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7 main differences between professionals and amateurs

Do you want to the best or just have a hobby? If you want to learn how to be a professional, this article shows you how to stop being an amateur.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Everyone thinks the difference between a professional and an amateur is that professionals get paid.

This isn’t true.

I’ve known amateurs who managed to turn a profit in their trade and professionals who are broke.

If it’s not money, then what is the difference between professionals and amateurs?

How can you finally “go pro” in your discipline?

There are two levels to everything. 

There’s the sandbox, where no one takes anything seriously. Then there’s the battlefield, where the soldiers of the craft — the pros — operate. The big boys’ club.

The rest of this article tells you the differences between being a professional and being an amateur and how you can step up to the next level yourself. 

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 a lot of things, but your habits and behavior are on display for the whole world to see. Anyone who’s been through the grind can spot a faker from miles away.

If you want to learn how to spot the fakes and separate the wheat from the chaff, this article is a must-read. It’s a list of lessons I’ve had to learn through trial and error throughout my life:

From growing up in the ghetto to being a high-ranking professional fighter for Jay-Z’s sports agency.

Professionals rely on habits and systems; amateurs depend on motivation

This is one of the most significant differences.

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: that systems and habits are the keys to reliable success. The path to improvement entails working even on the days you don’t even 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, which is why amateurs never come close to maxing out their potential.

Professionals are patient; amateurs are always anxious

This ties into my previous point. Because pros develop habits and systems to help them get to where they want to be in life, 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’re able to wait as long as it takes because you aren’t chasing an outcome.

Amateurs, however, are extremely impatient. Because they’re so dependent on motivation and because they seldom manage to do anything consistently over a long time period, they’re way more concerned about short-term progress.

[However, motivation can be a good thing. Click here to read different ways to get motivated]

The problem with short-term progress, of course, 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. At a conservative 7% annual return on investment, you can fairly reliably double your investment in 10 years, quadruple it in 20, or nearly 8x it in 30 years.

It’s slow in the beginning, but the more patience you have, the greater the results.

The same principle applies to most things in life. The better you are at delaying gratification, the likelier you are to win.

Science backs this up. Studies by Mischel, et al. tested children’s ability to delay gratification by letting them choose between eating one marshmallow now or two marshmallows 15 minutes later. As they grew up, the children who had chosen the latter were more successful in school, reported higher incomes, and had healthier lifestyles. Seems stupidly simple, but it makes sense.

In short, professionals plan for the future.

They know that by working hard now, they’re making things easier for themselves later.

They hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Amateurs only care about feeling comfortable at the moment. That is why they always get taken by surprise when unexpected things happen to them.

Professionals are humble; amateurs are proud

If you want to get better 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 who has 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. And he knows that hearing what those people have to 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 really 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 have to 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, behaved more like a professional. However, when I was a professional, I behaved like an amateur in this regard.

I’m happy how things turned out, but I will always wonder how much farther I could have gone in professional boxing if I wasn’t pursuing a physics degree or serving 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 reoccurring 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 tend to think everything happens to them and that 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.

Obviously, 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 really good at. They identify what is within their control, and then they 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 amateurs of the world love to talk and worry about things they have no stake or influence in.

Professionals respect luck; Amateurs rely on it

If you can’t identify what is within and outside of your control, you can never take steps to improve it. Some things are the result of luck. Some things are. If you don’t know which outcomes belong to which group, you’re an amateur.

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 key 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. When you refuse to give others credit for their hard work or good decisions, you can’t learn from them. When you blame everything on luck, you won’t be motivated to do the work to get better because you won’t see the correlation.

To move from the amateur level to the professional level, it’s imperative that you practice absolute responsibility. This has two components:

  • If it looks like luck is responsible for an unfavorable result, look for all of the ways that 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 how 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 was the result of their good decision

Sure, luck and timing are helpful. But if you don’t do the work, no amount of luck in the world is going to save you.

Professionals have an abundance mindset; amateurs have a scarcity limitation

This is the final point I’m going to make in this post.

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.

What’s the difference between amateurs and professionals?

Again, what separates the pro from the amateur isn’t money, success, or talent.

It’s the mindset.

This is great news for you, especially if you identified more with the amateur in this post. Though it’s not always easy, you can change your mindset.

You have to deal with both internal and external obstacles:

  • Negative self-talk
  • Skewed self-perceptions
  • People in your life who don’t want you to change

But in the end, it will all be worth it.

I should know. I grew up in the hood and managed to get away. I fucked around all throughout my twenties and then I joined the National Guard, pursued a degree in Physics, and became a successful professional athlete. So in other words, I know a thing or two about overcoming both internal and external obstacles.

Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

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