Professionalism is a useful trait to be able to display, but it isn’t an unalloyed good. This essay is attempting to outline why deliberately not signaling professionalism may be useful for you.

First, a definition by example for professionalism: Clean button down shirts with solid colour ties, blazers or suit jackets, clean shaven beards, hair tied up in a bun without flyers, beige or gray or at least solid colour cars and desks and walls, even toned voices with just enough of a hint of emotion not to sound at all robotic or unempathetic.

It’s not the Professional Managerial Class but they (particularly as Patrick McKenzie sometimes describes them) are often its exemplars. 


The word “professional” is defined as a person engaged in a specific activity as one’s main paid occupation. It contrasts straightforwardly with “amateur,” a person who engages in an activity on an unpaid basis. Notably, “amateur” can also mean someone who is incompetent at a particular activity. As a point of language, we conflate skill and getting paid, and we do this in both directions. 

If you want to get paid for doing something, you want to learn to do it professionally. Doing something professionally often includes adjacent but not obviously synonymous skills. Some of these are very closely adjacent; I have been a professional software engineer and I have been involved in hiring professional software engineers, and if you don’t know how to use source control as a software engineer then you want to learn to use source control. Yes, I know it’s not a cool new algorithm. Yes, I know the end user will never see it. Trust me, you’re going to use it.

Some of the expected skills of a professional are less about the core skill of the job, and more about the frame of the job. “Being on time” and “dressing appropriately” and “conducting yourself properly” are all often given as examples of professional skills which apply in a wide range of fields. Put bluntly, if you’re going to interact with a customer especially in a white collar job, it helps to not have facial tattoos and to not swear casually. 

We seem to have drifted very quickly into something that seemingly has almost no bearing on your ability to do the actual job at hand! Nevertheless, I expect pretty much every career coach in the western world to back me up on the main points here. I first successfully traded money for software when I was around thirteen years old, and while I have gotten better at writing software over the intervening mumble mumble years I have improved even more in my ability to present myself as a Professional Software Engineer.


Lets talk about my first professional software engineering project.

(Here I’m using “professional” to mean “I got paid for it.” As you’re about to find out, it was unprofessional in almost every other sense of the word.)

As best I remember it, the job went something like this. A friend of my mother’s heard that I was “good with computers” and asked me if I knew how to build a website. I did as a matter of fact, having recently managed to get my own Apache server running. She said that her organization needed a website where they could announce their events and where people could learn about the organization, and would I be willing to build that for an amount of money that equaled several months' allowance. I said sure, and asked her a bunch of questions about what needed to be on the website. A week later when I unveiled it, she sounded delighted with it, made a handful of corrections to the text, and I showed her how to add new events.

This next paragraph describing the website will be pure jargon if you aren’t at least a little bit of a web developer. If it doesn’t make sense, just skip it and understand that this was a really terrible website and my only real defense is that she got what she paid for.

I wrote it in pure HTML and CSS. The events page was one HTML file, and you added new events by opening up the HTML and copying the last event block, then changing it to fit. You had to change the posted date, since that was just text with some special styling. The CSS didn’t really make use of inheritance, and I redefined the colours for every block. Speaking of the colours, I had read a book on web development, but I hadn’t read a book on colour theory yet so I drew the colours directly from asking her “what are your favourite colours?” and playing around with hex codes until I got approximately the colours she’d answered with. There was no backup, or way to back it up without copying the whole file structure, nor any idea that backups should be made.

If you were around on the internet in the late nineties or early 00s, you’ve seen a website that looked a lot like that first website I got paid for. I went on to make more websites like that, my services spreading by word of mouth and making me a lot of pizza and paperback money over the next three or four years. I had to mostly stop making websites for people when I started college since I got too busy learning cool new things about programming, like why people use functions.

I think I made vaguely the same amount of money programming and fixing broken computers throughout high school that lots of people make flipping burgers or sweeping up movie theatres. Certainly I made more from working as a farmhand than I did from computers before I went to college. I kept trying to offer my services to the higher class of businesses in my area - the banks, the chains, the bigger companies that seemed to move in a different world than the one I lived in. The thing I was missing wasn’t actually programming skill. 

Looking back with the wisdom born of experience, the thing I was missing was professionalism. I didn’t know how to project understated confidence without being cocky, and I didn’t realize how much my poor personal presentation was hurting my chances. Summarized, my problem was that professional companies seeking computer expertise do not like to make transactions in cash with a sweaty teenager on a bike, and the “teenager” part isn’t the actual sticking point in that sentence.


Those sure are a lot of words about what professionalism is and how it helps for an essay that titles itself “The Perils of Professionalism.” What gives?

Sometimes adding a hint of professionalization is easy and useful. When I first encountered Bootstrap, I was enamored. This was a fast, easy way to make my websites look practically as good as the fancy corporate sites made by the companies I couldn’t figure out how to sell to. I wasted no time in upgrading to the better style. The problems would only come later.

See, professionalism is a package deal. If you look at a website with sharp corners and slightly garish colours, you don’t expect a smooth and trained voice to pick up the phone when you call the contact number on the contact page. I used to be frustrated at places whose hours of operation were only in the middle of the day, because I couldn’t call them when I got off work. Now I realize that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. Sometimes it’s because they want to deal with other professionals. When I made my websites look smooth and polished, it meant people contacted me during the middle of the day, often catching me in class or (later) in work meetings.

And professionalism comes with other expectations. 

For my best friend’s bachelor party, we rented an AirBnB for the weekend. We stayed up late, played videogames with the volume up, cooked some BBQ on the back porch, and had a pretty good time. It used a lot of similar setup and planning as the East Coast Rationalist Megameetup did in 2019 and 2022; actually if you somehow put a subway stop outside the place we rented for the bachelor party you could have used the exact same venue for both events. For the 2023 Megameetup, I’ve been trying to “upgrade” to a much more professional setup. We have a hotel block booked, we have event space rented, and I’m hoping to have an actual check in with name badges instead of adhesive stickers and a sharpie. This has created some expectations mismatches!

For instance, the hotel seems a bit confused by me not having the full list of guests a month before the meetup, and I’m left trying to explain that, yep, I do in fact expect more than half of the guests to register in the last two weeks. I had to go over the idea that we’d be in the conference space after 5pm, yeah, probably after 7pm even. (I’m still not sure I got that idea across, and if I make a murphyjutsu list of things that go wrong then “the hotel expects us to be out of the conference space at 5” is still pretty high up there.) And whenever I run into one of these issues, I can’t help but wonder if they would be as confused if I’d presented myself less professionally. 

When the hotel asked what the event would be like, I described it as a cross between an academic conference and a fandom convention. Which is true! There’s a lot of professional networking that happens, I expect there to be presentations on novel research or summarizations of breaking papers. I also expect at least one person to get shitfaced drunk (Okay, to be fair I hear that happens at some academic conferences as well) and for someone to be singing folk songs on an acoustic guitar at one in the morning. That wouldn’t happen at a “professional” event!

(If at this point you’re thinking it would be worth both sides agreeing not to use the word “event” and to describe what they expect to take place then. . . you’re probably right! Now you try getting a randomly selected conference hotel sales representative to do this weird internet thing you call “tabooing your words.” It’s doable! I have verified this empirically! But it sure wasn't quite how anyone expected that phone call to go.)

Way back when I was first starting this mad quest to scale up the East Coast Megameetup, a friend casually suggested going through hotels instead of AirBnB-style venues as though it was easy, something he did regularly. He’d just reached out to a few of them, and said it was “more out of curiosity than anything.” Meanwhile, I had to look up the acronym he’d used for kicking the process off. 

Or look at another conversation I had recently with a guy I was trying to buy an electric guitar from. In the course of the conversation I mentioned I did some event coordination, he said he’d done that for years in the area and asked if I’d have done anything he’d have heard about. I said the bigger events in the community had over a hundred people at them, and I’d run two of them this season. He uh, scratched his chin and said something to the effect that he didn’t know which venues bothered with things that small while playing a pretty sweet set of power chords.

Both of these people manage to exude a casual, comfortable competence in their fields. They’ve seen things go wrong, remember the obvious mistakes one can make, and don’t need to stress the small stuff. It’s the kind of thing I can do in software, and the kind of thing I can do in a few other areas, but not something I feel comfortable with when organizing events quite yet. Signaling professionalism at the right times and places is, I claim, useful because you get to tap into this. Airplane pilots basically only seem to crack the same couple of corny, prefabricated jokes. I approve of this. I would grow a little nervous if I boarded the plane to find the pilots wearing jester’s motley and cat ears, and this is not entirely unendorsed even though their attire doesn’t change their actual piloting skill.


If you present as professional (in demeanor, in aesthetic, in the soft skills of how you speak and look) people will expect you to reach a professional standard (in how good you are at it, in covering the unexpected, in knowing how the process is supposed to go.) You may not be aware of these standards, and this ignorance can be important. The veneer of professionalism masks that you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. It also discourages people from pitching in to help out.

If I’m over at a friend’s house for dinner and notice them become busy chopping vegetables while something on the stovetop starts to smoke, I’ll often just step in and flip it or turn the heat down myself. This can turn into working comfortably side by side, and if I know them well enough to have a guess at their food preferences or the layout of their kitchen I might spice the meal according to taste or we might improvise together on the recipe. If I’m in a restaurant, I never walk back into the kitchen and start bothering the chef with alterations! Generally even if I start to smell a little smoke, I assume that was intentional, that they know what they’re doing and are paying attention. That may not be the case!

A smooth, well crafted presentation can discourage people from helping you out. This can be good if you want amateurs to keep out (there isn’t really a place for the impromptu volunteer in a surgical operating room) but this is especially bad if you want people to join in. A karaoke bar or a standup comedy club has good reason not to appear too professional. The goofy names of open source projects do some good work towards making it appear more acceptable to join in I think. And for rationality meetups. . .


Most meetups run in large part on the attendees pitching in with support, spot fixing problems, and providing the lion’s share of the content and conversation. The key realization I had regarding the East Coast Rationalist Megameetup was that I wasn’t responsible for providing the content of the meetup; I arranged the venue, and the attendees created the content together. That’s a pattern I’ve seen repeated at the LessWrong Community Weekend, Vibecamp, and pretty much any other large scale rationalist event. 

If you’re organizing something like those and you accidentally send signals that someone must be this put together and rational and famous to contribute, you’re going to have a hard time. Not only will you have fewer speakers at your Lightning Talks, but you’re unintentionally cutting the bottom rungs off of the ladder which people climb to run their own events. You can encourage people on the margin to step forward and join in by being a little less professional- in- presentation, a little goofier and casual.

My fuzzy guess is that there are less than a hundred people out there who could say they run a professional grade rationalist event. Presumably some people at CFAR have grown practiced at it, some of CEA may count, then there’s a diffuse cloud of Ops people who’ve been at it for a while or whose non-rationalist careers prepared them unusually well. They’re rare, and many readers of LessWrong just plain won’t encounter them in much the same way that most people who listen to music won’t meet a rock star face to face.

(This is completely different for websites, where I’d basically trust whoever the most confident sounding volunteer from whatever local community needed a web developer. We have that skillset in spades.)

The inspiration for this essay was, in part, this post by Elizabeth on the legal structure of various EA organizations. It’s not the way things would be set up if we had an abundance of legal and bureaucratic skills lying around. When you actually look at the org chart, it looks confused and unprofessional. Maybe it’s the kind of thing that a precocious teenager would set up when first tackling a problem, if they didn’t have the benefit of experienced advisors. Maybe that’s actually what happened. I don’t mean to use “teenager” as a pejorative by the way: agenty, precocious teenagers are awesome and when I was in high school I regularly encountered full grown adults who were worse at their jobs than I was. That’s kind of the point actually.

Be aware that just because someone is getting paid money to do a thing, and they’re sending all the right signals of competence and ease, they might still suck at doing the thing. As a corollary, if you suck at the thing, be careful about whether you’re sending the signals of competence and ease.

(Oh, and if you’re reading this in November or early December of 2023, the East Coast Rationalist Megameetup will be in New York City on the weekend of December 9th. If that or the NYC Secular Solstice sound like your kind of thing, consider joining us!)

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I'm totally in the business of more free rationalist career advice, so please keep it going!