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The Age of the Amateur · 15 November 04

Amateur: French, from Latin amator, lover, from amare, to love.

When we started working on product ideas, one of the tests we subjected every idea to was “what if it works?”

We had lots of ideas: a better answering machine, online education tools, job hunting sites, baby blogs, personalized text ads, personalized news services. Sure, we could build a personalized text ads service! But what if it works? Do we really want to run that business?

Before long, we realized we had one primary criteria for an idea we’d want to work on: it had to be an idea we loved so much that if it works, we’d be happy to work on it. Reflecting on the “love test” I found myself contemplating the word “Amateur”. The root word there is love, and an amateur is someone who pursues their interest out of love, not a hope for professional recognition or market success.

The test we were concerned with wasn’t how great a business the idea would be. It was whether we could love the work. We thought about products we admire: del.icio.us, flickr, upcoming.org, craigslist, bloglines. Some of these are going to be great businesses, but all of them have an amaeteurish edge in the best sense of that word. They look like works of love. It was the amateur roots of them, the passion behind the product, that we admired.

The First Age of the Amateur

Historically speaking, the first Age of the Amateur gave us the birth of science. New technologies in optics and new gadgets for measurement allowed gentlemen to put aside their hawking and horses and take up nobler pursuits, like the new science and learning that was growing up around them. A “republic of letters” developed between gentlemen scholars who compared their discoveries and investigations. The Royal Society replaced the royal court as the domain for displaying talents. Their standing as gentlemen meant they had no material stake in their researches and their reputations served as a sort of social guarantee that their accounts of natural phenomena were true. Their scientific pursuits were pursuits of love. They were amateurs.

The Age of the Expert

Fast forward. The last century saw most human beings come under the jurisdiction of some (typically immense) institution in the business of trading on expertise. Wall Street, the Pentagon, the University, the Corporation, the Factory – all were organizing institutions that established what would count in the order of things. Professional degrees were created and professional associations grew. Gone was the generalist, the hacker, the amateur. The key to the future was to go to school, study something and do it for the rest of your life.

The New Age of the Amateur

But something funny happened on the way to the future. Today parents don’t tell their child to learn one thing and do it forever. The order of the day is to learn how to learn. The happiest people are those who love what they do (and do many things). The key to a great career is knowing what you are passionate about. Nothing could hurt your career more than working on passionless projects with passionless people. The people with the good jobs not only seem to love what they do at work – they do what they love away from work. The consumer landscape is covered with services turning pastimes into professions and hobbies in to obsessions. Love and the amateur are back in fashion.

Could it be that doing it for love is the ultimate competitive advantage? In open source, in marketing, in living - love powers amateurish products past other more professional products. Love creates disruptive innovation. Amateurism is a source of innovation. For a while, we thought we could substitute expertise for passion, but with Google helping us research any topic and blogs helping the world publish on an equal level with the experts, the learning curve doesn’t seem so steep anymore. The new age of the amateur is at hand.

Posted by Josh Petersen | Thoughts |

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  1. i’m dying here in kansas city. i’ve got to know what is you are up to - please, please, oh, pretty please?
    Brooke    Nov 15, 9:16pm    #
  2. I think you have nailed it. This is probably what Paul Graham means when he says hackers will work on things that interest them, and will do a great job beacuse they have equity.

    good post, can’t wait to try out your products
    Prakash    Nov 16, 10:51am    #
  3. I love it when someone comes along and sums up everything you have been thinking into a beautiful piece. It just sends your heart up and out through your throat, makes you really feel good. Thanks!

    ps: love the textpattern
    Kjell    Nov 17, 4:36pm    #
  4. True. Reminded me of Plastic Bag’s, (Weblogs and) The Mass Amateurisation of (Nearly) Everything…
    -b-    Nov 18, 9:02am    #
  5. Inspiring. You captured what’s been a source of hope & inspiration for me recently. Wish you were in Austin, I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee!
    - Steve
    Steve Sanderson    Nov 21, 8:13am    #
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