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The paradox of pay

24 February, 2015 - 17:30

I am watching a sports show on the evening news. A local sportscaster is interviewing a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, who are in town for a game. The interview goes something like this:

Sports Guy: Al, I was surprised you never turned pro.

Al: What do you mean? I am a pro, I get paid pretty good for playing ball.

Sports Guy: Well yeah? But I meant you never tried out for the NBA.

Al: Oh, well I like playing for the Globetrotters better ...

Almost everyone assumes that being professional means getting paid (and paid well) for one's work. There are professionals and there are amateurs, the former get paid, while the amateurs do it for the love of it. Well, no. Originally, the professions were too important to receive wages in the usual sense. Professionals were not paid for their work; instead, professionals received an honorarium, a gratuity from the community intended both to honor and disassociate the vocation from the necessities of the market, to free the vocation for the selfless task of caring for others.

Three days before my heart surgery I happened to watch a Sixty Minutes piece on a cardiology group in California which was prescribing and performing unnecessary bypass surgery in order to increase their practice’s revenues. It was chilling. I thought of a case we use in business school about how Sears some years ago pressured employees in their auto servicing division to increase revenues by pushing unneeded air filters, mufflers, and break re-linings, etc. But, heart surgeons re-aligning ethical responsibility due to market dependency? I think the Medieval notion of honoraria for professionals may make a lot of sense in this time of triumphant capitalism. There are some values the market is not designed to dictate.

I love to tease business students about the matter of pay and the power of money. I ask, “Considering the ‘oldest profession’ what had you rather be known for: doing it for money, or doing it for love?” In the realm of love making, most us prefer to have non market forces determine the dimensions of our intimate lives. Let us hear it for true amateurs!

In a real sense, professionals indeed do it for love. It is difficult to imagine bearing the burden of a physician, lawyer, counselor, or a professor without having a deep and effusive passion for what one does. Professionals cannot leave their work at the office, because what they do is who they are. As I have discovered, teaching is the most rewarding thing I can think of doing. I do not just teach; I am a teacher. I am glad I am paid for my work, but truth be known I would do it for free. I walk away from a class where the students and I have really “lit it up”, and I do not even have words to say how good it feels. I can describe historically and intellectually what a professional should be, but even better, I also know what it feels like. No amount of money can compensate for that feeling.

Consider the burdens of true professionalism that skill alone is not sufficient to qualify: one is publicly pledged to work on the unrelenting tension between the welfare of the client and the good of the society; and that is not the criteria by which success will be judged—why would one choose to “turn pro?” I have only one answer: professions are rightly designated as vocations. We become priests, lawyers, physicians, professors because we cannot do anything else; who we are cannot be achieved outside the realm of what we are impelled to do.