I realized this morning that I’m one of the small percentage of humanities majors who has managed to craft a career from exactly what I studied in college.
This is rare because I double-majored in English and Japanese.
The knowledge of Japanese language and culture – gleaned not just from coursework but from living and studying at a university in Tokyo for ten months – enabled me to get a job at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC shortly after college.
That position taught me a lot. It’s a long story, but working for the Japanese government helped save me from the career I thought I wanted at age 24 – that of U.S. Foreign Service officer.
The lesson: Sometimes the best things we learn are what we don’t want.
My first love, however – in high school and college – was always literature and writing.
This was the homework I always put off until last because it was dessert, a reward for having made it through my math or science projects.
Fast forward more than a decade and I’m actually making a living from my English degree.
As a PR consultant, I’m essentially a professional writer.
While it may not always be via the written word, 95 percent of what I do is help companies, associations and non-profits refine their messaging.
Step One: Simplify.
Step Two: Distribute.
Amateurs vs. Professionals
“Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” — Unknown
Whatever your endeavor, here are five key traits of professionals that separate them from amateurs:
1. They put in the time.
It’s a cliché, but there is no such thing as an “overnight success.”
The difference between an amateur and professional is often just orders of magnitude of practice.
It’s the professional basketball player who take 30 free throw shots a day.
It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule.” (That, essentially, true mastery comes from a concerted 10,000 hours of practice – equivalent to 4 hours a day for nearly 7 years, or 2 hours a day for 14 years).
It’s author Ray Bradbury’s simple advice to aspiring authors: “2,000 words a day for 20 years.”
The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words during November. But as Kristen Lamb put it, “For the professional writer, every month is NaNoWriMo.”
2. They get paid for it.
Getting paid for your work is the technical definition of a “professional.”
But it also matters.
It’s what differentiates a hobby from a business.
Just as vanity metrics don’t matter in the absence of conversion – all that ultimately matters for a company is sales.
Or, as Alec Baldwin’s character said in Glengarry Glenn Ross – “Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.
3. They understand the power of networks.
Success doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Professionals are always networking. But a key difference is they don’t limit themselves to connecting with prospective clients – they constantly connect among their peers.
True professionals understand that there’s room at the top – and that today’s competition could be tomorrow’s partner.
One of my favorite amateur rock bands is the Rock Bottom Remainders, which was composed of such different authors as Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, and Scott Turow.
Professionals are always hustling – not just at their current work, but also going to conferences, having coffees, submitting speaking applications, etc.
4. They produce quality work at scale.
In almost every industry, it’s easy to tell the pretenders from the professionals.
The pretenders are the ones who may have gotten lucky by starring in that one hit film, or writing that surprise run-away best-seller.
The professionals are the ones who are on book number six, or who have starred as a character actor in 30 films.
It’s the difference between Paul Hogan (ahem! “Crocodile Dundee”) vs. Russell Crowe on the silver screen, or Tim Tebow vs. Dan Marino on the gridiron.
There’s a world of difference between somebody who gets lucky with one book, one movie or one season of football and someone who consistently produces–week in, week out, year over year.
5. They choose their battles, and aren’t afraid to refuse work.
Finally, a key (and underrated) aspect of professionals is they are self-aware.
They know their strengths vs. their weaknesses and choose to play to their strengths.
A good proxy for this?
Judge an expert not by the work they have done, but by the work they have turned down.
A beginning blogger might be over-joyed when their first post goes viral on Medium, or has their first article accepted to The Huffington Post, LifeHacker or Entrepreneur.
The professional, meanwhile, is the one who turns down an offer from Newsweek because they want to publish in The Atlantic. Or who turns down the column in Inc. in favor of Forbes.
Or it’s Jodi Foster.
Despite having 4 Oscar nominations and 2 wins, here’s a list of just some roles she turned down:
- Meg Ryan’s role in Sleepless in Seattle
- Nicole Kidman’s role in To Die For
- Molly Ringwald’s role in Pretty in Pink
- Sharon Stone’s role in Basic Instinct
Each of those alone ranks as one of the top two performances of their respective actress’s entire careers.
The Power of No
One of the goals of your career – regardless of profession – should be to get to the level where you are saying “no” more often than “yes.”
As a freelance writer just starting out, you may begin by accepting jobs on Fivver or Elance that pay well below your worth.
But fast-forward a few years and you may be turning down paid assignments from Reader’s Digest.
As a PR consultant, I can list a good half-dozen clients or causes that we have turned down because they either did not align with our values or the work was right – but not the price.
Being at that level puts you in a position of power. It’s a luxury that many early-career professionals do not have.
So the next time you’re evaluating a potential consultant, employee, or partner – ask them not just about their past relevant projects, but also about the projects they’ve turned down.
You’ll learn a lot about their reputation and track record in the process.