The Distinguishing Trait That Separates the Amateurs from the Pros

Creative professionals are great people to mingle with. They are really laid back, funny, and they often take a genuine interest in other people. However, I have had a few encounters that haven’t been nearly as pleasant. For so long, I struggled to identify what about these interactions was so uncomfortable. All I knew was that there was something that came off as amateur masquerading as professional. Something just felt insincere about these interactions.

There are endless ways to draw the line between a professional and an amateur. Some define it as whether or not a person makes a living at it. Is it their full time gig? If it’s just a hobby, some may say that they are an amateur. A few of the photography forums I’ve visited talk a lot about gear. Does a person use the camera strap that came with their camera? Do they use L-Series lenses exclusively? How many camera bodies do they have? I would argue that one can own everything that Canon (or Nikon) has ever made and have a closet full of non-kit camera straps, but that doesn’t mean they know how to use any of it. It doesn’t make one a professional. While there may be valid angles on all of these definitions, I think it comes down to something that isn’t as thoroughly discussed, especially not on the internet: humility.

In all of my interactions with other creatives, the people who are convincing bearers of the “professional” label are those who are humble. They don’t feel threatened by others in the industry, and it shows in the way they carry themselves. You can feel it in their handshake, you can hear it in their voice. From them, a quiet confidence radiates that differentiates them from an amateur. You don’t have to think about it; you just know.

Professionals have confidence in their abilities, without being quick to brag about how good they are. They promote their work by showing it, and don’t use their work to put forth an image of how they want to be perceived as individuals (e.g. frequently using circumstances in one’s life as an opportunity to say, “Look at me, I am a _____). A profession is not a status symbol. Their time is spent on identifying weaknesses, and educating themselves on how to refine their craft. A professional is all about the work, and learning to do it better.

The definition of professional or amateur isn’t a matter of “are” or “aren’t.” It’s how you present yourself to your field. When attending conferences and little events in my community, the people I take seriously as professionals are the people who are friendly and genuine, but more than anything, humble. Next time you’re out in the community or at an industry event, seek out humility and ask yourself, “Who here would I want to hire, work with, or work for?” At the end of the day, you're probably looking for a pro.

This post was originally written for Test of Time Design.

The image shown in the thumbnail is some of my amateur work. I thought very highly of this photo, and many others I took. If any were good, they were good by chance. I thought everything I did was brilliant, but I had no idea how to shoot manually, I didn't understand anything about light, focus, exposure, or how to handle photos through the post-production process. We have to start somewhere.