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Fans, Players and Professionals

October 29, 2018

It’s easy to be interested in something. It can feel effortless to talk about what you’re passionate about.

But actually doing it is a different ball game altogether.

Interest is not action. Talking is not doing.

Does this seem obvious? It should. But it’s still far too easy to fall into the trap of confusing learning with doing, and mixing up inspiration with action.

This is especially true in leadership and personal development.

But before we get there, let’s take a look at a different arena. Let’s examine what has been called “the most important of the unimportant things in life”.


Soccer people

There are three types of soccer people.

Soccer fans are interested in the sport. Their interest can range from superficial knowledge to intense passion, but they’re fans nonetheless. They follow the latest news and enjoy watching games. They discuss tactics and transfers, and they have a sense for the intricacies of the sport. They are fans.

But a soccer fan is not a soccer player.

Soccer players are on the field. They don’t just talk about soccer, they play it. They do it. They play with their team, and they show up at practice. They put their heart into the action. They enjoy it.

But a soccer player is not necessarily a soccer professional.

Soccer professionals are not only on the field. They’re in the gym. They not only practice, they practice deliberately. They’re relentless in improving their abilities in specific skills. They have a coach who helps to identify areas of improvement, and to provide support when the going gets tough. They have routines outside of the sport—like sufficient sleep, a well-balanced diet, regular strength and flexibility training, and mindset exercises—that support excellence in their craft. They hold their sport with an almost holy reverence. They are professional.

Fans. Players. Professionals.

These are very different ways of being. They all have a deep interest in the subject of soccer. But they attack it from different angles.

This isn’t just the case for sports. It applies to any discipline.

Take food, for example.

First, there are food fans. They range from buffet bingers to connoisseurs who spend small fortunes on world-class dining experiences. Either way, they love food. They’re passionate about it.

Then there are people who actually make food at home. They don’t just warm up meals in the microwave – they cook. They look forward to trying out new ingredients, new recipes, and making meals from scratch. They enjoy cooking for its own sake, and for the joy it brings to their friends and family. These are the food players.

And then there are food professionals – the chefs. They’re dedicated to their craft. They’ve trained under a mentor as an apprentice for years. They take meticulous care of their tools. They’re always trying to up their game and expand what they’re capable of. There’s a profound joy in what they do, but there’s also the pain and suffering that comes with improvement and excellence—the intensity of the kitchen, the endless experiments with new techniques, and the obsessive devotion to the craft. By always improving in what they do, they’re always in the process of becoming who they are. They are professional.

Fans. Players. Professionals.

If you’re a fan, that’s great. And if you’re a player, that’s cool too. No one has to be a professional.

But it becomes problematic when you mix up the categories – when you think you’re something that you’re not.

This isn’t much of an issue in sports. If you’re a soccer fan, you would never claim to be a soccer professional, would you?

Unfortunately, mixing up these categories happens all the time in leadership and personal development.

Let’s see where the boundaries are.

Personal development people

Personal development fans are fascinated by the topic. They read every pop-psychology book that comes out. They listen to podcasts. They consume endless amounts of information and inspiration. They learn a lot, and they improve their theoretical understanding of personal growth.

But they don’t do personal development.

Personal development players do personal development. They not only read books and blogs. They act. They go to courses, training programs and events. They get a buzz out of meeting new people, and they enjoy raising their own self-awareness. They’re in action.

But their growth isn’t what it could be.

Personal development professionals are dedicated to transformation. They’re relentless about leaning into their growth edge. They have a coach that shines light on their blind spots and supports them to grow. It’s not just aimless growth – they have specific areas that they focus their development on, and they practice them deliberately. There’s joy and pleasure involved, but it’s also difficult, painful and unsettling. They know that real transformation can’t happen without it. But they persist, because of the insights and possibilities that emerge. They know they are never complete. They know that they are always becoming.

Fans. Players. Professionals.

Leadership people

Leadership fans are fascinated by the subject. They read all the latest books and HBR articles. They’re inspired by thought leaders, and they love discussing the latest leadership research.

But they don’t do leadership.

Leadership players lead. They lead by example. They make sure to notice, acknowledge and support their followers. They enjoy inspiring others, and they love the thrill of seeing people grow.

But a leadership player is not necessarily a leadership professional.

Leadership professionals are dedicated to the craft. They have clear, defined growth edges that they’re always leaning into. They practice their leadership — meaning that they have “drills” that they “run” every day. They have a coach, who supports them in highlighting blind spots and creating action plans to grow. They’re grateful for the moments of joy that come with the territory, but they also know that leadership can be excruciating. It can be gut-wrenching to speak the truth to someone. It can be devastating to create intimacy through vulnerability. But they do it nonetheless, because that’s what leadership is. They have habits—energy check-ins, sufficient sleep and recovery, physical training, daily pauses—that make sure that they’re primed for leadership excellence. They don’t avoid their weaknesses. In fact, they’re desperate to learn more about them. They seek out real, honest feedback like a truffle-hunting dog. They then use this information to grow, so that they can help themselves, and therefore help others, even more powerfully.

Fans. Players. Professionals.

Reading books and watching TED Talks will not make you a leadership professional. It can be a start, of course. But don’t think for a second that it makes you a pro.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with being a fan. What is problematic is thinking you’re a professional, when in reality you’re a fan. You’re only fooling yourself. Is there anything more heartbreaking than someone who’s lying to themselves?

Understand: Being professional, in this context, has nothing to do with whether or not you get paid. Being professional is instead about the attitude you adopt, the practices you pursue, and the path you persist on.

When our leaders talk more than act, it affects us all. The perceived bar for excellence becomes lower and lower for everyone. Soon enough, no one actually takes real steps to grow as leaders and in their personal development. Everyone just watches yet another TED Talk, and thinks their job is done.

People talk, and people consume. But few actually grow. Few truly transform.

Fans. Players. Professionals.

Who do you say you are? Who do you want to be?


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