Choosing the amateur path

I’m currently reading a nice little book called Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky that discusses at some length the difference between being a professional and being an amateur. And it seems that being labelled an amateur isn’t really so bad at all, and may in fact be a good thing.

One of the professional vs. amateur examples that Shirky returns to often in his book is about a charity started by a group of Josh Groban fans (or “Grobanites” as they call themselves), aptly called “Grobanites for Charity“. It started off pretty much by chance (enabled by the internet without which it wouldn’t have happened) by people who didn’t know much about starting charities — in other words, amateurs.

And looking at its website, you wouldn’t think otherwise.

Being an avid web-designer earlier on in my life, I’d always prided myself on creating professional-looking sites; the more it looked like something a big corporation would use, the happier I’d with the result.

So when I read about Grobanites for Charity and visited their website I was a little surprised — that though their website looked like it belonged in the early 90’s, it also had a very familial feel to it. It was down-to-earth, honest and relatable. This wasn’t some faceless corporation; it was Kay, and Melanie, and Pat, and Jackie.

In this sense, the amateur look-and-feel of the site actually seemed to work in their favour. Even I, a non-Josh Groban fan, felt compelled to do my bit by donating something or by helping out.

From the book:

Now, the design of a website may not seem to have much to do with fostering a sense of membership, but something designed by an amateur can actually create better conditions of membership than a professional design can.

Consider the kinds of kitchens you see in photographs in House Beautiful and Better Homes and Gardens, designed to a fare-three-well with a place for everything and everything in its place. My kitchen is not like that. (Perhaps yours isn’t either.) But if you were a guest at a dinner party, you likely wouldn’t dare set foot in a House Beautiful kitchen, because the design doesn’t exactly scream Come on in and help! My kitchen, on the other hand, does scream that — you wouldn’t feel much compunction about grabbing a knife and dicing some carrots if you felt like it.

Which makes me wonder about how the context of a “professional space” and “amateur space” might affect how people think about things.

I would imagine that it’d be similar to how money corrupts intentions?

Nobody tells this to beginners – Ira Glass

A great quote from Ira Glass:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

And that is why I do this; why I write. Nobody may read a word. Nobody may appreciate the work. But I’m going to keep working at it. And one day, if and when I’m somebody who’s somebody, and someone asks me, “what’s your secret to your success?” I’m going to be thinking of this period of my life, writing and thinking for ghosts.