TV chefs teach us how to cook better. Cutting edge sports equipment makes us run faster. And with a combination of the words 'how to' and an internet connection, you can learn pretty much everything. The amateur is getting more professional. But are we still having fun?
There was a time when, if someone had said "I'm going to run a marathon", you would have replied, "You're mad." But nowadays -- with the 'start to run' hype, better shoes, heart rate monitors and your Facebook friends as cheerleaders – more and more of us are taking on the challenge. The status of amateur sports is evolving to the extent that triathlon is the fastest growing amateur sport in the UK.
But the trend towards professionalism also shows up outside the field of extreme sports. According to the British think-tank Demos, we now live in the era of the professional amateur: we want to be judged by professional standards when we engage – even during our leisure – in activities that we’re passionate about.
Take technology and food: two other sectors where achieving expertise is the amateur’s goal. Nowadays everyone with an SLR camera (or Instagram app on their phone) is a photographer. And while we used to drink our instant coffee with a quick stir of milk, now a whole new generation of professional baristas is redefining how we want our caffeine hit each morning.
We live in a do-it-yourself age. According to Demos, this has to do with a new set of social and demographic factors. Not only is the world more competitive than twenty years ago, there's also our expanding life span, growing levels of education, a more open society in which people can seek individual fulfillment, and the trend towards second careers later in life. Not to forget the impact of the digital revolution – just look at how blogs and social media are changing journalism.
It's worthwhile that amateurs are learning from professionals. It makes society more fluid and varied, and individuals more fulfilled, even in difficult economic times. As Jack Hitt writes in A Bunch of Amateurs, "the cult of the amateur is the soul of America. It's really in our DNA that you can walk away from everything and start again in your metaphorical garage. Just think of Steve Jobs as one of the most iconic amateurs turned superstars."
But while we're busy competing and comparing, and setting the bar ever higher, are we still having fun in our spare time? Getting up at 5am in the morning to train for a marathon before going to your office job is not everyone's idea of a leisure activity.
On the eve the Olympics, when it will rain numbers and personal records while the whole world is watching, I find it a fascinating thought that until very recently only amateur athletes were allowed to participate in the Games. Amateurs! Those who were in it for fun, not for the money.
Big contracts and sponsorship have changed the rules over recent years. But today the professionals can still learn something from amateurs: enjoyment. It's precisely that careless joy, in combination with vitality and passion, that sometimes lets the underdog win against their betters. As Intelligent Life wrote recently on the dangers of over-thinking, "experienced athletes and artists often complain that they have lost touch with what made them love what they do in the first place." Sometimes we need to train ourselves to get more skilled at ignoring information in order to get that pure joy back.
Dusting off the roots of the word amateur (the Latin for 'lover of') could relieve some stress in our professional and personal life. Running for gold while also enjoying yourself – a little wink at the camera, a joke after the finish line – isn't that when professionals become gods?
Elke Lahousse is a Belgian journalist. The School of Life is holding the event Is Failure An Olympian Virtue? with Oliver Burkeman and Paul Watson on Wednesday 20 June. For information and tickets click here.