You have heard the word before. Usually in a demeaning and derogatory manner.
What a bunch of useless amateurs. Do not mind him. He is just an amateur…
What if I told you that it also carries a very positive meaning?
In last week’s post I urged you to to ‘Stop Making Excuses and Start Making Things’. If you decide to follow my advice, then you will be entering the world of craft as an amateur. Therefore I feel that I should devote a few lines to this misunderstood concept.
Amare – To Love
Let us take a quick look at word etymology
The word derives from the Latin amator, meaning ‘lover’, which in itself derives from the verb amare ‘to love’, ‘to like’. This in turn derives from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form *am-a, *am-, meaning ‘mother or aunt’. (I have a feeling that this would have given good old Sigmund Freud a bit of a chuckle.) Any Freudian investigations aside, the word entered the English language from the late 18th century French amatore.
None of these so far imply a negative meaning to the word, and indeed dictionary entries tend to give the primary definition simply as someone who engages in an activity on an unpaid basis. The derogatory meaning of someone who is inept or unskilled comes in second place.
Therefore an amateur is someone who engages in an activity for the sheer love of it. In our case the activity is craft.
Thus the amateur artisan is someone who carves wood on the weekends for the pleasure of making things – transforming a natural material, revealing the beauty hidden within. It is also someone who comes into an open pottery workshop after work to unwind from the stress of a desk job. It is someone who makes a knife every now and then for the pedantic challenge of making a fine tool – the Zen of fit & finish.
I have been an amateur for a long time. For now, I still consider myself one.
The opposite of an amateur is always a professional. But what keeps them apart?
Money – The Dividing Line
The defining difference between an amateur and a professional is that the first does it for a hobby, while the other does it for a living. That is it.
It is not skill that keeps them apart!
One can be a very skilled amateur. Some amateurs do indeed produce 3rd rate work even after they should progressed beyond the beginner phase. Others produce spectacular high-end work which can stand shoulder to shoulder with that of some of the great masters.
Some professionals also produce a lot of low grade work – objects far worse than what is produced by some diligent amateurs. But they churn out enough volume and address a certain segment of the market in order to keep themselves in business. They might even make a better profit than those who produce unique high-end pieces.
This brings on the questions of scale, focus and goals. Even more importantly: Which of the two do you want to be?
Is One Better Then the Other?
Since the dividing line between amateurs and professionals is making money, they have to differ in their focus and goals.
The amateur – the lover – performs a craft for the joy of it. Making things is his only focus. He can decide exactly what to make, how much of it to make it, when he wants to make it, how long he can spend working on it and how precisely it needs to be made.
The professional – the moneymaker – is not only a maker, but a businessperson as well. Besides making things, he/she needs to keep the business afloat, making sure to make ends meet and even make a profit by making things.
This means that inevitably the professional has to deal in some aspects of marketing & management. Thus they need to:
- Create a brand and promote a business
- Find and understand a market
- Create a loyal customer base
- Serve the wishes of a customer base
The professional also needs to adjust their work to the realities of making business. This again means that they need to:
- Figure out a price range for a chosen market
- Adjust work procedures to meet that price range
- Balance quality and quantity
- Balance costs and profits
- Work fast
- Work efficiently
In a way, there is a special sort of egoism to being an amateur – a freedom to pursue something for the sheer joy of it. On the other hand you need some other job which pays the bills, so that you can then devote some of your free time to making things.
Being a professional means that you pursue your craft full-time. You performing what you love allows enables you to do more of the same – every day. At the same time, you are not doing this just for yourself any more. You are doing it for your customers as well. You are doing it to pay the bills and if you do not find the all the realities and challenges of business at least somewhat interesting, then you should stay away from this path.
As you can see neither of the paths is necessarily better or worse. They are just different – meant to pursued by different people.
Amateur is only a bad word when your position requires you to be a professional. If you have to make living of what you do, then being an amateur is indeed the name of the path to ruin. Hopefully from not you will think for a second before you use it.
Some people will find more joy in being amateurs, while others eventually go on to make a living with their creative efforts. Both path can be noble and fulfilling.
Which path you pursue in the end will be your choice and your choice only.
So do not be ashamed of being an amateur. Being one can indeed a very positive thing. What matters for now is that you are doing something that you enjoy. Something that you wanted to do for a long time.
Which path do you pursue? What made you choose it? Share it in the comments bellow!