You Are Professional, So Stop Acting That Way

by Morgan Hite

Should outdoor adventure guiding be recognized as a profession?

I'm sorry to say that I roll my eyes at this question. If you are a person who takes it very seriously, please read on anyway. There are some things you should think about, and perhaps if the question is reworded carefully, I may just be swayed over to agree with you.

I roll my eyes for three reasons. First, it's a question about whether other people (strangers, the general public) should do something. We know very well that to ask such a question is to direct attention away from where we have influence, namely whether we should be doing something. We cannot control what the public thinks: we can control what we think and what we do. Politicians ask questions like this, questions that imply someone else should solve a problem.

Second, the question concerns being recognized as a "profession." Can anyone give me a definition of that term, a definition which all people in the general public already agree upon? They cannot.

Third, the notion of "being recognized" is very nebulous. Does it mean that of the 100 people I am exposed to in a day, 51 will say that what I do for work is a "profession?" What if only 49 say so? What if your experience on that same day is different and you run into almost no one who think of our work as a profession? Are we recognized or not?

Nevertheless, let's look a bit deeper into the issue and find out if we can resurrect something useful.

A. Getting a real job

There is a large component of the people who work in outdoor education and outdoor guiding who regularly get letters from their parents asking, "When are you going to get a real job?" This is sad, but true. And it provides, I believe, if not the impetus for the idea of being recognized as a profession, certainly a lot of support for it among staff. It sounds like the right cure for the nagging letters. If outdoor adventure travel guiding (OATG) and outdoor education (OE) were recognized as professions, we think, our parents would be proud of us. I can fantasize along these lines: parents would glow with pride when telling acquaintances, "My son is an outdoor adventure guide!" Everywhere sober adults would advise their kids, "Why don't you do something good with your life, like be a doctor, a lawyer or an outdoor educator?" Outdoor guides would be sought by the newsmedia for pithy quotes on the economy and social justice. Right on.

The problem is that the people in this group (let's call them "Camp I") have not really examined how the terrain looks between here and there. Right now, OATG/OE is perhaps the second most laughed-at career there is. (Babysitting is first.) Once I placed my ego on the sidelines it was easy to see why this is. We get paid to do what other people do for vacation. Do med school students who fail their board exams go out anyway and asking people what ails them? Is there a vast body of people who read the law for fun? No, and remember doctors and lawyers are popularly regarded as professionals. An important and unstated part of "professions" is that it ain't that much fun but somebody has to do it. (I make that exact comment about my job to students when we are out in some beautiful, spectacular place, and they laugh, which is right because I am making a good joke.)

The coffee that Camp I has to wake up and smell is that no matter what professional bodies or certifications we have, our parents are never going to see OATG/OE the way they see medicine and law. Not because OATG/OE is too easy. Simply because to casual observers who don't go out into wild nature much this work appears unimportant. It's an essential misunderstanding we learn to live with. If you're in this line of work, you're here because you love it-not because it's going to make you famous, make you a lot of money or impress your boyfriend's/girlfriend's parents.

B. Life is Hard

There is a second component of people who advocate professional recognition for OATG/OE for a different reason. We'll call them Camp II.

Camp II is the people who are looking at what we do in our jobs and are saying, "Gee, what we do is a lot like a real job. There's a ton to know, tough decisions to make and significant risk. The dynamics present the same problems that occur in corporate leadership. Should we be publicizing this?"

I understand Camp II: they've found some evidence which belies the traditional notion of climbing instructors and adventure travel guides as bums who subsist in easy jobs and drink their pay away. The problem is that Camp II has an improbable fantasy too: the general public has a big "Aha!" moment in which they get it about just how complicated it is to guide teenagers on month-long canoe trips. Now they see how easily a rock climbing clinic could turn into carnage if the people running it goofed off. Suddenly academic programs spring up to provide the (now obviously necessary) in-depth training and certification required to be an outdoor leader, outdoor guiding ceases to be merely a summer job and outdoor leaders are much in demand to share their skills and experiences with business leadership.

This is a pipe dream, and here's why: OATG/OE is doing well (not thriving, but not going under either) putt-ing along as we have for decades, training staff in staff trainings. Most of us, often young people who like to be outdoors, come into OATG/OE without experience in this kind of work.. The ones who've already been teachers or have been responsible for other people's lives in risky situations are exceptions. We get a staff training that is very good and very thorough, and then we learn on the job from the more experienced staff.

That's not to say that it is not a sophisticated and tricky job. It is to say that you don't have to use a professional model to prepare people to handle complex responsibilities. The home-made, personalized, every-batch-is-a-little-bit-different approach to training works fine too, as long as the program remains at a reasonable, small size-which most guiding outfits and outdoor schools are. And if you think about it, that's how small businesses have always run.

In short, life is hard, but we humans are very smart and we're able to teach each other what we've learned on the fly. OATG/OE is like a real job, but this is not so much a revelation about OATG/OE as it is a revelation about real jobs.

C. What is a profession?

Underlying all of this remains the question of whether "profession" is definable. One approach that has been taken (by our advocates of having OATG/OE recognized as such) is that there are trades (such as plumbing and carpentry) and then there is a higher tier of work, the professions. Professions include jobs like doctor, lawyer and family therapist: jobs for which you need some graduate school time, after which you pass an excruciating exam, after which you start at the bottom.. There are apparently other parts to being a profession too, such as a regulatory body that sets the standards for how the work is done-including ethical standards. Trades, on the other hand, leave the standards to local governments-a building code would be an example.). And of course we all know that professionals own and wear suits. So there are three key elements there (we'll ignore the suit part): lots of schooling, a professional regulatory body and a set of standards.

The problem then with going to set up a College of Outdoor Professionals, replete with standards, is that we are saying that if it flies it must be a bird. We are defining "profession" by external appearances. If I take babysitting and set up a four year degree for it, constitute a professional College of Babysitting and publish ethical standards, are people going to decide babysitting has become a profession? No. They're going to laugh. Why? Because they've done it themselves. Not necessarily well, mind you. But you cannot convince even a bad babysitter that s/he should have taken a degree before attempting to watch the neighbour's kids. The same arguments hold for outdoor adventure activities: however inept and dangerous to themselves or others they have been, lots of people have gone out climbing, rafting, canoe tripping and backpacking, and have (gasp) taught these skills to others. They may not have behaved as we "professionals" would recommend, but they are never for a moment going to buy the idea that such activities require substantial training. It's too big a leap, one that raises us and demeans them.

This does not mean OATG/OE should not set up a College and promulgate standards and be self-regulating. That is a good idea. But it should not be undertaken because we want to appear professional. It should be undertaken because our line of work is complicated and little known, and we are in a better position to regulate it than anyone else.

D. The professional versus the hired hand

Still, in my mind, the argument that outdoor adventure guiding is a profession (whether anyone else recognizes that or not) is not dead.

There is another way to define professionalism which has nothing to do with how I dress, my years of schooling or my certification. It is the psychological sense of "professional." In other words, there something about the way one person looks at a job that is professional, while another person might regard the same job in a way that is not professional.

The psychologist Robert Kegan offers this insight. Professionalism, he says, may be essentially expressed in the following phrase: serving simultaneously in the position of "hired hand" and "master of one's fate." What he means is that we come to be able, at a certain point in our psychological development, to hold two ideas at the same time: that we are working for someone else ("hired hand") and yet are also governed by our own code of conduct and principles which we will not violate ("master of one's fate"). In contrast, a person who is not "professional" in this sense can only imagine that s/he is either a hired hand (will do whatever the employer specifies) or the master of his own fate (cannot take supervision). To this kind of person, the two concepts appear mutually exclusive.

It may well be that the capacity... to hold onto two different conceptions of power and authority within one work relationship is a capacity people would want to associate with their concept of "professionalism." But then we have to realize that some lawyers are not professionals and some housecleaners are. What it means to be "professional" might have less to do with external social definition than with internal psychological capacity.

—Robert Kegan, In Over Our Heads, p. 158

I cannot think of a line of work where the holding of this dual reality is more obvious than in OATG/OE. In this job the employer requires me to go out on a mountain ridge with clients, yet fully expects me to gauge the situation on the fly and improvise measures to both ensure safety and provide a very high quality service. If I cannot understand that I am at once an employee and yet also a free agent who incorporates in his judgement the essence of the job, I am going to be quite confused by the essentially unsupervised aspects of OATG/OE.

A person who is not "professional" in this sense is only as good as the guidelines, materials and advice the employer gives him. Yet every single person I have met in OATG/OE goes beyond what the employer gives him or her. It's a familiar pre-trip pattern: we seek out more information about weather and route. We bring to the trip ideas and possibilities that never came out of the briefing room. We mull the plan over in our minds, exploring it for weak spots or places that can be improved. If there are written safety procedures, we search for hypothetical situations in which they might be wrong. We question everything. We answer to a higher vision of what a good OATG/OE experience should be-not what the employer sets forth. OATG/OE people are classic examples of this kind of self-inspired professionalism.

E. Don't throw out the bums

So there is a good argument here that outdoor adventure travel guiding and outdoor education are professions-not in the external sense of I-went-to-four-years-of-university-and-you-can't-fathom-my-job, but in the internal sense of "I bring to this employer the ability to think for myself, as well as a pre-existing concept of what doing this job well means."

But I think we are ill-advised to want to be "recognized as professional." Society will never recognize us as what we commonly term "professionals" because we do a job that looks fun. (I emphasize the word "looks," because this is all about perception: strangers' perceptions of us, and our perceptions of the opinions strangers have about us.) Our lot is to be involved in a complex, subtle, dangerous work-yet to appear to the public to be bums. If you're not comfortable with this, you're in the wrong line of work.

The "bums" image is not incidental to the value of our work. It reflects the freedom from social conformity implicit in guiding or teaching in remote places dominated by wild nature. The most lethal thing that we could do to OATG/OE is, in the pursuit of some ill-defined notion of public respect, try to pretty ourselves up to appear to not be bums. Not have all my possessions in the back of a beat-up truck? Not save money by living on rice and beans? I would not, as an employer, trust that such a person really understood what guiding or teaching out there was all about. I'd think they might have missed the whole point.

What would such a make-over say about the critical reflection on society-some might call it an element of rebellion-that is part of outdoor work? Encouraging us to be clean-cut and camera-ready individuals who represent status quo values is to desire OATG/OE to be an uninspiring line of work without social relevance. That would be a crime. There are enough of such lines of work already and OATG/OE stands out as a proud exception.

So there we are. Let's set up a College or Society to promulgate and perpetuate the high standards to which we already hold ourselves. Let's make it clear to employers that we guides and educators know what this work is about and that they hire us as professionals to accomplish the ends which they specify-if they fit our principles. Let's wear our apparent (surface) non-professionalism or anti-professionalism as a badge of honour. And let's keep getting those letters asking when we are going to get real jobs. They confirm that we are doing our work well.

Morgan Hite went to four years of university and you can't fathom his job.

© Copyright 2001 Morgan Hite

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