Paul Jarvis

What does it take to go pro?

It’s a battle as old as time (or at least feudal Europe): professional vs amateur. Most of us act like amateurs instead of professionals. Not even in terms of skillset (which can be learned), or experience (which happens over time), but in terms of how we treat our work and the way we approach it.

Being a pro has little to do with what you know, it has to do with how you think. And it almost entirely boils down to how we deal with situations that arise in our work. While amateurs complain, make excuses and blame others when their work doesn’t work out the way they want it to, pros accept situations, take responsibility and own every situation that arises, good or bad.

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”Neil Gaiman

Take the following situations. A client has too many change requests. A customer’s frustrated with your product. A student can’t quite grasp what you’re teaching and blames you. A troll on the internet is spewing vitriol about your pet. Pros don’t go straight to blame or volley back flaming balls of verbal shit from a rat-powered trebuchet. Pros own each situation and work to fix it. If they can’t, they own that too.

As Anaïs Nin said, we perceive the world not as it actually is but as we are. We never see the world exactly as it is—we see it as what we hope it will be or we fear it might be. So in the above situations, both a pro and amateur would have the exact same circumstances—but a pro would deal with them in a radically different manner. Pros take situations, own them and work to resolve issues. Amateurs fear that bad situations are the result of the world being against them, and will point fingers everywhere but at themselves. Our mindset is our reality. Which means our reality can be altered if we start to think about things differently. So circumstances don’t matter. It’s how we react.

Even if, nay especially if, a pro is wrong—it’s most important for a pro to get the best outcome than to be right. What’s best for the situation or the project isn’t always best for the pro’s ego. But even as a pro, we sometimes have to suck our pride up and make a situation better. Pros understand the long game, the patience game, (the Hungry, Hungry Hippos game), the working hard to make people as happy as possible game.

The long game requires consistency above all else.

In sports that means practice. In creativity that means being creative every day. In business that means making your company better and not settling. Every. Day. Practice is where learning happens, and where knowledge can turn into wisdom –by doing the same thing over and over, noticing shortcomings, and then working to fix them.
Consistency, however, doesn’t mean perfection. In fact, the more consistent you are with your work, the less you have to be perfect, because individual events blur into averages. Say you’re working a project and it goes to shit, you may feel awfully disheartened or even rethink what you’re doing. Or worse, if the project goes well, your ego could become too inflated and you might assume that nothing can go wrong or that you have nothing left to learn. Whereas, if you were thinking about things as a pro, you’d strive for consistency. Let’s say you win nine of ten proposals on average. The one that got away doesn’t mean as much since your average was an amazing 90% success. You look at the overall picture to find areas for improvement and then work to increase your overall average.

Amateurs don’t realize how much consistency it takes to go from amateur to pro. Envisioning a life where you’re a famous writer or keynote speaker or even rockstar seems nice. Hell, there’s nothing wrong with dreams like that (or even buying a guitar and massive fan to blow through your long hair as you shred on a solo). But the consistent work required to make those dreams a reality may be more than you care to put in. If you want to be a best-selling author, are you happy to spend most days alone, writing? If you want to be a keynote speaker, are you willing to speak at 100s of smaller speaking gigs to get comfortable in front of other people? If you want to be a rockstar, are you willing to practice your instrument every day, run scales and then basically buy a lottery ticket (since succeeding as a musician is almost statistically impossible—if you look at the number of people play music vs the number of people who make a sustainable living playing music)?

Amateurs cannot reach pro level until they develop the mindset required to consistently learn and produce stellar work. They want the outcome but don’t want the process, the daily grind, the work required. And then, if they make a mistake or a routine/habit isn’t built, or there’s any trouble along the way, they assume they’ve failed in some way. Whereas a pro will see those obstacles as places to get better, fix things within themselves and move forward on the path to mastery.

In my own life, there are very few areas where I think I act and think like a pro. And even then, not all the time. In most areas, I’m still an amateur with delusions of being a pro. Most of this comes down to my own fear of failing. I won’t be honest with myself about what’s required and how it’s a process to reach pro status, and not just a single event. So I quit quickly sometimes, because it’s easier to give up than to be honest with myself and take responsibility for what I’m working on.

Luckily, for some of the work I do, I treat my work as a pro would. I listen to complaints or problems and don’t take them as personal insults or dismiss them instantly. I take responsibility when things go wrong, even if it’s not my fault, and work to make things right. Short term it can be challenging, for sure, but long term, I think it’s why I’ve managed to stay in business for nearly two decades.

Indeed, even pros make mistakes. Pros are pros because they can handle being wrong and accept the fact that they always could be wrong. The only way to really learn is to make mistakes, acknowledge them and then improve. Pros don’t have all the answers, they’re just more willing than amateurs to seek them out.

What about you? Where do you feel like an amateur? Where do you feel you’re a pro? How many areas can we realistically be a pro? What expectations should we give ourselves, while still being gentle to ourselves? Whatever the case, it’s some delicious food for thought.