First, a post from The Incidental Economist on what it means to be a professional (something I've thought about as I try to reconcile multiple definitions of the term "chef"):
Second, a post from John Cook, a programmer based in Houston (I think):My views on professionalism are highly influenced by Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go, by Toshiro Kageyama (1978). Kageyama was a professional Go player who reached 7-dan in 1977.Each spring sees the opening of another baseball season. This is one of my favorite spectator sports, but every year there is one thing that bothers me about it. That is the way that semi-professional, university, and sometimes even high-school stars enter the [Japanese] professional leagues and immediately display a skill that puts their veteran teammates to shame. There hardly seems to be any difference at all between amateurs and professionals. Amateurs play for pure enjoyment, while professionals play to make a living. The difference between them ought to be much greater.In every confrontation with a real American professional team it seems that what we need to learn from them, besides their technique of course, is how uniformly faithful their players are to the fundamentals. Faithfulness to fundamentals seems to be a common thread linking professionalism in all areas. If we consider the American professionals as the real professionals in baseball [circa 1978], then I think we have to consider their Japanese counterparts, who tend to pass over the fundamentals, as nothing more than advanced amateurs.The reason for the lack of polish in Japanese baseball is probably just the short history it has in this country. [...] I feel certain that no racial physical inferiority consigns us to second place. [...]A professional has undergone elite training in competition from childhood; [...] His mental, physical, and emotional strength all have to be fully developed. If he lets up anywhere, it will show in his performance. [...]No professional regrets the time he has to spend studying. [...]Professionals do this unquestioningly. Even a gemstone has to be polished. ‘A man is always moving either forward or backward,’ says Kano, 9-dan. ‘He never stands still.’ [...][T]he fundamentals have to be handled subconsciously. For example, if you watch the way a star infielder moves in baseball, you will observe that no matter how difficult the bounce or how hard the line drive, he meets it frontally, faithfully following the fundamentals. The ball comes at him in a fraction of a second. The question is not how well he understands the fundamentals intellectually, but whether or not his body can respond instantly. What you are seeing is the result of long days of practice and effort. [...]You have to soak up the fundamentals as you practice on your own, studying them until they become part of your very being. If the fundamentals do not operate subconsciously [...] you have not mastered them yet.And so it is, in baseball, Go, and all things. I think of these words often when I observe the pinnacle of performance in any field and when I see amateurs striving for professional-level performance.
I like both of these posts because they deal with something I struggle with daily and seem to fit nicely together. At the start of any endeavor, you must struggle with the fundamentals by learning to accomplish the most basic tasks with excellence. You also must push your boundaries and get that extra 1-3% of refinement. That extra push at the end that is referred to in John Cook's post is a moving target. As a novice you learn fundamentals and the last inch is about something different than if you're Thomas Keller and at the top of the game. While the same terms may apply (finesse, refinement, ???), the first post addresses that it isn't until that last inch towards unconscious skill at a task is achieved that you have a new last inch to push towards.From The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn:Now listen to the rule of the last inch. The realm of the last inch. The job is almost finished, the goal almost attained, everything possible seems to have been achieved, every difficulty overcome — and yet the quality is just not there. The work needs more finish, perhaps further research. In that moment of weariness and self-satisfaction, the temptation is greatest to give up, not to strive for the peak of quality. That’s the realm of the last inch — here, the work is very, very complex, but it’s also particularly valuable because it’s done with the most perfect means. The rule of the last inch is simply this — not to leave it undone. And not to put it off — because otherwise your mind loses touch with that realm. And not to mind how much time you spend on it, because the aim is not to finish the job quickly, but to reach perfection.Via Still I Am OneIt can be hard to know when something deserves the kind of polish Solzhenitsyn talks about. Sometimes you’re in the realm of rapidly diminishing return and it’s time to move on. Other times, the finishing touches are everything.