I consider myself a professional musician. I do not sing or play an instrument for a living, although I have been paid in the past, and the chorus I sing with at the moment gets paid as an organization. However, I do additional private practice sessions, I show up for rehearsals and concerts even when I do not feel like it, and I do my best to support the organization and its goals. Although I do not earn income from singing, I act as if I were under a financial contract instead of a purely moral one. That’s what a professional does.
Some time ago, one of my mentors insisted that being a professional anything meant more than having a certain type of qualification or accreditation. It meant that you exhibited a specific attitude toward whatever your field was, be it flying, music performance, home carpentry, or managing an office. You kept up with your field, learning as much as possible so that you could improve your skills. You practiced and strove to be as good as possible at all times, especially when you were hungry, cranky, exhausted, and tempted to fudge things a little. It meant taking care of your equipment, borrowed or owned. You carried yourself as a professional, looking like an adult no matter if you were in a business suit or a workshop coveralls or jeans and a clean white tee-shirt. You were polite to everyone, because that’s how professionals are supposed to act. Not always friendly, but polite.
I do not always reach that ideal. I procrastinate (like this day, as I am writing this post. I want to go play brain-dead. Instead I sat down and approved a PDF for print of a book, blogged, got groceries, and will do some serious cleaning and organizing that I allowed to slide while I was finishing Of Merchant and Magic.) I do not keep up with the literature in my field. I sometimes start grading tests based on the student and not on their work. And then I catch myself and go back, slowly, making certain that I award every point she earned and only deduct points based on the merit of her work, not because she was cutting up after I told her to stop. And I guard myself because I know that is a weakness of mine, especially as I get to the bottom of the stack.
Professional has a connotation of overall attitude as well as of skill and income. “Unprofessional” behavior means not putting business first, whatever business that might be. It could be getting too familiar with a client or customer, or coworker. It may mean not showing up on time, or not pulling the weight you agreed to pull, even in a volunteer organization. A professional has responsibilities and acts as if he takes them seriously.
I was a professional pilot before I got paid. Or, let me say, I tried to be a professional pilot. I did not always succeed and it bit me in the tuckus at least once. Was I current in the aircraft? Was I familiar with the manual backwards and forwards? Had I done emergency procedure drills recently? Had I really inspected the plane, or did I think, “Two wings, one tail, three wheels, one propeller, yep, let’s go.” Learning things the right way and doing them over and over built the foundation I needed to go farther.
Peter Grant once quoted a sergeant who told a recruit, “Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” When I was at my peak of physical skill, I knew that plane inside and out, literally, knew all the standard procedures cold, knew the emergency procedures cold, and could make a King Air dance. The highest compliment I ever got from an air-traffic controller was after I had to land long, holding the plane just a few inches above the runway until another plane had climbed enough that the runway was mine. I touched down, rolled onto the closest taxiway, and heard, “Smoooth.” Then “Lifeguard [callsign], taxi to parking, contact ground. Well done.” This was a tower controller at busy regional airport who saw military, business, airline, and other traffic all day, every day.
Why work so hard? I had to. And because I knew that instrument flying was my weak area, for reasons I prefer not to go into in detail. When I flew approaches, I did not have any brain to spare. I had to have everything else ingrained, so that I would have enough attention available to shoot a safe approach. And I spent hours in the [rude word] simulation program trying to make up for my weakness. I hate simulators.
I consider myself a professional writer even though it is not my full-time job and I do not earn most of my income from writing (yet). I show up to work every day and write something. I study and try to learn how to improve my skills, what tics I have that need to be corrected, and I read my field, following business news. I do my best to meet deadlines. It helps that I am self-motivated by nature with strong self-discipline and a perfectionist streak. But there are days I want to laze around and not do what needs to be done. I don’t want to go line by line through a file and make certain all the typos are out. I don’t want to make myself learn [software]. But I’m a professional.
Just like making myself read about developments in pedagogy, and dragging through political history because I know that’s an area where I am weak in terms of knowledge. That’s what professionals do.
The attitude is the key. And the attitude is why I grit my teeth sometimes when I do business with someone who wants to be buddy-buddy, or who looks as if they rolled out of bed and are serving coffee while still in their pajamas. Or people who slop through a project because “we can clean that up in edits.” No. That is more work for someone else. That’s not what you are paid to do. A sloppy book cover, lousy formatting, especially when it is easy to learn or to hire someone to do what you can’t/don’t have time for? That’s not professional. Just like not cleaning that oil off the belly of the plane. You didn’t put all of it there. But it needs to be removed, so out comes the creeper and degreaser.
I was taken off the flying rotation once while the chief pilot looked into something. I still went out to the airport where our office was, cleaned the plane, filed my paperwork so it would be in on time, cleaned the office (we took turns) and did what I was supposed to do. The chief pilot was surprised, but also pleased, and the other matter passed without further incident or disciplinary action.
Professionals are adults. We need more of them.