I saw an email today from a colleague commending another colleague on his/her “professionalism” in making an important decision for the business.
Which got me thinking about this word - Professionalism. And what it meant in the context of this email - as well as in the context that it used more generally.
We hear it all the time. We (not me per say, but a lot of other people) receive kudos from, or give kudos to, co-workers who display great professionalism.
“She’s such a professional.”
“He’s a real pro.”
Or on annual reviews, I’ve even seen a assessment category for Professionalism. Apparently professionalism is an important enough attribute to justify grading people on it.
But I’ve never really understood this so-called ‘virtue’ - Professionalism. It always struck me as odd. I mean, what does it mean to be professional? In the case of the email I saw today - and most other examples - I would suggest that professional really translates to well behaved. To be professional means to fall into line and do the sensible thing. A professional in this sense is someone who doesn’t rock the boat. Someone who makes reasonable decisions and holds, as his/her highest priority, the comfort level, or the feelings, of their coworkers in the making of those decisions. At its worst, when I hear this term comes down from a superior, I find it akin to saying, “Good puppy! I said sit and you sat without even barking…good dog!”
Being professional is being safe. Being professional is the opposite of being crazy. Of being bold. As I rack my brain to think of all those people that I admire in my field, or in any field I’ve worked in before, professional is not a word I would use to describe any of them. In most cases, quite the opposite. John Scully is/was a true professional. Steve Jobs, not so much.
Some of the best people I’ve worked with in various careers:
Creative? World class.
Crazy? Borderline insane.
Volatile? Big time.
Professional? Not at all.
Professional is one of the the last words I would use to describe some of the best, most successful, people I worked with at any stage of my career…
So that makes me wonder at what point in life does this idea of being professional become a virtue. As kids, did we aspire to be professional? I know we aspired to be a professional athlete, or a professional actor, etc. But, as kids, in that context, the word ‘professional’ meant ‘great’ - one of the top people in a specific field. A star.
As adults, at some point, the meaning of professional changes. We use it in a positive way, but I don’t think many people have spent much time thinking about what it really means and/or why we classify it as a virtue.
One theory I’ll toss out there: The truth is that becoming a professional is much easier to achieve than becoming an artist. It’s tangible for the majority of us. As we get older, we realize that the risks involved with becoming an artist are just too high. So we recalibrate our sights and aim for professionalism. And, in our heads, we make it an achievement. Why is it an achievement? Well…because it’s achievable. But in reality, it’s a false idol. Somewhere, someone has placed a high value on this thing, professionalism, and many of us have been fooled into accepting that value.
The problem with placing value on a person’s professionalism is that it’s a concept that is not tied to any level of achievement or success. You can be highly professional in the way you go about your work AND produce nothing of value. Professionalism has really nothing to do with output. And this is another reason why it’s so easy to achieve. Because you don’t have to actually produce anything to wear the badge. You just have to stay in your seat, do what the text book says and don’t raise your voice too loud in the auditorium. A true professional.
So….what is wrong with being professional? Nothing…really. On the surface, at least. If your goal is to survive, advance incrementally and get people to like you - it’s a good thing. Plenty of people lead fine careers and fine lives being totally professional. So, I am not saying that professionalism is a bad thing. I’m just saying that professionalism isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s fine. Just…fine.
A ‘professional’ soldier is a soldier that does what he/she is told. Falls into line and doesn’t question authority.
But there is a big difference between a professional soldier and a Warrior.
A ‘professional’ writer is someone who gets paid to write things that other people want them to write.
But there is a big difference between a professional writer and a Novelist.
A ‘professional’ filmmaker is hired to direct projects that other people conceive.
But there is a big difference between a professional filmmaker and an Auteur.
A ‘professional’ accountant knows the ins and outs of a balance sheet and how to derive meaning from complicated financial statements.
But there is a big difference between a professional accountant and Warren Buffet.
You get the point.
I can’t remember ever being commended for my ‘professionalism’ (anyone who’s ever worked with me would probably laugh at even the suggestion). And I’m just fine with that. In fact, if I were to ever be commended for my professionalism, I would have to take a good hard look in the mirror and question whether or not I was playing hard enough.
When all is said and done and my train arrives at its last stop, I really hope the best thing people can say about me is NOT that I was ‘professional’. I don’t want my gravestone to read, “Loving husband, supportive father and…a true professional.’ You might as well write, “…one grand underachiever” on that marble slab. To me, there is nothing inspiring about aspiring for professionalism.
I’ll end this thought with a message to my kids (which I find is the best way for me to summarize this kind of thinking):
Dear kids -
Please don’t spend your lives aiming for Professionalism. Of course, I don’t want you to be assholes or treat people in ways they don’t deserve to be treated…but don’t settle for being a professional. Don’t take pride in conformity or always doing the ‘sensible’ things. Become an artist. Make waves. Write new rules and always aim for something better. It’s true, you may fail in your attempts. But, I promise you, failure in the pursuit of artistry will always be more fulfilling than success in the pursuit of Professionalism.
And eat your vegetables. Raw.