Kurt Andersen: The Avenging Amateur

Amateurs do the things they want to do in the ways they want to do them. They don’t worry too much about breaking rules and aren’t paralyzed by a fear of imperfection or even failure. Active citizenship is all about tapping into one’s amateur spirit. “But hold on,” you say. “I will never understand credit-default swaps or know how to determine the correct leverage ratio for banks.” Me neither, and I don’t want to depend on an amateur physician telling me how to manage my health. But we can trust our reality-based hunches about fishy-looking procedures and unsustainable projects and demand that the supposed experts explain their supposed expertise in ways we do understand The American character is two-sided to an extreme and paradoxical degree. On the one hand, we are sober and practical and commonsensical, but on the other hand, we are wild and crazy speculators. The full-blown amateur spirit derives from this same paradox. Even as we indulge our native chutzpah ”” Live the dream! To hell with the naysayers! ”” as a practical matter, it also requires a profound humility, since the amateur must throw himself into situations where he’s uncertain and even ignorant, and therefore obliged to figure out new ways of seeing problems and fresh ways of solving them. At this particular American inflection point, after the crash and before the rebuild, frankly admitting that we aren’t absolutely certain how to proceed is liberating, and crucial. I like paradoxes, which is why, even though I’m not particularly religious, Zen Buddhism has always appealed to me. Take the paradoxical state that Buddhists seek to achieve, what they call sho-shin, or “beginner’s mind.” The 20th century Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, who spent the last dozen years of his life in America, famously wrote that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” Which sounds to me very much like the core of Boorstin’s amateur spirit. “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance,” Boorstin wrote, “but the illusion of knowledge.”

This isn’t just airy-fairy philosophy: it’s real, and it works. A decade after Steve Jobs co-founded Apple, he was purged by his own board, but after the sense of betrayal passed, and he went on to build Pixar and oversee Apple’s glorious renewal, he realized his personal reset had been a blessing in disguise. “The heaviness of being successful,” Jobs has said of his firing, “was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” I happen to know what Jobs means: my sacking as editor of New York magazine 13 years ago freed me to reinvent myself as a novelist and public-radio host. Getting fired was traumatic. Finding my way since has been thrilling and immensely gratifying. May America and Americans have such good luck figuring out how to climb out of the holes we find ourselves in now.

Read it all.

Print Friendly

Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Economics, Politics, * International News & Commentary, America/U.S.A., Economy, The Credit Freeze Crisis of Fall 2008/The Recession of 2007--

2 comments on “Kurt Andersen: The Avenging Amateur

  1. Milton says:

    Beginner’s mind is essential to the Christian as well. Certainly we must be “born again” even to see the kingdom of God, and no longer have our own mind of the flesh that knows only its own way, but the mind of the Spirit, that transforms us to align with the mind and will of God.

    “But we have the mind of Christ.”
    “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

  2. TACit says:

    Hmmm. There still seems to be some problem with a certain ‘values-free’ fundamental to the approval of amateurism.
    I would not vigorously dispute the statement that most early Americans were ‘amateurish’, and still the project succeeded – though I well know, from all the information we have in our family about some of those in colonial and early US nation times, that they pursued ‘professionalizing’ paths from early adulthood on, studying medicine in particular in Washington and later in Louisville. Getting an education was Value #1 and the objective was an increased ability to function in a profession, and contribute to building up the nation.
    On the other hand, I would suggest that the trajectory of KJS’ career has been exactly that described for others in the article, and one could hardly dispute that her conduct as PB is thoroughly and hopelessly amateur. I’ve often wondered if she didn’t get the idea to pursue the ministry from reading Richard Bolles’ ‘What Color is Your Parachute?’, as so many on the Left Coast did, probably still do……