Professionalism Is Earned

In 2006, Jason Fried of 37signals posted a short article to the Signal v. Noise blog titled “‘Professional’ is a buzzword”. Jason wrote:  “It seems like it’s time to call a spade a spade: ‘Professional’ is a buzzword. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. Disagree? What does Professional mean to you?”

Eighty-five comments were posted in response to Jason’s question. The comments proved Jason’s point.

Calling yourself a “professional” doesn’t make you a professional. Working in a “profession” doesn’t make you a professional. “Professionalism” is earned – it’s not a mere label.

Take the terms “professional graphic design industry” and “professional designer.” What do those labels mean today? To become a “professional “ member of AIGA, you pay $315 per year and must have “practiced or taught in any design community for four years or more.” That’s it. I’ve known some “professional designers” (some were members of AIGA) that had no business working as designers. I’ve also known many “non-professional designers” that were remarkably talented, ethical, and client-focused. 

The Internet has fundamentally changed the barriers to compete as a graphic designer. This simple fact doesn’t magically transform millions of people around the world into graphic designers. But it does present them with an amazing opportunity.

I agree with Jason that “professional” is a buzzword, even more so today – two years after Jason’s initial post. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s a word thrown about like confetti at a parade. But while it lacks real meaning, it does possess a certain status within an industry, so it’s not unimportant.

What did the word “professional” mean when it wasn’t a mere buzzword? I believe it meant that you followed standards of conduct in performing your work. Those standards included ethics and excellence in performance. That has not changed. A professional is a professional because of how they act, not what they’re called. Looking in the mirror and calling yourself a “professional” doesn’t make you one.

So how do professionals act?

During the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, there was a moment that marked – for me – one of the most amazing displays of professionalism I’ve ever seen. Dara Torres, a 41 year old U.S. swimmer, was getting ready to swim the semifinal 50m freestyle race.

As the swimmers were ready to start, Torres started waving and approached the main judge. One of Torres’s competitors, Sweden’s Therese Alshammar, had a torn swimsuit. Alshammar could have competed  – it was just a small tear. But Torres understood that even a small tear could have a big impact on a swimmer’s performance. Torres risked her own disqualification to help a competitor.

Torres won the race and took silver in the Olympics. And people will certainly remember her for that. But people will remember her most for the amazing display of professionalism and humanity that she showed to a fellow competitor – at one of the most important times in both of their competitive lives.

True “professionals” never forget that actions and ethics, not a mere label, define what it means to be a professional. Watch the video…