What does it mean to be Professional?

A Professional (noun) is someone who is in the paid for their work, or their Profession.

Professional (adjective) is also used colloquially as a descriptive term where the term is assigned to certain types of behavior, clothing choices, and expectations.

The opposite of Professional (noun) would be Amateur or Hobbyist, not unprofessional. These terms, as nouns, are simply descriptive. I have no problem whatsoever with Professional as a noun.

The opposite of Professional (adjective) is unprofessional. I have a problem with Professional as an adjective.

Today, on Becoming Superhuman, let’s examine and redefine — or possibly even dismantle — the idea of professionalism.

Mental Image Exercise

I want to make this real.

Before we go any further, I want to create an avatar in your mind as the main character.


I want you to think of the word professional and imagine a person.




Carefully analyze what appeared in your mind. It could be someone you know, a stock image you saw recently, a character from a movie or tv show.

  • How are they dressed?
  • How do they behave?
  • What do they look like?

Crystalize this person in your mind, try to remember every detail of their clothing, how their voice sounds, how they’ve styled their hair.

Now give them a name.

Throughout this article, anytime you see the word professional, I want you to picture this person.

Got it? Ok, let’s get started.

Did you….?

  • Did you picture a middle-aged Indian woman wearing a Sari who primarily speaks Hindi?
  • Did you picture a black transgender man in his late twenties with long, beautiful dread locks wearing an impeccable gray suit with a lavender pocket square?
  • Did you picture a 43-year old white man with a scruffy beard and a wrinkled Rick and Morty t-shirt sitting at a desk with dual monitors in a poorly lit basement?

Which of these are “professional?” Are any of them “unprofessional?” Why?

Professional in Practice

man wearing watch with black suit

Professional is a term that is used to define a prescriptive set of values defined by the dominant culture.

It is used as a weapon against people who do not fit the values of the dominant culture which, to be clear, is both upper-class and white supremacist. Before you think I mean white hoods and tiny mustaches let me define what that means to clarify the point.

It simply means to favor and judge as superior the values, styles, and preferences of those accepted under the category of white. When an establish culture is firmly entrenched to view a certain set of values, styles, and preferences as inherently superior to another, it excludes those same factors from other groups and forces assimilation into the dominant group.

A man in a black suit loosening his tie

These values are widely accepted, implicitly and explicitly endorsed and endorsed. It often will show up as a certain type of dress and appearance but can extend into the type of language deemed as acceptable.

  • For men: collared shirts, ties, slacks, blazers, dress shoes, and neatly-cropped short combed and styled hair, and either clean shaven or well-manicured facial hair. Visible tattoos are discouraged.
  • For women: pant suits, “appropriate” dresses or shirts, high heels preferred, make-up, and well-tended hair styles — as opposed to natural hair styles. Visible tattoos are discouraged.

In recent years, there has been some flexibility and deviation in these prescriptions — and even some legislation — however, the above still represent the dominant definition of what is culturally acceptable and may be enforced at any time, in professional and non-professional settings.

For example…

On the one hand, professionalism has been used in a way that discriminates against certain cultures and genders. But more broadly, it is also limits the options that everyone has with regard to how they express their identity and interests as a unique human being.

I’m Unprofessional

I hate dress pants, and when I wear a ties it feels like I’m being choked. I believe that jeans with a superhero t-shirt and hoodie is always a perfect outfit unless it’s too warm outside.

I’m really looking forward to my first tattoo of my daughter’s name. Ever since I was a kid, I like when my hair is spiked.

I stay up late — unlike all of the professional birds who wake up early to get the worm.

By common usage, I’m unprofessional.

Moving On…

I believe that we should collectively redefine or retire the word professional because it has been weaponized for too long. Professionalism is a term that is more often used to control and discriminate.

In our places of work, we should ‘soft ban’ that use of the word. I’m not saying to create a formal policy but rather and informal agreement to recognize the harm the word has done and move on from it.

A Professional is someone who is in the paid for their work, or their Profession. I don’t see why it needs to mean anymore than that.

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