I had a professor in college who believed in something he called “the cult of the amateur.” Being prone to overstate things, he didn’t really mean “cult”. Essentially, he thought and taught his students that a person’s inability to be the best—or even terribly good—at something didn’t mean they shouldn’t bother doing it. Very few people in the world can be concert pianists, for example, but it’s ridiculous to think therefore that an ordinary person can’t get value and joy from taking lessons and playing well enough to accompany hymn singing. The value of activities like music, art, and so on doesn’t lie in their end result, but in the doing of the activity itself. Play a mistake-ridden Für Elise! Make lumpy clay sculpture! Learn another language even if your accent is horrible! You’ll benefit just from doing it.
Since my professor was (and is) a charismatic and inspirational figure, I took his words to heart. And he’s right—doing something for the joy inherent in the thing is good for the soul. It’s also enormously freeing. Without having to worry about reaching an impossible goal, I can focus on the process, or smaller goals I set for myself. Doing this has added immeasurably to my life over the years. Only recently, however, has it occurred to me to apply the same mindset to areas of my life outside of my hobbies.
Like many people I can be a bit of a perfectionist; I prefer to do things perfectly once or not at all. This desire often keeps me from doing things that would be very good for me—taking vitamins, reading through the Bible in a year, making and keeping a budget. While I start strong, eventually I miss a day, and then I get behind, and then I feel like a failure, and then I give the whole thing up. It’s a vicious cycle! Applying the amateur mindset, however, alleviates some of this weight.
Just like art, music, and learning, good habits are their own reward. Take the example of vitamins: Of course it would be better to take vitamins every day. Taking vitamins three days a week instead of seven, though, is better than foregoing them entirely. Or, a less physical example: it would be ideal to wake up an hour earlier every morning to spend time in prayer. But even fifteen minutes of prayer is better than no prayer at all!
The same mindset can be utilized in one’s finances. When dealing with such a multifaceted issue, one can easily become overwhelmed by goals: give 10%, avoid credit cards, save x amount, keep to this budget without fail. Certainly, we have access to many tools that can help us keep these goals. Another one, however, can be the realization that any forward progress in this area has value. Save $1,000 or $10, the savings account has still grown. Bring lunch three times a week instead of five and that’s still $30 to give or save. Each instance of a good financial habit adds up far more than waiting to be able to keep them perfectly.
In addition, good habits add up, period. Even if one has no expectation of becoming a concert pianist, diligent practice will improve one’s playing from total beginner to something approaching competence. Similarly, the more one practices giving, or saving, or spending wisely, the easier it becomes. Bit by bit, the $10 savings becomes $1,000; the 2% giving turns to 15%. Ironically, giving oneself grace when one fails to keep to a goal makes it easier to build the habit that allows one to reach it!
The cult of the amateur is not content with mediocrity; rather it acknowledges our reality and encourages us to work hard despite it. Practice may not always make perfect, but it does always make better—and often, that’s good enough.