Embrace your inner amateur

By Harry L. Davis     
December 04, 2013

From: Magazine

Adapted with permission from Why Are You Here and Not Somewhere Else, by Harry L. Davis, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Let me share with you a story that begins almost 100 years ago. It involves the start up of a new agency selling life insurance that grew over its first 20 years to become one of the largest and most profitable in the United States.

Business success rarely has a single cause and this story is no exception. Certainly one factor was timing. The first 30 years of the twentieth century witnessed the evolution of life insurance from a luxury purchased by the wealthy to a necessity sought out by broad segments of the population.

But this company grew faster than other agencies. That’s because it more aggressively recruited new agents, trained these agents thoroughly, created innovative insurance products, and provided agents with highly persuasive sales materials. In today’s jargon we would say that the company better understood and executed its business model.

Of course, you can’t overlook the talents of those in leadership positions, and similar to the stories of HP, Intel, and Apple, the two founders of this new agency had complementary skills. One partner was extroverted, good with numbers and operational details, and comfortable in representing the agency in front of prospective agents. The other was more introverted—even shy—but filled with new ideas and skillful at conveying those ideas in straightforward prose.

These three factors—strong leadership, the right business model, and fortuitous timing—seem as relevant today as they were in 1907. The name of this company became Ives and Myrick.

There is another plotline to this story, however, a sort of a footnote. One of the two founders pursued a passion for music as a pastime. He composed music in the evenings, on weekends, walking to and from work, and sometimes even stole a few moments at the office. During the same time that he was building the company, he was also writing music with no audience in mind, with no guarantee of ever hearing his compositions performed, and certainly with no expectation of monetary reward.

This footnote to the story turns out to be the story, and his business career becomes the footnote. For this workaday insurance man was Charles Ives, who is considered by many to be America’s first great composer. His pastime, not his paid work, became his legacy.

The University of Chicago’s Andrew Abbott begins his book, The System of Professions: “The professions dominate our world. They heal our bodies, measure our profits, save our souls.” I happen to agree with Abbott’s thesis. The word professional is pervasive and used widely to entice customers, clients, patients, and even students. Even truckers are attracted to the word. A semi that I once passed while driving to the university was emblazoned with the phrase: “Pulling for America with [you guessed it] Professional Pride.”

I have great respect for the professions. How could I not as I teach at the finest professional school in the world? According to a commonly recognized definition, a professional is someone in possession of a body of theoretical knowledge and the art of applying it.

But it is worth noting that while the word professional has enjoyed wider and wider usage and has developed increasingly positive connotations in the English language, its opposite—the word amateur—has suffered over time. (Can you imagine, for example, telling your friends and employers that you are proud to be a business amateur?)

Amateurs are often derided as dabblers, second-rate people who tackle things superficially and without professional skills. But the dictionary also provides another definition of amateur derived from the Latin term for someone who works at an art or science for its own pleasure. It is this definition that University of Chicago’s Wayne Booth used in his delightful book on being an amateur, titled For the Love of It.

Two questions come to my mind when I reflect on professional and amateur pursuits.

First, why is it that we feel the need to choose one or the other? That is, why do we feel compelled to choose between one way that evaluates the worth of any activity according to its future benefit relative to its cost (in expected value terms) and another way where being fully present in the moment overrides any serious concern about future payoffs?

After all, the differences between these two heuristics aren’t really all that large when it comes to the work itself. Master chefs do not have a monopoly on well-grilled steaks. Both amateurs and professionals participate in an activity; the pursuits of an amateur are not spectator sports. Both use common tools and materials, work hard, and try to do their best to improve. You need to have both the amateur’s imagination to experiment with stir-frying grapefruit and the professional’s experience not to try it again.

Would it enrich our lives to pursue both approaches simultaneously rather than viewing the professional and the amateur as polar opposites?

Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay in which he distinguishes between the single-minded hedgehog (who knows one thing) and the crafty fox (who knows many things). This is a classic philosophical debate that places ideas into neat oppositions. In a business context, however, wouldn’t it make sense for companies to have access to both the hedgehog’s and the fox’s perspectives depending upon the competitive landscape.

Similarly, and at a personal level, rather than pitting the professional against the amateur, wouldn’t it also make sense to have access to both? Charles Ives did not abandon his passion for music when he committed himself to business. Nor did he sacrifice performance within these two arenas. His vision was simply too large on the musical front for him to be only a church organist and choir director. He was too ambitious in business to just get a job; rather, he and his partner set in place one of the first professionally run insurance agencies in the industry. Ives fit everything in and played both roles to the hilt. And he was innovative in both.

There is a second question: Would our professional roles be strengthened if we brought the amateur’s approach into our work?

Again, I’ll invoke the name of Charles Ives. He was well trained musically, first by his father and then as a student at Yale. He performed as a professional early in his life. But in his role as a composer, Ives displayed many of the qualities of an amateur: constant tinkering, dabbling in many different musical styles, and being open to everyday music that came from marching bands, church anthems, revival meetings—even from the dance hall. At a time when serious composers believed that there was no indigenous American music worthy of the name, Charles Ives had no embarrassment over titling a string quartet “From the Salvation Army,” even though his teacher at Yale was appalled. He loved the energy and genuineness of amateurs making music just for the love of it.

Not surprisingly, Ives was given the derogatory label of “amateur” by the music establishment. The word awful was frequently used. Much of his musical output made no sense to listeners as he experimented with compositional ideas that had never before been heard. In fact, it wasn’t until four or five decades after writing his most creative compositions that a wider public first heard his music and changed its assessment of the man from “crazy” to “genius.”

A downside of professionalism can be a narrowness of perspective and a prejudice against points of view that have not been officially sanctioned. There is much to be said for pursuing paths from time to time without any concern for what others think. Our roles as professionals benefit, I believe, by welcoming on stage our “two-year-old selves”—that part of us which can poke at things without worrying about perfection and remain open to mystery.

Create a large enough stage for yourself to support both your professional and your amateur. Happiness surely increases from active participation in many communities, and besides, you can never be entirely certain ex ante the source of your legacy.

Welcome your amateur on stage in your role as a professional. It takes courage to work against the grain and be authentic as amateurs are wont to do. Yet it is from authenticity that real competitive advantage may emerge and from where you have the best shot of evolving from a business professional into a truly unique artist in business.

Works cited

Andrew Abbott, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). 

Wayne Booth, For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). 

Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953).