Wednesday, July 28, 2010
What is professionalism?
Is it the self-acquitting ignoring of peers as a higher-salaried person speaks? Is it the unhesitating cancellation of prior plans upon the casual invitation of a perceived superior? Is it the setting aside of one's personality - and even humanity - in pursuit of an allegedly valuable supplication?
Like any other office, my workplace is largely Hobbesian. There are limited opportunities for one to "score points", so every chance that presents itself is handled with care. Going upstairs to see upper management? Tie and jacket, please. A chance to carbon-copy those that matter? Better put them in the main addressee list. Going to be absent from a particular lunch meeting? "Please help me reflect my absence fairly - I am unable to make lunch because I will be doing [namedrop event here] for [namedrop personage here]." And, later on, proceed to e-mail the person reflected to directly anyway.
It used to be that good work ethic simply meant a certain level of industriousness. Not anymore. These days, being professional means being able to dissemble at will. The hard work can come later, if at all - first you have to show that you have absolutely no personality whatsoever. People hold their cards to their chests, citing "privacy" and "professional conduct" as totems against inquiry. "I don't believe in letting my personal life affect the quality of my work," they say, persistent in their automatism. "No matter how boring, predictable or meaningless my telegraphed existence, I will be professional to the last."
It is possible that "professionalism" has outgrown - rather unhealthily - its humble moorings. To be professional, surely, means no more than to possess a healthy attitude towards an assigned task. Such an individual would not require gymnastics in the face of ill-reason, or capitulation in the absence of the same. Professionalism would not dictate a de facto preference for everything that comes from above, nor a proclivity towards an as-of-right disdain of the familiarity that comes from below. Certainly, a professional would not have to be in possession of a 20 page long CV, or a marbled mouth full of yes. He would simply be himself, plus a certain degree of task-oriented discipline.
A friend today was bemoaning the loss of his free life upon the advent of a mandate for his professionalism. "I'm not much freer than the non-professional, those people who live with little opportunity cost," he reflected. "Given how I have to conduct myself these days, it seems like I've merely traded in possibility for security." He wasn't sure if his balance had been properly struck, or if the correct variables had been taken into consideration in the first place.
When we rearrange our faces for our superiors, we aren't just altering our demeanours. We are denuding our very souls, twisting necessary difference into ostensible agreement. In the process, each and everyone of us turns into something less than human; we become pieces of software, interacting to maximize, keeping our counsel so well that we fail to disclose, even to ourselves, that we are alone. And so life goes on, with no one any the wiser.
Why is this a pity? My primary objection is and always has been that professionalism is a lie. It is the first step towards a promised wonderland - maintain the persona, get the promotion, enjoy the variegated luxuries. But there are only people here on Earth, with the few desultory objects interspersing them. Professionalism focuses us on these objects, while at one and the same time severing us from the people that matter. "I won't comment, because that might keep me from my objects," says the professional. "I prefer to sacrifice genuine intimacy with my fellows instead." One gets used to this aspect of the professional, and before long one realizes - that really is all there is to the professional.
I reject this paradigm. I would like to be able to spend as much of this life being interesting and interested, talked to and talked about. None of us really knows for sure why we are here, but we can certainly spend our time finding out; or at the very least, finding out about the other sentients who have been placed here with us. A lifetime of illusory accumulation and one-upmanship? Without any pejorativeness, that is not for me. Perhaps you would like to ask the gentleman seated at the chessboard by the window? He's been at that game all through thirty summers.