Who deserves to be called a pro?

This post follows up on some conversation about the meaning of “specialist” after my On Being a Writing Specialist a few days ago. I had always used “specialist” and “pro” and “expert” interchangeably. That will change now that I’ve done some more reading and reflecting. I knew I would have to define what I mean by “pro” explicitly at some point. Today’s the day. Here’s the gist for those of you with time challenges:

  • Writing Specialist is an empty term. I won’t use it in the future (unless I’m making fun of someone — which I’ll try to avoid — but when I can’t resist I’ll use quotations marks to signify my intended irony).
  • Pro Writer refers to people who have been writing in the workplace for something like five years, know all of the basics, and are comfortable creating messages as a key element in complex projects. People in their work group come to them with questions about writing. There are probably no more than 10,000 pro writers in the world and several levels of expertise higher than this.
  • Amateur Writer refers to everyone who has not reached the level of a pro (yet).
  • Apprentice Writer is probably the very highest level of expertise we can help a student achieve through coursework (unless the student has already had full-time, white-collar work experience). And that educational experience will require the equivalent of three months of full-time work.

The rest of this post explains how I came to these conclusions.

One option for labeling levels of expertise comes from research sponsored by the US Air Force. In 1981, Dreyfus established a model of expertise using five levels. For example, the nursing profession uses a version of this model (attributed to Benner as described in Current Nursing):


  • Beginner with no experience
  • Taught general rules to help perform tasks
  • Rules are: context-free, independent of specific cases, and applied universally
  • Rule-governed  behavior is limited and inflexible
  • Ex. “Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.”

Advanced  Beginner

  • Demonstrates acceptable performance
  • Has gained prior experience in actual situations to recognize recurring meaningful  components
  • Principles, based on experiences, begin to be formulated to guide actions


  • Typically a nurse with 2-3 years experience on the job in the same area or in similar day-to-day situations
  • More aware of long-term goals
  • Gains perspective from planning own actions based on conscious, abstract, and analytical thinking and helps to achieve greater efficiency and organization


  • Perceives and understands situations as whole parts
  • More  holistic understanding improves decision-making
  • Learns  from experiences what to expect in certain situations and how to modify plans


  • No longer relies on principles, rules, or guidelines to connect situations and  determine actions
  • Much more background of experience
  • Has  intuitive grasp of clinical situations
  • Performance  is now fluid, flexible, and highly-proficient

Note the lack of the term “specialist.” On the TV show competition, Dancing with the Stars, football great Jerry Rice started as a novice and arguably advanced to proficient by the end of the season. But it doesn’t seem right to say he only needed to advance one more level to reach the highest level of expertise (the equivalent of a pro in this model). After considering how this model would apply to worplace writers, I wasn’t convinced it was the best I could come up with. For one thing, it’s light on what it takes to achieve each level.

So I kept looking around. I found another option in a post by Jim McBeath, building on Hayes’ ten-year rule. I was drawn to McBeath’s model in no small part because he wrote:

When people consider their own expertise, it is common for those with less expertise to overvalue themselves more than people with more expertise. With more expertise comes more awareness of what one could do better. Einstein said, “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” Relative beginners easily fall into the Sophomore Illusion of thinking they know a lot because the circumference of their knowledge is not yet large enough for them to recognize the size of the surrounding darkness.

Sure rings true to me. (Maybe it’s the 25 years of experience teaching amateurs.)

McBeath provides the table below to propose ten levels of expertise. I’ve revised some of his name labels. (His column descriptions/explanations appear below the table.)

Level Name Description Size Practice
0 ignorant I have never heard of it. 10,000,000,000 none
1 interested I have heard a little about it, but don’t know much. 1,000,000,000 1 hour
2 pursuing I have read an article or two about it and understand the basics of what it is, but nothing in depth. 100,000,000 1 day (5 hours)
3 beginner I have read an in-depth article, primer, or how-to book, and/or have played with it a bit. 10,000,000 1 week (25 hours)
4 apprentice I have used it for at least a few months and have successfully completed a small project using it. 1,000,000 3 months (250 hours)
5 intermediate apprentice I have used it for a year or more on a daily or regular basis, and am comfortable using it in moderately complex projects. 100,000 1 year (1,000 hours)
6 advanced professional I have been using it for many years, know all of the basic aspects, and am comfortable using it as a key element in complex projects. People in my group come to me with their questions. 10,000 5 years (5,000 hours)
7 accomplished professional I am a local expert, with ten or more years of solid experience. People in my division come to me with their questions. 1,000 10 years (10,000 hours)
8 master I am a company-wide guru with twenty or more years of experience; people from other divisions come to me with their questions. 100 20 years (20,000 hours)
9 grandmaster I am a recognized international authority on it. 10 30 years (30,000 hours)
10 great-grandmaster I created it, and am the number 1 expert in the world. 1 50 years (50,000 hours)
  • Level: a number for the level, from 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest level of expertise.
  • Name: a name for the level. These are taken from a set of expertise level names proposed by the Traveling School of Life. My use of them probably doesn’t quite match their intent, but I liked the names and thought the ten words matched my levels pretty well, so I applied them to my levels and added “ignorant” for level 0.
  • Description: a brief description of the level. The descriptions are worded as if for a technical tool; for application to other areas or concepts, modify accordingly. Comments referring to companies assume a large company (10,000+ people) with large divisions (1000+ people); being a company-wide guru in a company with 100 people might not get you past level 6.
  • Size: the approximate number of people expected to be at that level worldwide. As mentioned above, this is a simple logarithmic scale. The number of people in a level is 1010-L where L is the level number.
  • Practice: the approximate amount of practice that could be required to reach that level of expertise. Putting in that many hours does not guarantee reaching that level, and reaching that level does not necessarily require putting in that many hours. The conversion factors are 1,000 hours per year or 5 hours per day.

Again, note the omission of the label, “specialist.” In this system, I’d say Jerry Rice started as ignorant and arguably advanced to intermediate apprentice by the end of the season. So he still had much work ahead to become a pro — and much, much more to reach the highest levels of expertise as a dancer. For me, McBeath’s system provides a rational way of establishing the level of expertise required to be called a pro writer. And it leaves room for pros to improve their own expertise.

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  1. I just recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, so the “10 year rule” certainly caught my attention, as Gladwell mentioned a similar rule, but it was not 10 years—it was 100,000 hours. His research showed that it takes about 100,000 hours to achieve true expertise irrespective of skill or domain. And his calculations showed that under *normal* working circumstances, 100,000 hours takes about 10 years to achieve; but in exceptional circumstances (such as in the case of Bill Gates where he put in a lot of extra hours) it can be achieved with less.

    (The reverse, which Gladwell never mentioned, can of course also be said: If the work is going too slow, as in a freelancer who never got enough work to sustain himself or herself, 10 years probably wouldn’t mean anything because it likely wouldn’t give you the 100,000 hours you need.)

    As for how to label people who have just getting into the profession and yet to be truly established, I would say “amateur” is definitely the inappropriate. Novice, yes; amateur, no. Not in English, where the word “amateur” implies “not professional” in the sense of not doing it for monetary gain. I’ve seen this question asked multiple times and in many forums the way I’ve seen it answered is something along the lines of “if you have started working, then you are a professional and you should treat yourself as one.”

    And this would incidentally be not too far from the definition of “professionel” in French, which simply means related to work.

    1. The Gladwell book sounds intriguing. I appreciate your point about “amateur” being problematic because of its use in sports. Because of my focus on developing expertise within the context of higher education, I wanted a simple way to refer to levels of expertise so I chose “professional” (’cause I think that one’s obvious) and needed one other category. I don’t think “apprentice” works because of its association with full-time work with a master. I could have used “beginner.” I chose “amateur” because the undergraduate students I’ve taught have demonstrated more defensiveness about being called “beginners.”

    1. I’m not sure it is critically important. But I do believe in disclosing my philosophy or biases or whatever. As someone trying to help students become “professionals,” I wanted an explicit rationale for differentiating between pros and amateurs. That’ all.

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