HR and the Cult of Amateurs

Paul Hebert Bad HR, HR, Leadership, Paul Hebert 11 Comments

Disclaimer: I have not, nor will I ever be, “in” HR. My paycheck will never depend on being good at HR. However, I have orbited HR for over 20 years—working with HR teams, designing engagement and recognition initiatives and I’ve stayed at Holiday Inns in the past, so I have that going for me. That resume already makes my point of view more valuable than some of “gurus” who’ve done a good job monetizing their HR “opinions.” And yes, I’m starting out 2018 with some rough edges. Sue me.

I put that disclaimer up so that you know what follows is pure opinion, based on an outside-looking-in point of view. You might argue with me. You might agree with me. Either way, I think you should consider evaluating your own work in HR (as a practitioner or consultant) through this lens.  I also think it applies regardless of your vocation. But, as an outsider, I see a ton of wishing vs. working in the HR field. There are just too many articles that talk about silver bullet technology or the one strategy that results in success. Based on my reads it seems HR is always talking about or looking for a quick fix to an ageless problem. If HR wants to be at the table, maybe we all should worry about how to build furniture and less about stealing an existing chair. (I know … drink!)

Here goes.

Back in April of last year I clipped a post from Medium by Jeff Goins. He is an author/entrepreneur (aren’t we all?) who wrote about the difference between being an amateur and a professional. I clipped it because it walked through 7 things that, although applied to his craft of writing, I couldn’t help but see being played out in HR. Here’s the link to article but the things that struck me are:

1.) Amateurs wait for clarity. Pros take action.

Do you read a ton of blog posts and tag them and stack them nicely in some digital format like Evernote or OneNote? Do you bring these posts up at staff meetings to talk about the new ideas in them? Yeah. I thought you did. But did you actually implement anything? Pros do stuff. Amateurs talk about doing stuff. I’ve been with many HR “pros” who talk great game but haven’t played an inning.

2.) Amateurs want to arrive. Pros want to get better.

This is probably the hardest thing to incorporate into your self-evaluation. It’s natural to want to be recognized for your genius. It’s much harder to assume you are not a genius and you need to focus on getting better. Are you the perpetual student, or are you the high school basketball star who thinks they can go pro right away with no college in between? Trust me, that’s rarified air. Most can’t do that.

3.) Amateurs practice as much as they HAVE to. Pros never stop.

Most true professionals practice more than amateurs. That’s what makes them professionals. Professionals are students forever. Be okay with that. I know – once you get the title you think you need to stop worrying about getting better. I suggest that’s the point where you really need to ramp it up. Trust me. Someone who is a pro is right behind you and they will find out you’re posing. Be a lifelong learner. Get your certifications and then look for the next thing. What is an adjacent domain that will help you be better? I suggest psychology, sociology, anthropology. Pros always look past the basics.

4.) Amateurs leap for dreams. Pros build a bridge.

I get it. We’re impatient. We also fall victim to seeing people suddenly appear as superstars and forget there was a long road of sacrifice, learning, and work behind it. Success is rarely a short, straight line. Build, build, build. Richard Branson said (and we all LOVE Sir Richard quotes right?): “There are no quick wins in business – it takes years to become an overnight success” – Richard Branson

Trust him.

5.) Amateurs fear failure. Pros crave it.

My own thinking is that pros have a solid belief in themselves and can take a few body blows. Amateurs don’t. Small failures will have catastrophic impact on amateurs. Pros know that all learning comes from failure. You can’t learn to walk without falling. You can’t be a pro without failure. Embrace failure (intelligently). Failure is a great teacher if you pay attention and are honest about it. Be a pro. Make a mistake and love it.

6.) Amateurs build a skill. Pros build a portfolio.

Most of the people who get noticed are simply well-accomplished amateurs. Good at one thing. One-trick ponies. Don’t get me wrong. You can make a living that way, but know you will never make an impact. One-trick ponies usually fade because they haven’t invested in skills that allow them to pivot and adapt. Professionals are good at a few things. Many times, those that have staying power in any field are accomplished in more than one area. Pros may not be the best in every area, but they are in the top 25% maybe. I liken it to entertainment. Good actors can usually do good comedy and vice versa. I’m always amazed at how many comics make great actors (can you say Robin Williams – who would have thought he’d be a great actor after Mork and Mindy?) True professionals know they can’t rely on a single skill. When was the last time you spent more than a passing interest in a new skill? Is it writing? Is it technology? Is it psychology? Something to make you at least a “triple threat” – you young’uns look it up.

7.) Amateurs want to be noticed. Pros want to be remembered.

Of all the differences between amateurs and pros, this probably drives all the others. Being noticed is easy. Just streak at a football game. Being remembered is much harder. Being remembered requires time and attention to your craft. Sure, there are always those that “luck” into a legacy. But the vast majority of us don’t get that opportunity. We’re just not that special. What we all have is the ability to put in the time and effort to build a legacy. Pick your direction. Put in the time and quit worrying about being noticed. Work on the work. Heads down.

Be a professional.

I’ll leave you with a quote that the original author used to start his post:

“If you want to be a pro in your field, you’re going to have to break this terrible amateur habit of looking at what people have without paying attention to what they did to get it. Chasing the results without understanding the process will lead to short-lived success, if not outright failure.”

I’m trying to learn this 30 years into my career. I probably was too much the amateur for too long.

For 2018 I’m going pro. Or at least be ready for the draft when it occurs.

Paul Hebert

Paul Hebert is Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc, writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. He is dedicated to creating true emotional connections often overlooked in our automated, tech-enabled world. Using proven motivational theory, behavioral economics and social psychology he has driven extraordinary company performance for his clients. Paul is widely considered an expert on motivation, incentives, and engagement.

Comments 11

  1. My 50 years in HR and compensation qualifies me to agree completely with you, Paul. There are few simple binary solutions to anything in life, and all learning comes through trial and error before it becomes real to the agent. While amateurs ask for THE one solution, professionals sort through the many operative options to select what seems best based on the best current information.

  2. I am reminded of the lyrics of George Harrison’s song Inner Light (flip side of the Lady Madonna single for those care).

    The farther one travels
    The less one knows
    The less one really knows
    Arrive without traveling
    See all without looking
    Do all without doing.

    Does this comment make any sense? The less one really knows.

    1. I can’t comment on the lyrics making sense (was this during the Indian philosophy phase?) but it does speak to having a beginner’s mind. I think amateurs think they will arrive at a place where they will simple “know” it all. Professionals assume it is a journey not a destination. There is always something new to learn and apply. But maybe those lyrics make sense in Colorado and now California – here in SC we’re still moonshining and that is more “hey bud” than “whoa dude.”

  3. Pingback: HR and the Cult of Amateurs | True Wage - Seattle Compensation Consulting

  4. Feels like there’s a 2X2 grid, Pros and Amateurs on the X, “seeks attention” and doesn’t seek attention on the Y. It’s OK to be out there chasing attention or simply engaged in the community, but you gotta do the work. Another false positive is the person not engaged in the community (to your point, the model works for all professions) or seeking attention who falsely attributes lack of engagement to “I don’t chase attention”, but they’re not doing the work. Pro who don’t seek attention and those who do are both acceptable…

    Thanks for the great post, Paul… –KD

    1. The key is motivations … “why” do you do what you do – attention or education – fame or function.

      I like the 2×2 idea – are you sure you’re not a defrocked McKinseyian?

      I also think outside of athletics and entertainment – most pros are nose to grindstone – where effort creates success vs. where you can be a “pro” due to natural abilities versus built ones… h/t to those that put in the 10,000 hours but those that are naturally great at something typically are the ones that seek attention. I know that probably doesn’t make sense but it’s Friday afternoon and I’m tired from pumping up my Kred score and working the social media instead of polishing my craft.

  5. Great list. I fully absorbed what you wrote in the article. My professional career has just begun and I am really glad I stumbled upon this article. This list will be kept as a steady reminder for me to be an eternal learner, welcoming challenges and facing failures.

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