Are You A Professional Or Amateur?

The Six Attributes That Define Professionalism

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Text alerts and voicemails came first. Next came emails with those ridiculous high-importance flags. Does anyone really pay attention to those anymore? In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor problem. We found a few professionals to come in and clean up the mess. These pros had skills the rest of us lacked.

We all like to think of ourselves as problem solvers. It’s human nature to think highly of ourselves. A skilled problem solver knows when he is in over his head and calls in a professional.

I hadn’t always held that belief. I used to be arrogant. I irrationally believed that I could fix anything. That changed five years ago. We had just bought a new home. A plumbing problem occurred the day after we moved in. I assessed and fixed the problem in under two hours.

“Problem solved,” I declared.

At around 10 PM that night, I was on the phone with an emergency plumber. Four-hundred dollars later, he shut off the water to our house and said he would come back the next day to fix the problem; it would take several hours of work. He also told me my tinkering had made a manageable problem more complicated. Since then, I’ve called professionals when something goes wrong in my home.

What Is A Professional?

Anyone can call themselves a professional. It’s one of those abstract terms without an agreed-upon meaning. We all have an idea about the meaning of the word, a picture in our minds of what it means. I’ve been examining this ambiguous word ever since that plumbing incident five years ago and collecting attributes of what makes a man or women a professional in their craft.

I’ve gathered six characteristics that apply to professionals in all crafts and fields. Note, that only one attribute concerns your skill level. The rest pertains to your actions, attitude and approach to service.


A professional demonstrates proficiency in their craft. I thought long and hard about competence versus expertise, but then we need to define the meaning of expert. What is the cutoff between competence and expertise? That’s a rhetorical question. Everyone will have their opinion. Demonstrated proficiency is good enough. If we set the bar at expertise, we’d have only a few professionals in every field.

There are professional junior level copyeditors, marketing interns and bookkeepers. Your competency needs to match the promise you make to your customer. You must be able to execute on the work expected of you.

Allergic To The Last Minute

Let’s pretend your boss hands you a project. You have two weeks to complete it. You put it off until the night before and pull an all-nighter to meet your deadline. She hands it back to you and tells you to redo the work because it’s filled with errors.

Guess what. That is not how a professional approaches her responsibility. The professional works furiously in the beginning and polishes at the end.

The non-professional is ten percent finished with twenty-four hours to go. The professional is ninety percent complete with forty-eight hours to go.


A professional knows he is not perfect. He knows that sometimes he will make a mistake. Experts make mistakes too. All humans screw up — the professional stands by his work. If it’s not up to par, he offers to do it again or provide the appropriate refund. In our lives as customers, we know that all businesses screw up from time to time. It’s how they deal with those mistakes that win and retains our loyalty. It’s easy to forget that lesson when you’re the one who errs.

It’s the difference between these two customer reviews.

“They made a mistake with my order, but they admitted to their error, apologized and corrected it for me at no extra charge.”

“They made a mistake with my order and told me there was nothing they could do about it.”

Just Say No

A professional knows her limits. She knows what she cannot handle. A task might be beyond her skill level, or she may not have the bandwidth to complete the work in the allotted time. The professional will decline the work, and if appropriate, recommend an alternate provider.

The non-professional accepts work in which she lacks qualifications and takes on the job despite having a full plate of other work. It hurts to say no to a client or potential client. If you explain why you are declining their business, most people will understand and appreciate your honesty.

Plus, when you tell customers you are too busy to take on more work, it makes you more desirable. They will likely seek you out for a future project.


Last year, we shopped for contractors to redo our kitchen. The one we chose gave us a four-week estimate to complete all of the work. It took eight weeks. I later learned that the four-week estimate was a best-case scenario. How often does the best case scenario happen in kitchen renovations? Never.

Friends and neighbors told me that this is the norm among contractors. It always takes longer than they tell you. It’s understandable. When one company estimates four weeks, it tempts competitors to match the estimate, even if they know it’s way off base. Now, imagine telling your customer this alternative pitch.

“I know you’re getting four-week estimates, but in our experience of eighty renovations, it always takes six to eight weeks. There are always unknowns when you rip up walls, ceilings and floors in old houses like these.”

I would do business with that guy in a second. It’s risky to say six weeks when everyone else says three weeks. It’s risky to estimate a cost of $50,000 when everyone else approximates $40,000. The professional gives honest assessments even if it means losing the business. Better to lose a gig than destroy your reputation.

Student Mindset — Always Be Learning

Why would a professional need or desire a student mindset? Because the student mentality is what allows the competent professional to become an expert professional. The professional knows there is more she can do to learn and build her skill set. She continues to strengthen her competency long after she crosses the threshold to expertise. You can see the difference in the following two statements.

“I’ve been in this business thirty years. There’s nothing I haven’t seen or can’t fix.”

“I’ve been in this business thirty years, and I’m still learning something new every day.”

Who would you rather have on your team?

What am I missing here? What other attributes would you use to distinguish a professional?

Experimenter in life, productivity, and creativity. Work in Forge | Elemental | Business Insider | GMP | Contact: barry@barry-davret dot com.

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