What Does It Mean to be a Quiet Professional?

By Rob Shaul

I’ve been thinking about this for years, and over that time have written down my thoughts and ideas which I share below. First penned in Oct. 2015, this current version was refined and updated September, 2018.

In addition, I did a Podcast with The Art of Manliness in April 2018 on this topic. You can listen to the entire Podcast HERE.

 

1) Mission First.

It took me until my 40s (I’m a slow learner…) to realize, “It’s not about me.” I’ve finally matured past the point of chasing individual accolades or accomplishments – and have come to realize these can be as fleeting, and unfulfilling as a shiny new purchase. Turning this corner is incredibly liberating. Ambition, angst, jealousy have faded and with their evaporation has come a growing sense of solace. I’m intense, and have sought this solace, but until my 40’s thought it would come when I’d reached an “acceptable” level of personal accomplishment. Only when I let that go and put the mission, and others, first, have I begun to realize a budding sense of peace.

To be clear. It’s not about you. Accept, understand and embrace this. It’s liberating.

Like wearing a limited wardrobe, adhering to a strict diet, and living far within your means financially, putting mission first can greatly simplify your day-to-day existence, and in a weird altruistic way …. be personally liberating.

A cheesy personal story …

Our first day at the Coast Guard Academy we went through the typical military intake process – hair cuts, uniform issue, learning to march, etc. Around 2100 we all got called to the hallway for a quick 30 minute hazing, and then had 10 minutes to shower before lights out.

It was a locker room-style group shower, which opened into a long row of sinks in front of a long mirror.

Coming out of the shower that first night, it took me a while to find myself in the mirror. Not only did I personally look different with my new buzz cut, but every other cadet had the same hair cut. We all looked the same.

Many of my classmates bristled at the lack of individualism instituted with mandatory hair cuts and the same uniform. But I loved it.

At CGA we had dress uniforms, class uniforms, work out uniforms and study hour uniforms. Coming from high school where fashion was a big deal, I found not having to decide what color shirt (always blue), pants (always blue), shoes (always black), etc. I had to wear was incredibly liberating! Further, I didn’t have to decide what I ate, what classes to take, where to be, and when … all I had to do was study and train. Perfect for a grinder like me!

It’s easy to think that more choices = more freedom, but in practice this is not the case.  Lot’s of choices can muddle things up, be emotionally draining, disperse attention and burn unnecessary energy.

Putting “mission first” for your unit, team, company, family, can have the same liberating and clarifying affect military uniformity can.

Opposite of “mission first” is putting yourself first. I won’t lecture on the morality of this. Rather, just consider the energy being a selfish douche bag takes.

We’ve all done it, myself included, so you know first hand, like I do.

Putting yourself first means scheming and manipulation, worry that you’re “not getting yours,” regret, wasting energy complaining how life is not fair, and on and on.

Few selfish, self-absorbed people are happy. It just takes too much energy.

Putting the mission first clears this all up. No longer must you worry about getting the credit, being recognized, getting your cut.

Scheming? Gone. Manipulation? Gone. Job roles don’t matter. If you see something that needs to be done, you do it. Easy.

Every decision begins with a simple, clarifying question: What is best for the mission/organization/team/company/family?

Rarely is the answer not obvious and the following action clear. This mental clarity is liberating!

Know that this type of service to the mission doesn’t seek attention.

Many serve for acknowledgement and ambition. These aren’t Quiet Professionals.

Putting mission first every day means doing the unglamorous, dirty “grunt” work others avoid. Quiet Professionals never say “it’s not my job” – if something needs done, from cleaning the toilet to changing organizational direction, a Quiet Professional steps in and gets it done without being asked or wanting recognition. 

Few are born this way. Most grow into this type of service to the mission.

We begin petty and selfish. Time and mistakes whittle away our self absorption to reveal the clarity of service on the other side. 

This journey is frustrating: two steps forward, one step back. Slowly, painfully, we learn all that matters is the mission.

The more we learn, the better we serve

2) Hard Work with a full heart.

Quiet professionals are “happy grinders.”

There’s an understanding that huge leaps forward are few and fleeting, and most advancement is evolutionary. Keep grinding, keep improving, keep learning, have patience, and improvement is steady. Daily small steps forward lead to big gains over time. Stop looking for shortcuts and get to work on becoming a true craftsman.

There is a three step path for “grinders.”

First is expectation.

You are supposed to work hard. Organizational culture, family, or peers, expect it.

You do the work, but it’s not an internalized ethic. You resent it some, and the expectation that pushes you relentlessly forward, is also a weighty burden on your shoulders. You look around at others who don’t work as hard, still get rewarded/acknowledged, and feel injustice. But you bite your tongue and keep grinding.

Next comes pride.

Resentment is gone and you’ve come to be identified as a “hard worker.” This makes you proud and you grind with tenacity … push, push, push … to meet your own expectations and fulfill your hard working reputation. Production is great, but there’s an edge to it. You work hard out of pride. It’s about you, not the work.

Finally … craft. 

Every occupation has potential for craftsmanship, and once you make this transition in yours, the work blossoms in richness and fulfillment and unending learning.

Tiny details, small tasks – no longer annoyances, but gifts. With each comes the opportunity for small improvement and a smile-inducing success for the craft of it alone. You pursue perfection knowing you’ll never reach it, and happy about that.

Reaching perfection would stop the journey, and the journey is everything. You don’t want the learning to end.

You used to resent those who didn’t work as hard. Now you ache for them – because of what they are missing.

They work with gritted teeth. You work with a full heart.

 

3) Understanding the difference between “Experience” and “Wisdom.”

Everyone has experience. Wisdom takes work and includes true reflection, admitting and owning mistakes, forgiving yourself, learning and stepping back up to the plate for another swing.

We all know senior citizens – folks in their 70’s or older – who are bitter, impatient, angry, petty, unhappy … just plain miserable.

You don’t want to end up like that.

The difference between being miserable at 70, and content at 70, is wisdom. But wisdom isn’t experienced; it doesn’t just happen.

Everyone has “experience.” Not everyone has “wisdom.”

Wisdom takes work. Here is an initial “to do” list:

1) Learn from your mistakes. This takes uncomfortable reflection, clear-eyed self-examination, acknowledgment of responsibility, and perhaps, some penance. Even harder … an acted-on commitment to do it differently, next time.

2) Forgive. Others first – so much energy is wasted on meaningless slights … and yourself, second. Forgive not only of the wrongs you’ve done to others, the big mistakes you’ve made, but also those decisions which were followed by deep regret. Regret is wasted spirit. Forgive yourself, and move on.

3) Embrace death. Not only the final lights out, but also the diminished capacity that comes before. Fully accepting your aging and mortality will crystalize that time is precious, and cause you to spend what you have on the truly important commitments and relationships. It will help you do the most difficult of all things – truly live in the present and count your blessings.

4) Be tolerant. Artificial hang-ups about people, places, culture, change, whatever, crumble under the scrutiny of wisdom. The wisest amongst us are also the most tolerant, most resilient and most adaptable. They understand what is important – and minor differences amongst us, aren’t.

5) Detach from expectations. Living based on what others think or expect is an artificial burden. Shed it, and spend your limited time in the way you feel is most beneficial to yourself and others.

6) Be humble. You are not owed anything. You’re not special. Life is not fair. The universe is immense and time infinite and you are simply, insignificant. So let … it … go. Roll up your sleeves, brighten your smile, do your job, be responsible and live your life.

Humility and humor are brothers, and together offer a path to solace.

On humility …. I’m not sure which comes first … the hard life lessons which squeeze it out of you, or the wisdom which hopefully evolves and teaches you that you’re nothing special, thus making you humble.

Regardless, humor lubricates the process. For whatever reason, everything in life is hard, and at some point, you’ll find you can’t help but smile at difficulty’s arrival, rather than be surprised and upset.

Ultimately the spiritual weight of self-righteousness begins to lift, making room for solace to elbow in.

This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not like one day you wake up humble and smiling all the time and experiencing a zen-like serenity.  This certainly hasn’t been my experience.

I’m ashamed of the hissy fits I still throw over little shit. Too often humor is overpowered by petty anger and disappointment. I have much work to do.

But I’m able to laugh at myself and smile at life’s issues more and more all the time. Life isn’t any easier, but is more enriching, because of it.

4) Knowing what to do = Easy.  Doing it = Hard.

Most of life is fairly simple and direct. Ninety-nine percent of the time we know what the “right” thing to do is. Our overthinking minds and selfish selves will try to confuse things with rationalization, but we know deep down what is right. It’s the doing it that is hard.

Quiet professionals push away the rationalization and focus on the hard truths with clear eyes. They identify the right action and do it.

No one is perfect. When they don’t do the right thing, quiet professionals reflect, learn from it, forgive themselves and look forward intent on future improvement.

Below are some tools I’ve developed over the years and through all of my mistakes that I’ve come to use to make decisions.

 

Day-to-day decisions.

Ninety-five percent of day-to-day decisions we make don’t matter: what to wear, what car to drive, what music to listen to, where to eat lunch. etc.

However, 5 percent do matter, and are significant. These are focused around safety, health, relationships, and work.

Safety decisions include always wearing a seatbelt, not texting while driving, wearing a bike helmet.

Health decisions include flossing and brushing, diet, getting an annual physical, mammograms, prostate exams, not smoking, moderate alcohol use, no drugs.

Relationship decisions include treating family like friends, simple, easy acts of connection and kindness, saying you’re sorry and forgiving.

Work day-to-day decisions are job-specific and for our community can include checking and re-checking your gear before going on patrol, equipment maintenance, following tactical protocol and checklists, comms checks, always wearing a helmet while skiing and climbing, marksmanship and other job-specific fundamentals technical practice.

Important day-to-day decisions can become “habit-ized.” Putting your seatbelt on in the car isn’t a decision – it’s a habit … you don’t have to ponder it.  Same with gear checks, comms checks, safety gear, technical practice.

The danger with these important day-to-day decisions is they can slip into mundane and conceptually lose importance with drastic, life changing consequences. That one time you text while driving can ruin your life.

What’s required is constant diligence,  which is “hard.”

 

“Big” Decisions

“Big” decisions pit our “hearts” (emotions) versus our “minds” (objective thought) and we go round and round in endless decision loops.

“My heart wants me to be an actor, but my head says I should avoid poverty and become a banker.”

“My heart tells me to marry Billy, but my head says I’d be more secure with John.”

Another element often present in these big decisions, somewhere between the heart and the head, is integrity. Sometimes this is moral integrity in the classic sense. In other decisions, it is keeping integrity to the person you really are or want to be.

Below are some tools and lessons I’ve personally used or learned in making my own “big” decisions and advising others with theirs.

1) If you know what you are doing now is wrong. Stop doing it, even if you don’t have something else lined up to take its place.
This directly applies to career/job choices and relationships. Stopping the wrong will force you to begin the journey to discover the right. Often people find themselves in a “rut” – they know what they are doing isn’t right, but it doesn’t hurt enough to quit.

Know that a “rut” is simply a grave open at both ends. Staying in these situations past their due – job or relationship –  will lead to bitterness and deepening discontent.

Sometimes, especially on the career side, this “rut” has no obvious cause. You can have a great job, but just find yourself wanting to try something different or needing a new challenge. Know that we are not static. People change over time, including yourself, and what “fit” 5 or 10 years ago may not be appropriate for who you are now. Don’t deny this … this sensation if/when it comes. Recognize it, embrace it and move on.

As you move on, the next thing doesn’t have to be perfect. But it should be a step in the “right” direction.

2) Not making a decision, is a decision.
Putting off a big decision always comes at a cost, often in the form if declining options and missed opportunities. In this way, no decision is a decision.

3) Deciding against integrity always comes with a significant, painful cost.
On the classic moral integrity side, the cost can be an erosion of self-worth, loss of respect, or simple guilt. On the “who I am or want to be” side, the cost is often a lifetime of regret.

The “right” decision for moral integrity issues is generally clear. This does not mean making the “right” decision is easy. Greed (money), ambition (career), envy (relationships) are all emotions we must struggle with daily and if they win, can lead to lapses in integrity.

In this, I take Aristotle’s guidance to heart. The more often you decide with integrity – even small day-to-day decisions, the easier it becomes. The goal is not moral perfection, but constant improvement. When you mess up, see it clearly, own up to it, examine why, and aim to do better next time.

Personal integrity – in terms of who you are or want to be, is much murkier and the two – (1) who you are, and  (2) who you want to be, can be different.

Here are two tools I use to help clear the murk.

First – look at actions, not words. See if there is a disconnect between who you say you want to be and who you actually are.

An example …. a personal relative all through his late 20’s and 30’s talked about starting his own company. He researched business names, looked at a couple locations, borrowed a little money, but never quit his corporate job and followed through.

In his 40’s he finally realized that he enjoyed his free time and simply didn’t want to work as hard as it would take to have his own business. This realization was liberating for him. There was a disconnect between who he actually was and who he “thought” he wanted to be.

Second – work to make sure your ladder is up against the right wall. We often put a lot of effort into a journey only to find out when we get there it’s not really where we want to be.

Going to law school because your Mom is an attorney? Becoming a soldier because your Dad was a soldier? Training in finance because you’re scared of being poor? These are easy examples of ladders up against the wrong walls.

4) If integrity isn’t an issue, and it comes down to your “Head” vs. your “Heart,” always go with your Heart.
I’ve yet to meet someone who went with their heart and regretted it, but I’ve met several who went with their “head” and have.

Likewise, if it comes down to “safe” vs. “exciting,” always go with “exciting.”

5) Don’t artificially limited your options.
This occurs often with career or location changes. We artificially limit our options and miss the “in-between” space that can be the bridge to the best solution. Want to be a SOF-level tactical athlete but not move around with the military? Consider national guard SOF or LE SWAT/SRT.

Certainly, there can be a cost of diminishing returns in terms of collecting more information and options. But in my experience, people too quickly put on blinders and fixated on just two choices when some more information collection and options development can open things up and make a hard decision, a much easier one.

Beware of just two choices.

6) Don’t artificially limited your options.

That being said, always set a decision deadline. The mental strain of a big decision can take it’s toll, and often finally making it lifts a weight from your shoulders.

 

The Happiness Formula

Three things make you happy ….

    1. Doing work you love
    2. Being around people you love
    3. Living in a place you love

If you can get 2 out of 3 you’re doing awesome. Get 3 of 3 and you’ve hit the jackpot.

With 1 out of 3 you can still be content.

Zero out of 3 and you’re miserable. Change it.

 

5) Continual Professional Learning.

Driven not by competitiveness and ambition but by a sincere wish to improve and a strong respect for the profession and commitment to continued learning and personal growth.

I suggest four distinct professional reading categories:

1) Wisdom Literature

This is the philosophical, foundational ideas and thinking quiet professionals need to keep us grounded and reset efforts when our foundation gets “squishy” or when we feel spiritual unease. Ideally, we read snippets of this daily – and often from a narrow 1-3 texts or books where each page carries an important grounding lesson or message.

My go-to wisdom literature is stoicism. Others commonly use religious texts like the Bible and Koran, or famous personal leadership works like Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.

In my experience, all wisdom shares these attributes: specific guidance for day-to-day living, lessons on humility, and no escape from personal responsibility.

My personal wisdom literature reading bounces between these 3 works:

– Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness by Epictetus and Sharon Lebel

– The Emperor’s Handbook by Marcus Aurelius

– Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

2) Job/Career-Specific Technical Literature and Publications

This type of professional reading includes both classic textbooks and volumes, as well as the more recent books on new theories procedures and current technical publications, magazines, blogs, websites, etc.

This is the reading professionals do to ensure they understand the agreed-upon foundational principles of their job/career, as well as the latest thinking and theories.

In my world as a Strength & Condition Coach, my go-to textbook is Science and Practice of Strength Training by Zatisiorski and Kraemer.

Books with theories and approaches that I’ve deployed with success include: 

The Strength Coach’s Playbook by Joe Kenn

Athletic Development by Vern Gambetta

– Advances in Functional Training by Mike Boyle

Bigger Faster Stronger by Greg Shepard

Practical Programming by Rippetoe and Baker

Blogs, websites and current publications are also important sources of technical literature and reading which help quiet professionals keep up with the latest thinking in their occupations. Monthly I review the scholarly and other publications produced by the National Strength & Conditioning Association, as well as other similar organizations. I also read Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Outside Magazine, Powder, Climbing and other media which can sometimes include ideas and techniques we can deploy with our athletes and in our programming.

While everything you read in your Wisdom Literature list is valuable, the same is not true for the Job/Career-specific Technical Reading. At least in my world, a lot of what is produced is regurgitated or flawed somehow. Over time I’ve developed a ruthless “bullshit” filter and am able to quickly identify ideas and new approaches which have merit.

The Arete post we produce each week as part of our newsletter, Beta, links to several blogs and websites in the mountain and tactical worlds which are technical sources for our athlete population. These include policy, current event, tactical and gear information.

3) Career-Specific Leadership, Case Study, Biographies, Histories

Little of this type of professional reading is produced in the strength and conditioning world, but there are volumes of valuable resources here in the tactical and mountain professional worlds. This reading is in the form of books and can include biographies, histories, and case/study/event books.

On the tactical side, examples include:

Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff by HR McMaster

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas Ricks

Black Hawk Down and Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden

Young Men and Fire by Norman McClean

On Killing and On Combat by Dave Grossman

On the Mountain Side, examples include:

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

Accidents in North American Climbing, 2017 by American Alpine Club

Last year we asked the MTI Community for professional reading recommendations under this category. Click HERE for the suggestions. Athlete types include Military, LE, Fire/Rescue (urban), Fire/Rescue (Wildand), Alpinism, and Backcountry Skiing.

4) Expansion Literature – Non-Fiction

This is the non-fiction reading quiet professionals do outside their career field to help keep abreast of this fast-changing world we live in, as well as foundational works and latest thinking in other areas. I call this “Expansion” literature as its goal is to help break out of our own career fields and diversify our experience and thinking.

Note this is non-fiction reading. While reading great fiction can also “expand” our personal lives, I consider fiction reading entertainment, not personal leadership or development. You may disagree!

Last year I posted 11 Must-Reads which highlighted specific “Expansion” literature I recommended for others. This list included a biography of Elon Musk, book on the growing power of networks, book on mental fitness, and Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind.

 

6) Do your Job with Dignity.

Quietly, consistently, professionally, well. Every day.

I was eleven, it was bluebird July morning, and I was anxious to grab my fishing pole and bike to the kid’s fishing pond at the town park.

But before fishing, I had to help my my grandma, Myrtle, gather up the washed linens and make all the beds in the house.

Myrtle was the daughter of Irish and Norwegian immigrant parents and raised poor in a dusty small town in southern, Nevada. Many of her adult years were spent in Reno, where she worked as a maid in the casino hotels.

I can’t remember who’s bed we were making, but I was in a hurry, rushing through doing a sloppy job. “It’s good enough, Grandma,” I remarked.

Big mistake.

She stopped, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “I’m a professional.” Then she proceeded to smooth out the sheets, square the corners, tuck in the covers, and perfectly fluff and place the pillows.

If a well-made bed can be a work of art, this was it. So went the rest of the bed-making – and she never said another word.

No one was watching Myrtle. She wasn’t getting paid. None of us would know the difference between a professionally-made bed, and just a “made” bed.

But it mattered to Myrtle, and her example has stuck with me all these years. She approach her job with clarity and dignity. 

Superior work in any occupation takes craftsmanship. Quiet professionals who put in the work, time, blood and tears to learn their craft develop a sense of dignity about their work that is unyielding.

Doing the work “right” is not about them, the customer or what their colleagues think.

It’s about honoring their craft, respecting the work and doing their job quietly and well, every time. It’s doing your job with dignity. 

It takes time to become a craftsman, but no time is required to be a professional about your work. This is an attitude, a commitment, an ethic any rookie or vet can embrace and apply.

 

7) Embrace the suck.

Life is not fair. Everything worth doing is hard. There’s often no light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t whine. Don’t bemoan. Embrace it, smile, and soldier on.

This isn’t the “Embrace the Suck” you see on a morale patch or obstacle course t-shirt, which advertises how much the wearer likes to suffer and how this makes him or her special and a badass.

But rather, “Embrace the Suck” is an acknowledgment that life is hard in general, doing important work is harder still, and along the way regardless, you’ll face adversity.

So don’t fight it.

With age and experience, I’ve learned not to waste energy hoping “The Suck” won’t arrive. Rather, I know adversity and struggle are on their way and wait to “embrace” them when they do appear.

Yes. This makes me a pessimist … but a happy one. The great thing about being a pessimist is you’re either right or pleasantly surprised.

Now, when I’m doing something and “the suck” is taking it’s time to arrive, I grow suspicious and impatient – not good. When it finally appears I work hard to welcome and embrace it.

I’m not always successful. I know whining, complaining and fighting against “The Suck” is fruitless and exhausting and only makes things worse – but too often find myself doing this anyway.

“The Suck” will laugh at your struggle. It’s best to join in and laugh at yourself as well. When I’m at my best I’m able to smile at “The Suck” when it arrives, and ask, “what took you so long?”

Better still, appreciate “The Suck” as a great teacher. Perhaps none is better.

 

8) Gratitude.

Professional and private. Much easier when you are able to live in the present – and truly appreciate how fortunate you are and how amazing your life is and the people in your life are.

Gratitude bears two gifts: 

1) Perspective.

By definition, perspective is a particular attitude towards or way of regarding something; a point of view.

When things are hard, stepping back, breathing, and identifying the good in our lives in general, and the specific situation, in particular, puts stuff in focused perspective.

Things can get bad – but never so bad that we aren’t blessed in some or many ways, and can’t express gratitude accordingly.

In this way, gratitude is a potent weapon against despair; a single, beautiful, warm flame in the cold darkness.


2) The Present.

Gratitude forces us to take stock of our current situation, and in doing so, puts us in the glorious present. This is not easy, as past regret and future anxiety constantly nip at our heels begging attention.

A grateful person swats away past regret and future anxiety, freeing space for the here and now.

As always, your feedback and ideas are appreciated. Please email coach@mtntactical.com

 

 


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