For the Love, Be an Amateur

Pismo PierRecently my friend and co-author, Eddy Ekmekji, and I texted about our shared hobby of photography and hesitancy to pursue our pastimes.

Eddy: You know what my problem tends to be? I don’t like being an amateur. I think pro or nada. So with cameras, I want to go all out and figure out how to be head and shoulders above. When I run, I feel like I’m really trying out for the Olympics.

Tyler: Right. I run into that with other hobbies. Like if I’m not going to play Staples Center, what’s the point of writing songs or playing guitar?

Eddy: Exactly!

Doing an activity simply for the love of that activity has become a challenge for me. I realize I’ve internalized our society’s values that say an interest is only worthwhile if it comes with some kind of monetary compensation or that I achieve a certain level of proficiency, preferably that receives renown. I still have hobbies, but in the back of my mind I worry they are wastes of time since they do not result in a recognizable, tangible reward. Or I compare myself to masters and think unless I can match their skill, pursuing these interests is useless.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. As a child I would happily draw pictures and never show the sketches to anyone. I played guitar in my room in high school for several hours every week without performing in front of others. I filled notebooks with poems no one will ever see. (You should be thankful to not see my old poetry.) I spent Saturdays playing Ultimate Frisbee until I could barely walk—no one will ever remember the scores of those games. I did these things because they brought me joy and I loved them. I was a happy amateur.

In modern usage amateur means someone who does an activity for no compensation. It is the antonym of professional. An older definition of amateur from the French means someone who loves a pursuit or activity, literally a “lover of.” Amateurs pursue an interest because of the inherent value they find in it. They don’t look for external rewards like payment or fame.

In college my health psychology professor showed us research that found the quickest way to suck the joy out of a beloved activity is to pay someone for it. The payment shifts the reward from the internal connection—the inherent happiness that comes from growing in skill and accomplishing an endeavor—to an external and fleeting benefit. Money is cheap, in other words. That’s not to say professionals cannot love their work, but that the joy they find in that work most often comes from something other than their paycheck.

We can see being an amateur as a healthy, Christian character trait, that is, a virtue. We might consider becoming an amateur a spiritual discipline. To do something simply because we love it and it brings us joy is very good. The creation account of Genesis 1 shows God making the universe as an act of pleasure. We become more open to goodness and love by engaging in activities we love. We recognize the inherent value in the work of others and can share in their joy too.

You may never get a sponsorship from Nike or The North Face, play basketball and hike the mountain anyway. No one may ever hire you to remodel their home, build the cabinet anyway. You may not sing at Carnegie Hall, take those voice lessons and practice anyway. You may not win a Pulitzer Prize, write anyway. You may never earn a Michelin star, cook anyway. You may not create the next Google, code anyway. Nothing done out of love is worthless.

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