Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Emergence of the Amateur Professional

Every time the Olympics come around, there is the inevitable call by some to bring the amateurs back to the Olympics. One of the most memorable Olympic events ever was the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid when the amateur US hockey team beat the Soviet Union team that consisted of full time “amateur” players.

While there are a number of reasons for finally allowing professional players in the Olympics, the one the stands out is that at the top levels it has become almost impossible to truly distinguish between the amateur and professional athlete.

At one time, the definition between an amateur and professional was pretty straightforward. The amateur is not paid for what he or she does, the professional is.

But when so-called “amateur” Olympic athletes from the Eastern Bloc were not paid a salary but had all of their expenses paid for by their governments, true amateurs who had to train in their spare time while holding a job were at a severe competitive disadvantage. So other countries had to resort to subsidizing their athletes through their governments or private donations which made the idea of pure amateurism little more than a joke.

But in many endeavors, the dividing line between professional and amateur is becoming more and more blurred. Let’s take the definition of a professional.

pro·fes·sion·al [prō féshən’l, prō féshnəl, prə féshən’l]

1. member of profession:
somebody whose occupation requires extensive education or specialized training

2. somebody doing something as paid job: somebody who is engaged in an occupation as a paid job rather than as a hobby

3. somebody very competent:
somebody who shows a high degree of skill or competence

As 3. suggests, while a high degree of skill and competence can be attained through formal education, there is a growing group of people who have also attained these skills and competencies — the amateur professional. (sometimes referred to as a professional amateur)
The concept and terms have been used, since 2004, as a descriptor for an emerging sociological and economic trend of "people pursuing amateur activities to professional standards."

Amateur professionalism occurs in populations that have more leisure time and live longer, allowing the pursuit of hobbies and other non-essential interests at a professional or near-professional knowledge and skill-level.

Am-pro fields today increasingly include astronomy, activism, sports equipment (e.g. in surfing and mountain biking), software engineering, education, and music production and distribution.

An example of professional amateurism on a large, and socially and economically notable, scale is the international open source and free software operating system project GNU/Linux which along with its many spinoffs has been developed by paid professionals at companies such as Red Hat, HP and IBM working generally indistinguishably together with am pro coders, and has become a major competitor to Microsoft Windows.

Charles Leadbeater, a London think tank researcher in this video talk “weaves a tight argument that innovation isn't just for professionals anymore. Passionate amateurs, using new tools, are creating products and paradigms that companies can't.”

In Leadbeater’s initial example, he cites how the mountain bike was actually invented by enthusiastic amateurs before the mainstream manufacturers discovered its worth and eventually mass-produced it.

Many of the more recent discoveries in the field of astronomy have been a collaboration of amateurs and professionals. And not long ago, it was difficult for writers to share their thoughts with the world except for established authors and journalists. Now there are self-published authors and bloggers, many of whom have produced quality writing that rivals that of the full-time professionals.

Not surprisingly, there are professionals who take the prejudicial attitude that the term “amateur” necessarily means second rate as I wrote in
Writing Is My Labor of Love in response to a local newspaper columnist who wrote:

Writing is a tough gig, and the fact that millions of people choose to do it for free is a mystery to us paid writers.
Leadbeater has also published a paper, The Pro-Am Revolution which explores this subject in more depth and can be accessed in this link.

I feel there are two things we need to take away from all of this.

One is that innovation is the lifeblood of among others, the manufacturing and educational processes. Instead of amateur professionals being cast aside as second-rate, we need to acknowledge and encourage their contributions.

Secondly, although many have lost their professional jobs due to a terrible economy, many of these same people have a great deal to offer through experience and knowledge acquired in other fields that they are passionate about. For those who want to or need to make a career transition, they should be judged on their own merits instead of simply formal education.

I conclude with this from Leadbeater.

Some professionals will seek to defend their endangered monopoly. The more enlightened will understand that knowledge is widely distributed, not controlled in a few ivory towers. The most powerful organizations will combine the know-how of professionals and amateurs to solve complex problems. That is true in astronomy, software development and online games. It should be the path that our health, education and welfare systems follow as well.

No comments: