In Praise of the Amateur Spirit

One of my all-time favorite books is 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.'

December 1, 1999

One of my all-time favorite books is "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." This account of tenant farm families during the Great Depression is told in words by James Agee and in photographs by Walker Evans. It contains some of the most beautiful language and images ever to grace a page. I also love that the "famous men" told of in the title aren’t really famous at all -- at least in the usual sense of the word. Rather, the stories and pictures in the book are of the least famous -- impoverished men and women, yet people who live proud, exemplary lives in an extraordinary time and place. Take my word for it; you can’t read this book and be the same person at the beginning and at the end. It’s that good. Better yet, don’t believe me. Read it.

Every few months something makes me pull that book off my shelf. This time the spark was a phone call from builder-turned-management guru Scott Sedam. Trapped in a traffic jam on some highway in a city that isn’t his home, Scott had nothing but time, so what started as a quick business call turned into a conversation that I have found difficult to let go.

Apropos absolutely nothing, Scott blurts out, "This industry needs more amateurs." My intelligent response, "Huh?"

With that line, he’s got me. I’m hooked; ready to see where this conversation will go or at least stick with it until the traffic clears, whichever comes first. Sure I’ve missed something important, I ask Scott to explain his remark. What I got in response was a lesson I should have remembered from the high school Latin my mother insisted I take.

"What is the root word of amateur?" Scott asked. It was well past 5, my brain was in wind-down mode and not at all ready for a pop quiz of subject matter I haven’t reviewed in 20 years. Ever resourceful soul that I am, my comeback was "You tell me."

"It’s amour -- love," he says. "Amateur athletes play the game because they love it, not because they’re paid to play. We need more builders in this industry who build because they love it ."

True to form, I had no response for that either. It was that kind of conversation on that kind of day. It is also why I always like calls from Scott. His words push my brain and make me think better, and thinking is exactly what I’ve done in the intervening days. What does it mean to love what you do?

I think of Don Horton, founder and chairman of D.R. Horton Inc. and our Builder of the Year. In an interview that spanned many hours over several days, one story stands out. When asked what he likes to do when he’s not working, this is what he said: "I love to sell houses. To me a great Saturday is working the models, meeting the people and selling houses."

Had I not been there to see the look on Don’s face I’d probably wonder just how truthful that answer was. However, the smile, the sheer joy on his face as Don explained the kick he still gets selling houses left no doubt in my mind about his truthfulness. Don Horton doesn’t personally sell houses because it adds to the bottom line. He does it becomes he loves it, and his passion is infectious.

Now few people would call Don Horton an amateur. He is a thorough professional, manages his business in the same manner and expects nothing less from his associates. The "Saturday sale" is Don’s way to remember the amateur experience, the thing that makes him love this business.

It’s about capturing a state of mind. That trigger is different for everyone. For you it might be escaping the office and framing a house, helping on a Habitat for Humanity project, etc.

Loving what you do is intoxicating. I met a builder once who told me, "I don’t think anyone can really know me who doesn’t know my work." That is love for what he does.

Those that possess and share it are the famous people. Let us praise them.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men


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