In Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, author Jack Hitt contends that what he calls "the Golden Age of American amateurism" is far from over. On the contrary, the amateur's dream is the American dream. One of the great unspoken liberties in our country, writes Hitt, is still the ability to "walk away from everything that one is. Whether it's fleeing a repressive nation for this new place or simply out the back door for the garage -- that is real freedom."
A contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, Harper's and public radio's This American Life, Hitt explores this freedom from multiple angles, offering a slew of info-rich and sometimes hilarious portraits of amateurs who walked out those back doors and into their garages, driven by creative obsession and an "intoxicating sense of possibility." According to Hitt, it's this very sense of possibility, hardwired as it is into our DNA, that's responsible for the entrepreneurial drive and inventive spirit of our country.
Hitt goes back to our beloved Ben Franklin, who he credits as being the founding father of our tradition of home tinkering, and whose redemptive autobiography Hitt refers to as "an amazing piece of revisionist history." He goes on to chronicle everyone from a tattooed young woman in the Bay Area trying to splice a fish's glow-in-the-dark gene into common yogurt (in, of all things, her kitchen salad spinner) to amateurs with home-brew DIY biolabs and rogue astronomers. Hitt reveals just how deeply the amateur spirit is embedded in the American conscience, and why our future lies not in the boardrooms of big businesses, but in the garages, offices, and backyards of American's inventing class.
I recently spoke with Hitt about America's brand of genius amateurism.
You write that "the cult of the amateur is the soul of America." That's a big statement.
The essential idea of the amateur is that you begin with nothing and you go off into your metaphorical garage to find something new. In some ways, it's like reliving the founding of the country. We're a nation of immigrants, but we're also a nation of indentured servants and slaves. Everybody came here either being driven out by somebody else or being dragged here against their will. We have these national and patriotic myths about coming here for liberty and freedom and so on and sure, and that's true. But it's also true that the Puritans were driven out of Europe because they were considered terrorists and extremists. And, of course, slaves were dragged here against their will. Many people in the 18th century were indentured servants.
It's really in our DNA that you can become anything, because the country was founded on that sort of idea, almost desperately so. And I think that's still with us. There's something very American in the basic sense that you can just walk off and create a new self. You know, Fitzgerald famously said, "There are no second acts in America." Of course, he got it completely wrong. There are nothing but second acts in this country. There's always another career waiting for you once you walk away from the first one or the second one.
You also suggest that one characteristic of the American amateur is a "sense of possibility, pretend and play" that's not linked to money, power or prestige.
That's absolutely right. And another characteristic is a completely different relationship with failure. I run across this constantly with people. Consider private enterprise: If you keep screwing up, you're fired. That's how it goes. So your projects become very narrow in focus and design. You work on things that you know will succeed. You run across this with astronomy, for example: You have these giant telescopes that cost zillions of dollars and you only have a few hours to use them. As a professor in astronomy, you're not going to just freelance some hair-brained idea.
Amateur astronomers, on the other hand, are the ones staring at the universe for all kinds of unusual things, or doing things that require enormous amounts of time because they don't need to care. If they can find an extra planet, a planet outside of our solar system, through hours and hours of tedious labor, they'll do that because it's a thrill for them. And that leads to all sorts of collaboration between amateurs and their professional cohorts. Those are very healthy relationships.
Steve Jobs was iconic amateur turned superstar, multimillionaire innovator. How does he fit into the landscape of amateurs in general? Doesn't everyone in America want to be the next Steve Jobs?
I think that the cycle of amateur enthusiasm turns on an economic timeline. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak went into the Cupertino garage in 1976, during the doldrums and stagflation years of the Ford administration. I don't think that's a coincidence. David Packard and William Hewlett went into a Palo Alto garage in 1938 and started inventing their machinery. I don't think that's a coincidence, either. I think that that today we're living in the maker and DIY movement era. Not a day goes by when you don't hear about a DIY biolab in New York or something of that sort. I'm in New Haven, Connecticut, where you can find these $50-a-month workshop labs. Amateur inventors can go and hang out with other amateur inventors and talk about their ideas and get feedback from others. The idea of the lone ranger in the garage isn't really accurate.
It's not a coincidence, by the way, that there are now all of these amateur contests where big companies are trying to harness home brew and attract real talent by offering these million-dollar prizes. All of the contests that NASA has now, for example, were born out of frustration by the Defense Department with defense contractors who were not really delivering on the robotic car. Their contest was called the Grand Challenge. They figured, "Hey, what the hell, every tenth person in America has got a car in the backyard that they're tinkering with. Why don't we see if those people know how to solve this problem?"
So they set up the Grand Challenge and offered a few million dollars of prize money. Now NASA and the Defense Department runs that. And we now have robotic cars. People forget that Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic Ocean and then created the modern American aviation business, but he was actually flying for the $25,000 Orteig prize. It was an amateur contest to see if somebody could convince people that flying across the ocean was possible and safe.
So we're seeing so many of these sort of exploding examples of amateur pursuits. I think in the future, instead of renovated garages like David Packard's in Palo Alto, we're going to start seeing registered landmark status for dorm rooms.
Though it's not all youth-centered, is it? What about people in their post 50s who are out there pushing the innovation envelope in their garages?
Being young and foolish helps, but yes, you often hear of some guy who retired and wandered off to his garage to work on something he'd been thinking about for 50 years.
Is the amateur revival a strictly American phenomenon?
Amateur pursuits exist all over the planet. I don't want to just say that they're strictly an American pursuit. But I do think that this is such a part of our DNA. You read a great deal about how China is trying to understand America. A lot of their business feels very imitative there; the big piracy problems are in China. It's an economy based largely on copying. And I think one of the things that they'd very much like to understand about America is how we create [more] Steve Jobs'. So here's the bad news for China: What really creates the Steve Jobs' is freedom. You can hoist the flag now, because that's what it is -- just the habit of freedom of the thought. You can't inject that into a Chinese graduate student in college. You can try and God knows, the Chinese government will try, but Communism is just a lousy breeding ground for creativity.
The belief that job creation happens from the top down rather than from the ground up is just toxic. Start-ups are where the job creation happens. And they're not going to happen at Wal-Mart. Creativity comes from people who have the foolish nerve to walk out of a research lab or a backyard garage or dorm room and say, "You know what? I think I'm going to start a company."
Check out the slideshow below for 14 ambitious Americans who made it big.
In 1778, trying to raise money for our revolt, Ben pranced around Paris in frontier drag--full-on Daniel Boone, coonskin cap and all--showing the French what they expected to see: the self-invented American. This mummery drove John Adams to his therapy couch (aka, his letters to Abigail) where he fumed about disgraceful "public men" (i.e., media whores). In the end, a totally enraged Adams fled Paris, while Franklin carried on, eventually securing the money and alliance that won the war.
A self-taught dinosaur maven, he humiliated his rival, Prof. O. C. Marsh of Yale, by publicly noting that Marsh had attached a Brontosaurus skull to the, um, "wrong end" of a freshly mounted skeleton. According to legend, this incident set off the Bone Wars--a pro/am fossil competition between these two that lasted a generation and created the modern idea of the dinosaur.
A Norwegian lawyer who obsessed on with the idea that the Viking sagas contained journalistic nuggets of navigational truth buried in the poetry. He eventually used the clues found in the Saga of Erik the Red to locate Viking artifacts in Canada, re-setting the arrival date of European explorers half a millennium before Columbus.
The former Vedantic monk figured out how to build a million-dollar telescope with a few bucks' worth of porthole glass and cardboard tubing. He started traveling the country in the mid-1960s, a telescopic Johnny Appleseed, schooling generations in the enthusiasms of deep-space stargazing. He's still doing it; he's 97 years old.
From his personal lab in Utah, he invented modern television. In 1928, for his backers, he transmitted the first (prophetic) television image--a dollar sign. But a lifetime of lawsuits and patent challenges ruined him, creating the template of the paranoid amateur convinced that big business was out to steal his ideas. In this case, it was true; Farnsworth died penniless.
A self-taught paleontologist, Horner showed how outsider thinking, not encumbered by tradition, can discern new truths and overturn entrenched convention: T. rex, he proved, was no predator but a giant vulture. And, dinosaurs aren't brute versions of reptiles; many nurtured their hatchlings like the proto-birds they were.
A former lawyer he parlayed his wine enthusiasm into a global career. Like many amateurs, Parker concocted a "scientific" point system--quantifying the unquantiable (emotional intelligence, IQ, eHarmony's compatibility score). What does a 92 Parker score for a cabernet really tell us? Not much, but it's driven the French connoisseurs completely insane.
After flunking out of school, Vespucci served on a few voyages without distinction. But once his letters home were rewritten by early tabloid journalists and popularized as X-rated accounts of wild sex and cannibalism, the earliest mapmakers mistakenly named a a third of the world's land mass for him. Never underestimate random accident in an amateur's success (nor the most famous American truth: Sex and violence sell).
The first black woman to become a millionaire, she relied upon the old slave networks and church social circuits of the 19th century to create an army of saleswoman who peddled African American hair products house to house. She popularized what we now call direct marketing, the central idea behind: Tupperware, Avon, Mary Kay, Amway...
America usually gets one every generation--the college student too busy with cool ideas to go to school and instead retreats to his garage to invent a new future. David Packard (of Hewlett Packard) did it before Jobs and, after retiring, spent millions restoring the garage at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif. That classic temple of American ingenuity is now a Registered Historic Landmark.
No one wants to condone dropping out of school, but the list of those who walked away from school to completely remake some field of endeavor is notably long, from Franklin to Edison to Zuckerberg. But few of them did it with the panache of a one-liner. "I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam," Allen once explained. "I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me."
A Yale secretary who worked for 20 years at Yale's Ben Franklin Papers Project--a near monastic effort to annotate every piece of paper the founding father wrote on--she started publishing her own homebrew Franklin scholarship. She became one of this generation's great scholars and overturned many received "facts" about the man (Franklin was not a lecherous womanizer, it turns out, he was just dopey around girls).
Crowd-sourcing has changed everything, but few have harnessed uncredentialed talent quite like amateur astronomy. The GalaxyZoo website was created to classify a million Hubble images--an endless project for a handful of professionals--but pulled off in jiffy once the site attracted more than 150,000 volunteer stargazers to provide an assist.
Did some amateur really earn $50,000 telling the founders of the soda-fountain sensation, Coca-Cola, the two-word secret to making millions? "Bottle it." Did some other schlub earn a bundle telling a matchbox company to cut costs in half by putting the sandpaper on only one side of the box? Or, did the same guy tell Colgate to widen the toothpaste opening so each tube would empty faster? Amateurs populate urban legends, too--suggesting little about the truth of the claims, but everything about our faith in the dream.
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