In modern-day English, an “amateur” is someone inexperienced in a particular pursuit; a person who performs a hobby without professional skills. (You know this already, unless your vocabulary is, let’s say, amateur.)
It’s a word often used with a jeer. It’s not a label most of us wear with pride. We’d rather be professionals, specialists, gurus, experts — the words we scatter across our LinkedIn profiles, praying people will take us seriously and see us as successful.
But the word “amateur” dates back to 1784, with its roots in French and Latin. What it originally meant was “lover.” It was used to describe someone enthusiastic and passionate about a pastime, with no negative connotation and with expertise rendered irrelevant.
Arianna Huffington has a concept she calls the “third metric of success.” She says that our modern culture’s standard notion of success is a two-legged stool, wobbling on the values of money and power, but her vision of a truly triumphant life — one that’s healthy and meaningful— requires a “third metric,” comprised of well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.
Though we intellectually understand these third metric principles, we often struggle to reconcile them against the ethos that’s built into the first two metrics: the pursuit of productivity.
We are all devout believers in “getting stuff done.” We are devotees to the church of efficient output for the sake of accomplishment, while things like sleep and rest and simple pleasure — the input and the fuel for those third metric values — get ignored or even scorned.
In ancient cultures, the customs and moral codes were different. Sleep, for starters, was revered. In Greece, Arianna Huffington explains, there were special “sleep temples” where people went to incubate dreams and to seek guidance that applied to all aspects of existence, from leadership to healing. But the Industrial Revolution taught us to treat human beings like machines and thus to devalue downtime, with productivity as a primary goal.
I stopped by a new coffee shop the other day for a cold brew, and it came with a cardboard sleeve stamped with the words “F**K SLEEP” in huge, bold lettering. There was merchandise to match, including shirts and hats. This was supposed to be cheeky and charming, a clever ode to the cult of caffeine as the workaholic’s manna.
Rob Bell says, “Beauty reminds us that productivity is not God’s greatest goal. Joy is.”
You can replace “God” with “life” or “nature” or “spirit” or whatever other word you prefer to encapsulate the mystical aspects of existence, but the phrase resonates all the same. Beauty is important. Beauty is a necessary luxury.
It stops us in our tracks. It knocks us over. It asks us to halt the hustle to pay attention to the present. Though seemingly shallow and unimportant — so far from the depth of those third metric things — it’s cut from the same soft cloth. Beauty breeds wisdom and wonder. Beauty is born of giving and well-being.
Beauty is something close to love — both transcendental, lofty and luxurious, rooted in the clouds. Commonplace extraordinarities. Beacons of goodness. Fluid. Rich. Strange. Instrumental to the human experience. Each one seems to intuitively reveal the other.
I thought about this on Friday, as I spent my lunch break with my face stuffed in a rosebush, fawning over big, buttery buds unfurled as round as dinner plates, bobbing in the breeze. Their delightful decadence melted away any thoughts of work, if only for a few moments.
We’re all trying to make something: A commodity. An impact. An invention. A change. We’re trying to excel, to improve, to exceed our competitors. It takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill, argued Malcolm Gladwell in 2008; the media has since challenged that rule with countless alternatives, which only further prove that we’re all seeking the answers to achievement and expertise.
Gladwell got his statistic from a study of master violinists done by K. Anders Ericsson. According to the researching, the tippy-top performers spent the most time practicing: an average of over 10,000 hours over the span of at least ten years. But a different finding from the study got ignored: the second most important factor that distinguished the stellar from the satisfactory was sleep. The leading violinists slept an hour longer than average, around 8.6 hours every night. They also napped for 2.8 hours in the afternoon.
It does take effort to make meaning in the world. A life of nonstop lallygagging doesn’t do good nor feel good. But if we want success in a way that’s steady and sustainable — if we want comfortable, reliable stools on which to stay seated for more than a few years — then we have to give equal weight to work and rest, to drive and delight, to productivity and play, to slog and sleep. We have pause to indulge in the buttery, beautiful roses.
Children are amateurs at absolutely everything. They’re willing to try anything without fearing that they’re supposed to be professionals, practiced, or precise. That’s probably why they have more fun: the love’s still there. The joy’s still there. They wouldn’t use the word “beauty,” probably, but that’s what it is they’re chasing — simple sensory pleasure.
And they feel that pleasure more pointedly because they’re still open to it. Once we consider ourselves experts at things, we savor the experiences less — another truth backed by scientific research. We lose some of the enthusiasm to a jaded attitude, however subtly.
We harden. We stop seeing joy and beauty so easily as we start searching for “success” instead. We learn to interpret “amateur” as a bad thing. As we hone our skills, sharpen our wits, whet our intellect — we get stiff around the edges where children, those admirable and adorable and adventurous amateurs, are still soft.
“What’s rigid is what breaks,” said one of my yoga teachers several weeks ago. “What’s soft is what blooms.” In that moment, we had our arms spread wide in a precariously balanced and preposterous pose, wobbling, trying not to tumble. Everyone was laughing. We had all forgotten about doing it “right,” about excelling, because she had made excelling impossible on purpose. We were all a bunch of amateurs for a few half-giggled breaths, sloppy and joyful and enthusiastic.
“Balance” should never have been a noun — only a verb, an action. It’s a coming-together of teeter and totter, of stagger and stand, of topple to triumph to topple to triumph, again and again. The proverbial stool of success, even if it’s a properly three-legged one, will never stand totally steady, because the ground will always be shifting. Because sometimes, ambition and skill and productivity are important if we want to get things done. Because sometimes, rest and pleasure and play are important if we want to stay sane — if we want to stay well and open to wisdom and wonder.
That’s the point: success isn’t as straightforward and fixed as we presume it to be.
We can’t thrive perpetually. We can’t succeed always. But what we can do is tune in, noticing if our lives feel too tilted in one direction for too long, and then lean the other way — even if it means losing footing and falling sideways for a moment. Wobbling back and forth is the only way to find the middle ground. There is nothing stabler than the ability to shift gently from one leg to the other: from work to rest, from productivity to pleasure.
Though I’ve spent a few years preaching and practicing slowing down, taking breaks, and holding heart and humor over hustle, my stool of values still often teeters on its legs — so I’m learning to feel for the wobbles. When I don’t prioritize downtime, my body intuitively knows the difference. Why the pimple on my chin? Why the three-day eye infection? Oh, right — these tiny nuisances are pleas for attention. They’re the human equivalent of wilted petals and shriveled leaves; they’re signs of visceral malnourishment. They’re appeals for more gentle, aimless moments, for the softness of rest and recuperation in place of stern productivity, for the looseness of fun without an end-goal — for things that we’ve been trained to treat like luxuries, but that are truly needs, if we want to blossom into our biggest, fullest, most beautiful selves.
If I had to choose, I’d rather be a rose than a shiny robot with a revving engine. I’d rather be a peony than a prime productivity machine. And when I catch myself feeling inadequate or incompetent, when I see myself trying to push productivity too far ahead of pleasure, I remember that an amateur is a lover. Is an enthusiast. Is someone who does things for joy. Is as soft, as supple, as breathtaking as a flower, mid-bloom.
Leah–this is the second time i’ve read this. It is so wonderful and thought provoking and I’m constantly amazed and thrilled with your writing–use of words. Thank you.
Just read the moving, moving story. Can’t comment yet but will when I get myself together. I, too, was knocked out by the Stanford letter. What bravery and sensitivity.
much love, gma
This. Is. Wonderful.