up with concepts and products that a single skilled person could never dream up.

The think tank, Demos, released a short ebook about the impact of professional amateurs. It’s well worth a read. Professional amateurs or (Pro-Ams) are described as amateurs who ‘work’ to a professional level but do not consider their interests/activities as their profession. It is an aspiring title that doesn’t come with the pressure of performance for your livelihood. Instead you ‘work’ at a professional level for the fun of it and can still make significant contributions to the development of your field(s).

As an aside, I wanted to briefly talk about autodidactism. An autodidact is someone who learns on their own. They gain knowledge by reading and by experimentation. This is of course the opposite of learning via traditional education – school, college, university. So much can be learned now that information is such an abundant commodity on the internet. Traditional education has its merits of course. It’s much more structured for example, and you are learning from experts. But you can’t tackle multiple fields of interest at university level. It would cost too much in time and money and traditional education in almost all cases focuses on a smaller and smaller niche of a field, the further you study – Bachelors degree -> Masters degree -> PhD -> and beyond.

Amateurs are natural autodidacts. They crave information about their chosen field(s). Their thirst for knowledge is insatiable. Most of all, they pursue their interests because it makes them happy. They don’t need to become a professional to reach this goal. That only limits us. Be proud to be an amateur. Widen your field of view and see what you can create, achieve, contribute and discover.

One thought on “It’s OK To Be An Amateur

  1. So very true, with the Internet all but being a human right, there is no real excuse why people are unable to learn something new. I’m constantly learning new programming languages or interesting facts about things, I could speak to a rocket scientist about some things without being a rocket scientist.

    Go Internet. Go autodidacts.

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