In my day job, I’m a designer and engineer. In my free time, I’m a writer and photographer Would I consider myself an amateur or a professional in each of those skillsets?
I’m obviously a professional engineer and designer since I’ve built a career on both. However, I also use those two skills to create this blog, which I wouldn’t consider a professional pursuit. I wouldn’t consider myself a professional writer, but it’s a critical part of my design practice.
What is the difference between a professional and an amateur?
The definition of professional is quite clear. The Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition, “a person engaged in a specified activity, especially a sport or branch of the performing arts, as a main paid occupation rather than as a pastime,” seems to be the one most people refer to.
Amateur, on the other hand, has two definitions that are both used often. The first is “a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid rather than a professional basis.” The second is “a person who is incompetent or inept at a particular activity.”
Farnam Street’s The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals uses the second definition, describing an amateur as inept at something. This is understandable considering Farnam Street’s focus on the topic of self-improvement. The article sheds light on how to transform oneself from an amateur to a professional. By describing the differences, it provides a way to measure one’s progress.
The problem is that not all amateurs are low skill and not all amateurs wish to become professionals.
Seth Godin contrasts professionals and amateurs by looking at their intentions and their actions.
The amateur contributes with unfiltered joy. There’s really no other upside—create your work because you can, because it helps someone else, because it makes you feel good.
The professional shows up even when she doesn’t feel like it. The professional understands the market, the customer, and the price to be paid for work that’s worth paying for.
Here, the focus is on what people do and why they do those things. The difference lies in their mindset.
Recently, though, the lines between the amateur and professional are blurring. Look at the creator economy, a loosely defined, growing class of people making money on online platforms. Yes, there are full-time creators, but there are also people with profitable hobby businesses alongside full-time careers. There are lifestyle influencers whose lives and livelihood are inextricably intertwined.
Perhaps there is another lens through which we can see the differences between amateurs and professionals — Tools.
I’m obsessed with tools, as you can easily deduce from the topics I write about. I’m equally obsessed with peoples’ relationships with their tools.
Why they use them, where they use them, how they use them, how they feel about them, and other questions are equally important as the nature of the tools themselves. The answers to these questions may also spell out the difference between professionals and amateurs.
The different ways that professionals and amateurs use their tools can be illustrated by ten observations.
1. To the professional, the tool is for a job. To the amateur, the tool is for a hobby.
2. To the professional, tactile tools instill confidence. To the amateur, tactile tools provide delight.
3. To the professional, tools are needs. To the amateur, tools are wants.
4. To the professional, tools are assets. To the amateur, tools are toys.
5. To the professional, the tool is part of an inventory. To the amateur, the tool is part of a collection.
6. To the professional, the tool delivers results. To the amateur, the tool delivers an experience.
7. To the professional, the appearance of a tool speaks about its use. To the amateur, the appearance of a tool speaks about its user.
8. To the professional, the tool changes the world. To the amateur, the tool changes how they see the world.
9. To the professional, the tool makes someone else happy. To the amateur, the tool makes them happy.
10. To the professional, the tool is a means to an end. To the amateur, the tool is the end.
Thanks to Chuan, Dustin, Eric, Jeffrey, Jonathan, Robert, and Q for reading drafts of this.