R U a Pro-Am, 2?

If you aren't one already, then you know one. Or, you've most likely been cornered by one at a party. We're talking the Pro-Am. No, Pro-Am is not a soon-to-be-bankrupt low fare airline.

Instead, the term connotes a person who is in actuality an amateur, but in technical execution performs at a professional level, the Professional-Amateur.

The Pro-Am knows all the stats. They care about the details. And, they want you to care too. The subject could be anything: grass roots politics, WW II airplanes, relational databases, horses, race cars, conspiracy theories.

What is consistent is the Pro-Am's all-consuming, spittle-in-the-corner-of-the-mouth, infinitely burning passion for their subject and their intense attention to detail.

It is the kind of dedication one finds in the high school AV club.

ABOVE:Jason Schwartzman plays the quinessential Pro-Am in Touchstone's Rushmore - 1998

Yes, think back to high school. Think back to history class and to the gentlemen farmers of the 18th century who founded the United States: Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and that lot.

These fellows were the original Pro-Ams of the day. They operated farms and businesses, while dedicating personal time and resources to engineer new tools of commercial productivity, to rejigger monetary and economic systems, to unravel philosophical and religious conundrums. And, I am certain, they frustrated their spouses by running off to conferences to haggle and debate the arcane and the innovative. ("But Martha, honey, me and the boys are busy founding a new nation!")

On top of that, they didn't even have laptops, wireless DSL or blogging software.

Of course, back in the day, it helped to free up some time in owning slaves and servants to address the more quotidian aspects of staying dressed and fed. This carved out a bit of time to dabble in constitutional law or lobby the French for guns and protection from King George.


Were the Founding Brothers amateurs or professionals? Of course that was the good ole anything goes Age of Enlightenment period of Western Civ, when everybody got to do everything.

What happened once the steam engine, the spreadsheet, the timeclock and Harvard Business School came on the scene?

Charles Leadbetter, former journalist for the Financial Times, describes the century proceeding our current one as such:

"The twentieth century was shaped by the rise of professionals in most walks of life. From education, science and medicine, to banking, business and sports, formerly amateur activities became more organised, and knowledge and procedures were codified and regulated. As professionalism grew, often with hierarchical organisations and formal systems for accrediting knowledge, so amateurs came to be seen as second-rate. Amateurism came to be to a term of derision. Professionalism was a mark of seriousness and high standards."

As the professional classification swiftly subsumed most fields, a rift widened between profit and passion, between legitimacy and love of craft. The worst thing to happen to the Arts in the 20th century is graduate school. Seriousness and standards? Putting the "professional" tag next to the "artist" label leads to stiff necks, padded resumes, ennui and thinking the world owes you a living!

Now, every amateur, caffeine-addled writer, hacker, designer, artist, activist or social entrepreneur knows that the real juice is not in the pedigree of the hound, but in the thrill of the hunt.

And, it's the amateurs who are hunters of the most passionate variety.

It's why suits and goatees don't mix. Like NASA vs. NASCAR. Witness (amateur) geeks like me staying up way past bedtime trying to figure out this blogging phenomenon and Real Simple Syndication, when we should be doing something useful like sleeping or thinking about ways to convince the Powers That Be to forgive Third World debt.

Expanding on his "Amateur Revolution" essay in the October issue of Fast Company, Leadbetter and researcher Paul Miller have published The Pro-Am Revolution, a PDF book that you can download online for free or a hardcopy you can purchase outright.


"[I]n the last two decades a new breed of amateur has emerged: the Pro-Am, amateurs who work to professional standards. These are not the gentlemanly amateurs of old � George Orwell�s blimpocracy, the men in blazers who sustained amateur cricket and athletics clubs. The Pro-Ams are knowledgeable, educated, committed and networked, by new technology. The twentieth century was shaped by large hierarchical organisations with professionals at the top. Pro-Ams are creating new, distributed organisational models that will be innovative, adaptive and low-cost."

I mean, honestly, wouldn't you like to have your own entry in Wikipedia top that of Benjamin Franklin's own Pro-Am resume? He is described as "a journalist, publisher, author, philanthropist, abolitionist, public servant, scientist, librarian, diplomat, and inventor."

Plus, the man knew how to party. (Check out the album Ben Franklin in Paris)

[Pro-Am via The Fast Company Weblog]