A professional isn’t just someone who wears a suit to work. Stephen King has asserted that a person isn’t a writer unless they have been paid to write. We call people who are great at what they do “pros.” Sometimes we think the things we see look “amateurish” because they are not slick and polished as we’d expect from a professional standard. But what are the differences?
We tend to consider the difference between a professional and an amateur as such that the professional is paid and the amateur, no matter the level of talent, knowledge, skill or ability, doesn’t do an activity as their profession. All professionals are still students, however the higher they progress in their area and the farther they explore from the state of their art, the more they need to be self-learners. Novices and avocationals benefit from learning from more experienced practitioners.
The major difference between the professional and the novice is that the professional can visualize how they want something to come out and quickly apply the necessary tools to achieve that vision. A novice, on the other hand is more apt to search for results with less direction. The more product a person produces, the easier it becomes to achieve particular results in less time. Practice is the best way to improve skills, exploration is the best way to expand them, collaboration is the best way to acquire.
While experience, devotion and compensation are all key factors in being a professional, these are not really qualities of assessment of a person’s actual likelihood to make something of professional quality.
Talent – Your natural abilities are what they are. You can sharpen and hone your talent and grow it, but you can’t just become talented. Some people can just pick up a pencil and draw photographically, but people who can only draw stick figures can be taught how to visually measure, create perspective aids or grids, and how to use a pencil to get a variety of shades and lines. That dedicated person may never be able to capture and render what the gifted artist can, but they can in time become competent and may enjoy their work more than the person who takes their talent for granted. The child prodigy that just sits down at an instrument and is suddenly a virtuoso is a great story, but largely because it is so rare it is almost a fairy tale. Prodigies become great because they take that amazing natural gift and then work very, very hard at it. There’s really no handicapping talent, raw intelligence, or natural physical adeptness. It is hard to play in the NBA if you aren’t agile, tall or fast. People are born with it. But not everyone who is tall gets into the NBA, either.
Professionals study their craft, forever. The learn from each other and share knowledge with each other. All fields are constantly changing and advancing with new ideas, new tools, new approaches. New and old problems are puzzles that professionals work to solve and resolve. Knowledge is gained through study, interaction and experience. It takes time to acquire.
Skills are the result of practice. You can’t practice what you don’t know, so knowledge informs skills. Skills are valuable, largely because they can be scarce. Not all people have them and in increasingly complex projects and systems, people need to have various skills sets to achieve results. A skilled craftsperson can achieve results that people outside and inside the craft can admire and appreciate. Professionals are so skilled that other people will pay them to use their skills. Skills can be taught and they can also be discovered.
Abilities indicate how well you can practice your skills. You can have knowledge of something but can you actually make that thing, and how good is it? Once study and practice have reached the level where someone is able to consistently deliver high quality results, a person is considered able. On the high seas, the rank of able seaman meant that a sailor was worth their salt. Abilities require constant attention and maintenance if a person is going to keep up with the latest practices and be consistently capable. We can increase our abilities by recognizing new tools and techniques to achieve better results.
This isn’t just luck, but being able to recognize when the break comes and then put in the hard work it takes to realize the advantage. You can be in the right time at the right place, but that’s just the start.
It looks easy for the pros because they’ve practiced and studied and worked hard. They started with talent, learned the field, practiced and developed their skills and became able to create and produce the things they envisioned. Those things were so great that people valued and appreciated them with their time and money.
Professionals do use their talent, knowledge, skills and abilities in their vocation. But uncompensated amateurs with enough talent, knowledge, skill and ability can make professional quality products, and professionals can make amateurish or low-quality products too.
This is important to accept and acknowledge, because this can mean the difference between being professional or amateur in this sense means that the professional has access to money – a job, paying clients, wide distribution, a big marketplace – opportunities that the amateur doesn’t have. If the control or access changes, the value of the professional will change accordingly.