Professionalism is one of those concepts, like success, that eludes clear definition. An army of consultants, bloggers, and business magazines WILL define it, but we sense they’re being disingenuous, because they will also laud the maverick, outlier, and disruptor who doesn’t fit the mold. It’s as though “professional” is a tall-poppy word—let the rest of us strive to be good at coloring in the lines, while the gifted people tear up the page.
I don’t buy it.
I think not buying it is key to having lives and careers we love. It’s not merely a semantic issue—the word “professional” is just a placeholder for demoting ourselves to a measurable good that never amounts to great.
“The era of empty professionalism is dead.”
Dissect “professionalism,” the way it’s widely construed, and it’s about fit. Fit is a big issue in hiring departments now. “We’re looking for people who are a fit.” The number of job interviews, for even menial jobs, doubles and triples. The kinds of invasive and presumptuous questions one gets, the psychological profile tests, the inquests into people’s financial data—it all implies a desperate wish for interchangeable workers, “professionals” who are more like the drone army of the Star Wars saga than the diverse, weird, sometimes wooly members of the resistance.
The abomination—the outright heresy against the self—is when we take those desires for sanitized human implements of production and apply them to ourselves as independent professionals, as creative people, as breakout talents. There IS something to break out of and it’s the culture of fit. When a drone dies, we have a moment of silence. When a breakout talent dies, there’s a line down the street in the rain, in the mud. The mourning disrupts production. Remember the Kennedys? Bow the head for Elvis, the King.
Yet we do succumb. Should I wear the tie? (Hell no, says Steve Jobs. My collars don’t have a place for ties.) I’d better do x—it’s professional. The professionalism of drones is rooted in the fear of not looking good. It’s about superficially meeting an already superficial standard. It’s about the silk pocket square that is useless as a hankie and ridiculous as covering for a puddle. It’s about the trappings of belief in a social hierarchy without the hope of a meritocracy.
And yet, that which has no substance cannot hold. We see it in the news out of DC every day. That which is a shell crumples again and again, no matter how often it momentarily inflates, like a pufferfish trying to project ferocity and gravitas. Play-Doh is Play-Doh. It only stands up when we prop it up.
Substance is the disruptor. A subway ad from Oscar or Spotify or Seamless isn’t “professional” in that way. They swear. They use risqué scenes (like Oscar and the man in his underpants). They use political humor (like Spotify teasing Sean Spicer). They outrageously slam people who aren’t their current audience (like the Seamless posters in NYC making fun of Jersey and Westchester). They’re both aspirational and real-world authentic, and that’s why those brands are yanking business away from the entrenched captains of those industries who are sanitary, sexless, and uncontroversial. A podcast that starts out in a garage studio trounces print media and network TV. The host isn’t wearing a suit or studio makeup. An artist in a purple scarf with an earring and a neck tattoo at a Wall Street banker on the subway, because they both live on the same block. The era of empty professionalism is dead.
So is there still meaning in the word? Maybe. Words are expendable; truth is not. As Steven Pressfield says. “A professional is someone who shows up.” For his life, his commitments, his goals. A professional puts in the energy, doesn’t relent, and doesn’t quit when it’s hard. I have an empirical observation about businesses that make it—meaning they achieve the goals they set out when they started. The difference between those and the other kind is that the ones that make it didn’t quit. At some point, they didn’t throw in the towel when any rational person would have. And the ones that didn’t achieve that? I think they will never know what they almost achieved.
Remember the old Yuppie poster from the 1980s? It was from the cover of The Yuppie Handbook and listed the ingredients of a Yuppie: squash racket, Cross pen, etc. There was one for nerds, too—pocket protector, tape on the glasses—courtesy of National Lampoon. Professionalism isn’t like either. It’s not a list of ingredients for fit. You can’t dress for it or go in disguise…
When someone delivers consistently, at a high level, focusing on objectives and outcomes, that’s a professional—whether it’s for their own business or someone else’s. Isn’t that just a list of other ingredients? No, because you can’t get a generic version of that stuff. Anyone with the cash can buy a power suit; anyone can avoid racy words and edgy branding. So often that type of “professionalism” is a list of don’ts. But kicking ass is always specific. It’s always the way YOU kick ass. And it’s irreplaceable, non-interchangeable, and cannot be measured on the J. Evans Pritchard scale of professionalism. The professionalism that disrupts is always our own unique recipe.
Which would you rather be? The David Bowie, Ernest Hemingway, or Winston Churchill of your profession? Or the buttoned up, clean-pressed… wait… we can’t think of any names. That’s right. No one remembers “professionals” built according to the factory model, with its cattle call for generic, processed types. The rest of us want to meet originals.
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