Want To Make Your Town Stronger? Look for the Amateurs.

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What I get to do as Community Builder is come alongside these groups, work with them to identify barriers to change, connect them with the resources and people who can help them overcome those barriers, and act as their liaison with the rest of the Strong Towns organization. (Note: We’re laying the groundwork to grow the number of Local Conversations tenfold. If you’re interested in forming a group where you live, visit strongtowns.org/local.)

Though I’ve connected with dozens upon dozens of Local Conversation leaders over the last year, one thing I hadn’t done yet is start a group in my own town of Silverton. I wanted to, but I was experiencing many of the same fears I’ve heard from other would-be organizers: concerns about time, finding kindred spirits, and the toll it might take on my introvert energy. To be honest, most of those fears were easy to address—I needed a taste of my own medicine—but one big obstacle remained: Imposter Syndrome.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that a Local Conversation in Silverton would be better served by a professional. A planner or an engineer. Maybe an architect. Someone with at least three years experience serving on a local planning committee. Someone with a better skill set. Someone who can actually do the math that comes with doing the math. Yes, I work for Strong Towns, but what do I know, really know, about how to make my own town stronger and more financially resilient? All of a sudden, it felt like not very much.

That’s when I remembered The Way of the Amateur. To get a conversation started in Silverton, I don’t need to be an expert in planning, engineering, or the minutiae of the city budget. What I need first is to love my town and my neighbors, which I do

I read something recently that Daniel J. Boorstin wrote about “the amateur spirit.” Boorstin, who died in 2004, once served as the head of the Library of Congress. Though trained as a lawyer, he was a professor of history for decades and authored more than twenty celebrated books of history, politics, and cultural analysis. Boorstin wrote:

With the good fortune to be permitted to be a historian without conventional credentials, I have delighted in pursuing history for the love of it. This amateur spirit has guided my thinking and writing. Of course we need devices to economize our intellectual sallies, and the professions can somehow serve in this way. But the rewards and refreshments of thought and the arts come from the courage to try something, all sorts of things, for the first time. These first-time adventurers are the spice of life. An enamored amateur need not be a genius to stay out of ruts he has never been trained in.

In other words, what distinguishes the amateur from the professional is not a paycheck, the right degrees, or even skill. It is a teachable heart, vulnerability, curiosity, and the courage to try new things.

I think this amateur spirit is actually baked into the Strong Towns movement. Consider, for example, the Strong Towns four-step public investment process. It begins with humility, then asks a question, proceeds with a small teachable step, and then repeats the process all over again. Professional or non-professional is irrelevant in this context. You can be a professional and still have the heart of an amateur. We need more expert amateurs (people who are good at doing things for the love of it) and more amateur experts (specialists who still lead with love and humility).

So once again I’m declaring myself a proud amateur—a proud Strong Towns amateur. Over the course of the coming months I am going to publish an occasional column about my ongoing process of launching a Local Conversation here in Silverton. I will be honest about what is working and what isn’t, how I find local allies, what our meetings look like, the challenges our town is facing, the strengths it can build on, and how our group starts taking action together here. My hope is that the column inspires you in your own local efforts. If you sign up today to start your own Local Conversation, we will be on this journey together.

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