Being a professional is not a vocation, but a set of attitudes

(‘My dear students’, a fortnightly column that is a conversation with young minds on current events, books, popular culture — just about anything that’s worth talking over a cup of coffee.)

One balmy summer night in London, I went for a nice long dinner with professors from my law school, towards the end of which we discussed what it meant to be a professional. After all, we were teaching a professional course, but we had no consensus on what it meant for someone to become a professional. It couldn’t be just knowledge or skills. It couldn’t even be talent and ability. There must be something more to it, we thought. We spoke and we argued but we did not agree. That night has always stayed with me and I have, over the years, thought about it not as something professors can teach students but as something students must keep in mind whilst they are studying. My thoughts are of course controversial and personal; my ideas of professionalism are based on factors I have struggled with, and continue to struggle with. You might have your take on this subject and I would love to hear from you.

I think being a professional means a certain set of attitudes. The basic element has to do with pride, pride in the work one is asked to do, whether big or small, exciting or tedious. You might think that this is an attitude one needs to develop after your studies are done. But you might want to develop these attitudes now, for it will come in useful later. It doesn’t matter if you are volunteering for an event, or organising a conference, or completing a project. Try to see how you can make the best of what you are doing. Treat your task with respect, however little or insignificant it might be.

I remember a student in my tax law course at my university. She was very busy in moot courts, an extra-curricular activity that law schools and law students take very seriously. I don’t think tax law was one of her favourite subjects. Yet she was in my class day after day listening intently to me droning on about the income tax legislation. She wasn’t just going through the motions; she was interested in the class because the class was part of her course, and this was enough for her to take my class seriously.

 A professional has an execution mindset. She usually takes a task to completion. This sounds simple but is the cause of many a task left incomplete. Many are good at strategy and great at planning but do not persevere to complete what they have started. The ability to see a task through is a prized ability. Most employers would give a hand and a leg to hire an employee who can complete the tasks given to them. You might start preparing for your projects or conferences or papers but unless you finish them on time, there is really no point to doing them. You might be waylaid by small things; a professional often takes care to do the small things that can take tasks to completion. I remember a university professor who led a team of academics. It wasn’t his grand strategy or his technical acumen that made for a great team. It was the fact that he pursued his team relentlessly to send in their curriculum and assessment frameworks on time, followed up by emails and phone calls to ensure classes and class schedules worked like clockwork. Oftentimes it’s the last mile that makes or breaks a task.

The last attitude involves overcoming the everyday pressures of negative emotions so that one doesn’t get distracted on the way to completing one’s tasks. Young people feel all emotions, good or bad, more keenly than others. This is for the most part a good thing, because emotional investment in one’s work is a sure recipe for success. But emotions can also be stultifying when frustrations, anger and outrage derails one’s work. Do not let small slights, minor disagreements or a few setbacks deviate your attention from your regular tasks. Every time you feel frustrated by an insult or a setback, remember it won’t matter in a month’s time. No seriously, it won’t. I wish I had known this when I was younger, it would have saved me a whole lot of trouble.

I started out by talking about professionals but I did not mean by this term lawyers, doctors ,engineers and accountants only. A professional is not a vocation, but a set of attitudes. Anyone doing any kind of work can be a professional. Once word gets around that you are a professional, you become that rarified being: a person who others find dependable. There is no better addition to your resume.


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