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The FIRST for planning acronym

Are you an amateur or a professional?

After visiting the farmer's market this morning we ended up popping in to one of our favorite coffee shops for a latte and a bite to eat. None of the tables were free due to all the people who had clearly had the same idea as us, but ten minutes before we had it.

Our only hope was a six seater table that had a young man tapping away frantically at one end, and six empty seats surrounding him. Darn these pesky youngsters with their Macbooks, smartphones and empty coffee cups that have taken over the world. Darn them and their trendy t-shirts and converse shoes. But what the heck. I’m just jealous. When I was that age the word laptop hadn’t even been coined, and a cappuccino was nothing but a normal cup of coffee with a frothy top.

The polite young man said we could join him, so we settled in with our newspapers and lattes, for some Sunday morning chill-out time.

I can’t remember how or why we got chatting to the young man, but I’m glad we did. He turned out to be a twenty-year-old fitness instructor who had come over to the UK from Poland with his parents eight years earlier. 

It turned out that this coffee shop was his favorite place for working on his fledgling online business. I was intrigued. He ended up telling me about all the business books he had read, the online courses he had taken, and the audiobooks he’d listened to on his daily walks. It turned out this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill twenty-year-old. He was the kind of ultra-enthusiastic, passionate, pleasant, and hardworking person young guy that I would have given a job to in a heartbeat. He was exceptional in so many ways.

There was something about him that oozed out of every pore of his being and what that was can be summed up in one word ...


This was a young lad who was making sure he was the best version possible in every area of life.

He was already a fully qualified fitness instructor with an expanding client base, but hadn’t left it at that. He had ambitions to grow an online business in the world of fitness, but wasn’t just dreaming about it as so many people do. He was taking proper steps to gain the expertise he needed in everything from building his web presence through to his social media strategy and was in the middle of taking a course in e-mail marketing.

Even at the tender age of 20 this guy was destined to become a professional in whatever area he chose to tackle.

  • He knew that you couldn’t grow an online business by having an amateurish-looking website. It had to be professional.

  • He knew he couldn’t put up an online course to help his clients that looked anything other than professional.

  • He knew that he couldn’t be sending out amateurish communications, such as badly written emails, if he wanted clients and potential clients to see him as a professional.

Now, contrast that with something else that happened this week.

One of the local business organizations in my town sent out a survey to all the business and residents to gauge their opinion on some local parking issues. This was a very important survey as its success would have a major impact on the town going forward.

But here’s the thing.

They broke pretty much every rule in the survey design 101 handbook.

  • There were long-winded wordy questions.

  • There were answer options that you had to read several times to be sure which one was the right answer.

  • There were answer options that were reversed the next time a question was asked. For example, a question might have Agree on the right and Disagree on the left, but then the next question would have Agree on the left and Disagree on the right.

  • There were questions that you couldn’t get beyond without answering even though the question specified not to answer that question if you met certain criteria.

  • There was a complete disregard for data privacy laws such as GDPR (which can result in a huge fine).

  • And then to top it all the whole thing was sent out using a free copy of SurveyMonkey so on completion instead of getting a nice thank-you message and some encouragement to share the survey with others, you just landed up on a full page advert for SurveyMonkey.

All in all a very amateurish end to an amateurish survey, which was a shame as the intention was good and many of the questions being asked were good questions.

So, on the one hand we have a young man doing everything he can to be professional, and on the other hand we have a professional business organization not doing everything it could to come across as being professional.

So what is the difference between an amateur and a professional?

Inc Magazine summed it up beautifully when they said:

Amateurs think they are good at everything. Professionals understand their circles of competence

This fits in so well with the young man in the coffee shop and the local business organization who conducted the survey.

The young man knew his limitations and was on a journey to improve his skills in areas where he felt his competences were lacking - a very professional approach. The local business organization, on the other hand, felt that they were already sufficiently skilled at everything, which resulted in a market research study that came across as anything but professional.

It is impossible to be professional in everything we do, and if you are just starting your journey it can be difficult to come across as being anything other than amateurish.

On the plus side, many people, myself included, love an enthusiastic amateur, so it isn’t always necessary to come across as the professional on every occasion. However, if there are quick and easy ways to do what you need to do, or learn what you need to learn, to deliver a more professional level of service, or to create a more professional product, then don’t we owe it our clients, our customers, and to ourselves to do it?

David Maister, a retired professor from Harvard Business School and well-respected business speaker and consultant, put it beautifully when he said:

Professional is not a label you give yourself - it’s a description you hope others will apply to you.

For me, the takeaway from all of this is that you aren’t a professional just because you call yourself a professional. That isn’t how it works. To be a professional you need to constantly strive to improve, and you need to realize that professionalism is a journey as well as a destination to aim for.

Good luck on your quest to professionalism. May you be like that passionate twenty year old who recognized his circles of competence and was striving to make the circle bigger and bigger.

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