What is Professional?

From my early career in retail all the way through to my current position in an office, I’ve lived the American Dream. In my spare time, I’ve had moments to ponder on this wild ride I’ve had. Is there something that connects my jobs besides my being in them? A golden thread, perhaps, that makes the capital machine go?

That thread is professionalism.

In every job I’ve held, there is a concerted effort at being professional. Above all other things, professionalism is the sought-after goal of every business I’ve had the pleasure to have slaved under.

So what is professionalism? That’s a good question, as no two businesses seems to have the same definition of it – at least, in practice. In theory, professional means being on time, dressing correctly, dealing with co-workers in an appropriate way and dealing with customers/clients/guests/whatever-you-want-to-call-them in a friendly but businesslike manner. Everyone has an image of professionalism in their mind.

In practice, what is professional in, say, a local diner is quite different from the professional practiced in a psychologist’s office. I’ve never had to wear a tie to work, a fact for which I’m grateful. I was almost barred from watching Clinton’s final State of the Union address because I didn’t have a tie – fortunately, there is a closet somewhere in the building chock full of ties and suit coats for people like me. That night, I discovered “professional” means something quite different in D.C. than in Tucson.

There is often strife within a business about the meaning of professional because it is how you want to be known by the public. For established businesses, there might not be much of a problem, but for a new business, or a business that wants to change its image, being professional doesn’t mean the same thing today as it did yesterday.

This even relates to comic strips. When you look at the comics in the newspaper, there is a certain level of skill involved in each one. It is implied that not just anyone could do this. You think José Nobody could slap together a few scribbles and send it in? No way, José! There is a level of professionalism that separates an unsyndicated hack from Bill Watterson. The interesting thing is, professionalism is never the same, so the comics you see in the newspaper are what a group of people determined to be professional enough to print.

Side note: Who are these gatekeepers? Well, they’re the usual: hooded Secret Society elites, a disembodied brain inside a brine-filled jar, reality TV show contestants, and a giant computer from the 1960’s that used to launch NASA rockets.

So you see, professionalism is a tough idea to pin down. What is it? Do I have enough of it? Does it go better with red or white wine? The answer is ever-changing.

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