In the present time the word “amateur” is usually used to describe a lack of skill or judgment.
I prefer its original meaning: A person in love with a particular pursuit, study, or science, especially one who cultivates any study or art from taste or attachment, without doing it chiefly for money, as a professional tends toward.
An amateur can observe and listen with fresh senses, without prior thought and experience getting in the way, and the result can be spectacolari solutions to difficult problems.
One must assume that failure is the way we learn in general. My favorite notion is that certainty is the closing of the mind. The possibility to fail is one of the means by which we have to develop ideas, and to explore possibilities. Once you’re certain of what you’re doing the possibility of change and exploration begins to diminish. So, the idea of being an amateur constantly is an old idea for artists, particularly those who want to continue learning things they don’t already know. The idea of professionalism, which means you achieve a certain kind of success by repeating things over and over until you lose interest in them, is something that has always been frightening. What you see is people who attain a certain proficiency and then repeat that until they lose interest and the game is over.
I guess my model for this is Picasso. He was willing to give up everything once he learned how to do that. It’s always interested me that you can become proficient and once that happens the best thing to do is abandon what you know.
“My education was of the most ordinary description, consisting of little more than the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic at a common day school. My hours out of school were passed at home and in the streets.”
Michael Faraday, who had little mathematics and no formal schooling beyond the primary grades, is celebrated as an experimenter who discovered the induction of electricity. He was one of the great founders of modern physics. It is generally acknowledged that Faraday’s ignorance of mathematics contributed to his inspiration, that it compelled him to develop a simple, nonmathematical concept when he looked for an explanation of this electrical and magnetic phenomena. Faraday had two qualities that more than made up for his lack of education: fantastic intuition and independence and originality of mind.
Professionalism is environmental. Amateurism is anti-environmental. Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment. Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the groundrules of society. The amateur can afford to lose. The professional tends to classify and to specialize, to accept uncritically the groundrules of the environment. The groundrules provided by the mass response of his colleagues serve as a pervasive environment of which he is contentedly and [sic] unaware. The “expert” is the man who stays put.
—Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore
Many persons have inquired concerning a recent message of mine that “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels.” Often in evolutionary processes a species must adapt to new conditions in order to survive. Today the atomic bomb has altered profoundly the nature of the world as we knew it, and the human race consequently finds itself in a new habitat to which it must adapt its thinking. In the light of new knowledge, a world authority and an eventual world state are not just desirable in the name of brotherhood, they are necessary for survival. In previous ages a nation’s life and culture could be protected to some extent by the growth of armies in national competition. Today we must abandon competition and secure cooperation. This must be the central fact in all our considerations of international affairs; otherwise we face certain disaster. Past thinking and methods did not prevent world wars. Future thinking must prevent wars.
In retrospect I realize that in almost everything that we worked on together, we were both amateurs. In digital physics, neural networks, even parallel computing, we never really knew what we were doing. But the things that we studied were so new that no one else knew exactly what they were doing either. It was amateurs who made the progress.
—W. Daniel Hillis speaking about Richard Feynman
Certainty brings insanity.