Professionalism Is Earned Ross | September 22nd, 2008

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…

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  • ZQuared

    Yeah, I have to agree as well. I met a lot of professionals in my life… most of them not really being professionals. I mean, you have to abide – is that how it’s written? :P – to some high standards, in my book, to be a professional.

    The staff I had the pleasure to talk with, here, are what I call professionals – should I call you guys staff? or people or owners or part of a great team-er… how do you wanna be called? :P – ils _sont_ pensés, which translates to they are thinked… which doesn’t really make any sense. *lol* <- ask Jérôme to translate that one ;) But I mean, in each conversation, you can see the time that they take to write something. Everything on this site has been thinked twice, thrice, whatever, but it wasn’t just thrown on the table to rest there.

    Being a professional is dictated by how you make others feel around you, and how you do business with other individuals. We always say business is business, but in the end, it’s 2 individuals we’re talking about.

    Again… just throwing my 2 cents… running out of money, I’ll throw some at http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/1253-the-nospec-campaign-vs-crowdspring and then am off. :)

  • http://www.crowdspring.com Ross

    Thanks for posting and thanks so much for the compliments. We’re very much a team. It would be impossible to build a great community and marketplace without a strong, talented team and we’re very lucky and proud of ours. :)

  • http://www.crowdspring.com Ross

    Thanks for posting and thanks so much for the compliments. We’re very much a team. It would be impossible to build a great community and marketplace without a strong, talented team and we’re very lucky and proud of ours. :)

  • fredK

    “I have sampled every language there is and French is my favourite one, especially to curse in … it’s like wiping your a** with silk!”
    But I digress.

    Ils sont pensés … [How you] perceive yourself, think of yourself, see yourself. (oki-doki. Jérôme will have to do that one, I’m just suggesting here…)

    Acting professionally is one thing, you don’t have to *be* a professional to behave like one. The object when doing any kind of business should be to behave professionally, e.g with a certain decorum.

    *Being a professional* on the other hand, in my view, is to be doing something for a living. To have something as your profession, in contrast to doing something on the side not because you get paid to do it, or have been trained in it, but because you really _have_ to do it. Now, again in my mind, the luckiest pople are those who get to combine their professional life with the thing they really like doing. Sports people come to mind, as do artists in every conceivable genre. Craftsmen. (Craftspeople?)
    However, not all professionals actually behave professionally. How’s that for funky?

    I consider myself lucky, I get to do what I love and get paid to do it. Most of the time anyway. :D

    The video I have to say I found offensive though, but that would be due to a matter of difference in humor, so it’s no biggie.

  • estremke

    As many may have read, I posted a comment on the Signal v. Noise blog about the benefits of crowdSPRING and what it means to be a professional. Despite its repetitiveness, I have decided to post a sample of what I wrote in response to this blog post:

    “I am a student. That is my official occupation. I am currently enrolled in my third year in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. I am still learning about the world of design. However, I learned in my first year that you do not need an education to be a ‘professional’ designer. My girlfriend however, who is in the Pre -Med program at the U of M and is hoping to become a Pediatrician, cannot simply walk into a hospital and show the Chief of Medicine what she knows and obtain a job without a formal education and degree.

    I have been doing contracted design work since I was fourteen. I had learned how to use Microsoft’s ‘Picture It!’ Publishing, and designed a logo for an international non-profit organization. I will be the first to admit that it was not my best work, but it was a rewarding process that has had a perpetual effect on the way I work now. In seven years, still not being old enough to drink legally in the states, I have expanded my client base to over forty different for-profit organizations, non-profit organizations, corporations, educational institutes, student groups, athletic groups, musicians and bands, and small business ventures. Being a student at the largest university in the nation has given my work more exposure than I could have ever hoped for. Tens of thousands of students, professors, and citizens of Minneapolis/St. Paul have seen my work. Work that has been displayed in venues as large as the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minnesota Science Museum, and even the United States Holocaust Museum, as well as in venues as small as our many libraries on campus, ‘Mom & Pop’ restaurants in ‘Dinkytown,’ and the student union. And to be completely honest, I get a greater sense of satisfaction from seeing the work in the smaller venues.

    One must also agree that a ‘professional’ can be a student. My father did not graduate college. He and a group of fellow students in their third year at the Milwaukee School of Engineering designed a medical device which, at that time, had completely changed the landscape of medical engineering. He was offered several jobs, and has been working as a ‘professional’ medical engineer for thirty years. However, in order to earn a pay increase, my father went back to school to not only earn an official degree, but to also learn about the new technologies that are shaping how those in the medical engineering field conduct their work. Clearly he is a ‘professional,’ but no one can argue that he is not a student. His loan money alone is proof enough.

    I apologize as this response has turned into more of an auto-biography than anything else. Nonetheless, I feel that my experience, and the experiences of others, serve as great examples of how a student can be a ‘professional,’ and that a ‘professional’ status does not necessarily guarantee quality work. Having a degree in design does not make you a professional. Working in the design field for only six years does not make you a professional. Working in the design field for over sixty years does not make you a professional. Belonging to an ‘official association of professionals’ does not make you a professional. Having business cards does not make you a professional. Having the word ‘Professional’ on your business card does not make you a professional.

    The way you conduct yourself when interacting with others, whether it be your friends, your siblings, your parents, your grandparents, your children, fellow students, fellow co-workers, fellow parents, neighbors, professors, business clients and other market clientele, and most importantly yourself, makes you a professional.”

    While writing that post, I realized it had turned into less of an argument in favor of cS, and more into an argument against positions taken by AIGA and NO!SPEC. However, I do think it serves as solid example as to what it means to be a ‘professional.’

    Cheers,
    Evan

  • ZQuared

    @Fred – Not to put in the same basket is French from France and French from Quebec. Yeah, swearing in France French is like wiping your a** with silk… but here in Quebec, it would be more like wiping your a** with sanding paper! I swear (no pun intended) it’s really bad, we use them in almost every sentence :P

    @Evan – I read your post on 37s, and I do agree with what you’re saying – totaly. Keep up the good work, seen your portfolio, and it really looks great! I’ll see ya around :)

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