When most of us think of professionals, we tend to associate them with success. Whether we visualize them wearing suits or distinctive uniforms, most would agree that they enjoy a respectable income, well-developed skills, and some degree of prestige. But where do you draw the line between a knowledgeable amateur and a true professional? As it turns out, the answer isn’t always so clear.
What Is Professionalism?
For example, it’s widely believed that being a professional means having some type of certification or degree. It’s hard to argue with that idea because after all, they’re recognized by at least one official body as having attained a high degree of proficiency in their chosen field. But what about those who learn a skill on their own and start their own businesses without having earned a degree?
This brings us to another type of professional, which includes those who are just as skilled in their fields, but may have acquired their knowledge some other way. Bill Gates is one such person who comes to mind. He dropped out of college, but went on to create one of the world’s largest companies and put his products in almost every home. He might not have a degree, but would anyone argue that he’s not a professional? I suspect not. Interestingly enough, he employs thousands of individuals who had to get their own degrees to work for him.
Degrees and certifications are little more than fancy pieces of paper, but they can help open doors for you. They exist to impress potential employers, and even customers, if they see those diplomas and certificates hanging on the walls of an office. They can make all the difference when you’re trying to break into a new and exciting field.
Professionalism and Employment
Employers will typically choose someone they feel has either the experience they’re looking for or the education to prove that they know what they’re doing. If it’s experience they want, they may hire an applicant without a degree and encourage him to get one, as a condition of employment. But if they’re looking for an entry-level employee they can mold a certain way, that degree might be the most important determining factor. In this case, the applicant understands all the important concepts, even if he lacks real-world experience.
However, when you’re working for yourself – as long as you don’t have to be licensed in that field for legal reasons, you can still make it your profession. You would then be a professional in at least that sense of the word. This is especially true if you keep it up for years and learn more about the industry than someone fresh out of college. At some point, you might even be looked up to as an authority in the field, especially if you take the time to author a book on the subject, write some articles, create a website, or share your knowledge in videos.
Another thing to consider is how someone carries themselves. In this sense, professionalism is a reflection of the level of integrity one demonstrates on the job. A professional is expected to carry themselves in such a way that the quality of their work and the satisfaction of their customers is more important than financial gain. This implies that virtually anyone can perform as a professional, regardless of how far up the ladder they are and whether they’re certified or not.
A More Comprehensive Meaning
Dictionaries typically define professionalism in terms of conduct or qualities that characterize someone who works in a particular profession. A profession is considered to be an occupation that requires specialized knowledge. When you look at it that way, the implication is that professionalism itself consists of several traits and characteristics that describe different facets of a working person’s life. Some of these would include expertise, competency, integrity, accountability, self-control, confidence, and a polished appearance.
At this point, we seem to have arrived at a clearer definition of professionalism than what we started with. When you think of professionalism in this way, it demonstrates how important it is to develop both your character AND your skills to as high a degree as possible. Although knowing what you’re doing makes you a professional to some extent, you may lack professionalism in another sense of the word, such as if you’re unable to control your emotions under pressure.
On the other hand, you may be very much a professional in terms of your attitude, yet lack sufficient expertise in your field, because you’re relatively new at it. In that situation, you carry yourself as a professional and the job is your profession, but you’re not quite the professional that someone with 20 years more experience would be. You would have to develop your skills beyond the point of mere proficiency to be considered a professional in that sense.
Becoming More Professional
With all this in mind, it seems like the best way to become more professional is to focus on improving in all of these areas. If you’re new in your field, you can still call it your profession and no one’s going to argue that point. But obviously, you’ll be taken more seriously when you attain those certifications, even if you’re planning on working for yourself. This way, if it ever comes up, you’ll be able to demonstrate that you’ve invested time in acquiring specialized knowledge and probably do know what you’re talking about.
You should strive to accumulate as much experience as you possibly can to help you attain above-average competency and be honest about everything you do. If you can be trusted to put the customer’s needs first and do quality work, then you can call yourself a professional. This is especially true if you’re willing to be held accountable for your mistakes, despite the fact that we all make them. If you can do all that under pressure and show up looking sharp, rather than sloppy or unkempt, most would agree that you embody all of the characteristics of a consummate professional.
My point in writing this is to demonstrate that instead of obsessing over whether you have the right to call yourself a professional, it would be better to set that aside and focus on becoming the best version of your working self. In my opinion, that’s what separates a true professional from the rest. The person who most embodies the qualities discussed above is the one who has truly earned this distinction. Remember that professionalism is less about your ego and more about the quality of both your character and the work you produce.