It’s okay to love things you’re not good at and do them anyway, or celebrating the cheerful amateurs

The Guardian declared this the year of the cheerful amateurs. I like that.

The two contexts in which I think about cheerful amateurs versus serious professionals are music and sports.

When I’m not dean-ing or blogging or riding my bike, I’m also an professor of philosophy who writes about children’s rights and family justice ethics, among other things. These days I’m working on a paper on the concept of ‘exploitation’ as it applies to childhood. I’m struck by how much time and effort and single minded determination it takes to be good at things. Music and sports are the two obvious examples.

Tennis is the worst. Tennis players start very young and do not much of anything else. Serious tennis players miss out on most of what we think constitutes a good childhood. And tennis parents are so bad there’s a whole applied ethics literature about them.

Have you read Andre Agassi’s memoir Open? “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.” The Guardian story Why Did Andre Agassi Hate Tennis? goes on to tell of track cyclists, cricketers, and football players who like Agassi hate the sport at which they excel.

The big ethics question I’m interested in is this– if it takes robbing people of their childhoods to produce the most beautiful music and world class athletes, are those things worth having? Or even if it produces more good, maybe it’s not an outcome we ought to bring about. Maybe we infringe children’s rights when we take their childhoods away.

So Agassi is a great tennis player who hates tennis. Is it time to say goodbye to the joyless perfectionists and say hello to the cheerful amateurs? While obviously acknowledging there is a huge range between Agassi and someone like me whacking a tennis racquet around while laughing, at the local city recreation tennis court, the point is that you don’t have to be good at a thing to enjoy doing it.

Let’s get back to thinking about our middle-aged, middle-achieving athletic lives.

Though I can’t run these days I am big fan of parkrun. And Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian celebrates parkrun and cheerful amateur runners. “They’re also the driving force behind parkrun, which like Joe Wicks’s online PE lesson has been an absolute gift to those of us always picked last for netball. Sure, you can turn up in an athletics vest and take a Saturday 5k around the park unbelievably seriously if you want, killing yourself to meet last week’s personal best and bragging about it afterwards on Facebook. But you can (or could, before social distancing put a stop to it) also walk a bit, and run a bit, and walk a bit more before going to the cafe for cake; you could bring the kids, or the dog, and still raise a chorus of supportive whoops and cheers as you stagger over the finishing line last.”

Ditto at home yoga. I’ve come to like yoga a lot more doing it without other people and with the instruction of my fave non-serious yoga instructor Adriene. That’s Adriene of the greeting “Hey there, party people!”

Hinsliff too found this out about yoga in lockdown: “My own minor lockdown breakthrough was realising that yoga isn’t actually meant to be a competitive sport. It’s not about hovering miserably at the back of classes full of yummy mummies who can effortlessly do the splits, but about unrolling a mat somewhere quiet and being content just to stretch out whatever will comfortably stretch. The one saving grace of being once again confined to barracks now is that nobody outside can judge your faltering efforts to do a headstand, or indeed to come up with wildly exciting yet educational activities to entertain the children through the longest, dullest winter on record. And if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, then who is to say whether the lumberjack is any good or not?”

Here’s me, not being very good at yoga, and doing it anyway:

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Yoga in alpaca PJs

In fact, a lot of my coming to love sports as an adult was realizing that I didn’t have to be that good at it to enjoy doing it. Do you remember in school thinking that gym class was about learning to be good at a sport and then the people who were the best got put on teams? Those of us who weren’t any good didn’t play team sports.

But as an adult I came to love team sports. On my middle aged women’s soccer team none of us were great soccer players. I mean, some of us were better than others, but being the best wasn’t what it was all about. We were a team, having fun. We joked that we had day jobs. We weren’t soccer stars. It was fun and a stress relief, not a stressful thing in our lives. We were cheerful amatuers.

During the pandemic the spirit of the cheerful amateur can be seen in knitting, painting, baking, as well as in yoga and running.

While there is a place for high achievement in all fields, let’s continue to celebrate the inclusive attitude of cheerful amateurism.


How do you approach these things? Are there some sports you take more seriously than others? Do you celebrate your identity as a cheerful amateur in any context? Arts? Sports? Music?

4 thoughts on “It’s okay to love things you’re not good at and do them anyway, or celebrating the cheerful amateurs

  1. I love this. And I’m fascinated by the question you raise about whether it’s worth sacrificing an athlete or artist’s happiness to give all their fans so much pleasure. But I also wonder about the psychology of staying with something you hate, just because you are good at it, which creates its own pleasure in accomplishment, in the midst of the hating of it. Our society is so win/lose in its outlook, that being a cheerful amateur requires an often unrecognized fortitude.

  2. I’m 100% the cheerful amateur! It’s an approach I came to in my forties and it has opened up so much joy for me in music, art, and movement.

    1. I had an early introduction to the concept when I took PE classes as a PhD student. I had a tuition waiver so classes were free. Another grad student and I took Intro to Sailing. The undergrads were all anxious about being good. Not us! I didn’t realize that that’s what was keeping me from team sports though until soccer.

  3. As an incredibly competitive person, I love this! It’s my constant challenge to myself. Yoga has been a huge part of that. As I teacher I feel pressure to be able to do things like the splits or handstands or crazy arm balances. And I can’t. Maybe one day I’ll be able to but for now I just have fun – because handstands against the wall are fun anyway (and, like you say, yoga is about being in your body).

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