Today I was asked to reflect on the meaning of “professionalism” and immediately, my mind defensively goes to left field. Why? Because the traditional meaning of “professionalism” or being a “professional” all seems to stem back to a corporate origin. Having a very corporate background and opting out of that lifestyle does not make me less of a professional nor does it question my professionalism. But before I hop on my pious high horse and ride off into the unprofessional sunset, I should first research if my hypothesis slash argument has any validity.
noun – pro·fes·sion·al·ism \prə-ˈfesh-nə-ˌli-zəm, –ˈfe-shə-nə-ˌli-\
Full Definition of PROFESSIONAL
a: of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession
b: engaged in one of the learned professions
c (1) : characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2) : exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace
a: participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs <a professional golfer>
b: having a particular profession as a permanent career <a professional soldier>
c: engaged in by persons receiving financial return <professional football>
: following a line of conduct as though it were a profession <a professional patriot>
Alright then, that lays it out for us quite clearly. We could look into the exact definition of profession but for time’s sake, let’s just say profession means one’s secular life path that they value and have worked hard to attain. This being said a professional carries the characteristic of their profession. They are engaged and excited by it. The professional stays aligned with the technical or ethical standards of the profession they consider themselves Ambassadors for. But lastly here, as an addition, this definition above puts in the terminology ‘businesslike manner’ and this raises the question, what is businesslike manner exactly? What business do we speak of? Different businesses have different manners. A tar and gravel roofer will not have the same idea of professionalism put on him as a stock trader but both do their job well, are excited by it, are clearly ambassadors for what they believe in, contribute at their own pace as demanded by their profession. So is one less professional in the grand scheme of things because he spits on the job and the other goes to the washroom to do it? Or is professionalism measurable by the profession you choose to embrace? Would the stock broker spit on the job if he had the chance and it was more accepted? Bet he would. We are a product of our environment and morph to conform to the situations we find ourselves in. When we fit in to the preconceived mould, that’s businesslike manner. Business as USUAL. Who is usual? WHAT is usual?
Professionalism means participating for gain or livelihood in a field often overrun with amateurs? Yes. Clearly. A professional is one of the few who doesn’t give up. The professional stands true when all others around him/her fall behind. The professional works over hardships to do the job they are rewarded to do. I do not want to say paid because paid often means money. People choose their careers with promise of all sorts of recompense. Stature, reputation, knowledge, promotion, trade, exchange, abstract benefits… Who are we to judge what drives someone to their profession? I will certainly say that money speaks volumes and in my case, corporate professionalism can be bought from me as a service. My going rate is high because in order to execute corporate professionalism on my part, it means changing who I am as an individual in order to conform to a particular ideal that I have chosen to opt out of. Does this make me less professional? Not at all because if I am willing to sacrifice a piece of me for money then there must be something of greater benefit long term. When I’m Corporate Amber, using my bilingualism and rocking a polyester power suit in heels, you wouldn’t recognize me. I do it and it’s exhausting.
But I want to be a different kind of professional.
I don’t want to be a professional at masking who I am as a person but rather a professional in its true meaning, being a Master of my craft.
Ultimately, the second definition says that in order to be a professional, you need some type of kickback that benefits you enough to keep you going forward or up. This is where it gets difficult because each person works with a different set of priorities. A person can have many things going on, all at once and the professional will always put their full attention into what drives their career further. Plain and simple. Sometimes this doesn’t align with other parts of their lives and causes friction as other things demand attention and get shelved or seemingly ignored. Here is an example. I take some classes a few days a week but I’m also an avid touring musician and studio vocalist. One of my classes demanded mandatory attendance. There was no discussion about it, everyone had to be there. Fair. Now, let me preface this politely, by no means did I not care about this class but at the same time as this class was happening, I had just released a new album a few hours before. A strategically planned campaign for a surprise release. I had stayed up all night sending press releases and working on a 24 hour clock to hit Europe before they woke up. The label was also in the midst of being set up and no word of a lie, Rob and I were working in three hour shifts, I would work for three hours, nap for three and we would take turns each of us like that for at least a week. Finally, after the masters were in, the site was live, the press releases were out, the videos were uploading, the label went public and on two hours sleep, there I was, sitting in class. My phone was blowing up. Emails coming in, messages, calls. Let me tell you, those were the longest hours I think I’ve spent in a long time.
What was running through my mind? I have spent a decade working towards my career in music. I have worked tirelessly and PROFESSIONALLY with many, MANY people around the world. People know they can trust me when they ask for vocals or a bio, or whatever. If I was a complete donkey, I would not have the opportunities I have, doing what I do. My career in music and the arts is my priority, my profession. This is what I am paid to do, as the definition states. Yes, I go to school to educate myself, and pay quite heftily for it, but in order to be deemed a professional (student) I had to let go of my expected professionalism amongst my peers and business partners in the music industry at a sacred time. I felt like I was sacrificing my own professionalism to conform and play a game for points (marks).
Which part of this makes me unprofessional?
The fact that in trying to better my life long term, I show up to mandatory classes and try to be ‘present’ while letting my professionalism in the ‘real world’ falter? Or the token service I have to offer to the class, pretending I’m not nearly as distracted as I am? This particular instant, I sucked at both attempts at professionalism. My hands were tied and all I could do was pout.
Showing up to the mandatory class is no different than taking $30/hour to act ‘corporate’ only I get marks instead of a paycheque. And my professionalism is based on a generalized term that I am trying to define with this blog. That one class, that one morning, it will never leave me how I felt. I couldn’t tell you what the presentations were about in class while I pouted unprofessionally. I was figuring out my finances, if I could make it work if I never set foot in class again, I thought about all the marketing I could be doing for my ‘real job’ and how much I would have to catch up with. I desperately wanted to read reviews and eat the fruits of my labor, all the work and sleepless nights had come to fruition and I had to wait to be a part of the parade. But funny thing is, had I not said a word that morning and just sat and stared, no one would have been none the wiser and my ‘professionalism’ would not have been questioned. How much value is that though? What would you have done? Stayed home and handled the music business? Or what I tried to do and suck it up, do what I was supposed to and then just nearly have a panic attack the whole time trying to be a square peg in the round hole? Needless to say, I didn’t quit school and continue to jog between foggy perceptions of expected professionalism. I think many people struggle with this.
In the book The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield there is a quote that always stuck out to me, “The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery. The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.” I sometimes recite it as a mantra when I need that extra push to shut up and keep going. It’s tough love but I bleed for my profession, that is how passionate I am about what I do. This coincides with the third definition of the word ‘professional’. It says to follow a line of conduct as though it were a profession. So the professional therefore eats, sleeps, breathes, dreams his or her profession. It is a part of life, it is in their blood. They think of it in the morning when they wake up and it keeps them awake at night thinking of the possibilities, making plans, thinking bigger and bigger and bigger. A professional is a seed that grows through experience and commitment to their craft, an apprentice turned master. Professionalism is the embodiment of the professional through their actions and existence.
Look at me, it is Friday night and I’m finished my assignments for the semester and I still keep writing. Because I love it. And even if I am not being graded, writing is my profession. I live it and breathe it. I’ve been writing lyrics and poetry since I learned to spell, my parent’s still have binders upon binders of writing from high school and my growing library of music has years of thoughts, musings, melancholy and madness, all packaged up pretty in melodies. I fail miserably at being a professional student. I fail miserably at being a corporate professional in an office environment. I’m old enough to know where I suck in professionalism at this point in my life. But I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll never miss an important deadline, if I have to show up with bells on, I’ll show up with 20 bells on. With every ounce of my being do I pour as much professionalism as I can muster into my chosen profession. I want to travel the world with the words I write and sing. I want to run the business side of things in a way that reflects who I am, who Rob and I both are, so we aren’t forced to be who we aren’t. That is the beauty of 2015. Anyone can find their place in this world.
I have a tattoo on my right hand of a star above my knuckles between my 3rd and pinky finger. I got it after I left my full-time corporate job of five years. In a youthful fit of rebellion, I got the tattoo in a visible place on my hand on purpose. I had come out of a corporate environment where everything was judged. Everything was taboo or water cooler fodder. I spent my days wearing floral button up blouses and two inch heels that were not even near fierce. I wore grey and beige and ate rice cakes. I got the tattoo to remind me of how that felt and by giving myself a permanent inking in a visible place, I would never work in a place that didn’t accept me for me, regardless of appearances. Something as small as my one inch diameter star on my hand could have me labelled unprofessional. But I’m not unprofessional. And I wouldn’t want to work for anyone or with anyone who wasn’t willing to learn more about what I had to offer, beyond my now aging tattooed hand.
To demand professionalism from someone nowadays would have to come with a list of instructions as to what part of life to be professional in. Or what type of professionalism is expected. If the meaning of ‘professionalism’ is simply to embrace a culture of corporate workplace business manner, then we should all be cookie cutter drones who do what we are told, questioning nothing like robots in all aspects of life. But one’s professionalism shouldn’t be completely questioned based on if they can ‘behave’ or not. We need to take a look at the big picture. Being ethical and courteous, businesslike if you will, part of that is getting the work done, getting it done well, being reliable, being exemplary, trying your hardest and putting your 100% into your work. Being accountable and approachable, able to take input, these are all signs of professionalism. Conducting oneself in line, completely in conjunction with one’s profession, being competent and having skill – these are the definition of professionalism too. Putting aside life problems to get work done, leaving the emotion out of it when it comes to action, that is professional.
Yes, A-line skirts are nice and suits are great for scenery. But professionalism goes beyond how we look, it’s how we live. And just as simply as I could be dismissed as unprofessional because of a tattoo on my hand, a whole pile of talent, successes and amazing qualities can get lost in semantics if we don’t look at all meanings of the word professionalism, not just in its traditional sense.