What is professionalism?

Question: What is the meaning of being a professional?

Speaker: What is professionalism all about? Is it just about serving your profession with excellence or is it something more than that? Whenever we hear this word ‘professional’, an image comes to the mind. Is professionalism that image?

Clearly there are two layers to this question.

One: Can professionalism be defined by a certain code of conduct, a certain personality, a certain way of carrying your self? That is the first part and that is how most of us know professionals to be. So this first layer is very important. Is professionalism about that?

Two: It is about the profession itself. If professionalism is all about being excellent, then the question is, ‘Being excellent in which profession?’

Let’s look at the first layer.

What do you do when you walk into an interview room? You start wearing clothes that look like the clothes of a professional. Right? You aren’t the professional yet; but because most of us have confused professionalism with the image of a professional, so we think professionalism is nothing but this image. You talk in a particular manner, that is called as professional. You wear a particular kind of clothes, that is called as professional. You carry yourself in a particular way, and that is called as professional. Surely this layer, the first layer is a very superficial layer. Very, very superficial layer! A code of conduct, or the way of carrying yourself, or a certain persona does not mean that you are excellent in the profession. What about this profession? We are not yet taking this question. That is layer two.

Whatever be the profession, wherever it is coming from, it may be an altogether external influence, but no one can know the depth of your excellence by the way you carry yourself. All this can be manipulated and it is used mostly for manipulation only. Nothing else! People work totally substance-less. They would prefer to walk and talk in certain borrowed, copied ways and the world is deceived. The world is cute. What does the world think? ‘These must be professionals.’ Because the world has no eyes. It is a stupid world we live in. It has no eyes to look at the essence of the person, the individual. It is too eager to judge everybody. And how does it judge? By the appearance, by the words, by the looks. And so words and looks have come to hold an unreasonably important space in our minds. They do not deserve that space. The very question of ‘How am I looking, what am I wearing, how am I speaking?’ are not at all very important questions. At least it can’t be the central question in your life. ‘How do I look to others’? And that looking is not just your physical looking. That looking is also about your image in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, it has become very, very central question in our lives and that is also how we know a professional.

It’s none of your fault. Since you were very small, all you saw was- ‘P is for Pilot’. And who is a pilot? He is wearing a particular cap and a particular uniform. Now, does that cap or the uniform make a pilot? But then you were so small and the message that goes to your mind is that anybody who can wear that cap and can look nice and smart, is a pilot. This is a totally erroneous relation that is established in our minds. But it is alright! A child’s brain is not yet fully developed, so it is alright if this kind of an erroneous relation gets established there. But none of us are kids now. How come our minds are still deceived?

Haven’t you noticed how you become respectful the moment you come across someone wearing a particular kind of dress? Someone walks-in, in a proper professional coat and tie, and the rest of it, and you get impressed. You are impressed and it is no wonder now that you will be taken for a ride.

COATS impress you? Is that all you have learnt in your lives? To be impressed by coats, trousers and neckties.


You don’t look into the eyes, you don’t look into the man, the coat is all that you can see. So professionalism has come to mean a certain way of behaving, a certain way of talking, relating, expressing. And when you say you want to become a professional, the image that comes to your mind is of that. ‘I am an engineer’ and the image that comes to you is not of someone who is deeply engrossed in an analytic equation, but of someone who is wearing a particular dress or who is being found at a particular place. So if there are C.S. students, then they are imagining themselves in some office in California. Now what does that office have to do with software engineering? The office is bricks, mortar and glass. What do bricks, mortar and glass to do with software engineering? But that’s the image that comes to your mind. If you are a civil engineer, the image that comes to your mind is that you are wearing a yellow helmet with a torch, and a lamp on it. Now what does this lamp has to do with civil engineering? Nothing. But that’s the image that comes to your mind. And that is what the little kids do. The little girls, they will wear long coats and play ‘doctor-doctor’. Haven’t you seen them? For them being a doctor is all about wearing that coat and writing prescription. And what do they write in their prescriptions? What do they write?


We still haven’t grown up. You know what most of us if given a chance to work at a place, in an organisation which is housed in not so impressive building, a shady building, it may be a start-up, it does not look like the great office of that great MNC listed in NASDAQ, we will not work there, even if the actual work is better there. You would rather work in an office that looks like a high-profile office, even if you are doing utterly clerical work there. You will feel more like a professional in that Bangalore or California office; even if you are nothing but a clerk there. It is all because in your mind, being a professional is so much about the external, the thing that is outwards. It’s a beautiful word that doctors or lawyers or architects use; ‘Practice’. ‘Practice’ means doing! What counts is where the thing can really be practiced. What counts is where the thing can really be done, not appearance. ‘Practice’ means that a surgeon is actually able to conduct the surgery. That is practice. The lawyer is actually able to fight a case. That is practice. Or practice is just about wearing that black coat?

Listeners(everyone): No, Sir.

Speaker: But very soon, one year or sooner, you will be standing in queue for employment and you will forget all this. You will totally forget it. Have you ever wondered how a company can come to you and in its presentation show a grand picture of its office and impress you? It is so because no one of you is intelligent enough to get up and ask, ‘But this is brick and mortar, what does it has to do with software or electronics?’. None of you will ask that. Or say, ‘Why are you showing civil engineering work to us? If you just want to impress us, show us a picture of a five-star hotel, we will be all the more impressed. What does that have to do with the work that I will be doing?’ You don’t ask about the work and that is why the company shows you the picture of the office. You won’t ask much of that because you are trained to think of a professional only in terms of his personality.

Second part: What is a profession? Profession is livelihood. Right? This question is actually asking, ‘What work is?. What is worth doing in life?’ I ask you, ‘Have you ever wondered how much of your waking time you are going to spent working?’ Around 70%! In your waking hours you will be investing around 70% of your time, working. This is the most critical question in your life. What is worth doing in these hours? This 70% of my waking time! This is your life. Work is your life as it is going to consume so much of your time. It is life. Have you ever bothered to deeply enquire? Do you love yourself? Do you love your life? If you do, then don’t you want to see what can be made out of this life? What is worth doing in this life? Don’t you want to find out?

Listeners(everyone): Yes, Sir.

Speaker: You must find out. You must. Your work is your life and your life is your work. If those working hours are boring and full of conflict, what will become of your life? What will be the quality of your life? Life will be boring, dull and sapped of energy.

What is worth doing?  What is not worth doing?

You surely can not pick a profession just out of an influence cast on you by somebody or some force. Unfortunately, most of us pick up a profession or a trade, unfortunately most of us enter into a particular stream of studies being dictated by somebody, not really knowing ourselves. And if a profession comes to you, not out of your knowing but out of a social factor, your family telling you something or following the current trend, then you are IN for the life of confusion and conflict. I used to ask that how is it possible that when a particular organisation visits a campus, 3/4th of the campus wants to apply to it. How can the same company be the dream company of, say 400 students? Where is individuality in all this? Where are YOU in all this? I only see a flock of sheep having same kind of jobs, same kind of pattern of higher studies, as if the script has been written beforehand for you. As if it has been pre-decided for you that this going to happen to you. Oh, you will have a little bit of choices, alright, but all that has been settled well in advance. That is how a profession comes to us. Decided well in advance; but with a little bit of tinker here and there. Don’t want to do M.S., fine, do M.B.A but that is it. Do not try to cross the boundary. Don’t want to go to Electronics, alright; here is IT, but that is it. Don’t jump the fence!

Is that how profession must come to us? Or is profession something lively? If profession is life, then you need to look at it with greater care, deeper enquiry. Doesn’t this topic deserve more investigation? Are some of us are able to see the need to look at the question of profession with great sincerity, with great clarity?

Listeners(everyone): Yes, Sir.

Speaker: You can not just keep drifting, and at the end of a particular day you will find that you are into this profession. You will be inviting a life of great suffering and boredom. Our world is full of such people who entered into their professions for just the wrong reasons. Somebody told them that government job is wonderful; it gives security and respect, and they entered into it. And then they wonder that why they don’t want to work, and whine about their work all the time. Lazy, clumsy, dull, bored! Because that is how they got their profession. Somebody got it from his father. ‘I have a shop, now I pass on the shop to you.’ You take it forward. That is how profession came to him. Now any wonder that the man is always irritated? He will be irritated. Do you want a life of boredom, frustration and irritation? Do you?

Listeners(everyone): No, Sir.

Speaker: Then find out.

Listener 1: Can we say that if there is tea maker who sells more tea than anybody in the area, then he is a good professional?

Speaker: See, profession is not about doing good in terms of selling this and that. Please listen to this very attentively. The quality of the profession is defined by the quality of your life in it, not by the amount of sells you generate, not by the kind of respect society gives you for being in a profession. And quality of life is just not about how much money it gives you. It’s about love with which you can come to it. It’s about the energy you can give to it. Want to know whether you are in a right profession or not? If you prefer to stay in it even if it does not give you any money then you can know you are in a right profession. If there is something you can give your life to, then know that you are in the right profession. ‘It does not pay me well, I do not make much money out of doing this and yet I want to do this and there is nothing else that comes to me.’ Then you know you are in a right profession. And only then the life is worth living.


Listeners(everyone): Yes, Sir.

Speaker: Alright then!

-Excerpts from a Samvaad session. Edited for clarity.

Watch the session at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaCi7iTm5qo

2 thoughts on “What is professionalism?

    1. Acharya Prashant (आचार्य प्रशांत) Post author

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