The joys of being an amateur

Originally published on Butterfly Mind, August 2015.

I recently listened to the TED Radio Hour‘s episode, Amateur Hour, which shared several funny and insightful stories of people in positions as novices.

One story was about a “professional amateur,” A.J. Jacobs, writer and editor-at-large of Esquire magazine, who lives his life as an experiment. He constantly puts himself in new positions, like spending a month telling nothing but the truth, or spending a month outsourcing his life, or as he shared in his TED Talk, like spending a year living Biblically. Everything was new to him in each instance, and each experiment changed his life.

Another story was from mother Julia Sweeney who says, “I think if I really understood what parenting was going to take, I would not have done it.”

And then she says:

And I’m really glad I did it.

These stories got me thinking about my own adventures in amateurity. Specifically, in the past few weeks at work. I have recently dived into a couple of endeavors as a complete and total noob. One of those is attempting to organize a support conference at our company’s annual meeting in October. The other is that I applied to speak at the inaugural WordCamp US in Philadelphia in December.

Have I ever organized a conference? No. When I volunteered, did I have any idea of the processes involved in organizing our company’s annual meeting? Not a clue. Have I ever spoken at a WordCamp? Um, no again.

The thing about being an amateur, about saying, “Heck yeah, I’ll do that,” is that you have no idea what you’re getting into. And that’s what’s so fun about it. In both of the cases above, I signed up thinking, I can totally do this. And I’m sure I can. But had I sat down and thought about how big a deal they are, or had any experience whatsoever in doing them, my approach might have been more… cautious.

The thing is, though, it’s not very much fun being cautious. To be sure, volunteering for these things is not about my own fun, about my personal pleasure or to serve my own needs — volunteering is about contributing to the WordPress community — but have having fun while doing your work, loving what you do, is important.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s also exciting to be an expert and get to a level of skill and understanding where you work in nuance instead of crude basics. If I ever become an expert in anything, I’m sure I’ll think that’s pretty cool, too. But there is something about being an amateur — the invigoration, the roller coaster, the fact that every time you learn something, it is brand new and amazing — that is exciting.

After listening to the “Amateur Hour” TED program, and as I navigate my way through these new adventures at work, I realize what I rookie I was when I volunteered to help wrangle this company conference. I attended the annual meetup in my second week as a full timer last year; this year, when I said “I’m happy to organize the workshops,” I had no idea what the planning for an international all-company meeting looked like. Likewise, my friend who is involved with WordCamp US in Philly thought it was amazing that the first WordCamp I applied to speak at was not a small local WordCamp, but WordCamp US.

“I don’t know if ‘amazing’ is the right word,” I told him. “‘Dumb’ or ‘naive’ might be more appropriate.”

But the thing is, when you’re an amateur, a) you don’t realize you’re an amateur until it’s too late, and b) you don’t come in with preconceptions about how things should be done. You come in with your own ideas. You stumble, grasp, ask for help, are supported by the experienced people who appreciate what you’re trying to do, and you learn a ton along the way.

An amateur makes the common mistakes every amateur makes, but each amateur also has the potential for bringing something new. I’m not sure if I’ll be bringing any innovation to these new-to-me things I’m aiming for at work, but I sure am having fun along the way. Like Julia Sweeney and parenting, I am really glad I’m trying.

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