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Praise for the Amateur

What is the difference between an amateur and a pro? A book, according to Jack Hitt, author of “Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character.” All the bumbling amateur stuff you did on the way to doing something really great (inventing electricity or discovering a new comet) is transformed, in the book version, to become “the memoir that explains how it was all inevitable anyway” glossing over “all the bumbling amateur striving.”

That isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with being an amateur. In fact, we need them. A good deal of American ingenuity, including the kind that trades for $500 per share on NASDAQ, started out as amateur endeavors. In case you need a definition, amateurs are the people who tinker tirelessly in their garages or down in the basement pursuing some passion outside of their day jobs. They build telescopes and become darn good stargazers, invent solar-powered vehicles, or track bird migrations and set up websites that even the experts regularly consult – with no disrespect, however to those who spend years perfecting the battery-powered, mint-flavored coffee filter, or the eco-friendly, self-illuminating ink cartridge.

Why do they do it? “Amateur” comes from a French word meaning “love,” or more specifically, “passionate love.”  Hitt’s book is the account of his quest to understand American character by searching out a bunch of amateurs in order to discover what drives their particular passions.

Being an amateur is a quintessentially American thing to do. The rest of the world doesn’t have them, according to Hitt. Actually, he admits, they do exist elsewhere. The difference is that we take ours much more seriously, even when they wear funny hats (an important identifying feature).  Comfortable with broad stereotypes, Hitt explains that in Europe amateurs are impeded by class distinctions and the need for formal credentials. In the gallery of famous European tinkerers, we might find Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll. In contrast, the common ancestor of American amateurs is kindly old Ben Franklin or the deceptively wise Scarecrow who traveled the Yellow Brick Road. “The Wizard of Oz” provides a good example for Hitt’s meaning. Oz is “an American narrative about self-invented outsiders overwhelming the domain of professionals.” If “The Wizard of Oz” had been set in Europe, for example, the Scarecrow might never have gotten his brain. Quoting the Wizard, Hitt reminds us that people go to universities, “And when they come out, they think deep thoughts – and with no more brains than you have… But! They have one thing you haven’t got? A diploma!”

A very American way of thinking, indeed.

While I’m quite sure that amateurs shouldn’t be running universities (or awarding diplomas), Hitt is on to something in recognizing the very American-ness of amateur endeavors. We do it because no one tells us we can’t and because we tend, historically, to accept people for what they are able to do rather than for their ancestry or pedigree. We have a fondness for the quirky geek with a toothy grin who emerges from the work shed with some fantastic invention we weren’t aware we’d need.

Hitt recounts some fascinating adventures and hilarious encounters. Underlying them is an important message. Amateurs are self-made and operate in spare time. They aren’t the trained scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who invent within their expert domains. They are the men and women (and often girls and boys) who are passionate about an idea that often lies outside of everyday pursuits. Of course, we need our experts. But it’s really our amateurs who have fueled American ingenuity. FBN

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