Professionalism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes someone a professional.

According to its word origin, it was about a religious calling, and then about skilled tradespeople who held expert knowledge. I think somewhere along the line (or perhaps humans have always been like this) it became a source of division: “you have a problem, I have the knowledge and skill to fix it and you do not, therefore I have power over you”. Not “you need me, I can help you”, but “you need me, what are you going to give me in exchange for my help?”

I’ve seen time and time again how some individuals use this to distance themselves from other human beings. They are informed by the culture around them, or otherwise come to the belief independently that they are superior to others by virtue of what they know or can do. There is a distance, cold and clinical, to reinforce the idea that “I am not like you: I am better.”

On the one hand, I think this can be appropriate. The respect and veneration we show our leaders (say, the Dalai Lama, or Yip Man) is considered culturally acceptable. We treat those higher in the social hierarchy differently than we do our peers. And yet, they’re just people too. They eat and sleep and poop. They watch trash TV and get into misunderstandings with their loved ones. They have sex and get snuffly noses and swear when they stub their toes. They are just as human as the rest of us, and yet they have to wear this mantle of professionalism that makes them seem less human.

Or do they?

One of my favourite employers many years ago would often express her ignorance and uncertainty, even in the face of a crisis. This terrified me at the time, but looking back I have a deep appreciation for her authenticity. Rather than feigning competence, she had the courage to say “I don’t know how we’re going to work through this, but we’ll find a way together.”

I think of my some of the managers I know currently who seem terrified of human connection. They don’t talk about their health, their families, their fears, their hobbies, or passions, because (I think) it would humanise them to their subordinates. I think they hold the subconscious view that if they are seen as relatable, then it undermines the authority they have (and consequently the justifying difference in power, wealth and status).

For a while there, I really did come to believe that if I were to ever become truly “professional” I would have to stop being so human. I would have to learn to put some clinical distance between myself and those I’m supporting, so they could see me as a role, not a person. I figured this was just part of “growing up”, and that if I even wanted to advance my career like all those other “professionals” I’d better learn to be more like them.

Fortunately I have come to realise that this is bullshit. As I move through the world, most of my favourite “professionals” are deeply human. They are open about their lives, their fears, their passions, their knowledge and their ignorance. They Dare Greatly, as Brene Brown might say, and they are not afraid to connect from one human being to another. I strongly believe that we’re all muddling our way through life, just doing our best to be happy, and that we’re all worthy of love and respect.

And yet I have the simultaneous belief that some people have done things that make them worthier of my respect than others. It’s a bit like Orwell’s quote “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I haven’t quite resolved this cognitive dissonance where I hold the simultaneous beliefs that all people are on the same level, but some people really are more worthy of respect and veneration.

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2 thoughts on “Professionalism

  1. Galaxy Girl says:

    This is hard!
    I love how you’ve articulated yourself so eloquently.

    I partly wonder if it’s your knowledge / interpretation of a person that endears them in your mind? I’m thinking about some neighbours I really dislike… but perhaps if I got to know them and their story deeply, I’d find the same respect and awe that I have for the masters and holders of knowledge? That is pure projection of my experience. But I wonder what you think of that?

  2. Xin says:

    Thanks for calling my articulation eloquent! Re-reading it, I think I did a rather clumsy job of expressing myself. Words are hard!

    I love the idea that if we got to know others deeply, we would find respect and awe for them. It’s easier to do with people I like, and perhaps important to do with people I struggle to like.

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