The Difference Between Pros and the Rest of Us

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

A young woman wrote the following on a motorcycle list I occasionally follow, “I’m considered/called a ‘pro artist’ but I don’t get paid for my work. Just because someone races and gets paid for it doesn’t mean they actually know what they are doing.” She was responding to a comment I’d made about how unimpressed I was with all of the “performance” farkle-jabber that went on among the wannabes and street bandits on that list (My exact comment was, “Actually, to be a professional at something you have to be good enough to get paid for it.”). Another kid on the list responded with, “You also don’t have to be a pro-rider on a race circuit to be considered ‘pro.’ It’s all in experience.”

First, let’s get the semantics out of the way. Mr. Webster, if you please.

Pro-fes-sion-al adj

  1. a: of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession; b: engaged in one of the learned professions; c: (1) characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2) exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace
  2. a: participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs <a professional golfer> b: having a particular profession as a permanent career <a professional soldier> c: engaged in by persons receiving financial return <professional football>
  3. following a line of conduct as though it were a profession <a professional patriot>

From the above definitions, I think it’s safe to say that being a professional has something to do with getting paid to do the job. Someone “considered/called a ‘pro artist'” who does art without compensation is a hobbyist or an amateur. That person might be an excellent artist, but not a professional artist.

How long would any of the tens of thousands of competent high school or college football players survive an NFL game? In sports–and motorcycle racing is a sport–the difference between professionals and the rest of us is as dramatic as the intellectual space between Stephen Hawking and Bonzo the chimp. Being “courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike”–even adding the gold leaf of “conforming to the technical or ethical standards”–might cut it in the Misfortune 500, but it won’t buy you one microsecond of cornering advantage on the race track. Being a pro-rider means you are better than all of the novice, intermediate, and expert amateurs. Getting a substantial investment from a race sponsor or a five-to-seven-figure salary from a manufacturer means you are among the best-of-the-best. Winning national and world championships means you are superhuman. 

When we watch a pro race, it’s easy to imagine that kind of skill is normal because the race track is filled with people going fast and making it look easy. Michael Jordan made dunking a basketball look easy, too. Magic Johnson made bullet behind-the-back passes and half-court jump shots look natural and humanly possible. Kenny Roberts convinced a lot of fools that the Yamaha TZ750 was a real dirt track miler, not the deathtrap (“They don’t pay me enough to ride this thing,” sayeth Kenny) that it really was. NFL quarterbacks pinpoint 60 yard passes into the hands of the quickest runners in human history and we delude ourselves into believing that our cheering helped them perform those incredible feats. I know about this delusion, because I watched Bobby Hannah skip across the tops of chest-deep whoops in 1977 and I thought I could do that if I only had a factory bike. I suspect I couldn’t ride a 1976 factory bike on my best day. Being a spectator is a deceiving experience. Hell, television even convinces some of us that science and invention is easy and glamorous.

It’s all bullshit, though. These aren’t normal athletes. They aren’t ordinary people. What they do is not normal human activity. They are professionals.

We can argue about how much those talents are worth, financially, but arguing that “it’s all in experience” is foolish and arrogant. I’ve been riding since 1963 and I have a butt-load of “experience.” I get paid to teach MSF classes, so I am (in a weak sense) a professional motorcyclist. But I never had a fraction of the talent, dedication, physical ability, or focus to be a professional racer. I have written more than 250 articles for a variety of industry publications (including motorcycling) and that makes me a professional writer. A writer becomes an author when he publishes a book I am not an author. Experience doesn’t amount to squat until you get paid to do the thing, if you want to compare yourself to professionals. All you have to do to gain experience is to stay alive and observe the world around you.

Professionals don’t delude themselves with stupid fantasies. (They may be superstitious, though. I can’t explain that.) Pro motorcyclists wear the best protection gear available. They ride motorcycles that have the very best maintenance and state-of-the-art technology. They study the race track, the other racers, their machine, and they integrate all of that information into a performance that produces results or results in early retirement. To be a professional you have to convince someone you are actually worth hard cash. On the race track, you do that by winning races. Nothing else matters.

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