No one likes to be called an amateur, a term that carries a negative connotation of inexperience and ineptitude. Most of us prefer more commendable labels: professional, specialist, guru, expert. These are the ones we scatter across our LinkedIn profiles, the ones imbued with prestige and, therefore, with power.
But what if there's power in amateurism, too?
The root of the word "amateur" dates back to 1784. In French and Latin, it meant "lover," describing someone passionate about a particular activity. The associations weren't negative — skill was simply rendered irrelevant to the definition, while enthusiasm was what mattered.
We remember this true essence of amateurism when we watch children play. Whether they're splattering paint across crumpled pieces of paper in sloppy attempts at self-portraits or shooting sixty baskets before one ball finally goes through the net, they're full of joy. They're eager to try what makes them curious, simply to know what it's like, simply to engage. Professionalism, practice, precision — none of these virtues matter to a kid, an admirable and adorable and adventurous amateur who just wants to do what he or she loves.
As grown-ups, we get uncomfortable with what makes us feel incompetent. That's because we've come to see mastery as the key to climbing the ranks, first at school and then in our careers — and it does require hard work and honed ability to become accomplished leaders. But in pursuit of success, we sometimes forget to leave time and space for new, nonprofessional hobbies that are just plain fun, with or without dexterity.
In case you're craving evidence from a few, ahem, experts, there are true scientific benefits to embracing amateurism. Unfamiliar experiences create synaptic connections that amplify each other, increasing overall neural activity and triggering dopamine release. Dopamine supports neurogenesis, which is the formation of more neurons and neural connections, while motivating us to repeat the process. We learn as we go. Learning new things is a key contributor to psychological wellbeing — it stokes self-confidence, human connection, and creativity.
The eventual result, of course, is that mastery we glorify in the first place. But before we get there, we have to begin. To begin, we have to be willing to be novices (and even flat-out bad) — to splatter the paint, to miss the hoops, and to laugh it all off, relishing the sloppiness. Once we begin beginning, we're bound to realize something surprising: "sucking" at something is seriously enjoyable. The kids have it right after all. They might be amateurs, but they're aficionados of amateurism. They're experts at loving their little adventures with passion and glee.
If you're ready to experiment with amateurism, here are a six ideas ways to try a brand new pursuit:
1. Register for an art class. Drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, glass-blowing — choose the material you've always admired and get your hands dirty. Your masterpiece might be messy, but it will still be an amateur work of art.
2. Join an intramural sports team or athletic club. Bring a friend along so you'll always have a teammate to catch your pass, even when it's a little bit off. Winners, losers, doesn't matter — every game is a game won when it ends with a shared snack and a slow, sunny walk home.
3. Pick up a new cookbook. What's your favorite foreign cuisine? Find a collection of recipes that caters to your favorite flavors, and see what happens when you swap your go-to dinner dish for something totally unfamiliar.
4. Volunteer at a community garden. There's much more to growing vegetables than seeds and soil, and when you dig into the mud, you may learn a few things about your own growth, too. Plus, nothing tastes sweeter than a carrot you grew yourself.
5. Study a new language. Those flight tickets to Paris or Rome might be pricey, but you can pretend you're on a European holiday by picking up a few key phrases via a class at your closest university or an online app like Duolingo. Practice romantic pick-up lines in your chosen Romance language on your partner, who won't know the difference if you confuse a word or two, or test your accent in the mirror.
6. Participate in an improv troupe. What better way to practice the floundering flubs of amateurism (and to enjoy the hilarity of the process) than with ad libbed acting? Stepping on stage might seem terrifying at first, but it's an ideal opportunity to ditch the safe script, both literally and metaphorically, and experiment with playful, preparation-free fun.
p.s. If you're still a little freaked out about trying something new without a savvy roadmap, here's why self-awareness beats a five-year plan, anyway.