Does The Professional/Amateur Divide Come From Within?

About 10-15 years ago, the idea of Pro-Ams, emerged. Pro-Ams are essentially amateurs who pursue an avocation with such diligence it was difficult to discern them from people who employed the same skills as a vocation based on degree of knowledge and practical execution.

Since that time there has been some occasional effort to clarify the distinction. Partially, I think there has been concern that sub-par products and services by amateurs not be mistaken as representative of the ideal by those having little familiarity with those products and services.

Most of the attempts to define the distinction have fallen short. The economic definition about professionals being paid and amateurs doing it for the love was problematic even decades prior to the Pro-Am term emerging. Using years of formal training or experience practicing the skills as a measure also falls short.

In both cases, you can find notable exceptions to the rule you don’t dare include in one category or the other lest you insult or overpraise. It also doesn’t take much before elitism and condescension creeps into the process.

In looking for a link about Pro-Ams for a post I did last week, I came across a piece on Medium that offers a definition of the differences that doesn’t involve any of the aforementioned criteria. It doesn’t answer the concerns about sub-par work, but I can attest from recent experience that there are companies with long history, great amounts of experience in their craft and millions in receipts each year who are managing to provide sub-par experiences and products without amateurs serving as poor examples.

Jeff Goins’ Medium piece, The 7 Differences Between Professionals and Amateurs, depends more on internal motivation than external definitions of achievement to draw his distinction.

Even if it wasn’t already highlighted, the following would probably naturally jump out at you:

If you want to be a pro in your field, you’re going to have to break this terrible amateur habit of looking at what people have without paying attention to what they did to get it. Chasing the results without understanding the process will lead to short-lived success, if not outright failure.

I have touched on this idea before. Even though the phrase “success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration,” is well known to the point of cliche, everyone has this idea that success is the result of a rare element – genius, talent, lucky big break – rather than developed as a process. Yes, natural ability often factors in, but people often believe that there is an easy recipe for results rather than the requirement of effort.

Among his seven differences are the following.

1. Amateurs wait for clarity. Pros take action.
You have to know what you are before you can figure out what you want to do.
In my case, I spent too long waiting for someone to call me a writer before I was willing to act like one. Now I’ve learned that clarity comes with action. We must perform our way into professionalism. We must first call ourselves what we want to become, and then get to the work of mastery.

2. Amateurs want to arrive. Pros want to get better.
You have to become a student long before you get to be a master.
For the longest time, I just wanted to be recognized for my genius. It wasn’t until I started putting myself around teachers and around the teaching of true masters that I realized how little I knew and how much I still had to grow as a writer.

3. Amateurs practice as much as they have to. Pros never stop.
You have to practice even, maybe especially, when it hurts.

It’s not enough to show up and work every day. You have to keep challenging yourself, keep pushing yourself beyond your limits. This is how we grow.


6. Amateurs build a skill. Pros build a portfolio.

You must master more than one skill.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a jack of all trades, but you must become a master of some. For example, all the professional writers I know are good at more than one thing. One is a great publicist. Another is really smart at leadership. Another is a fantastic speaker.

For creative professionals, this doesn’t mean you have to work at your craft uninterrupted for eight hours a day — at least not for most professionals. It means you will spend your time getting your work out there through a variety of channels and mediums, or that you’ll work for part of the day and master something else with the rest of your time.

I don’t know that this is the final word on amateurs vs. professionals, but I feel it is a constructive line of thought to pursue, if only because it get away from the practice of judging the worthiness of others.

Perhaps one benefit of these criteria is that you can be a professional at some pursuit, move to amateur status as other things draw your attention (perhaps a focus on professional status in another endeavor), and return to professional status later in life when you decide to rededicate yourself to it.

In this way, one need not sigh regretfully at once having been a “professional” with no hope of returning to that status because you have fallen out of synch with the latest philosophies, techniques and knowledge. Yes, regaining technical expertise later may be a challenge, but if professionals take the long view toward knowledge acquisition, that mindset puts you halfway there and may have kept you from falling too far behind in the interim.

Thoughts? Have you come across other definitions that are better in whole or in part?

Phhsst! You Think You Are As Good As Me?

Often when the concept of Professional-Amateurs or the capability of everyone to be creative comes up, there is a feeling of resistance that rises up among arts professionals. The study on creating public will for arts and culture that I have been citing this week addresses that a little.

Finally, our research found A POTENTIAL FOR PUSH-BACK FROM EXISTING CONSTITUENCIES for arts and culture (e.g., some arts leaders, working artists, arts educators, and arts and culture enthusiasts). Here, some respondents expressed concern that a focus on creative expression represents a dumbing down of the conversation about the value of arts and culture. Some artists, for example, chafe at the notion that “amateurs” and “hobbyists” might be lumped into the same category as those who have dedicated years of study, practice, and exploration to their art.

…Rather, the question of framing the subject is not either “creative expression” or “arts and culture,” but both/and. To those ends, our research suggests that framing the discussion in terms of creative expression is an entry point through which more people are receptive, increasing and diversifying the audience for whom the conversation has relevance.

Getting more people engaging in a conversation about arts and culture is a good thing. One of the benefits to people becoming more interested and invested in their hobby or area of interest is that the more they learn, the more they realize what they don’t know.

The only problem is that people are often satisfied with what they already know and don’t seek to learn more. As involved in the arts as I am, when I saw the “I Could Do That” video I included in a post last week, I had new respect for Piet Mondrian’s Tableau I. I wasn’t aware how difficult it is to execute using oil paint.

While I have never been dismissive of the work, I could have gone my whole life unaware of the technical skills necessary to create it.

But it can be valuable to remember that the arts aren’t the only arena in which people underestimate the degree of skill required.

Every year millions of kids around the world play baseball. It is a game that is easy for amateurs to participate in. Everyone understands, however, that only a select few have the skill to hit a baseball traveling in excess of 90 MPH…except for thousands of fans jeering at the ineptitude of the losing team.

Sports are still better served by having leagues of people of various ages, abilities and degrees of organization participating rather than athletes feeling threatened by the idea that people are being encouraged to think they have athletic ability.

It bears noting that participation in sports is waning both among those interested in playing and audiences. There may be a growing opportunity to engage people in creative expression as an alternative pursuit…or this may be a sign of a decreasing trend in participation in all types of activities.

Can Renting Culture Suffice?

I am beginning the process of moving to assume a new job in Ohio. If you are reading this, either my computer is packed and on its way to a new home or I am.

Fear not devoted readers, I have prepared a number of entries to hold you over until my computer, internet access and myself shall join up again.

Back in 2006 I cited an article Bill Ivey and Steven Tepper wrote on the growing cultural divide. (No subscription needed for the link in this post).

They discussed the emergence and impact of Pro-Ams, Professional Amateurs, a term that was fairly new back then. There is a lot to consider about what they have to say seven years later. At the time, they felt there will be a cultural divide between those who had the time and resources to navigate their choices and involve themselves in pro-am pursuits and those who didn’t.

I have to ponder more if the signs indicate things are moving in the direction they warn against or not.

What did catch my eye upon review this time around is their suggestion that we are moving toward renting culture rather than owning it.

“A few decades ago, cultural consumption required a small number of pieces of equipment – a television set and antenna, an AM/FM radio, and a record turntable. Now cable television, high-speed Internet connections, DVD-rental services, satellite radio, and streaming-audio services all require hefty monthly fees. Even consumption that feels like a purchase, like an iTune download, is often really a rental…”

This lack of ownership has been reinforced even since then by incidents where Amazon removed and changed content that people had purchased.

I wonder does this work to the benefit of live performance if music, books and videos become viewed as more ephemeral? Does the value of engaging in ephemeral experiences rise?

Or does it give rise to a notion that it is all disposable, not worth valuing and preserving since you can’t own it but can conveniently request access on demand?

It could conceivably lead to both.

Perform In One Place, Teach In 100 Places

Digital media seems to creep ever more closely to threaten the practice of physically attending live performance. Last month I got an email soliciting submissions for the WiredArts Festival, what they describe as a month long Fringe Festival which will be live streamed.

“there the audience is global, seating is unlimited and viewers can participate in live chat discussions, interact through twitter and facebook, while the performance is happening….We believe that THE SMALL THEATER AUDIENCE ISN’T IN DECLINE, IT’S ONLINE.”

The reasons they give for participating and the services they offer include:

-Instantly provides a platform to take your company and your art to a global audience.

-Opens the doors to online conversations that expand the work for everyone involved.

-Multiple cameras provide professional, high definition quality and creative, dynamic story telling.

-Increases opportunities for support and funding.

-Engages your company more deeply in social media community and the possibilities of social media networking and marketing

-Is fun, exciting and the wave of the future of the performing arts.

-Drives online audiences to the live theater.

1 high-definition, multi-camera edit of your live performance
Social Media Marketing training sessions
3,000 square foot performance space at The Secret Theater
Opportunity to invite your own audience to the Secret Theater
4 camera setup and professional camera operators
Live-Streamed Director
1 Production Manager
1 Sound (for streaming) Technician
1 Board Operator

I am a little skeptical of their claim that this will drive online audiences to live theater given that the trend seems toward individuals increasingly isolating themselves. If positioned and presented correctly I imagine it could entice people to live performances, but it would have to be an active effort rather than passively depending on people liking something so much they decide to check it out live. People in general are too used to experiencing their entertainment via some form of mediation to feel there are some experiences that must be savored live.

Appropriately enough, three days after receiving this email the topic of You’ve Cott Mail was “The Future of Arts in a Digital Age.”

Included in Cott’s email was a piece by Andrew Sullivan basically saying only suckers eschew digital readers like the iPad and Kindle for print, a sentiment somewhat belied by the widespread power outages on the East Coast. A little difficult to read your Kindle by candle light, a feat I managed with an old fashioned print book in Mongolian yurt this summer.

Thomas Jefferson read by candlelight, by gum. It should be good enough for everyone!

Such smug assertions have a pretty short shelf life, though. The benefits of digital format will surely continue to increase.

The question is, what place does a performing arts venue have as this future unfolds? Will the role be like that of The Secret Theater where theatres facilitate the live streaming performance of arts groups by providing space, personnel and technology? And what differentiates this performance from a television show or a YouTube video for the viewer?

The organizers of the WiredArts Festival seem to acknowledge a live audience to provide genuine feedback is important and I suspect it always will be, but this may mean the end of large performing arts venues in favor of smaller 100-200 seat venues. (As point of context, The Daily Show studio seats about 300 people and Colbert Report about 100 people.)

Will those who are skilled at curating and producing these sort of events become recognized as the hottest performance venues potentially shifting the artistic center of gravity away from places like NYC and LA? There is a lot of interesting stuff happening in Cincinnati thanks to the efforts of groups like ArtsWave. As physical location becomes less important to gaining recognition, more creatives may start to gather in cities that provide high quality technology resources/support and low cost of living.

Given that artists will be reaching a global audience, live interaction in the form of workshops/residencies/master classes may become more valued if artists promote that as a service they can offer. Going on an extended tour with a dance company may be less common but the opportunity to work in a small group with a compelling artist may increase in desirability. (So I guess a base of operations in a city with a low cost of living but good airport will be essential.)

This may seem a remote possibility but the Andrew Sullivan article I referenced earlier pointed out people are buying the work of talented individuals rather than trusted institutions these days.

It may just be a matter of making people more aware that personal contact and instruction is possible causing the whole model to become inverted. Instead of touring a performance to 100 places and teaching in a few, you live stream one or two big performances a year from your base and the notoriety it generates supports sending skilled members of the company all over the world to spend a few weeks teaching people how to perform like they saw in the broadcast. If you have the talent and vision to parlay the longer term exposure and interactions with all these different people and cultures into a new creative expression that wows the world, you can keep the cycle going.

This version of the future would dovetail very well with the Pro-Am movement because it would help people nourish their avocation and still acknowledge the value of pursuing the arts as a vocation (though certainly a Pro-Am could just as easily travel about providing educational experiences at cut rate prices).

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