The sea of amateurs and the beach house of professionalism

This text got its spark from the highly enjoyable talk by Ben Cameron at TEDxYYC. Or to be more exact, a thought popped into my head when Mr. Cameron says “amateur artists doing work at a professional level” (at 6:58 – 7:01) and I just needed write this down.

My thought was: I do not think that amateur artists do work at a professional level. They have never done so and will never do so. Sure the tools have gotten better and, as Mr. Cameron points out, the distribution channels are just amazing these days, thanks to the internet.

And it’s not that the amateurs have suddenly multiplied in vast numbers. It’s just that we haven’t had a possibility, or have chosen not to see them in this light before.

Let me explain

Our viewpoint has had an effect on how we think about amateurs and professionals. Think of amateurs as a sea, and professionalism as a beach house.

From the beach house of professionalism you don’t see the sea of amateurs in its vastness. You see a part of the surface, and maybe what the waves have thrown on the shore, but you don’t have a clue of the depth of the sea, or what creatures or riches the sea holds in it. And quite frankly, the beach house has been so comfy that very few have even had any interest in the sea.

The internet brings to us stuff from the depths of the sea and presents us with all kinds of new life forms. Life at the beach house isn’t anymore what it used to be.

What we have seen (from our beach house so to say) and what has been chosen to been shown to us by the professionals who control the channels (i.e. papers, tv, radio, etc) are the amateurs from the relative point of professionals.

It’s like looking at the sky and saying that the sun sets or rises, which is what it looks like when you look at it from a point relative to the rotating piece of rock in space we stand on. But looking at it from another point you see that the sun doesn’t really move like that, but the rock sure rotates, and look; there’s even more stuff going on, stuff that wasn’t visible when looking at space from the rock.

I wonder what world would be like if the view that everything rotates around the earth would have prevailed? But it didn’t, it couldn’t have since there was no ground for it. In the same way the narrow way of looking at amateurs cannot prevail, there’s no ground for it either.

Professionals are still professionals, though

The amateurs have always worked (some with a burning passion) with the tools and resources that are readily available. Today the tools readily available are to a big part the same for amateurs as they are for professionals. Amateurs have always copied professionals, kept up with Joneses one could say (because that’s a part of fandom and learning), some so much so, that they’ve themselves have become professionals. And there are also many amateurs that are as good, or possibly even better, than professionals, but who by either own choice or other circumstance stay outside the professional realm.

It’s just that professionals haven’t evolved at the same rate as the amateurs. The professional realm is to a huge part a very slowly rotating world with enormous expectations of ones creative output by employers, customers or investors – can’t piss them off or you’re on the street. You need to be careful and that doesn’t equal with speed or agility. The amateur is more flexible, free from the financial press and already on the street level.

The gap between the professional and the amateur has almost disappeared as the tools have become available to practically everybody and the distribution of both professional and amateur content has exploded. This means that amateurs have more material to study, copy and train themselves on.

People copy and remix, and they always have. In times when you didn’t see so much of what others did (professionals or amateurs), you didn’t have so much to copy from (less influences and less knowledge of what is going on in the world) and you sure didn’t have a channel to show a big audience how good you (or the others for that matter) had become. Today it’s common to see skilled people, old and young, copy what the professionals do. Just look up any preschooler displaying amazing drumming skills on the YouTube, as an example.

Then again the multitude of content available should work also the other way, giving professionals a great possibility to observe the ever shrinking gap between the pro and amateur. But unfortunately a big chunk of the professional realm is often more concerned about protecting, prohibiting and preserving, than evolving.

While it may be so, that an ever increasing number of amateurs now reach a level which resembles the professional, there will still always be a difference between the two. A professional in my mind is the same person as the artist in Seth Godin‘s excellent book Linchpin. It’s not enough to be good, you got to deliver. This is why I think an amateur never works on the level of a professional.

But it ain’t easy

Now, if today’s professionals want to keep working in the professional realm, they sure have to do something about it. A master’s degree and a place to work doesn’t really cut it anymore. You need to be several steps ahead, do what others don’t and show it. Back in the age before internet this was easier, as amateurs didn’t have so much visibility. But today professionals aren’t the only ones distributing their content directly in front of those who sit on the money (or, as it is today, the ever shrinking budgets).

An amateur can of course become a professional by being better than other amateurs or, even better, by outshining the current professionals, thus at the same time raising the bar. That’s evolution, and that has been going on long before the internet, but at a much slower speed. I guess that if the past could be viewed as a time-lapse movie (say one year compressed into one minute or so) we would see the similarities clearly.

Becoming professional is a struggle. It wasn’t easy before, but it sure hasn’t become any easier now as we have internet. The competition gets tougher year for year, day for day… probably in these days even minute for minute.