Welcome to my blog, THE PROFESSIONAL ENTHUSIAST. What does that mean?
In THE SIGN OF FOUR, John Watson says of Sherlock Holmes: “I had not the professional enthusiasm which carried my companion on.” This refers to the crazy-ass energy, focus and intensity which propels the Great Detective when he’s on a case. Of course, Watson can’t keep up, nobody can. Sherlock Holmes is a professional enthusiast.
A professional enthusiast has purpose but is not simply about the result. Of course Holmes passionately wants to solve the case —but he also “plays the game for the game’s own sake.” He rarely takes credit, and famously turns down a knighthood in yet another adventure. (See the story listed below.)
Odd, right? Who would turn down a knighthood? But…commitment without regard for reward can net you surprising rewards.
Going full tilt on a professional enthusiasm seems wacky but maybe isn’t. As a small child, I loved to dance, but flunked ballet. In junior high, I saw Rudolf Nureyev get 23 curtain calls and fell in love with ballet again, tried and failed again. Years later, watching the great Baryshnikov, I fell in love for the third time. I longed to soar, but at a creaky 45, that train had long since left the station. But the heart wants what it wants, and I still wanted… ballet. What might a “professional enthusiasm” for ballet look like?
First I looked closely at what pros do. How do they “live” ballet? Dancers not only take care of their bodies but they also take class, usually every day. I found a beginner class, crammed this into my daily schedule, and while I definitely “thudded” more than “soared”, these classes netted me a more fit, flexible, and graceful body, improved posture and sensitivity to music. I read about ballet and dancers’ lives, studied the history, listened to the music, even stretched my toes by hand while watching television.
Suddenly the experience of going to the ballet took on a whole new dimension (Wow! Feel those mirror neurons firing!) I watched my idol with new appreciation. Okay, laugh away. But try it!
I have been a professional writer for years. I even teach writing. But for all this time, my desire to be “a published and successful novelist ” so intimidated me that I never finished the books I started. But when I changed that goal to “let’s see if I can knock out a VERY ROUGH but complete first draft of a novel in thirty days”, it made all the difference. My professional enthusiast kicked in and it suddenly was a game…all about speed, focus, and letting go. Writing became what psychologist Mikhali Csikszentmihalyi calls an “autotelic” activity, fun for its own sake. It was only a rough draft after all. And the goal was number of words, not perfection.
Getting that rough draft done was the game changer. Now after eighteen months of rewrites,my Sherlock Holmes novel ART IN THE BLOOD will be published later this year. I kept my “professional enthusiast” engaged by constantly changing up the game and redefining short term goals. Full-tilt engagement. Fun. But it does require commitment, and passion.
Professional enthusiasm is the opposite of “meh”. It is as unironic as you can get.
Most of our experience outside of work is a consumer experience. We passively inhale movies, music, TV, and video games. But focused participation in something challenging that you love ups your game in so many ways. You are learning and we humans are wired to learn. My husband, Alan Kay, calls this kind of learning “hard fun”.
My next blog will explore the dual professional enthusiasms that led to my novel ART IN THE BLOOD — and how I turned a personal Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) into a book, all initiated by reconnecting to a childhood passion. And future blogs will explore other passions, and ways to develop your own creative processes and sense of fun.
Life gets a lot more interesting when you are a professional enthusiast. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.