Monday, December 1, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #8 (Your Professional Image and Its Cultivation - Part 1)

So, whatever you are going to do with your seminary degree, there’s one thing that is certain no matter what direction you are headed – you will be a professional and it is in your best interest early on to cultivate a professional “image.”

Now, in saying this, we’re treading on interesting territory. I have brought this conversation up in student circles and have gotten some pushback from folks who balk at the idea that ministers or theologians should cultivate a professional image. There seems to be some animated discussions about this in graduate student circles. After all, some argue, Jesus called his disciples from amongst the marginalized fishermen of Galilee. One certainly couldn’t accuse them of cultivating a professional image. What gives?

My response to that is – yeah, I hear you and you make a fair point. I’m pretty certain that Jesus is not concerned about our professional appearance, or demeanor, etc. If I read his teachings rightly, I’m pretty sure he’s concerned about the heart of the woman – the heart of the man – who follows him.

But I can assure you that many people among whom you will minister and work will have at least a passing concern that you accord yourself as a professional – as a person who cares about their behavior, appearance, and interactions with others because it reflects something of the gravitas they bear as a person of talent, skill, and responsibility. This is true in the secular world, in the Church, and in the seminary, too. So, if you will just trust me on this one – as a person who has passed through the halls of seminary, has worked in the world of the Church, and in the laboratories of academia, people are going to care that you carry yourself as a professional. Therefore, the time for you to cultivate and develop your professional qualities is NOW.

To begin our conversation on this topic, it’s important to sort our something real quick: the difference between a professional and an amateur.

Yes, yes – I know most of us think about professional versus amateur in terms of monetary compensation. I get paid, I’m a professional. I don’t get paid, I’m an amateur.

But let me challenge you to think of the two statuses in this way: when I’m a professional, I’m grown up and what I do is not just a past time, it’s my commitment. When I’m an amateur, I’m a dabbler, I’m not grown up yet. I don’t have all my “skin” in the game. I’m telling you that in the transition to seminary, you need to put all of your “skin” in the game. You need to cultivate an educational “grown up” persona and an emotional “grown up” persona.

As Steven Pressfield notes in his excellent book, Turning Pro, the difference between the professional and the amateur is all about habits.

Now, what I’d like for you to do is to think about the habits you’ve cultivated so far in your life and ask in what ways you need to stop engaging in amateur habits and develop professional habits.

To get us thinking about this the right way, let me tell you a story. It’s a story about day one, beginning of my undergraduate career. It was 7:30 in the morning and I was in a biology lab. I was ready and raring to go. Many of the students around me were not. The difference between the others and me was the difference between an amateur and a professional.

That morning, shaped by my time in the Marine Corps and the habits my time in the Corps had engendered in me, I was up at 5:00am, slurping robust, black coffee – that brown, life-giving juice – and about to head out the door for some early morning PT. That’s physical training for you non-military types. Once I was finished with my run, I had come home, showered, ironed my clothes, put a fresh polish on my shoes, and was out the door with my second cup of coffee. I arrived at class fifteen minutes early – 7:15am. I was caffeine buzzed and ready to look at some protozoa under the microscope. Oorah!

My classmates were not so ready. After all, it was 7:30am, this was college, and they were dragging in the door five and ten minutes late in their jammies. Amateurs. Greenhorns making rookie moves. Undergraduates being under-graduates. Who got more out of the lab that day? I’ll give you one guess. Hint: to this day I can still tell you about Volvox and Trypanosoma, and can even show you my notebook sketches.

Are you getting my drift?

As an undergraduate, like in high school, we all experienced a lot of handholding. In some ways, we were still treated like children. But at the graduate school level, in places like seminary, that needs to change. If your undergrad was like childhood, seminary represents your entry into the adult world. Yes, in some ways you might still feel like an adolescent, but in your training effort, and the ethos behind, you need to step it up a notch. You need to concern yourself with your professionalism and its cultivation.

So, where to start? Consider the following…

TIP #1 – Learn to start thinking about your personal brand

This one might make you dry heave a bit. Once upon a time, I would have. But “personal brand” is contemporary grammar for making a good first impression. And it’s important. As “they” always say, you only have one chance to…well, you know.

Make a first impression.

You see, your personal brand accrues with each new acquaintance, colleague, co-worker, etc. that you meet. But it’s more than that – it accrues with your social media presence, with your blog or website presence, with the way you meet deadlines, how you turn your papers in on time. Your personal brand consists of the kinds of conversations you have, and the way that you conduct yourself in your studies and in your relationships. It can even be shaped by how you conduct yourself in class. Are you a goof-off or a serious student? All of this becomes a part of your personal brand.

And don’t underestimate the power of cultivating yourself as a person who is serious about their work. When you do, other serious students (meaning, those who care and work hard) will be attracted to you and you will be able to form the kind of relationships that can encourage you in your time in seminary.

Not only that, but the faculty will notice you more, and opportunities will open up – opportunities that might not be open to less serious students. Perhaps your professor has a book they’ve been meaning to review but they have no time. Perhaps because you’ve managed yourself like a professional, they ask you to write the review since they don’t have time. Perhaps because you do such a good job writing the review, just like a professional would, the professor helps you get it published in a journal.

Or perhaps a faculty member hears that you did a good job teaching Dr. Jones’ undergraduate New Testament class one day when she was away, so Dr. Smith asks you to teach his class next week since he will be away at an academic conference. And like a professional who takes care of his reputation (personal brand), you handle the class like a pro.

You get the drift. Learn to develop your personal brand.

Now, go work on cultivating your professional image. We'll explore Tips 2-4 in the next three posts...

[Catch the rest of the posts in the series here]