What It Means to Be Professional

It was my first day in a real corporate job, I was wearing my business professional (you can’t go casual on day one) outfit, ready to conquer the world. I looked the part, acted the part, but was not feeling the part. I was in the “fake it ‘til you make it” phase of my career – trying so hard to be “professional.”

I’m not really sure where I got the impression that I had to be buttoned up at all times when at work, but it had a long-lasting impact on my career and overall “self.” We are inundated with nuggets of advice like “dress for the job you want,” and act as if you are already in the next position. Decent advice, but how does it all fit into your idea of being “professional?”

I went along with the set expectations of the professional working world – wearing black pants with a suitable blouse daily, answering emails instantaneously, and using acceptable pen colors and notebooks. In other words, I complete erased my own identity at work in the name of being professional.

Looking back, I often wonder if my unhappiness in my corporate world originally stemmed from having to hold back so much of myself, in order to climb up the ladder. I was just so tired of muting my personality and love of color, to live up to someone else’s idea of being professional.

3 New Ways to Be Professional at Work – and Not Lose Yourself in the Process (and Still Move Up the Ladder):

1. Your professional self is an extension of your “home self”

I am all for figuring out how to make things work best in different situations, but don’t lose yourself completely when you show up at work. You want to be recognizable to your work friends at home and home friends at work.

The easiest way to do this is to stop thinking of decisions and actions through a “professional” lens all of the time. In fact, letting some of your true personality shine through will not only make you human, but it will make you more relatable and likeable at work.

For me, it means using the writing materials and pens that make me happy – I do have a bit of an obsession with office supplies. Surround yourself and your work area with things that truly make you smile, engaged and light up. If it’s colored pens, use them – if it’s a picture of your family, put it in your eye-line.

Stop letting yourself be limited by what you have assumed is professional. Bring YOU to work, even if it’s just in small pieces.

2. You don’t need to conform to general consensus

When you look around your office, most people are probably dressed similarly, agree to items discussed in meetings, and have similar standard expectations. In other words, it’s one big group think.

While it may feel comfortable to get on board with the general consensus, it will also take away from why the company hired YOU to begin with – you have unique ideas and questions to bring to the conversation – bring them.

I’m not saying thumb your nose at the standards, I’m still HR through and through, but you should add in your own flavor to the standard dress code with a pop of color of crazy shoes; ask questions during meetings – or if inappropriate, bring up concerns behind closed doors.Innovation does not come from being “professional” – it comes from having different points of view.

3. Create your own meaning of professional

With so many different work options these days, being professional at work means something vastly different depending on what generation you are in and where you work. Here’s an example –Baby Boomers grew up in a “traditional” work environment, many of them probably had to wear suits and ties to work. Their first definition of professional is way more buttoned up than a Gen Y’s idea of professional where they see work a bit more fluidly. So there may be some ruffled feathers… at first.

But the key component to professionalism is delivering.  If you can add value at every turn, deliver above expectations, have a high standard for hard and soft skills, and be respectful and considerate, your professionalism will be the last thing you should worry about.

Be you at work – with a smidgen of polish, because they are paying you, and redefine what professionalism means to you. And maybe, just maybe, you will find that your job doesn’t feel nearly as limiting as it did before. 

This post originally ran on LifeAfterCollege.org.