What does it take to be a professional?
In some circles, especially in sports, going pro means that you start getting paid to train and do the work.
While that is an easy and measurable way for sports organizations to figure out whether someone can compete in the Olympics or play collegiate sports, in real life, being a pro has little to do with whether you get paid to do what you do.
More often than not, what matters is whether or not you behave like one.
To paraphrase my friend and entrepreneur Sol Orwell,
When you put in the work, the results you want become inevitable.
In 2017, my goal was to make my dream of making it as a professional writer and content creator, not just real, but inevitable.
With that goal in mind, here were the three main concepts I took to heart in 2017 that helped me transition from being on the bench as an amateur to playing on the field as a pro:
- Professionals commit to mastering the craft
- Professionals show up and put in the work every day
- Professionals prioritize deliberate practice, and enlist coaches to give them feedback
Let’s break down exactly how I did those.
1. Pros Commit to Mastering the Craft
These days it’s not enough to be the best writer in the world to make it as a blogger – you’re also required to market your work and attract an audience to support your work. Both the writing and the marketing are essential elements in the full craft of being a blogger/content creator.
And this year, I committed myself to being better at that, and to saying Yes to opportunities that helped me hone my skills.
On Writing More Clearly
I also stumbled on to Jon Morrow’s blog. He showed me how to write more clearly, and how to edit out the fat in my writing.
As a whole, these resources taught me the value of writing what people already want to read, instead of getting people to read what I wrote (because there’s a world of differnce between those two perspectives!).
More importantly though, I learned to write for me and to trust my own taste to determine whether my work was good or not. Because of this, I stopped trying to build a blog that I think will resonate with people my age, and instead shifted my efforts towards writing what I wish I’d read when I was looking for answers all those years ago.
This way, there will aways be a “market” for my blog, even if no one else reads it but me. 😂
On Doing Product Marketing at Shoelace
In 2017, even as I committed to producing world-class content that changed people’s lives, I continued to hold on to my dreams of pursuing a stellar career at a fast-growing startup.
While I didn’t want to start my own thing, after going through countless startup websites that left me wondering, “WTH do they really do?!”, I’d pretty much given up on finding one that was solving real problems, with a team I could stand behind and work with over 3-4 years.
Which is why I jumped at the chance to do product marketing at Shoelace last October (which wasn’t the role I initially started with, but that’s another story for another blog post). This is because I get to…
- Use all the marketing and writing skills I’d built up over the years to promote a product I believe in
- Work with a team of great people I enjoy hanging out with, even outside of work
- Start at the ground level and build something special from the ground up – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
- Learn, grow, and take on responsibilities as quickly as I can master new tasks – an impossible thing at a bigger, monolithic corporation
And practically, my job is a huge weight off my shoulders because I don’t have to worry about monetizing Defy Gravity prematurely, or racking up more student debt from unpaid interest.
And although founding a company or becoming the CEO of a fast-growing startup is the furthest thing from my mind right now (too much work), if (not when!) I ever decide to start my own company, I’ll have the knowledge and the experience to do it.
On Writing for College Info Geek
Aside from the job at Shoelace, I also started working with Thomas at College Info Geek last September.
While my work at CIG helps me with my goals because I get to work with an editor (I’ll talk more about this later), I said Yes because this is a rare chance to get a peek at what goes on behind-the-scenes of a profitable content-creation business.
By learning more about how CIG’s podcasts and (successful) YouTube videos get produced, I don’t just become a better writer — I also become a better content creator.
And of course, writing for CIG helps drive traffic and grow Defy Gravity since I get a number of CIG readers who subscribe to Defy Gravity after reading my work there. (If you are one of them – hey there! :D)
2. Pros Show Up and Put in the Work Every Day
Like I talked about in the intro, aside from a commitment to mastering the craft, another thing that separates professionals from amateurs is that pros show up every day and do the work, while amateurs wait for inspiration to strike and only work whenever they feel like it.
Well, early in 2017 I knew that I didn’t have the habits or the systems to sustain consistency in my work. So the biggest personal development project I took on last year was to become a consistent top performer.
I spent the first 8 months of 2017 as a project coordinator at an insurance company to fulfill the requirements for my degree’s co-op program. Through this, I learned a lot about professionalism and corporate culture, but the most important skill I picked up was self-management.
You see, despite being a huge multinational corporation, they allowed remote work arrangements.
And instead of using the times I worked from home to relax and procrastinate on my work, I used it to build routines and systems that allowed me to have productive days, regardless of whether I felt like it or not.
This way, I could be confident that when I did become a full-fledged entrepreneur who didn’t have anyone looking over her shoulder, I would actually get work done every day.
And that was a huge confidence boost for me.
OK, I love writing, but let’s be honest – writing every day is hard.
(Tangent: This blog post was a hard one to write because I didn’t want to publish an annual review blog post that talked about how awesome my year was, but didn’t actually help you with anything actionable. It took me several hours of writing, deleting and hair-pulling before I landed on this professional-amateur comparison. Hope it’s working so far.)
But because I’m a huge fan of facing the suck and staring down my fears I committed to sending out a weekly newsletter and publishing a blog post every week in 2017.
The results? Thanks to the systems I talked about in the previous section, I sent out my Saturday newsletter 49 weeks out of 52 — a 94% success rate. And that’s acceptable for me (maybe not by true Asian standards — but who cares?). 😉
Now that I’m confident in my consistency, for 2018, my focus is on quality. I’ll still send out my weekly Saturday newsletter (which you should totally subscribe to below, since they could be blog posts in themselves anyway), but I’ll publish blog posts every couple of weeks to give myself the time and space to publish better quality work.
Here’s a secret: One reason I can blog consistently and almost never run out of ideas is because I read. A lot.
In 2017, I read 40 books, not counting school textbooks and blog articles. Here’s a (very) short list of my favourites
- How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren
- Good to Great, Jim Collins
- Confessions (A Penguin Great Read), St. Augustine
- Anything You Want, Derek Sivers
Getting to 40 meant reading while balancing on the subway, waiting in line at Starbucks, or (my favorite) chilling on the toilet.
Now while I tried to read between 10-25 pages day, I wasn’t always successful in that (because let’s be honest, sometimes an episode of Suits is a lot more fun… And a lot less work).
But hey — 40 books is a record year for me, with regards to number and quality of books read, so I’m very satisfied.
Of course, I’m going to try to hit 50 in 2018. 😉
After the summer of building and testing my productivity systems that I told you about, the fall semester was my big exam:
Could I stay consistent and on track from September to December, despite not feeling like it, especially when a class bored me to death?
And you know, achieving this was huge for me because for the past 16 years, I had never been a consistent student — I always started the semester so much stronger than when I finished it.
But last fall, my systems and habits held up under the duress of working two jobs, blogging and a full-time course load; I was fighting and chugging along, all the way to the end. I honestly could not have done any better.
Super satisfied with how the semester turned out! 🙌
3. Pros Practice Deliberately and Implement Feedback from Coaches
The final difference between pros and amateurs is that professionals meticulously work on their craft with their coaches while amateurs don’t. This is because a coach is great for feedback to help you work through blind spots you wouldn’t otherwise notice.
And in 2017, I knew that if I wanted to take my professional and my personal game to the next level, I needed one-on-one help.
The Success Coach
In February 2017, I hired my coach, Stefano, to help me break through some of the barriers I had to reaching my potential.
Let’s acknowledge this first: It’s kind of weird to hire a success coach, so I didn’t really tell anyone… But he did help me get my house in order.
Working with him set the stage for an incredibly successful year for me because when the opportunities of working with the fine folks at College Info Geek and Shoelace came, I could say Yes without worrying too much whether or not I could deliver.
But aside from the productivity stuff, the most important thing he taught me was to go easier on myself and to lower my expectations day to day. Now it may seem counter-intuitive to productivity but by doing this, I actually accomplished far more in 2017 that I expected.
And this kind of urgent patience is exactly the foundation that a sustainable professional career is built on.
The Writing Coach (and Unofficial Coaches!)
In the last quarter of 2017, I started working with my writing coach, Brett. I also worked with a couple of editors, who aren’t technically coaches, but their feedback helped me tighten up my writing so I’m including them here.
While the goal of my work with Stefano was to get my life in order so I can pursue my dreams, the goal for getting coaching for writing and blogging was to make progress on my goals as a content creator and would-be author.
I’m currently still working with Brett, and it’s been fruitful. He’s already provided valuable insight and advice on building an audience, the book publishing process and using storytelling in my writing — all solid progress points on my goals to go pro one day.
While I started 2017 as an inconsistent, unproven amateur, I committed to behaving like a pro, both in my full-time job and my side projects, regardless of whether I or anyone considered me one yet. In 2017, I…
- Intentionally looked for avenues and individuals to help me improve as a writer and invested significant time and money into my craft
- Treated Defy Gravity as a business and blogging as a profession by showing up to work every day, whether I felt like it or not
- Said “No” to numerous opportunities so I could focus on things that complemented what I wanted to accomplish; I made sure that every obligation I agreed to was never less than a “Hell, Yeah!” opportunity
Because of this commitment, I took monumental leaps towards my dreams. And I’ll leave you with one last piece of food for thought:
My youngest sister, who is a competitive swimmer, gets this from me all the time:
World champions eat, sleep, breathe, train and behave like world champions, way before the medal is hung around their neck.
Athletes don’t think, “OK, when I win gold in the Olympics, then I’ll start taking my sport seriously,” because that’s absurd. The truth of the matter is, only the ones who prepare like champions can have a shot at the podium.
Similarly, the ones who behave like professionals are the ones who have a shot at actually making their dreams into a reality.
It doesn’t take money or fame to go pro – all you have to do is commit to the craft, show up every day, and put in the work.
If you want to do your own Annual Review, the format I use follows Chris Guillebeau’s from The Art of Non-Conformity.
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Also published on Medium.