Not too long ago, a fellow newbie coworker took her lunch break on-site at a school. After swallowing down a bit too much Diet Pepsi, she chose to belch. I gave it a five-point-five.

Our supervisor, shaking a single pointer finger, said in her stern supervisor voice:

No. That is not professional.

What a broad word, with so many implications. What a ubiquitous word, used to describe the je ne sais quoi that is professionalism. I decided to define it.

Polite subservience could be part of the equation, if you want — belching is not professional — but so often it isn’t, even in the service industry. Rude, haughty egotists are considered professionals so often that both politeness and subservience are the exception rather than the rule. In the civil service, it’s gotten so bad that a well-run Social Security office is something to write home about.

Professionals must first be confident. In sports and music, in businesses both private and public, in the related fields of politics and theater, the professional is the guy who blindsides you with just enough force of personality, just enough facts and figures, just enough flair for the dramatic that you can’t help but be stunned.

You will buy those tickets, you will invest your time and energy, you will believe in his world of make-believe. He catches you with his bag of tricks, the marvel being that he uses each these tricks with surgical precision.

Professionals, under no circumstances, are passionate about their job. Professionals may be interested in their job, or may even like it, but passion is right out; they can’t afford an addiction to the ego-inflating high of success, as it would mean catastrophe in the event of failure. If he falls short of the sales quota, or accidentally rips out the carburetor, or misfiles a TPS report, the professional doesn’t beat himself up. He accepts the incident for what it is, fixes it and moves on. He makes sure that it never happens again, repeating the process ever more carefully if it does.

Putting the two together, we find our definition:

Professionalism is emotionally detached confidence.

Professionals wouldn’t have it any other way. Even the soul-sucking nature of bureaucracy couldn’t change this — those professionals are inevitably they who know exactly what they’re doing, and who will roll with every punch.

If you approach this definition of professionalism, you’re professional. If you are this definition of professionalism, you lie. Maintaining professionalism is pretty tough.


  1. After writing this, I decided to check out what Google had to say on professionalism. The first few definitions I saw were pretty weak.

    Not that I’m going to become emotionally involved in the success of this essay or anything. I’m trying for professionalism, after all.

  2. Katherine

    ‘Profesionalism’ conjures up the banker men on Mary Poppins bored and old-fashioned sitting around their table disussing investments. They were also most certainly emotionally detached.

  3. Emotionally detached confidence is a loose definition. It includes the smiling, ever-patient secretary along with the efficiently productive boss man.

    Note also that “emotionally detached” is a modifier to the word confidence — your confidence in being able to do your job is detached from your emotions.

  4. I follow your posts for a long time and must tell you that your posts are always valuable to readers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: