What Does It Mean to be a “Professional”?

4th of July Performance with my dance group,
4th of July Performance with my dance group, “Educated Feet.”

Back in the late 90’s, due in large part to the popularity of the movie “Swingers,” swing dancing underwent a huge resurgence nationally. I caught the bug and became an avid Lindy Hopper. In fact, I became a “professional” Lindy Hop dancer. Well, I was professional in the sense that I (and my fellow hoppers) got paid for a half-dozen or more jobs (one of which was a performance at Carnation Plaza in Disneyland, Anaheim, CA. That was a gasser!) We were definitely better than the average Jane or Joe dancer. We practiced consistently (once a week on Sundays). Yeah, I guess you could call us “professional.” (I love telling people that I used to be a professional Lindy Hop dancer. Makes for great conversation!)

In the strictest sense of the word, I was a professional dancer. But if I’m being honest, in the spirit of the word, I have to admit I wasn’t. None of us were. We were great dancers who loved to dance and got paid a few hundred dollars here and there to perform.

The Characteristics of a True Professional

Today’s blog post is inspired by the Final Cut Pro X debate I referenced yesterday. As a quick recap, last week CrumplePop (a leading developer of FCPX plugins) blogged about their decision to commit exclusively to FCPX as a platform. There was a lot of discussion in the comments, and many FCPX haters proclaimed that FCPX is not a program for “professionals.” I wondered what they meant by that word since there is obviously plenty of professionals (myself included) who DO use FCPX. You couldn’t help but wonder, “What do they call a professional?”

This is a topic that comes up a lot in the professional creative community. So, let this blog post stand as the end-all, be-all definition of what a professional is. Okay? Okay. Yes, I’m kidding around. But I do think I have a fair and reasoned look at the topic. So, in my humble opinion, a professional…

  • Earns a significant portion of his or her living from a discipline, or
  • Has created a legal business entity and through that entity is diligently working to make that discipline a significant portion of their income, and/or
  • Has created a legal business entity, and whether or not they actively pursue business, has amassed a level of skill and experience on par with other universally recognized professionals in a marketplace.

That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

This doesn’t speak to the quality of their work. This doesn’t speak to whether or not someone is an “artist” (I think you can be a professional video producer or photographer and not have a lick of “art” in you.) I think this definition covers both the strictest sense of the word, as well as the spirit of the word.

Using my swing dancing analogy, despite how good I was (one of my signature moves was leap-frogging over my partner then landing in the splits), and despite the fact that I practiced once a week, and despite the fact that I got paid a half dozen or so times, I can not it good conscience say I was really a professional dancer. At the time I was Director of Finance and Operations for Screenplay Systems (now The Write Brothers). That was my profession.

Some of you out there take amazing photos, or make amazing films. You know all the ins and outs of the gear. You keep up with the latest and greatest. But, this is just a hobby. You love it. You are passionate about it. You may have even been paid a few times for your work. And you are a true artist. You’re just not a professional. That’s not a judgment. That’s just a fact.

Geography Is NOT A Characteristic of a True Professional

Based on many of the comments in that CrumplePop blog post (as well as comments I’ve seen on many filmmaker forums), there are those who think being a “professional” is tied to what city you live in. I read things like “I don’t know anyone in L.A. (i.e. Los Angeles) that uses FCPX.” This is naturally an allusion to the fact that L.A. is the movie capital of the world. In essence they’re saying, real professionals are those people working in “Hollywood,” and none of them are using FCPX.

First, I don’t have the actual figures at my disposal, but I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say the percentage of professional video producers (using my definition) who work in Hollywood is small compared to the overall number of professionals worldwide (What! You mean there are people outside of the United States who make movies? Wow! That’s phenomenal! <sarcasm>)

Second, I would also bet, for what it’s worth, that there are a plethora of professionals in L.A. using FCPX (not the least of which is Magic Feather Inc., using FCPX to cut broadcast TV spots).

One Kind of Professional is Not Better Than the Other

There are many out there who would put down or denigrate the work of a wedding photographer or videographer simply because all they do is shoot weddings (whereas REAL professionals make real movies). I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, some of the most talented filmmakers (and photographers) on the planet are those who exclusively (or mostly) shoot weddings. A wedding videographer/editor is no less a professional than a DP or editor working on feature films.

Professional Does Not Necessarily Mean Good and Amateur Doesn’t Mean Bad

Lastly, if you ARE a professional, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any good. And if you just do it on the side as an amateur or hobbyist, that doesn’t mean you are bad. The Olympics are a perfect example of “non-professionals” who are the best at what they do. So You Think You  Can Dance and American Idol are also great examples of non-professionals who are amazing artists. I’m sure you can think of your own examples of professionals who aren’t that good. (Don’t mention any names please. 🙂 )

Final Word

Okay, can we put this silly debate to rest now? Thank you.

What’s your take? What is your definition of a professional?

4 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to be a “Professional”?

  1. I’d say if you’re getting paid enough for what you do and you know your shit, then you are a professional. Though, since I’ve moved onto PPro, it’s unfortunate I don’t get to play with some crumple pop.

    PS. I wanna see that leap frog splits in action Ron!

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