The benefits of working like an amateur
I recently heard an interview with Jim Jarmusch in which he talked about how he considers himself an amateur filmmaker, even though he’s been making movies since the early 1980s. He explained that he looks back to the original Latin meaning of the word amateur, which is amare, or “to love.” Amator means “lover.” Being an amateur means loving your craft.
I’m in. I’ve been a UX designer for a number of years, and what Jarmusch said really clicked with me.
Heart and guts
Jarmusch spent most of the 1970s in New York City immersed in the emerging punk music scene, which was a haven for amateurs. Punks loved rock ‘n roll, but few were trained musicians. If you had the attitude and desire, this was the place to be. Sure, some got rich and famous eventually, but for most of the NYC punk rockers, they were authentic amateurs. And that’s what made the music so vibrant; it was driven by heart and guts, not pleasers trying to make a buck.
In this sense, I like the idea of approaching my work as an amateur. I have always been driven by my love for good storytelling, a skill that you need as a user experience designer. You need to tell stories about users to clients and to product teams, and you need to transform a pile of random ideas into a different kind of story: an application.
Mistakes are baked in
Being an amateur means you don’t feel paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. In software development, the buzzwords of “lean,” “agile,” and “rapid prototyping” are actually just different ways of saying the same thing: move fast, break things, discover mistakes early, keep iterating. Mistakes are baked right in. The whole process is designed to find mistakes early and get rid of them. If you can’t move fast because you fear being wrong, you’re going to have a hard time being successful. So, think like an amateur!
It is nearly impossible to be a designer of any kind without injecting part of yourself into everything you design. Therefore, I want my designs to reflect the best parts of amateurism: drive, humility, empathy, being uncomplicated.
A term of endearment
If you investigate the meaning of “amateur,” you get mixed messages. How is it that one word can mean two things that are almost opposites?
By the Latin root definition, an amateur is someone who does something out of love and passion, someone who is not held captive by making money. An expert without financial interest. This version of the word has a kind of purity.
By another definition — the one that’s more common in America — an amateur is someone who is uninformed, inexperienced… a dilettante who has not yet paid her dues, but is attempting to wear the disguise of a professional and reap the rewards. An imposter. This version of the word is derogatory.
I choose to understand “amateur” as a term of endearment, a label that communicates motivation instead of obligation, passion instead of masked apathy, emotional rewards instead of financial rewards, and integrity instead of weakness. As an amateur, I can feel free to do what’s best instead of what’s easy.
In his 2009 TEDx Talk, Simon Sinek explained that, in their day, the Wright brothers were competing with plenty of other airplane inventors who were much better funded, and who had more experience and education on their teams. But the Wright brothers were pursuing their dream of flight, while the others were pursuing fame and fortune and status. Who do you think was more innovative, more willing to take chances, and more willing to put in the work? History tells us who: Orville and Wilbur Wright. Amateurs!
Being an amateur is the essence of the pioneering spirit that all entrepreneurs embolden. Conformity and structure can be the enemy of creative thought. Like the Wright brothers and scores of visionary amateurs before and after them, progress comes from those who aren’t afraid to fail.
Why do you do what you do?
I think many of us who work in tech could benefit from taking on the attitude of an amateur more often. It’s easy to get occupational burnout in this industry. It’s fast paced and competitive. It’s male-dominated. It requires constant self-education. Keeping the enthusiasm going can be a challenge if you’re only in it for the money.
I’ve known many people who are truly in love with their work. They get excited about new ideas. They (mostly) remove ego from the work at hand. They listen. (They talk a lot, too…)
Maybe we’re all a bunch of amateurs, in the best way possible: We love our work.