We often hear of people and careers in the workplace talked of as being "professional", implying some higher calling or special status vis-à-vis common workers. But what does that really mean? An old mentor once told me a parable to describe what it really means to be a "professional" - it is The Tale of The Two Tailors.
There were two well-known tailors on High Street - Joe and Sam. One day, a very large and tall gentleman walked into Joe’s shop and said, “I would like you to make me a new suit, please. Lime green.”
Joe was a bit aghast, and responded, “Really? Sir I am fairly certain that such a suit would not look flattering on a man your size, or anyone else for that matter. Perhaps I can interest you in something more traditional?”
“No, sir”, replied the man. “I want the brightest green you can find. I will pay twice your regular fee.”
“I really don’t think I can help you sir”, was Joe’s careful reply.
“I don’t understand”, said the man. “You are a tailor, aren’t you? And I am the customer, aren’t I? And I want a lime green suit. And I am willing to pay double your fee. So what is the problem?”
“The problem, sir, is that I am a professional tailor”, said Joe. “If I make for you a lime green suit, and it makes you look very bad, then that reflects poorly on me and my talents. Someone might ask you where you got such a suit, and they are likely to think to themselves that they would never buy a suit from me. My reputation is the source of my income. I would risk losing much more in future business than I could gain from selling you such a suit – even at three times the price.”
“Well if you won’t sell it to me, then I will try Sam down the street”, said the man.
“I know Sam well,” said Joe, “and he is a professional, too. But I wish you luck in your quest”.
The man scowled, turned around, and walked out.
Some days later, Joe was standing outside his shop and was stunned to see the man leaving Sam’s shop wearing a bright green suit. Joe went over to Sam’s shop and said, “I just saw that man leaving your shop in that awful green monstrosity! I can’t believe you sold him that suit! What were you thinking?”
“I admit it seemed like a crazy request when he first came to me”, said Sam. “But when I asked him why he wanted it, he said he was going to wear it in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. So what he really wanted was a costume, and I was happy to oblige. In fact, he sent several leprechauns over to my shop to make their costumes as well. Nice little bit of business”.
The moral of the story is that being a professional is in fact about reputation and preserving the true value and integrity of one’s livelihood. But it is always best to listen to the customer and understand their true needs before making any decisions.