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Enthusiasm and elitism.

Normally I try to keep the rants to a minimum here, although arguably this is the one place on the Internet I can guiltlessly rant until my fingers run out of steam. But over the past few months I have read a number of irritating blog posts by elitists directed at enthusiasts. I wrote most of this two months ago and decided not to post it because I didn’t want to be a giant whiny-head. But tonight, after watching this amusing and relatable video by Hank Green (especially 1:55-2:04), I’ve decided to post it.

First of all, I speak as an enthusiast, not an elitist. This should be glaringly obvious because this has never been a “subject blog” based on my interest in writing, information science, running, gaming, food, or anything else. I love many things and I write about them all here. Other words for an enthusiast such as myself include amateur, dilettante, and dabbler. The common vein here is a lack of ability, focus, and/or talent that separates this level of connection with a subject from a higher, elite level. Although I actively attempt to improve my skill in a number of different subjects, I have not yet attained elite status in any of them.

The blog posts I refer to often place the elitists as victims, dejected and despondent over the state of their fields being overrun by perhaps well-meaning but nevertheless hapless and clueless enthusiasts who plaster their fledgling fascinations over social media with the assumed expectation that they will be validated in some manner. A tangent to this phenomenon is the idea of the “fake geek girl”, which is one of the sillier notions entertained by the Internet herd, and so I won’t waste any time with it here. (If you believe that the idea of the “fake geek girl” has any merit whatsoever, stop reading this now and go away. There is nothing for you here.)

I was lucky enough to be born to parents who encouraged all of my interests, who never labelled my fascination with Sherlock Holmes and science fiction and Matchbox cars and trains as “too boyish” or tried to veer me back into the safety of “girly” toys, although I had Barbies and horse figurines and a dollhouse too. Moreover, I was taught to share the things I enjoyed, regardless of the level I would achieve in them. As a perfectionist, this wasn’t an easy concept for me to grasp, and I still struggle with it. It is a natural impulse to want to be accomplished at the things we love, and yet being good at something starts off with being bad at it. Ira Glass' quote on creativity comes to mind:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

So, elitists, here is my question for you. Do you not remember being awful at the thing you do best? Maybe you didn’t start out at the same level as the rest of us. Maybe you were a prodigy. Fair enough. Maybe you were never awful at that thing. You’ve still improved significantly in some aspects, right? What if the then-you read what the now-you is writing about your thing? Would the then-you be crushed, deflated, humbled … or merely wonder what turned the now-you into such a pretentious git?

If I only ever run for the joy of it, if I only cook delicious food for my family, if I suck aggressively at the things I love and write about them here, it is okay. It is okay to love something even if we suck at it. And if you don’t suck at what you love, if you have the extremely good fortune to have externally-recognised success in it, relish your success in a way that doesn’t disparage amateurs. You were one once yourself.

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