What Being “Professional” Really Means

CoachOiseau Life & Leadership Coaching

Being called a “professional” is usually taken as a compliment. It’s a strong word for a lot of people, evoking feelings of admiration, respect and trust when it’s directed at someone.

We often look up to people who work in “the professions” – fields such as medicine, law and academia. We give those people fancy name prefixes such as “Dr.” or “Prof.” Their expertise is typically quite valued, and a lot of the time these people carry themselves in very confident, assured ways. They show up in powerful ways, and as a product of this they tend to create meaningful results wherever they go.

Whether you’re a professional by title or not, being professional is something that anyone can achieve, regardless of the field they work in. It’s a desirable characteristic, but what’s really behind this attribute is often misunderstood. Here’s a dive into what professionalism really entails.

Being professional isn’t really what most people imagine it is

Seth Godin’s most recent book, This Is Marketing, really opened my eyes to a new viewpoint on what it means to act in a professional manner:

Emotional labor is the work of doing what we don’t feel like doing. It’s about showing up with a smile even when we’re wincing inside, or resisting the urge to chew someone out because you know that engaging with him will make a bigger difference.

He continues a couple of brief paragraphs later:

If you need to be authentic to do your best work, you’re not a professional, you’re a fortunate amateur. Fortunate, because you have a a gig where being the person you feel like being in the moment actually helps you move forward.

For the rest of us, there’s the opportunity to be a professional, to exert emotional labor in search of empathy – the empathy to imagine what someone else would want, what they might believe, what story would resonate with them.

We don’t do this work because we feel like it in the moment. We do this work, this draining emotional labor, because we’re professionals, and because we want to make change happen.

I highly recommend his book, by the way.

This Is Marketing is simply a must-read!

Does this point of view make life as a professional sound hard or what? Emotional labour, knocking authenticity down a peg, seeking to understand who we serve and delivering what we promise – it kind of sounds really stressful and not all that enjoyable, doesn’t it?

News flash: these are exactly the things that great professionals do!

Professional surgeons conduct hours-long surgeries in intense, high-stakes environments.

Professional athletes work through physically draining practice and training regimens that are rarely “fun.”

Professional firefighters risk their lives to save others caught in destructive and downright scary circumstances.

Where would our world be if these individuals simply said, “nope, that task is just too hard for me right now, it’s not worth the emotional labour and I don’t want to do it at all…”

Some of us would be in pretty big trouble.

Great professionals are great communicators

I’ve never come across a professional person who couldn’t find at least one way to communicate their thoughts effectively.

Not everyone is a gifted writer, or a spectacular speaker. Some people are really awkward on the phone, or when they find themselves stuck in a group setting. And this is totally OK!

What’s not OK, if you really want to be a professional, is to be all of these things together, because that means that you can’t communicate effectively in any way, shape or form.

When you can’t communicate, you can’t influence. When you can’t influence, you can’t lead. And if you can’t lead yourself and others through the demanding emotional labour of your craft…I think you can see where this is going.

Great professionals understand that “failure” is part of the job

Oncologists typically treat cancer patients with the aim of returning them to full health. (Yes, sometimes they treat patients with terminal illness and in these situations they are often just managing pain, but that’s beside my upcoming point). Sometimes, patients undergoing treatment don’t recover their health and sadly die. While this is certainly a tragic and difficult reality for anyone to confront, these kinds of doctors face this situation routinely throughout their careers.

What keeps these folks engaged in their work when their patient’s physical and emotional pain is felt by the doctor themselves? The short answer: professionalism.

Lawyers occasionally lose court cases.

Some buildings occasionally burn completely to the ground, despite the firefighter’s efforts.

Financial advisors with fiduciary responsibility still experience market losses which hurt their clients’ portfolios.

Setbacks are part of life for professionals, but so is their attitude in recovering from them.

As my friend Nate Saunders once said, “you need to able to develop resilience from failure.”

A seasoned pro will build the resilience needed to stay in their field for the long run if they embrace adversity and setbacks as important opportunities for learning and growth. Without this key ingredient in a professional’s toolkit, who’s to say that that doctor doesn’t pack it in after their first patient passes away unexpectedly? Professionals keep charging forward.

Being professional means being comfortable with the uncomfortable

Comfort is a wonderful thing, up until a certain point. When we get too comfortable, we tend to stop taking the chances that sometimes lead to failure and always lead to growth. When we get too comfortable, what we are really doing is settling.

Being professional means being skilled in your craft, and skill is developed through hard work (i.e. emotional labour).

As you can see right here, emotional labour and settling don’t really go well together in the same sentence.

I actually felt the dissonance as I wrote that last line. To become professionals, we must be willing to consistently push strategically (not recklessly) outside our comfort zones to places in our inner worlds where we’ve never been before. If we become comfortable with this kind of discomfort, then we’re on the right track.

Becoming a professional is a journey, not a destination

Developing into a professional is similar to growing as a leader – the work is never really over.

There’s not need to beat yourself up if you go through an experience and come out the other side feeling like you could have handled it better – this is normal!

Humans are wired to learn from their experiences – that’s how we’ve evolved so much as a species. Give yourself a break and remember that the next mountain of emotional labour is usually never that far away!

What are your next steps to becoming a professional in your field?

What is one action that you’re going to take bring your level of professionalism up a notch? Leave us a one-liner in the comments section below! I’m curious to know what you pros think.

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