Right after college, when I was floundering and confused and feeling lost without the structure of school, I got an internship at a public relations company that specialized in music. For a hot minute, anyway. It was an unpaid situation, but I figured that since it was music-related, and self-promotion had always been the thing I was weakest at as an artist, getting the inside scoop at a public relations firm might help me get familiar with the business side of the industry. It was a tiny company founded by a woman who seemed pretty badass judging by the company's website. When I went there for the interview, I discovered that the company had just three employees; the founder, who was probably in her 40s and kept her two tiny dogs in a little fenced-in area by her desk, a very chic version of a punk rocker who was probably in her 30s, and the youngest, the one who interviewed me: a very sweet Long Islander who appeared to be a few years older than me. The three women shared a large room in a beautiful building, and I was excited at the prospect of working at a female-centric firm.
The excitement wore off pretty quickly. On my first day, although we were all in one room with no partitions whatsoever, the only one of the three ladies who spoke to me was Miss Long Island. She was super nice and welcoming, but the other two completely ignored me. The proprietor spoke to the other intern that it turned out I was replacing, a guy who was leaving because he was about to go back to college in the fall, but she never made eye contact with me. As the days went by, this became a clear pattern and I started to feel increasingly awkward. I also noticed that the two older ladies often spoke to the younger one in a brusque, disrespectful way; they had a too-cool-for-school vibe that rubbed me the wrong way. Miss Long Island continued being very nice to me, but she was clearly over-worked and stressed, and since she was the only one who talked to me and showed me how to do anything and I had no previous PR experience, I was often left confused as to what I should be doing as she got yelled at by the owner. The owner's dogs yelped incessantly, adding to the tense vibes. After witnessing one too many scenes of Miss Long Island getting a condescending tongue-lashing, I decided that because I wasn't a fan of the environment and I wasn't getting paid, I would bow out. I had barely worked there two weeks, so I just sent them an email letting them know I wouldn't be returning, and I even mentioned how awkward and unwelcome I felt (probably not the most appropriate email I've ever sent).
As a response to my email, the 30-something punk lady had a pithy reply. She copied and pasted the definition of "amateur" and hit send. "Amateur: noun. 1. a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons. 2. a person inexperienced or unskilled in a particular activity."
Ouch. That one cut me down. Although it was somewhat accurate (after all, they weren't paying me for what I was doing, so even if I kept working there I still would have partially fit the definition of an amateur), the clear shadiness of the intent got under my skin. After all, I was at a pretty amateur level with everything. I was playing some small shows and working on the recordings that I ultimately released as Raw Material, but I certainly wasn't paying the rent with my music. I was getting a small stipend from the play I was in at the time, but it was nowhere near rent-paying levels either. It was as if this lady sensed my insecurities about never getting anywhere with my creative ambitions and knew that this one little email would be the perfect insult. Looking back on it, that email perfectly demonstrates why it was a good decision to leave that internship. They were not very nice, and the whole thing was kinda bullshit anyway.
I was reminded of that anecdote when I started reading Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon yesterday on the subway ride home from my a cappella group rehearsal. I got major flashbacks to the whole episode when I turned the page and saw this:
Talk about re-claiming something that's usually used as a belittling mockery! Kleon writes, "We're all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur---the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means "lover"), regardless of the potential for fame, money, or career---who often have the advantage over the professional. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. 'In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities,' said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. 'In the expert's mind, there are few.'"
Wow, I'm not sure why I never realized that amateur had its etymological roots in "love." The literal meaning of the word is actually a celebration. In the years since that email exchange, I've been so caught up in the negative connotations of the word, but Kleon's point is so true: the passionate, whole-hearted openness that comes from a beginner's mind is exactly what brings us to the pursuit of our creative goals. The minute the too-cool-for-school attitude sinks in, when cynicism overtakes us, is the minute that we lose the free and joyful aspects of making work. We start taking ourselves too seriously, worrying what other people might think of us, forgetting why we started making things in the first place: We fell in love!
I'm grateful for the brief and oddly mean experience at that PR company. It taught me what not to do if I ever get in a position of power where people are working for me; I hope that I will always be kind and welcoming to people who are new to a situation where I have a little more seniority. And now, maybe I can retroactively interpret "amateur" as a compliment, and infuse its bright-eyed spirit into everything I do.