What it means to be a professional in something
A lot of people call themselves pros. Most of them are just amateurs waiting to get exposed.
How do you know if you’re dealing with a professional, a wanna-be, or an amateur? It ain’t about the money. It ain’t about the prizes. It ain’t about the titles.
It’s about the mindset.
You can’t read someone’s mind, but you can figure out their mindset. Just watch how they behave.
A person’s approach to their craft says everything. You can fake many things, but your habits and behavior are displayed for the whole world to see. Anyone who’s been through the grind can spot a faker from miles away.
Professionals rely on habits and systems; amateurs depend on motivation
Everyone has bad days. Ups and downs. And yet, some are able to power through, regardless of mood or weather. Are these people some kind of übermensch?
In a sense, they are. But in another, more important sense, they’re like everyone else.
They’ve just figured out what most people haven’t: systems and habits are the keys to reliable success. The path to improvement entails working, even when you don’t feel like getting out of bed.
You have to make progress when you’d rather be resting. And overall, refusing to submit to the monkey inside your brain telling you to be lazy.
Put succinctly: pros possess self-discipline.
They keep training, practicing, and learning as much as they can. To the genuine professional, improvement is the only metric that matters.
On the other hand, amateurs rely on inspiration and motivation to get things done. But inspiration and motivation are fleeting emotions, so amateurs never come close to maxing out their potential.
Professionals are patient; amateurs are anxious
Because pros develop habits and systems to help them get to where they want to be, they’re more focused on the process than the end result.
That is the source of their patience. They know that the best outcome is a by-product of the best process. By focusing on the process, you can wait as long as it takes because you aren’t chasing an outcome.
Amateurs, however, can’t wait. Because they seldom do anything consistently over a long time period, they’re more concerned about short-term progress.
The problem with short-term progress is that it’s harder to come by reliably — and unlike long-term progress, it doesn’t build up exponentially.
Think of it like money.
Let’s say I give you $10,000. You could go to the casino and put it all on red. Most likely, you’ll lose all your money, but even if you do win, you have no reliable way of reproducing those results.
Or you could put the money in an index fund. With a conservative 7% annual return on investment, you can reasonably reliably double your investment in 10 years, quadruple it in 20, or nearly 8x in 30 years.
It’s slow initially, but the more patience you have, the greater the results.
The same principle applies to most things in life. The better you delay gratification, the likelier you are to win.
Professionals are humble; amateurs are proud
If you want to improve at something, you better be prepared to swallow your ego.
A person doesn’t need to be superior in position or accomplishment in order to teach you something. The most important lessons can come from the most unexpected people.
The amateur thinks he knows everything. If he listens, it’s only to someone with the external markings of achievement. But the best teachers aren’t going to repeat the same lesson over and over until you finally listen. The amateur, in his lack of humility, will remain forever ignorant.
Because he is humble, the professional wants to receive tough love and constructive criticism. He knows that there are things others see that he can’t, no matter how self-aware he is.
He knows hearing what those people say is incredibly valuable. He doesn’t even care if the criticism is mean — so long as it’s truthful.
The amateur, meanwhile, hates criticism. Because of his ego, he takes everything personally. Because he lets emotion control his life, he cares less about being great and more about feeling good.
Professionals are obsessed; amateurs have a balanced lifestyle
Amateurs like to be “well-rounded” because being a jack-of-all-trades is a convenient excuse not to put in the hard work required to achieve mastery. It doesn’t take much to reach an intermediate or above-average level in something — be it a career or a sport. But to win, you have to be willing to make the sacrifice. Blood, sweat, and tears.
Of course, amateurs don’t really want to win. Hell, they don’t even want to compete. Sure, they might think they’re competitive, but they just enjoy crossing the finish line — not the agony of preparing for and then running the race.
Professionals, on the other hand, love to compete. They enjoy the thrill and agony of battle. They know that the process is more important than the thrill of victory. The only way to be a good competitor is to work on mastering your craft. The easiest—and perhaps only—way to master your craft is to be obsessed with it.
Obsession scares amateurs because it means they have to get serious. It can no longer be a part-time pursuit. You stop working on a plan B in case plan A doesn’t work out. You must give up everything and attempt to make the object of your obsession work out.
This “burn the boats” mentality is the hallmark of being a professional. As I write this, I reflect on my boxing career. When I was an amateur, I behaved more like a professional. However, as a professional, I behaved like an amateur.
I’m happy with how things turned out, but I will always wonder how much farther I could have gone in professional boxing if I hadn’t pursued a physics degree or served in the army. I made those moves because I was giving myself a plan B, but a true professional would focus completely on plan A—regardless of their odds of success.
Professionals focus on what they can control; amateurs try to control everything
A recurring theme in books about psychology, leadership, and management is the “locus of control.”
What does this mean?
I’m not a psychologist, but what follows is my amateur (ironic, I know) understanding of the concept.
Some people have an external locus of control. This means that they think everything happens to them and very little is within their control. As such, they’re fundamentally reactive and tend not to take responsibility for events.
Others have an internal locus of control. This means that they tend to think everything is up to them. That they can change anything and that everything that happens is their responsibility.
The truth isn’t so black and white.
Some things are within our control. Other things are not. It’s hard to overstate the importance of knowing how to tell the difference between the two.
This is something pros tend to be good at. They identify what is within their control and then focus only on that. They don’t worry about anything else because it would only drain them of energy that could be used to make an actual impact.
The world’s amateurs love to talk and worry about things in which they have no stake or influence.
Professionals respect luck; Amateurs rely on it
If you can’t identify what is within or outside of your control, you can never take steps to improve it. Some things are the result of luck. Some things aren’t. You’re an amateur if you don’t know which outcomes belong to which group.
Amateurs think talent and dumb luck are big factors in achieving good outcomes. Or they believe that bad outcomes are the result of bad luck.
Rarely does the amateur consider that their bad decisions are responsible for their bad outcomes. Likewise, the amateur never credits your good decisions for your good outcomes. Everything that works against them is bad luck.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Luck exists, and sometimes you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but a critical difference between the professional and the amateur is that the professional recognizes and respects it but doesn’t blame it for anything.
When you refuse to take responsibility for your bad outcomes, you can’t learn how to improve them. You can’t learn from them when you refuse to give others credit for their hard work or good decisions. When you blame everything on luck, you won’t be motivated to work to improve because you won’t see the correlation.
To move from the amateur level to the professional level, you must practice absolute responsibility. This has two components:
- If it looks like luck is responsible for an unfavorable result, look for all the ways your decisions lead up to you being where you were when the unfortunate incident happened. This may sound extreme, but the attitude you must adopt is that everything is your fault—even if it isn’t.
- When evaluating others, resist the temptation to attribute any of their success to good luck. Much like you did when looking over decisions that lead to the illusion of your bad luck, you must look to see every way that another person’s success resulted from their good decision.
Sure, luck and timing are helpful. But if you don’t do the work, no amount of luck in the world will save you.
Professionals have an abundance mindset; amateurs have a scarcity limitation
Because they don’t believe in pure luck and instead develop habits and systems to achieve success, professionals have an abundance mindset.
Pros understand that there is enough success to go around. They know that they have nothing to lose and a lot to gain from helping others — even if it’s just in the form of refinement of their own abilities and knowledge.
Amateurs, on the other hand, have a scarcity mindset. They don’t believe in helping others because they don’t want to create potential competitors.
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I’m a former heavyweight pro-boxer (13-1-1) and alcoholic (Sobriety date 12/23/13), current writer, and aspiring chess master. I was raised in the projects by a single mom and failed high school, but I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.More Stoic Street Smarts Newsletters!