OPINION: What is a Professional?

By Dee Armstrong

I worked as a “bus boy” (politically incorrect—oh well) in my teens. I was fast, thorough, and didn’t break dishes. I’ll never forget something my boss said to me. “You are so good at bussing tables. Is your goal in life to be a professional bus boy?”

I thought about my answer, even though, in reflection, it was probably a rhetorical question. I responded. “I want to be a professional at any and every job I do.” Because of that approach to work, I did not remain a professional bus boy!

The Webster definitions of the word “professional” varies. They include, but are not limited to, the following:.

  • exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace
  • engaged in by persons receiving financial return
  • following a line of conduct as though it were a profession

As bus boy, I felt I satisfied all three of these definitions. Funny how these definitions don’t directly refer to an academic degree. Geez, maybe there’s more to being a professional than a college degree.

My new manager of corporate communications had just graduated from college. She was ten years my junior. The only reason I bring up her age is that I had ten years of working experience that she lacked. But that’s okay. What wasn’t okay was her attitude of superiority, which I considered unprofessional.

I was editor of a company newsletter and had been doing that for several years prior to her arrival. When I brought my draft newsletter to her for her signoff, she took it and kept it for several days, causing an unnecessary rush on the printer. When she did return it, she had bled all over it. I recall her one recurring punctuation edit was moving the period to the outside of an end quotation mark. I asked her what her source was for doing that. She said it was because she had a degree in journalism and had published many newsletters at college, and I didn’t have a college degree. Great reasoning? I don’t think so.

My next question got me a nastygram for insubordination. “Please tell me what writing source tells you to put the period after the end quote.” She walked away.

That afternoon I gathered the dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, and several other reference books. I flagged the punctuation issue in each and placed them on her desk. I told her I would not change that punctuation unless she could show me her reference, because I wanted to preserve my professionalism. Then I asked her to please bring in several of the newsletters she published in college, so I had a better idea of her preferences for layout and style. She never did bring them. She merely wrote me up with a ding in my personnel file. I’m proud of that ding. I asked nicely, professionally. I didn’t care if she was young, inexperienced, and had her bachelor’s. I just wanted to do things right.

Since I lack the academic credential, I found myself carefully researching things that some degreed “professionals” seem to take for granted. They are right because they have the degree, and that’s good enough for them. It isn’t good enough for me.

In my spare time, I wrote for no pay at all just to get a portfolio together. It was a tough road, but it paid off in the long run—emphasis on “long.” Please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for higher education. If I had had a degree in combination with my work ethic, I might have had more doors opened and reached financial goals decades sooner. But education is what you make of it. Some party their way through college and manage to graduate by the skin of their teeth. Some cheat. Some breeze through college because they’re really smart. Some must work extra hard to pass. Many just give up and drop out.

Through my survival instincts, I quickly learned ways to help me overcome my lack of credentials. I explained emphatically to prospective employers that I’m smart enough to apply what I know, confident enough to admit when I don’t know, and always determined to learn quickly what I need to know. Ignorance is not knowing. The word “ignorance” gets such a bad rap. We are all ignorant in some regard since no one knows everything. However, choosing to remain ignorant is just plain unprofessional, on the edge of stupid. And, as my surrogate brother says, you can’t fix stupid.

I also stressed the importance of a good work ethic and potential to wear more than one hat. I even offered to work for a probationary period for less money just for the chance to prove myself and the value I could bring to the job. I always got hired. Good and honest communication is critical to success, with or without a college degree.

We encouraged our daughter to go to college but also warned her that we would not support failure. When she ended up on academic probation, we cut the money. We’re very proud of her because, quite a few years later, she had funded her education and graduated, even though she was older than many graduates. It may have taken her longer, but she was determined. She is the first in our family to earn a college degree. My mother and father both quit while in high school. My husband also quit high school. He earned his GED and further education in Navy Nuclear Power School, which eventually landed him a senior engineer position with a major corporation. With many businesses, experience and application trump credentials. Although I did graduate from high school, I wish I had had the opportunity to go to college decades ago. From what I see of today’s culture, I know that a degree doesn’t necessarily validate a person’s intelligence or work ethic. Unfortunately.

Someone once told us that we must live in a “good” school district to be sure our daughter got a quality education. Although public schools have their drawbacks, I have concluded that education and the ability to learn comes from within oneself and with help and encouragement of family. Even with some substandard teachers and schools, I assured our daughter that she could learn as much or as little as she wanted. There was always the library for research, the newspaper for current events (that’s questionable these days), listening to others and being able to analyze sources. Learning is a continual element of life if we accept the fact that it isn’t always obtained traditionally. We stop learning and we stop living.

Maybe I’m a professional learner. I see every person in our lives as a teacher, whether they realize it or not. There’s always something to learn. Every drive we take we can learn from what we see out the window. Every task, whether at home, at work or at play, can teach. How can we do things better, faster, smarter, or more productively? How can we communicate better, with truth and information, with clarity and lack of ambiguity? How can we do better, for ourselves, for our loved ones and friends, for our employer? Professionalism is the link to answer all these questions.

Now you know more about me than you ever thought you would—or ever cared to know.

Be safe, stay informed, and thanks for reading!

© 2019 Dee Armstrong All Rights Reserved

Email Dee: deeinmontana1949@gmail.com

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