Passion Beats Professionalism

When I was at the start of my career, a very common requirement in job ads was “no visible tattoos.” That’s an absolutely insane thing to imagine being on any job ad these days.

I talk to a lot of people who are worried about appearing “professional” to the world at large. There’s nothing wrong with that, by itself. The problem is that you have no idea what that means.

“Professional” is one of those extremely vague and variable adjectives that mean something totally different to everyone. It usually means, “looks, acts, and probably thinks very similarly to me.” Which is why it’s impossible for you to judge yourself as professional or not. You always look like you, but you can’t simultaneously look like everyone that you might want to work with.

Here’s the real deal about professionalism: it’s bullshit as a descriptor of demeanor. It can describe actions very well. Your actions are professional if they’re done with a level of dedication and seriousness that indicates respect for the outcome and those affected by it. A professional carpenter cares that the house he’s building doesn’t fall down and keeps the rain out, and builds accordingly. That carpenter may have tattoos, a Metallica tee shirt, and a mouth like a sailor. But if the house gets finished on time, under budget, and securely? He’s a damned fine professional.

That doesn’t mean everyone can curse a blue streak and be professional, of course. Notice that if you care about the outcomes and those affected by them, your language might matter! But it doesn’t automatically matter – and neither does your hair, your clothes, your skin, your taste in music, et cetera.

What people care about in your actions is professionalism. What people care about in your demeanor is passion.

When I size somebody up as someone I may or may not want to work with, I’ll draw conclusions about their professionalism by examining the outcome of their prior or current work. But if I’m going to draw conclusions about their demeanor, it’ll be whether or not they’re excited! Leaning forward in your chair and clearly being interested in the subject matter beats a three-piece suit or a Victorian communication style.

Show professionalism in your work. Show passion in how you show up to it. And forget about any other bullshit.

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