What Is A Professional?

by Jeff Turner on November 1, 2007

Winner Of The Odysseus MedalI often hear REALTORS talk about themselves as professionals.

Usually they do it with a Rodney Dangerfield, “I don’t get no respect” attitude. They sound defensive and angry. “Why doesn’t the world acknowledge me as a professional? And why don’t people understand that real estate is a profession, just like medicine or law?” Almost always, the focus of their anger is external. “Why doesn’t NAR do a better job of promoting us? Why don’t people realize my skills and training and dedication? Why doesn’t somebody (not me) fix this?”

But what is a profession? Webster defines a profession as: a vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science. They also define it as: any vocation or business. By the second definition all of you are hereby and forevermore designated as members of a profession. If only it was that simple.

What Is A Professional?And what is a professional? Webster’s says a professional is: someone engaged in one of the learned professions.

Those dictionary definitions of profession and professional do not connect to the real issue. The real issue; what most people want when they refer to themselves as professionals working in a profession, is status and respect.

When we shift the focus of the term professional from what we do to how we are perceived and treated, the definition and the entire concept of the designation “professional” changes.

In that context of status and respect, what exactly is a professional? I believe that a “professional” is someone who takes what they do, whatever that happens to be, and transforms it into an art form. They make the mundane look magnificent. They make seemingly impossible things look drop-dead easy. They cover all the details, all the time. They master the subtleties. They silently acknowledge that they have a gift for what they do and they give that gift to the people in their world respectfully and compassionately. They know that they have never “arrived.”

They are never content with their present body of knowledge. They live with a constant, silent fear of becoming obsolete and irrelevant. They address that fear by continuously learning and growing and changing. They remain their own harshest critics, always looking for ways to be and to do and to deliver something better. They are consciously aware of their Values and they always strive to live them.

Becoming and remaining a “professional” is not bestowed on someone by virtue of a degree or a certificate. “Look at me, I took these courses, I spent this impressive number of hours learning all this stuff and I have this piece of paper to prove it. That makes me a professional. Bow to that.” No. That’s not how it works.

In the course of my life, I have known professional mail carriers, trash collectors, gardeners, housekeepers and baby sitters. And I have known amateur doctors, dentists, attorneys, judges and accountants. I bet, if you take a moment to think about it, so have you.

Because being a true “professional” is a purely personal pursuit, I believe that there are no “professions.”
What we conventionally call professions, such as medicine, law, or accounting, are businesses with an extra layer of self-governance. Some of the people who practice them are professionals; some are not.

Designating a field of endeavor as a “profession” (in the context of conveying status and respect) is, to me, two things:

  • It reflects society’s need to attach significance and importance to groups as a way of making individuals in those groups less accountable;
  • and it’s a device for artificially elevating the stature of individual members without demanding the requisite performance.

But you might argue: Wait. Professions have tests and standards and rules and by-laws and continuing education requirements and licensing and self-policing and other neat stuff that sets them apart from, say, auto mechanics.

That’s true in theory. But do you know how often an attorney has to dangerously screw up before he or she can be disbarred, or how many trials a judge must sleep through to lose his office or how many people a doctor has to maim or kill before he or she can lose his/her license? The professional standards set forth in the rules and regulations sound fine, but the performance bars for enforcement are set so low that a warm cadaver could easily maintain a license. We are a society that sometimes elects dead people to Congress. We treat our “professions” with equally tough oversight.

So being a true “professional” is an individual choice. Taking some courses, passing a State licensing test and joining NAR cannot make you a “professional.” You don’t get that designation by posting your credentials and declaring yourself a “professional” on your web site or business card. Clever tag lines in your ads don’t get you there. But all those tactics can fool people for a time.

The measure and stature of one’s professionalism is defined by behavior and Values – the ones you live by; the real ones. Anyone can set their performance bar at the height he/she chooses. You don’t need a society or a licensing body to tell you how to behave or what it means to be a professional.

It’s a matter of personal choice.

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