The Joy of Being an Amateur

Throughout human history, there’s never been a better time to be a creative person.

In a world that’s constantly reminding you of everything that’s going wrong, it’s worth bringing up that simple point. If you have an idea — from the quirky to the bold — it’s easier than ever to make it real. If there’s something you want to exist in the world that doesn’t already, there’s never been a better time to make it happen.

This fact is true for films and music, products or experiences. In the span of fewer than twenty years, the fundamental physics of creativity have been flipped upside down. In fact, the change happened so fast that many people don’t realize just how much has changed. Twenty years ago, ideas were hard to make real. If you wanted to make a film, you needed to buy the expensive camera equipment and find distribution through television or Hollywood contacts, all which required access to large amounts of project-specific capital. If you wanted to create a physical product, you needed to have an expensive machine shop or have the commercial demand to warrant manufacturing quantities. Now, you can film something with your phone and upload it right to YouTube in minutes. Or design a product on a browser-based CAD program and 3D print it at your local makerspace. Others have articulated these changes with far greater detail, like Chris Anderson’s classic The Long Tail or Kevin Kelly’s essay on 1,000 True Fans.

Unfortunately, for a majority of people, the new rules have only meant new walls. Daunting new platforms to understand coupled with the genuine fear of sharing inferior works-in-progress. Just because things have become more possible, doesn’t mean it’s any easier. From the perspective of the beginner, it’s as steep of a climb as it’s ever been to become “good” or to go professional (to make a living from creative endeavors). Being a creative person still seems hard.

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In fact, it probably seems harder. The message from established musicians or manufacturers or artists is that it’s more challenging than ever to make a living. As we’ve entered this new creative reality, we’ve focused much of our analytical energy on the effects on the professional end of the spectrum: how will Hollywood adapt to this changing environment? How do you make a living as a musician? Will indie bookstores survive?

Those discussions are important. I’m glad they’re happening, and I’m encouraged by companies like Kickstarter and Patreon who are working on creating the financial plumbing for these new professionals. But I don’t think we pay enough attention to the middle of the spectrum — to the pure joy of amateurism. We should celebrate it. We should encourage it. And we should aspire to it.

There’s freedom in being an amateur. It’s more daring and filled with more possibilities. Whereas professionals focus on innovation — incremental improvements over established systems and products — the amateur aims for invention.

“A hobby is a defiance of the contemporary. It is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked.”
- Aldo Leopold

But most of all, being an amateur is just more fun.

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For me, there’s no better example than Maker Faire. It’s still the grand parade of amateurs — a safe place for raw and unbridled enthusiasm. When I attended my first Faire in 2009, many of the ideas were still in their infancy: makerspaces, desktop 3D printers, Arduinos. The creative revolution was finally happening with actual, physical product creation. We took full advantage. My friend Eric Stackpole and I rode that wave as we turned Eric’s garage-built underwater robot project into a global community of ocean explorers. When my book, Zero to Maker, came out in 2013, I was so excited to share the message: the path from beginner to professional maker was shorter and more attainable than ever. I still believe that’s true, but I no longer think it’s an essential part of the story. The real news is the ever-widening path to becoming an amateur, regardless of whether or not it ever pans out as a profession.

Now, as Maker Media and I publish the second edition of Zero to Maker, I again extend the invitation to get involved. The tools are better than they were in 2013. There are more makerspaces (now over 1,300 worldwide), and more Maker Faires around the world (more than 240 this year, including at your local Barnes & Noble this weekend). Come and join the party. There’s never been a better time to get started.

“A good hobby, in these times, is one that entails either making something or making the tools to make it with, and then using it to accomplish some needless thing.”
- Aldo Leopold

Entrepreneur and writer working at the intersection of science, conservation, and technology.

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