Whether To Be a Professional or Not
Choosing Our Path – Part II
Professionalism At Its Best, A Defense of Amateurism, Adepts, & Standards We Can Share In Common
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
am•a•teur: noun: 1. a person who engages in a pursuit (esp. a sport) on an unpaid basis; 2. a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity. adjective: inept or unskillful.
Hey dictionary, thanks for nothin’! I personally happen to like thinking of myself as an overqualified amateur, from whom nothing can be expected but anything is possible… though I concede the word is considered nothing but a put down by most people these days. “Amateurish” is used to mean “unskilled”, though I have never heard the efforts of amateur Olympic athletes – many of who can outperform their professional counterparts – derided as amateurish. Even the dictionary definitions suck, since 1. many nonprofessionals are well paid for their efforts, even in the field of herbalism, and 2. there are many skillful amateurs or nonprofessionals, and plenty of examples of inept professionals in every field I know of.
While I often choose the ambiguous sounding term “non-professional” to avoid misunderstanding or lengthy explanation, I am also happy here to reclaim the label of Amateur, and confidently run alongside or ahead of the pros in my own satisfyingly nonconforming style.
Amateurs arise and be counted! It’s high time to put an end to anti-amateur legislation and amateur bashing, time for Amateur Pride hoodies. An Amateur/Professional Alliance. A major coming out!
a•dept: noun: 1. a person who is highly proficient and accomplished at something. (period)
While I am fine with the word “amateur,” by my redefinition it still covers the entire range of nonprofessionals from the very least competent to the most able. A better term for nonprofessionals who are focused and devoted, wise, experienced and consistently excel at what they do, is “Adept.”
As with the adjective, the noun originates from the 17th century Latin “adeptus”: to achieve. Adepts are achievers, and that achievement is attributable to their knowledge and abilities as much as to their natures and drive.
Just as there are adepts in spiritual traditions who have given decades to the study and practice, so are there martial arts adepts who are the best in their field, and herbalist adepts who have with or without formal training become not only capable, but exceptional when it comes to the uses of plant medicine. Calling someone a “Master” herbalist or master anything else seems absurd, since nobody ever completely masters (controls, knows everything about) any darn thing! Calling someone (or ourselves) an adept, however, says only that they are profoundly wise and extraordinarily proficient and effective, while allowing that there is always room for further learning and improving.
There can be, of course, no set criteria for when someone is to be considered an adept. If anything, it is determined by their continuous performance, accomplishment and results, and is spread beyond immediate witnesses and beneficiaries via story and reputation. An adept may very well be a professional, but not all adepts are professionals by any stretch.
Potential Advantages of Being a Non-Professional, Amateur, Adept
Nonprofessionals are often better as shape-shifters that can transform rather than conform, self-approve rather than wait and apply for approval, and choose to practice herbal medicine regardless of any regulations or laws that may ever be passed against it. Advantages include:
•Knowledge is attained from wider sources (an infinite reading assignment list, openness to the approaches of other traditions and cultures) and through alternative and often more intimate means (personal experience, family tradition, apprenticeship with a healer).
•Nonprofessionals make evaluations based on someone’s inherent nature, wisdom and day to day acts, rather than on their position or accreditation.
•One can act on a need, desire or calling immediately (open up an herbal practice, buying land and growing herbs, spending weekends wildcrafting, resist unjust regulations) and without waiting first for any degree, certificate, invite from an agency, or other formal process that would slow you down or derail you.
•The nonprofessional acts out of her or his own personal code of ethics, rather than needing to agree completely with and act according to an organization’s or agency’s ethical guidelines.
•Freedom (given, imagined, or seized and insisted on).
•Personal empowerment. No permission is sought, and none required, to do what feels best.
•Succeeding or failing at one’s aims is the only qualifying exam.
•Status is determined by performance (evidenced skill, ethics, results) rather than conferred by title.
•There are infinite natural hierarchical levels for one to fit into, organic, overlapping, shifting and transforming, based on wisdom displayed, skills utilized, and the perceptions and needs of those around us.
•Nonprofessionalism comes with fewer pressures to conform, along with more opportunities to distinguish oneself.
•Informality, beloved informality, making it easier to relate to, communicate with and influence the other nonprofessionals of the world, everyday folks who have grown to distrust the pronouncements of so called “experts”, the intentions of corporate managers and regulations of agencies and authorities. A nonprofessional, community/folk herbalist speaks the language of the people being served, and is as good at being heard by plain folk as the pros are at getting the ears of business, school and government administrators.
•If regulation or prohibition of herbalism increases, being a professional may no longer provide any immunity, and a nonprofessional, nonclinical model may be the only choice left for continued practice.
Potential Drawbacks to Being a Non-Professional, Amateur, Adept
•There is usually only one set of tests that someone has to pass before being ever after considered a professional, but the nonprofessional and outlier is daily tested.
•Less credibility with professionals and bureaucrats means less direct influence on groups, business and agencies.
•Unlike being thought of as a professional, being called an adept is no advantage when it comes to access to the institutions and powers-that-be, and in fact causes a lot of red lights to go off in the minds of bureaucrats and administrators.
•Because nonprofessionals have less credibility and access, they have to work even harder to change the system from the outside.
•Without management oversight and professional pressures, it can be dangerously easy to start putting less effort into projects, or to get unfocused, distracted or diffuse.
•The pay for nonprofessional work can be pretty shitty.
•Hypocrisy & The Religion of NonProfessionalism: Noncomformist, anarchic, alternative and low income folks can be hypocritical in unfairly writing-off the professionals in their field. And it is more of a challenge or more heroic to be nonprofessional or poorly paid, thank it is to deal with university b.s., put on a dress skirt or suit and try to make a difference in the often hectic and unpleasant environs of a county clinic, a public school, a too brightly lit research lab or State Senate building. Our allies are all those who share our earth-hearted values and healing intent, no matter what the title, label, costume, or means for making a difference.
Non-Professional Herbalism At Its Best
There are ways to make up for any inherent drawbacks in nonprofessional herbalism. Inability to access institutions can result in you finding creative new ways of affecting your community and culture. While a high paying professional career can be difficult and painful to move on from, failure to be hired by a company can prod you to start your own herb related or other business that you have always wanted to. Not worrying about professional status, can make changing school majors or job focus easier, and not being bound to the accepted norms of professional dress and demeanor means you can more openly voice your real opinions, and more wildly, loudly and colorfully express your true self.
You can set your standards and goals for studying and practicing as high as the most rigorous professional group, or even higher if that is your need or desire… but the inspiration, direction and drive is daily up to you.
Being an effective nonprofessional or adept may require that we:
•Seek continuous education throughout our lives, from unconventional sources, with the intention of being ever more effective at healing or whatever we believe matters most.
•Ensure that we are tested and improved through hands-on effort, experience and experiment.
•Give equal attention and value to both means and results.
•Use our reasoning minds as well as our hearts to evaluate and make choices.
•Study science and consider evolving research, and weigh it against our intuition and experience… even if we have found reason to distrust corporate controlled science or detest its bias against natural healing.
•Stop resenting the existence of money and feeling guilty about making any.
•Develop a personal code of honor/ethics, and live by it.
•If we don’t accept direction and discipline from “superiors,” then it is all the more important we be self-directed, and disciplined in the pursuit of our aims.
•Working without imposed form or protocol, means we must ourselves create form for purpose, and avoid the dreadful, nebulous, amorphous “it’s all good” mush.
•Take great care as to what we commit to, and then keep our commitments (“in a professional manner”!)
•Categorize priorities and schedule hours.
•Insist on either not-so-highly paid work that feeds our souls and serves our purpose, or else better paid work that bankrolls our real work, our off hours medicine making or book writing.
•Function in a professional environment sometimes, whether we like it or not.
Herbal Professionalism At Its Best
Many of the potential negatives associated with professionalism can be eliminated, lessened, remediated or compensated for if professionals and their organizations are diligent and make the effort.
Mountain Rose Herbs is an example of a company that functions in a highly professional manner, with qualified and often accredited staff. They are a commercial seller of bulk herbs and more, and yet the plants they work with do not feel commercialized so much as valued… and shared. Their need to make profits does not prevent them from making conservation and environmental issues, cultural sensitivity, fair trade policies and education their priority when decision making.
I’ll include a list here of guidelines and things to watch for the professional herbalist, with none more important than putting core values at the heart and forefront of all one does. As Bevin Clare so well explains:
“In herbalism, firmly evaluating and establishing your embodied values is the first step to becoming a professional. What is a core value for you which cannot shift, and what is part of your image which can adapt and change? These values for herbalists are typically larger than the self, they involve the health of the planet, the plants, the wider herb community, access to plants, etc as well as many other more personal and individually oriented values. You may find that parts of who you are can adapt to help those around you to feel more comfortable without compromising your core values. Without these strong and acknowledged values you may find yourself compromising for the sake of professionalism, which is a slippery slope.”
Always, we need to not only look with our minds but our hearts, and not only at the personal, immediate and local, but at the bigger picture, at ramification and reach, potential consequences and future possibilities.
“These values can help you determine your stance and view on a number of challenges which appear as we navigate the professional world,” Bevin continues. “They can help you make decisions for the whole, asking questions about how things have an effect beyond your own professional status and how they help your immediate community, larger herb community, the planet and plants as a whole. Walking the world as a professional with a global and big picture view can cultivate deeper healing in many ways.”
Being a professional and an herbalist at the same time would seem to require that you:
•Understand why you got into herbalism or healing in the first place, and hold on to that original inspiration, motivation, and joy.
•Be willing to dress in a suit and tie or wear your hair up if that’s what makes it possible to get increased access to those systems doing the most to help or hurt this world, or otherwise contributes to your being more effective in your work… without, of course, pretending you are something you’re not, repressing your true self or setting aside your values. As Bevin Clare puts it, “Simple changes in my appearance opened doors to me and allowed that professional connection with a wider audience, and more plant medicine in more lives.”
•Work to change the businesses, associations and agencies that we work with, so they better serve your empowerment and aims, rather than submitting to overt or subtle pressures from employers, government and groups to compromise or conform.
•Recognize and emphasize the non-monetary value of your services and products, the deeper non-economic reasons for what you do, even as you work to make a living from your products or services. Take regular note of the ways you give to the world, income producing or not.
•Remember that your degrees, accreditation, salaries and awards do not make you better than any other herbalist, only in some ways better equipped… and take care not give the impression that non-professionals are inferior or inconsequential.
•Make not just profit (or even effectiveness!) your only criteria in decision making, but also authenticity, honesty, deeper significance, justice, education, environmental and social impacts, and beauty.
•Fully exploit your position and advantages for the good of your larger aims of education, helping and healing. If you have a degree, put it to use. If you work for the government, you may be one of the few chances it has of implementing healthful and liberating policies. If you are professor, continuously develop the curricula beyond the known templates, challenge yourself and the administration as well as your students. Even if you are being paid lots by a supplier of supplements, make ethics and honesty of claims a priority along with product quality. If you discover dishonesty in advertisement or ethical violations, take it up with your employer and go public with the info if need be. If your position involves directing and management, take risks to do the right things, seek information and input and then bravely initiate changes, launch programs or products, and otherwise further what is your most essential and meaningful mission.
•Be willing to earn less, or even be fired from your job, if it threatens to compromise your ethics or lessens instead of increases your ability and likelihood of fulfilling your most valued goals.
Standards for Both Professionals & Non
Whether we seek to be professional or not, there are many characteristics and values that all can strive to embody and proliferate. Only a few examples follow:
•Form, Function & Result
While professions and their members can become rigid and un-adaptive, nonprofessionals can be transitional and amorphous to a fault. Function and results are sometimes downplayed as less important than art and expression by the non, while pros may error in stressing functionality but not meaning or beauty. And while results should never be the only criteria or measure, they certainly do matter.
•Reason & Feeling
Crucial is a balancing of left and right brain, intellect and heart, reason and feeling. Lean too far in either direction and we err, failing ourselves and those we might wish to help.
Essential for all, is basic respect. Respect for each other, free of the smug superiority and righteous disdain that professionals and non can sometimes display for one another. Respect for everyone’s personal connection to plants and calling to help heal, for students as well as teachers, volunteers as well as paid workers, for the enthused young as well as the learned elder. Respect for new ideas and approaches as well as for established schools of thoughts and traditions of herbalism.
Since childhood, I have abhorred how phony and fatuous politeness can be, shallow conversations characterized by a rote and impersonal civility rather than the expression or real feelings and honest opinions. Even the most discomforting of remarks can seem preferable to the practiced superficiality and disingenuousness of the polite corporate spokesman engaged in public relations whitewashing, or the polite sounding politicians working to regulate or even eliminate the practice of herbalism by the people of this country.
On the other hand, there’s much to be said for the art of courteous discourse. Exchanges in person or in emails can address issues without projecting our personal issues, and minus unhelpful drama.
•Punctuality & Follow Through
There are few qualities of professionalism more useful than following through on commitments in a timely and punctual way, qualities that are sadly all too rare amongst us proud non-professionals.
•Accountability & Responsibility
Professionals are accountable to their peers, organizations and employers, but accountability is no less important for all of us needing an honest public measure of our accomplishments and mistakes, effects and results. When not mandated by rule or protocol, it becomes necessary that we volunteer our work for inspection, and take responsibility for both what we do and fail to do. Professionals or not, we need to learn to accept, assume and deepen responsibility for our choices, actions, and failures to act… defined in the Anima tradition as the practiced “ability to respond.”
People sometimes use professionalism as a synonym for proficiency, though all can and likely should strive to be as proficient as possible at whatever we do, for the sake of excellency and effect regardless of the level or lack of expectations.
In The End
Knowing whether or not we want to go the professional route can make a big difference in the realization of our most meaningful purpose and ideal role. And yet, devoted professionals and nonconforming non-professionals alike may be attributing too much import and baggage to what is but a derivative term.
If we look up the roots of the word “profession,” we see that it derives from the Latin “profiteri,” meaning only to “declare publicly,” from the notion of being “an occupation that one professes to be skilled at.” (Indeed, the expression “the oldest profession” didn’t arise because historic prostitutes formed professional associations that qualified and certified its members, but rather, because the not always unhappy practitioners professed to be sex workers… often loudly, in public spaces, and sometimes in the form of a most lovely song.)
If we profess to be a plant healer, then, we are in the original sense already a professional herbalist… if always and forever a student with more left to learn.
And no matter how many degrees or certificates we might earn, no matter how many accomplishments or awards or how professional our actions or demeanor, most of us will always sense ourselves as something more than simply professionals. Plants, the natural world and what they teach and give, are seldom experienced as just a profession by any of us. They are our interest and infatuation, our passion and obsession, our calling and service, our pleasure and delight.
I’d go so far as to say most professional herbalists would be more chill about being referred to as amateurs, if they’d take a look at the roots of this word as well: Amateur, from the late 18th Century Italian amatore, from the Latin amator, from amare… yes, “to love”, it means the most extreme expression of our caring! Being paid or not isn’t really what distinguishes amateurs or adepts, it’s that they love what they do so much they’d do it regardless of income or lack of income, and whether or not they get permission, approval or acclaim.
Hell, it’s actually true of most of the herbalists I have ever known, and all that are precious to me, from papered botanists, research scientists and herbalist guild leaders to undocumented curanderos, kitchen medicine makers, and anarchic plant providers working the streets: What they do – what we do – is rightly done out of love.
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