It’s an unstoppable buzzword. But has professionalism gone too far? As a sportsman, Ed Smith saw it backfire at first hand; now he sees this in other fields, from “The Wire” to the banks ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009
A young nurse, interviewed by John Humphrys recently on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, was asked what she considered the two most important qualities in her job. “Being caring and being compassionate,” she replied.
“Not being professional?” Humphrys countered, emphasising that her answer was very unusual.
“No, not being professional,” she confirmed.
How did the concept of professionalism become so dominant? And why is it assumed to be innately desirable? Professionalism has certainly travelled a long way in a short time. In the space of a hundred years, the words “professional” and “amateur” have virtually swapped places. At the end of the 19th century, an amateur meant someone who was motivated by the sheer love of doing something; professional was a rare, pejorative term for grubby money-making. Now, amateurism is a byword for sloppiness, disorganisation and ineptitude, while professionalism–as Humphrys suggested–is the default description of excellence. Ours is the age of professionalism; it is a concept in perpetual boom. But all bubbles, as we have painfully learned about finance, must eventually burst. Is it time we let some of the hot air out of professionalism?
In 13 years as a cricketer I watched ultra-professionalism become entrenched as received wisdom. Between 1996 and 2008 I played under 14 different coaches and captains: every one of them began the new season with the stated aim of “making the team more professional”. It was a goal that no one challenged and a process that never ended.
Professionalism was continually invoked as the primary means of improvement, whereas amateurishness was mocked as a laughable relic. But it was often unclear to me what the word professionalism meant. “What we really need,” people would say, is “a good, solid professional win.” How does that differ, I always wanted to ask, from a normal kind of win? In fact, professionalism wasn’t so much a real process as a form of self-definition. We had to become ever-more professional, because that was the lens through which we interpreted progress and success.
The question no one ever dared ask was: is professionalism actually helping us to play cricket any better? There were very good reasons for not asking the question. It was too risky–because professionalism supplied not only the dominant ideology, but also the ruling class. In 1996, my cricket team had one coach, working closely with the captain (who has much more power in cricket than in most sports). But by 2008, there were so many coaches, analysts and hangers-on that I couldn’t keep up with all their names. Geoff Boycott estimated that the current England team has an auxiliary staff of 13. Even in financially strapped county cricket, the ratio of support staff to players has grown dramatically. Players learn not to ask the question: “What is it that you do, exactly?”
Occasionally, it is true, an ex-pro warned me against over-professionalism. After making a promising start to my first-class career, I was interviewed by the maverick cricketer-turned-journalist Simon Hughes. At the time, I was playing as an amateur for Cambridge University against professional county teams. Hughes suggested that when I made the transition to becoming a full-time pro, I might lose some of the individuality and freshness that had helped me to succeed up to then. I shrugged off his question with a series of professional clichés about “doing whatever it takes to get better”.
But Hughes was right. I joined Kent and turned fully professional in 1999. I will never forget my first week as a professional sportsman. Our home ground in Canterbury basked in warm and sunny March weather, but we did not use the perfect practice conditions to hone our batting and bowling skills. Instead, we locked ourselves in a room for three days deciding on the precise wording for a team “Core Covenant”.
This was a constitution, intended to revolutionise the team into a slick, professional outfit. We promised to catch 50 extra practice catches every day, no matter how tired we were. We pledged never to say bad luck to each other as luck was just an excuse. Once the covenant’s six main articles (all abstract nouns) and dozens of sub-headings were agreed on, we all had to sign a master document. Individual laminated print-offs were distributed for us to pin inside our kit bags, a reminder of the professional code of conduct that we would live by.
We then turned to cricket practice. But the rest of spring was blighted by persistent rain, and we arrived for our first match chronically under-prepared. The whole team seemed confused, but I was particularly at sea. Where older players had learnt to tune out during lengthy theoretical discussions about how this season would be different, I was young, ambitious and overly determined to do well. I had absorbed too much prescriptive information and lost connection with my intuitive ability. Walking out to bat in that first game, I felt paralysed by a sense of pressure.
Instead of allowing myself to enjoy what I loved most–batting–I was trying to live up to a professional ideal. For the first time in my life, I didn’t enjoy the game. I feared falling short and worried about the consequences. I made an undignified three. But far worse was the manner of my failure. I felt as if I was in a strait-jacket. I had lost my voice. It came back–in time. But I never forgot the experience.
How many others–greater talents but more acquiescent people–feared swimming against the tide and suffered longer in the straitjacket of professionalism? Take Mark Ramprakash, the great “what if” of English cricket. In the early 1990s, Ramprakash was a boy wonder–handsome, precociously gifted and destined for greatness. He was also the closest thing I ever saw to the perfect batsman–balanced, nimble, technically superb, hungry and athletic: a once-in-a-generation player. But his international career was a stop-start affair. He yo-yoed in and out of the England team, expectation morphed into disappointment, and Ramprakash’s career became marked by the frustrations of unfulfilled promise.
What happened to the intuitive talent of his early days? “When I was 18 cricket was a game. I used to go and try to hit Malcolm Marshall [perhaps the most feared of all fast bowlers] over the top. Then it became a job. Everyone’s so worried about the left elbow–is it in the right place?” The clouds of professionalism descended, and viewing what he did as a job made Ramprakash less good at doing it.
Then came an unexpected invitation to enter the BBC reality show “Strictly Come Dancing”, when he was 37. He was a total amateur at dancing, but he discovered a talent for it, and won. “More recently I’ve been determined to enjoy cricket more,” Ramprakash said. “That would be one massive thing I’ve got from this.” The following year, he averaged 100 for the second season running. Only one other batsman since the second world war had averaged over 100 in two separate seasons–and no one had ever done it in consecutive years. This year, as his 40th birthday loomed, Ramprakash was the leading county batsman again with an average of 90.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, the football coach who led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup, summed up what we might call the Ramprakash paradox. “My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional,” Scolari explained. “Thirty to forty years ago, the effort was the other way. Now there is so much professionalism, we have to revert to urging players to like the game, love it, do it with joy.”
When I was made captain of Middlesex in 2007, the administrators asked me to provide a favourite sporting quote for the team handbook. I chose those words by Scolari. The next season they were cut–not debated, just silently excised.
I never doubted that professionalism had brought some benefits, especially in fitness and fielding. But I questioned the idea that more and more professionalism was the only solution when elite sport had already become so formulaic. It is a question of balance. If, as was often the case 50 years ago, opposing teams were unfit and under-prepared, then the professional mantra of extra planning and more training yielded a competitive advantage. But what if all the teams are training phenomenally hard and planning every minute of every game? In that context, surely the way to get ahead is to make better judgments about people and how to get the best out of them–or, more accurately, how not to mess them up.
Over-professionalism is everywhere. Teachers in England are trained to plan lessons in segments of three minutes, a theory which leaves little room for spontaneity in the classroom. They are also often exhausted before term even starts because of the endemic pressure to plan every lesson weeks in advance. It is all too tempting for teachers to sacrifice freshness–which is impossible to measure or record on paper–in favour of form-filling. But can education ever be mapped out in such prescriptive terms? Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, thinks not: “The erosion of trust in education is sucking the life out of classrooms, teachers and students. You can tick all the boxes under the sun and still be a lousy teacher. You cannot encapsulate the human experience of learning in some mechanistic pedantry.”
In “Stepping Stones”, a series of interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll, the poet Seamus Heaney explores similar territory: “Even in my 50s, in Harvard, if I had a lecture I’d be up early to try to get it squared out in my head–not that I could ever quite manage to do so. Lecturing week after week, as part of the pedagogic routine, is more of a test than people realise. In the end, the most important thing is to be in good physical and mental shape. You can prepare as much as you like and amass material galore, but unless you come in fresh, like an athlete onto the track, you aren’t going to do the job required.”
Nor is over-professionalism confined to the public sector. Journalists at several British national newspapers are encouraged to submit weekly work-plans, even though the stories haven’t yet happened. We can all congratulate ourselves on how hard we are working, but does it make for better articles?
Measurement is another fetish of professionalism, as if something that cannot be measured isn’t quite real. This was a central criticism by Sir Ivor Roberts, who wrote a stinging valedictory telegram when he retired as the British ambassador in Rome in 2006: “Well-conducted diplomacy cannot properly be measured. We manage or contain disputes; very rarely do we deliver a quantifiable solution. Indeed, we should be sceptical of ‘permanent’ solutions or models.”
Roberts also quoted a remark by Chris Patten, the former Hong Kong governor and European commissioner. It was sad, Patten had said, “to see experienced diplomats trained to draft brief and lucid telegrams…terrorised into filling questionnaires by management consultants by the yard.”
“The Wire”, HBO’s cult television drama series, is based on saturation-level journalistic research about the Baltimore police department. It has captured the imagination of middle England and been hailed the greatest ever TV drama. Why? “The Wire” describes universal problems that we all face in the workplace. When the brilliant but roguish cop Jimmy McNulty tries to bring down the gangs that run Baltimore’s criminal underworld, he is thwarted more by the police department’s chain of command than the criminals. For McNulty’s superiors, the “war on drugs” is not about cleaning up Baltimore’s streets but about procuring the right crime statistics to win promotion. So it’s expedient to solve the easy crimes and ignore the hard ones.
The series presents a bleak story: you are far more likely to be promoted in “The Wire” for toeing the line than for being good at your job. In fact, the two best policemen are eventually forced out of the police department–they were too much of a threat to the established order. When an ex-cop takes up teaching, he despairs at the parallels in education. He’s told to ignore real education that can’t easily be measured and “teach for the test” to boost the school’s exam stats. “The Wire” may be stylised and fictional, but it contains kernels of truth about the frustrations of battling professional orthodoxy.
In 1923, the German thinker Eugen Herrigel, hoping to master Zen philosophy, visited Japan and immersed himself in archery. He wrote in his classic study “Zen in the Art of Archery”: “Archery is not practised solely for hitting the target; the swordsman does not wield the sword just for the sake of outdoing his opponent; the dancer does not dance just to perform certain rhythmical movements of the body.” The target may be hit, the opponent outdone, the dance technically perfect–but those outcomes will be merely the happy by-products of a deeper absorption with the activity itself. And that is best achieved, according to Herrigel, by avoiding prescriptive goals and techniques.
That is the theme of John Kay’s forthcoming book “Obliquity”, to be published by the Erasmus Press this month. Kay is an Oxford academic, Financial Times columnist and, as the former director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a leading economist. I visited him at his house in Marylebone, London, the day before he flew off to George Soros’s New York summit on global finance.
It was no surprise to find a donnish, quietly spoken and intensely considered grey-haired man sitting opposite a portrait of Adam Smith. More surprising was Kay’s readiness to make connections between playing Su Doku and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and between Boeing and David Beckham.
Kay’s argument is that many goals are best pursued obliquely. Happiness, he argues, is more easily experienced as a by-product of something else rather than as an ambition in itself: “Anyone who has changed a nappy, or failed to quieten a childish tantrum, will recognise that looking after children is an oblique route to happiness. Yet many people say that bringing up their children was the best experience of their life.” More controversially, Kay also believes that profit is best sought obliquely rather than as the primary goal of business. He emphasises the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns: “If you emphasise profit-orientation, what you are really doing is giving a local licence to individual greed. The history of the first decade of the 21st century is the history of the self-destruction of America’s most aggressively profit-oriented financial institutions.”
Kay also queries the literal-mindedness and prescribed goals of mission statements–business versions of the Core Covenant. He tells the story of ICI, Britain’s largest and most successful manufacturing company for most of the 20th century. In 1991 the predatory takeover specialist Hanson bought a modest stake in ICI, and although the threat to the company's independence did not last long, ICI declared a new mission statement: “ICI’s vision is to be the leader in creating value for customers and shareholders through market leadership, technological edge and a world competitive cost base.” The outcome was not successful in any terms, including profit or shareholder value. After peaking in 1997, the share price declined relentlessly. By 2007, ICI ceased to exist as an independent company. So does having a clearly defined goal and a prescriptive method make it more likely that we will misunderstand the real goal and adopt the wrong method?
“There’s a joke about economics,” Kay answers, lightly amused at his own profession. “It’s the only would-be science in which if the world isn’t like the model, then it’s the world’s problem. The odd thing is I am criticising not so much the world as the way people describe the world–and then make the world worse by trying to bash the world into their model.”
Kay turns to the financial crisis, which was at least partly caused by excessive faith in the professional expertise of the banks’ quantitative analysts: “Banks persuaded themselves that risk management could be treated as a problem that was closed, determinate and tractable. We, and they, learnt that they were wrong. We opened the door to much unscientific nonsense. The pursuit of a mistaken kind of rationality has in practice produced wide irrationality. It’s a question of having the judgment to say ‘This feels unstable.’ The bogus professionalism proved deceptive.”
It is a counter-intuitive point, given that many people believe a major factor in the financial crisis was that the banks’ top brass didn’t know enough about complex financial engineering to understand what was happening in their own companies. In that context, it sounds almost heretical: is Kay really suggesting that the gentlemen bankers of the old City of London, who had to rely on judgments rather than precise mathematical modelling, might have done better at averting crisis than today’s whiz kids?
“Very clearly,” Kay answers slightly reluctantly. And though he is quick not to canonise the old-style City gent–“Some old City types thought they knew a lot more than they did”–the underlying point stands. Whatever our sphere of work, we have to distinguish between what is analytically soluble and what is essentially mysterious. And often the most successful methods fall into the latter category. The legendary investor George Soros, for example, says he had learnt to interpret backache as a signal that something is wrong with his fund: “It used to occur before I knew what was wrong, often even before the fund began to decline in value.”
“The nature of many kinds of skill cannot be defined,” Kay adds. “If we could define or completely explain them in terms of a set of rules then anyone could do it.”
Kay also questions the professional mantra that we should slavishly copy winners: “It is a delusion to think that there is an underlying desirable process which you can extract from the performance of the skilful and then transmit to everybody else. And yet there are clearly bits of knowledge of that kind which a good coach or boss can see and use–either a generic problem that he’s observed in many other situations, or else a problem specific to you that can still be fixed. So we need not go to the other extreme of saying, ‘Well, some people are just naturally good performers and some aren’t.’ ”
It’s a succinct description of what I once called the Tiger Woods fallacy–the idea, all too common among professionals, that we must copy the freaks of relentless mono-focus because it works for them. Listening to an economist make an argument so relevant to professional sport, I couldn’t resist suggesting to Kay that if he tired of the professorial life he might consider coaching a cricket team. We’d start him with the reserves, of course, so he could receive a full professional training before exposing him to the top players. “I’m a bit too ambitious for that!” Kay said with a laugh. Maybe so, but he had already demonstrated a perfect–and deeply unprofessional–example of obliquity at work.
Illustrations: James Cary