Several years ago we were in the Galapagos Islands leading an ecotour along with our local guide who grew up on the islands. He admitted to having some interpretive training but it was not evident in his performance. He glibly told us the names of things with no explanation of their role in the ecosystem and no attempt at a thematic approach. He walked way out in front of his much older clients and returned to the panga well before we did, anxious to get back to the big boat. He never emerged into public space on the boat to chat with us unless leading us on a specific hike or snorkel, and then he refused to answer any questions that anyone had already asked, berating those who apparently didn’t listen. He told us up front he was tired from a long sequence of tours so we shouldn’t expect too much from him. He was obviously bored with the subject and his guests, giving only the bare minimum. By the time we’d spent ten days with him, we were just as bored with him. His tip reflected that unprofessional performance as most of us left less than we would have had he done his job well or even pretended to enjoy his time with us.
One of the common definitions of a professional is simply someone who is paid to do a skilled activity as compared to an amateur who does it for fun. Was our guide a “professional” because he was paid full-time and knew the wildlife? I think there are a few ideas or “principles of a professional” that go way beyond payment or full-time employment. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 250,000 docents and volunteers who interpret nature, history, science and space at museums, zoos, aquariums, nature centers, world heritage sites, science centers and historic homes. Many are well trained and do their jobs as well as anyone who gets paid as a “professional.” Tens of thousands of seasonal interpreters and guides work at those same sites, but are considered “professionals” for just the season.
I have some other ideas about what makes us professional. Here are six points to ponder:
- Professionals do the job when it needs doing – Whether we’re on duty, on lunch break, going off duty, or on a day off, if we can help someone in our area of expertise, we do it cheerfully.
- We are committed to life-long learning so we keep up with recent research and new books and participate in advanced training events. Our knowledge of both content and process grows throughout our careers and we seek opportunities to learn more instead of declaring that we’ve been so well trained there is no room for improvement.
- Pros get involved in learning networks and associations to share what they know and learn from others.
- Professionals seek credentials, certifications and degrees that demonstrate advanced competencies whenever reasonable and possible.
- We behave ethically in all situations, understanding the complex responsibilities of representing an organization, caring for the resource and taking care of clients.
- Professionals work toward a balanced life of intellectual and emotional pursuits personally to be healthy, fit, and prepared for daily responsibilities.
I could not in good conscience put “being paid” in this list of principles. I’ve known volunteers who perform as professionals every day in every way. I’ve heard so-called professionals grouse about their jobs to the public, ignore visitors while they were at work, behave unethically and pass up easy opportunities to earn a credential or learn more out of sheer laziness or arrogance.
Professionalism is a personal choice. I’ve known talented people who never make the effort to learn from others or participate in professional networks. Some very talented natural communicators never reach their full potential because they stay out of the “profession,” viewing themselves as professional because they get paid. We can choose to behave as professionals or simply settle for being a paid worker in our field. I think the rewards of professionalism are continuous and powerful, but you have to show up and take responsibility for yourself and your actions.
– Tim Merriman