Ditch the Derision, Salute the Amateur

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By Luke Johnson

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared last month in the Financial Times. It is reprinted here by the kind permission of the author.-sg

Professionals use the word “amateur” as a term of derision for those who lack formal training and qualifications. I think such condescension is a mistake. One day that amateur might just create a new industry.

After all, almost all entrepreneurs embody the amateur spirit, starting as a tinkerer in a garage, running a market stall or writing computer code in a bedroom somewhere. There is no guild of entrepreneurs, and no protective body that sets exams and standards. Instead there is the free-for-all of the market, a battlefield where only the fittest survive.

This lack of a rigid structure is a healthy state of affairs. Breaking down barriers to welcome all-comers creates a more dynamic and fluid order. For amateurs don’t suffer from the hierarchy, exclusion and ritual of all the self-important professions, from medicine to accountancy to law to architecture to academia. The rules and bureaucracy that fester among the endless committees in such grand disciplines are irrelevant to those who start and own their own companies. What matters is the irksome but vital question: are we still solvent?

Typical amateurs are free to invent as they please, try new ideas, fail, and get up and do it all again – but better. As Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist, said: “Amateurs can afford to lose.” They are self-improvers, chasing a dream rather than a laborious, life-long career within a clique. Amateurs can do it part-time, for charity or for fun. The old cartels are being bypassed thanks to technological advances and a more informal society. Now everyone can DIY and experiment – from blogging to film-making to online advice shops.

Thanks to the internet, we can all be competent amateurs at almost everything. The mysteries, jargon and insularity of the self-satisfied old crafts are revealed for all to see. The world is vastly more complex now, but that means even the most revered professional needs expert help. The end of the age of deference means we no longer hold elites such as judges, MPs, peers and bankers in such awe. For centuries the club-like professional bodies have held society in their thrall, a form of freemasonry for the well-educated and connected.

I see this in the restaurant business. Only pedants give a fig for stuffy concepts such as Michelin stars – what diners want is flair, variety, informality and value. Haute cuisine and the inherent snobbery of traditional French restaurants are irrelevant to 21st century customers, which is why London and New York now have far more vibrant and diverse dining scenes than Paris. In Britain and the US, amateurs can gatecrash the hospitality industry and make it big – that is what makes it exciting.

Charles Leadbeater has written persuasively about the importance of serious amateurs, or “pro-ams”, who have helped introduce radical innovations to the mainstream. These passionate consumers collaborate to give disruptive ideas critical mass – which is what happened with mountain bikes, which now account for two-thirds of the US cycle market. Meanwhile, big companies struggle with truly novel breakthroughs, because they naturally want to reinforce past success – and cannot afford public failures.

Social enterprises are dominated by enthusiastic amateurs whose priority is to improve the world rather than bill clients more per hour or collect industry honours. Among the greatest collaborative achievements of the internet age have been Wikipedia and Linux, the open-source software system – both built by armies of amateurs. It is surprising there haven’t been more crowd-sourced successes. Perhaps other ventures have been too anarchic, and lacked the leadership necessary for any complicated project to come to fruition.

Nevertheless, I salute the legions of gifted amateurs, the all-rounders and laypersons. Amateurs represent the ultimate meritocracy. I don’t deny the importance of education, but I place greater emphasis on results and originality, as opposed to doctorates and memberships of professional bodies. They are all too often focused on entrenching privilege and status rather than the public good.

The writer runs Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm, and is chairman of the Royal Society of Arts

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011. Reprinted by permission.

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