On Amateurism: Interview With Jack Hitt, Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part interview with This American Life contributing editor Jack Hitt about his recent book, Bunch of Amateurs, published by The Crown Publishing Group. Read the first part of my interview here. Be sure to read through to the end of the interview for an opportunity to win an awesome prize. This one will surely inspire the amateur in whoever wins!

MAKE: The word “backyard” in the United States conveys the image of someone working outside institutional or “credentialed” constraints (backyard scientist, for example), not solely the outdoor space behind a home. What is it about the American character, and even lexicon, that allows for such a unique understanding of who and what an amateur is (and where they work)?

Jack Hitt: This basic narrative—the immigrant journey, lighting out for the territories, or going West, young man—gets played out in miniature in many backyards. That distance from the house—with its domestic burdens of spouse and children, bills and realistic demands—all the way to the dreamy loopy inventive freedom of a garage is more existential than geographical. It wasn’t mere serendipity that led David Packard, at the height of the Depression in 1938, to grab his pal William Hewlett and slip into his garage at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto. The place has since been restored to its original look and is now a Registered Historic Landmark, acknowledging this very American temple of self-motivated ingenuity. Who doubts that the same landmark status awaits 2066 Crist Drive in Los Altos where Jobs and Wozniak squirreled away during the crummy days of mid-seventies stagflation to invent the desktop computer? The Maker movement flowers in the wreck of the worst economic contraction since 1929 or perhaps 1893. Coincidence?

MAKE: Did you ever find yourself attracted to the fields of amateur study you yourself were writing about? Or do you consider yourself an amateur of any field since writing about it?

Jack: Personally and most recently, I have been fiddling around with solar panels and a home-built electric car. If you’re asking the question as a therapist, I’d say my interest dates back to the time when I was eleven and my dad took me into his little workspace beneath the staircase in our house. He was fixing something and showed me how to operate a drill. Not long after, he died, and I guess on some level, I’ve been trying to get back to that place beneath the stairs ever since.

MAKE: Throughout your book there is this recurring topic of genealogy. Not only of your own genealogical quest (as “the great48-grandson of Charlemagne”), but of amateurs tracing a line back through American history (via writers, inventors, actors, etc.). Why do amateurs – I’m thinking about the Spirit of America here – reference their creative progenitors? Is it because we as a country are still so new? Or are there other conditions, factors of influence that also shape this spirit?

Jack: We all grow up being told that our ancestors came here because they longed to escape tyranny and sought religious freedom. Um, please. That’s a choice bit of marketing, frankly. Ask any British grade-school student who the Puritans were and they’ll tell you terrorists and extremists. And that’s more true than not. Otherwise we were indentured servants brought here under contract or slaves stolen out of their houses or second sons from England, chafing under the nonsense of primogeniture. From the passenger manifest of the Mayflower to characters in the mini-series Roots, it is a common story of embittered newcomers, cut off from a past and driven to begin afresh. That is what created our national character, or what we might now kindly call the amateur spirit. F. Scott Fitzgerald once foolishly said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” What was he drinking? This is the land of nothing but. Starting from scratch — amateurism — is all that we got, a fact we rediscover in the aftermath of every wave of immigrants or economic collapse.

MAKE: And lastly for our readers, do you have any words for makers to reconcile their dreams, their aspirations, with the “pursuit of happiness”, not only with regards to the Declaration of Independence, but also to the playful nature of being an amateur as you frame it.

Jack: Most people know that Thomas Jefferson is the author of the Declaration. But less known is that John Adams edited the draft (almost certainly for the legal concepts), and Ben Franklin edited it too, probably for the felicitious and sly phrasing for which he was famous. In those days the cliché phrase that would ring in anyone’s ear was “life, liberty and property.”—the classic British notion of why governments were instituted at all. I like to credit Franklin for that little edit. We don’t know for sure. But it’s hard to imagine Franklin not being displeased at the ungainly thud of that last word— “property.” For England, a nation obsessed for nearly a millennium over the role of land, it made sense. But Franklin wrote a good bit about happiness and the role random chance had in it. One of his favorite images was the kite. He wrote a piece about floating on his back in the Boston harbor as a little boy, being pulled here and there by his kite. An exaggeration to be sure (imagine an 18th century kite doing anything other than getting airborne) but Franklin understood the unquantifiable element in all creativity, one that Makers understand in their core but which eludes the flat-footed B-school profs who write those plodding tomes every season about “entrepreneurialism” and “innovation.” The thing they can’t put their finger quite on is that sense of playfulness, the cheery free-floating randomness of being caught in the flow of an obsessive idea, lost in a garage. Franklin captured it in an airy, somewhat ungraspable phrase, the pursuit of happiness—setting into motion the real American dream.

That concludes our two-part interview with Jack Hitt. Thanks to Jack for his time and to you for reading. And now for our final prize giveaway, and yes, that’s a robot up for grabs! Specifically, it’s a LEGO® MINDSTORMS® NXT 2.0, a buildable, programmable robot. This kit comes with 612 pieces and instructions to build up to 4 types of ‘bots.

To enter to win: All you have to do is leave a comment below! Comments left before June 14th at 11:59PM PST will be eligible to win this prize. Be sure to leave a valid email so we can contact you if you win. Feel free to tell a story about your own amateur pursuits, although it’s not necessary for a chance to win. For complete rules, click here.

These prizes are provided by The Crown Publishing Group, publishers of Bunch of Amateurs.

538 thoughts on “On Amateurism: Interview With Jack Hitt, Part 2

  1. I love that he simultaneously recognizes the process of collaborating that makes stuff great, while embracing the randomness and free flow that is required.

  2. This is a great interview. It is the sense to make something of our own that is the essence of the American Spirit.

  3. Hands on is the best way to understand how things work, how people work. I have always made my own toys. Sometimes that is the only way to get exactly what I want.

  4. That part about trying to get back to his childhood is so familiar. Doing electronics projects as an amateur makes me feel a little child-like, and my amazement when a little tinkering project actually works is a lot like childhood surprise.

    1. Man, you couldn’t have said it better! That thrill when you take your idea from just an idea to seeing it actual real life, and it works, just like you expect! I love it.

  5. I just read the synbio chapter and was left with this idea: once upon a time we would refer to a simple activity (something that a basically skilled person could do) as “not being rocket science”… It is apparent that we have to reevaluate what is outside the scope of “average” human endeavour. With teenagers sending iPhones to the ionoshere and, specifically, steam punk hackers recombining DNA to create glow in the dark yogurt it would appear that the only thing outside the “amateurs” grasp is that which they haven’t considered yet.

  6. One of the great things about America is that you can try, fail and try something else. Playfulness, experimentation and being willing to fail make for great inventions.

  7. I grew up with the maker spirit all around me. My grandfather taught me rebuilding engines and the art of jury rigging on the farm. My dad’s unbridled enthusiasm to try making your visions come to light even if you have no formal training in the medium. Spending hours with my step dad in the dark room developing pictures. And now I’m embarking on opening my own maker shop SPark Workshop Brooklyn. This interview really connected with me.

  8. This is interesting. There are some elementary schools near where I live that are doing Mindstorm projects to teach kids analytical thinking, basic engineering and programming. Very cool idea.

  9. My amateur projects are mostly cooking related right now, but my soldering iron is always at the ready! The robots would be fun to share with my kid sister.

  10. Excellent point about “amateurs” rising up in the wake of economic collapse. I feel like we stand at the forefront of a new great age of invention and science at the hands of “backyard scientists,” if only we can get through this current crisis.

  11. Exactly right. This is the land of nothing but second chances. Bill Clinton once said that a person deserves as many second chances as one was willing to take. Now, with online identities, our ability to “re-brand” or re-make ourselves is easier than ever.

  12. This is a great piece on the American amateur spirit. Thanks MAKE for continuing to inspire us through the interviews and blog posts. It is part of my daily routine to checkout what new on the Makezine Blog.

  13. An interesting and rousing interview! I’ve added the book to my list of future reads in between my own amateur pursuits.

  14. Time to get my enthusiasm back! I think it’s easy to discredit ourselves as amateur (of the “rank” variety) and let that maker spirit be quenched.

  15. This was a great interview. Thanks!
    My 10 year old son would love that Lego Robot (let’s not kid ourselves, so would I!)

  16. What a fantasic contest offer! My son regularly introduces himself as an inventor and one of his main obsessions is robots. This would be a dream come true for him. Thanks for the opportunity.

  17. Definitely most of the interesting and worthwhile things in this country started out as ideas from single people, and the vast majority of those started outside of large companies. If you think of something that makes sense to you, and excites the people around you, it just might make sense to put a lot of effort towards.

    Looks like that book might be worth picking up.

  18. I think the “maker genealogy” plays a key role in the establishment of a true maker culture. Here in Brazil, children and teenagers have no such things like craft classes in school/college, and all makers I know here (myself included) was inspired exclusively by their “creative progenitors”. Unfortunately, we still have only a “subsistence makeculture”: some people here do really awesome things – but only to solve problems they have at home, with few to do with innovation.

  19. It’s so ironic that as we become adults we forgot how to imagine, how to invent, how to create. Last summer my son had the chance to make a primitive robot out of a toothbrush, a watch battery and some miscellaneous parts. What a great contest! Imagine if this opportunity is the moment where a child could realize their calling in life. Who knows, this could give some special person a rare moment to explore their dream…NASA here we come?

  20. I’ve been MAKING all my life! It is an inborn drive to change our world for the better. My most recent making has been landscaping.

  21. With the NXT 2.0, my sons and I can FINALLY take over the world…or use them for the betterment of all mankind. Decisions-

  22. What I love about this most recent Maker movement which is something Jack eluded to a couple of times in the interview; the fact that kids are so involved in learning new things and experiencing the world in new ways. For example even though I had great fun at the Seattle mini maker faire I had far more joy in watching my three year olds sense of wonder. I will be ordering a copy of this book as well.

  23. Your book is on my reserve list, at my local library. :)

    I think many of us are daunted by the enormity of life shift necessary to emulate (even partially) the level of self-reliance, resourcefulness, make-do-ism (copyright!), and involvement with the things in our own lives, that our forbearers displayed.

    I know I’m reluctant to abandon the selfish, wasteful, indulgent simplicity of “just throw it away and get a new one”, in favor if “if it’s broke, FIX IT”.

    And to think, if I actually tried to use all the food that makes its way through my kitchen, I might not get to eat precisely what I feel like (including an obligatory dessert) at every single meal. The horror! The privation!

  24. Great article! Hope to win the Lego set as my son is maker! I will have to search out for this book in my local library.

  25. I just listened to an episode to TAL (not five minutes ago!) where Mr. Hitt told the story of how he was almost murdered by his landlord before a Brazillian former death squad torturer intervened to save his life.

    I love this guy. And Mindstorm.

  26. Amateurs, with real tools (thank you freeware and open source), are not really “amatuer” any more. The results are very professional.

  27. My father used to build electronics and repair TV’s when I was young. He also died when I was in my teens. I have since been tinkering with all kinds of projects. It all started when I repaired one of the TV’s that my father built. From there, if anything broke, I would pull out my screw driver and tear it apart. I really enjoyed this interview.

  28. I never knew that tidbit about ” life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – interesting!

    Would love to win a mindstorms kit for my 9yo – he’d really enjoy learning how to program it.

  29. I really like the NXT 2.0 were using it for one of the design competition. It is a nice product that easy to program.

  30. I like this because I too labor away for hours working on micro controller projects. Having a space for all my tools and parts is heaven, there is almost no where I’d rather be :)

  31. What he said about Franklin is so true, but I think it’s something we, as a people, tend to forget. That key word “happiness” gets lost in the quest for the almighty dollar that we seem to put above all else. Those at the top struggle to keep their money, even though many of the new rich got there by following something that made them happy, that all-consuming Idea. A very insightful interview. Thank you for sharing it!

  32. Great interview! It is sad how far HP has fallen. Very indicative of the failures of corporate culture, and values the maker culture is attempting to resurrect.

  33. I made a robot using LEGO Mindstorms for an art class project. I gave the set to my nephew, so I would love to win a new set.

  34. I were using it in the design engineering competition. I love this device have so many easy to plug in parts with no interfacing trouble and so easy to program. I learn to program it immediately that day.

  35. This would be a great place to start since I’ve always wanted to build a robot but never had the confidence to try it.

  36. I would love to win a Lego Mindstorms kit so I may introduce my son into the world of ‘bots and Arduino type projects that I enjoy.

  37. I remember LEGO “minifigs” that didn’t have articulating limbs. That was back when my limbs didn’t articulate much either. Many improvements later (for both me and the LEGO) and now we’re both playing with computers.

  38. Now this would be a Fathers Day treat. Of course, I’d have to fight the kids for it. I’d loose, but they’ll make nice with me when they need help with the programming. :-)

  39. Lego rules, Lego with robotics is… uhm… even better!

    In the process of build an automated pump with the NXT 1.0 to provide a steady supply of water to the steam engine. However, it’s not mine, so here’s for winning!

  40. My 6yo begs me weeky for a chance to someday own and build a cool robot, and he’s crazy about Lego, to boot. He’s been so focused on the NXT stuff every time he sees an ad or a catalog mention, but there’s no way we can afford one.

    One thing we have talked about is looking into FIRST robotics and setting up a team; there isn’t a younger-kids team locally at all. And looking at the supplies prerequisites, I see why. It’s relatively cheap for some people, but not for us! Fundraising is an option, but winning one would really take a huge load off getting started!

    We’d love a chance at making a lot of dreams come true–mine, his, and other area kids as well. Thanks!

  41. I agree, that being “lost in a garage” is winding road that ends the pursuit and finds the ever elusive happiness! Nothing tops the high of when, finally, it works!

  42. This has inspired me to complete my workshop in the garden. Only 3 years in the making so far and still not weather-tight :-)

  43. I’ve always been an amateur tinkerer. I’ve loved to play and tinker with most anything I can get my hands on, since chilhood. This joyous pasttime is actually enjoying a little researgence recently as well. Ill definately be looking for this book. Great interview.


  44. I’m a HUGE fan of the Mindstorms system, and use them in my classes, but I left the batteries in my NXT in the basement and KILLED IT!. So a replacement would be like an organ donation to my poor comatose robot!

  45. I saw yesterday a tv program “Made in America” and I felt a little sad as many products there were copycats, it is difficult to find really inventive products now. I just bought the book and I am hoping that I enjoy it, the article was interesting.

  46. Who can resist a top end Lego kit ? I always had Lego’s when I was a kid, but never cool robotic Lego’s :)

  47. I’m building a robot. Which, if you count the box I drew a face on and taped to a tethered remote control car, I’ve been doing since I was five years old. Finally, the technology is to the point where, I can just about build the robot I’ve always wanted–and with skills I actually posess. (Which, realistically, aren’t all that advanced from taping boxes to toy cars.} I guess this represents the fulfilment of a lifelong dream with roots that go deep into my childhood. I’ve wondered what that says about me, and after reading this article, I think I have a better idea.

  48. Some call it man-cave, some call it workshop, but I’m in HEAVEN when I’m tinkering with my projects in my little space.

  49. I’ve been teaching my kid the love of DIY electronics, starting with SnapCircuits. An NXT would be an awesome next step!

  50. I’ve really been an amateur my whole professional life. I had my training as a graphic designer, but I’ve been working as a photographer for years, a skill I taught myself. I’m constantly tinkering with new products, new methods, new ideas for education, game design, and lighting. I always took this to be a sign of my own special kind of ADD, but maybe it’s just my American spirit.

  51. I like to call these folks trailblazers! To build on Jack’s interview and book, folks may want to check out:
    1) the Daniel Pink video, DRIVE, that talks about the amatuers that contribute to Wikipedia http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=u6XAPnuFjJc
    2) the hackathons our country’s CTO, Todd Park is sponsoring as he unleashes our govt. data to developers http://techcrunch.com/2012/05/23/us-launches-digital-roadmap-to-open-up-government-data-ad-court-developers/
    3) the MAKER INSTINCT trend written about in Bob Johansen’s book, Leaders Make The Future http://www.iftf.org/leadersmakethefuture

  52. This looks like an interesting book, there needs to be more backyard amateurs. You could say that’s me in my family, I’m always given broken things to fix, through my tinkering with everything I know how stuff works and what’s wrong when they break

  53. We liked the article. It was inspiring and the historical views were interesting. :-) I am an amateur herbalist and homesteader trying to be as self-sufficient as possible. I teach my children to try to think outside of the box and view things from different angles. They are becoming our future tinkerers and up-cyclers and are inspired by what they read, view, and absorb. My son recently read an article about robotics engineering that concerned him (regarding the use of robotics control of living rats). It led to some very intense thoughts and conversations, which in turn, led to some very interesting ideas! Let the inspirations continue!

  54. I coach our high school robotics team. It is very difficult to get the students to see than not every problem has been solved. Go at it, play around, and see what you can come up with. When others see your idea that may strike a new idea in them and they take it a little farther. The important problems are never solved by one person in one day.

  55. I find it interesting that he links the drive to create something new to the drive to explore and expand. Growing up in the west, first job was on a large cattle ranch, I have always found the urge to explore. Growing up poor was my inspiration to fix and make better — my first stereo came from that a broken unit that I found and had to tear apart and figure out how to make it work.

  56. I loved this interview, it was wonderful. I especially liked the part where he recognized his inspiration came from the special bonding moment between him and his father, yet it was very saddening to hear he had died shortly after. It has made me reflect and wonder where my own tinkering inspiration comes from and has reminded me to be appreciative of the many people who help to influence my own life.

  57. My Dad has instilled in me the maker mind set. The book sounds like an inspiration and I need to get a copy.

  58. I really like the sounds of this book. As a programmer I have run into many managers that don’t get the idea that it is good to “play” that I would love to hand this book to.

  59. I can’t wait to read this; I love do-it-yourself! I wish my dad had taught me in the basement with my brother, but… at least I got to play with the science lab kit. I agree – this is America – where anyone can build anything, and a teenager can build a nuclear reactor. Go for it!

  60. My dream is a “backyard” automated loom. I have a decent Semi-autoated loom made from k.nex, but it’s the flying shuttle that has me stymied. The Flying Shuttle really is one of the most amazing inventions going…

  61. Oh wow! Lego mind storms are amazing. Of I won this I would love to tinker with it and build all kinds of things. Or maybe give it to my lovely niece so she can learn to love the nerdy side of life!

  62. Growing up in rural Iowa, the DYI spirit (complex) was in the very air we breathed. Very much looking forward to giving Bunch of Amateurs a read. Keep in mind the Wright Bros, Goddard, were all “backyard” scientists and engineers and look where they took us! Please throw my name in the coffee can for a Mindstorm to tinker with!

  63. I think it is so important for kids to learn science and learn how stuff works. The only way for them to learn how to make our world a better place is to learn how stuff works. Since it’s summer, my kids are working on outdoor project (like the air powered rocket launcher, my 8 year old daughter is building). I would love to have an NXT for them to build with over the winter.

  64. I teach science at a middle school in Pueblo, CO. I was able to borrow a couple of Mindstorms NXT kits from the local college for a science lesson. Amazing to watch how they completely captivated my 8th graders.

  65. I’m beginning to realize that today’s “tinkerers” are doing it more out of necessity than curiosity, even though the latter is important also.

    It’s tough to buy something that is easily repairable and ends up simply being replaced, usually at a higher cost than a repair. Over time, we’ve ended up having surplus inoperable devices whose components could be repurposed instead of being thrown away. Thus begat the tinkerer, whose vivid imaginations help bestow a myriad of creative devices upon the world.

  66. Wow, my son has been asking for the Mindstorm kit for almost a year now. He has buckets of Legos and builds the most amazing things, and he’s only 5 years old. It would be amazing for him to have. *fingers crossed*

  67. LEGO + Robotics = Meaning of Life = NXT

    if (NXT == won)
    printf(“NO WAY!!!”);
    printf(“TOTALLY UNFAIR!”);

    Yep, I sure could use one ;)

  68. It is too bad about HP’s culture drifting into corporate mediocrity. Now it is time fit DIYers to show true creativity!

  69. I haven’t played with LEGO robotics for a long time – they’ve improved a lot since the original Mindstorms system!

  70. Often, if you don’t realize that something can’t be done, you can do it.

    I’m a mentor for a LEGO League team and could really use my own NXT to learn at home. I have an old RCX, but there’s a world of difference.

    Peace, love, and LEGOs.

  71. LEGOs and robots r cool. i remember playing w/ mindstorm as an ‘assignment’ in grad school where we broke into teams and had a battle. It was a welcome respite from the rigors of our regular assignments… almost like a mini-vacationa

  72. Ooh, that would be a great thing to start my kids into robots and tinkering. (Well, I guess it wouldn’t quite be the first thing they tinkered on, but it should be able to survive it better…) I am a budding electrical engineer and I have all kinds of plans on getting them into making things with me.

  73. “The thing they can’t put their finger quite on is that sense of playfulness, the cheery free-floating randomness of being caught in the flow of an obsessive idea, lost in a garage.”
    Tinkering is becoming a lost art. Most of my best work comes from just allowing myself to play with materials, like I did as a kid playing with Lego. :)

  74. Cool interview. I’ll have to check out the book.
    I’d really love to tinker with the Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 with my daughter!

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I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

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