JavaWhat's the Difference Between a Hobbyist and a Professional?

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In the Indianapolis market, I’m involved in a number of user groups, both formally and informally. Occasionally, we enter into discussions about what the group’s mission is, who it wants to attract, and other philosophical discussions. On one occasion, we came across a particularly interesting conversation about the difference between the hobbyist and the professional. We have some groups in town focused on the hobbyist and others whose stated mission is to cater to the professional; there are a few that sit in the middle. This article will explore the differences between a hobbyist and a professional. Which do you think you are?


Before we delve into the differences between the two, it’s necessary to explore the definitions of the two groups. The first definition, that of a hobbyist, is “a person engaged in activities, in their spare time, that bring them pleasure.” The professional has a slightly more complex definition, which includes:

  • Being Paid – A person being paid for a skilled activity
  • Being an Expert – Having demonstrated great skill or expertise in a given activity
  • Career Activity – Engaging in an activity for the purpose of a career
  • Professional Behavior – Conforming to standards of professional behavior

However, not all of these definitions fit the distinction that we’re trying to make here. Let’s explore each definition one-by-one.

Being Paid

One of the most obvious, and least useful, definitions is being paid. Although this serves a purpose and is an important distinction, it is not, I believe, the distinction that matters most. To demonstrate why, consider that I routinely spend time with the church that I attend and other philanthropic activities where I am not paid. However, in many of those situations, I’m providing a service similar to or exactly the same as those that I provide in my paid “day job.”
My working at the church makes me no less a professional than I am while working at my day job and yet, by a test designed around the definition of being paid, I would fail.

Because of this, we changed our definition of a professional to “a person who creates a real value to the organizations for which they perform a professional activity.” In this case, we had to define professional activity, which we defined as being an activity associated with a career.

Being an Expert

The next definition involves a professional as an expert. While this definition is intriguing, we were concerned that, by this definition, few would meet the bar. There are many areas of activity in which I consider myself to be a professional, but at which I am no expert. I can, for instance, run a computer controlled lighting system. However, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert. We tossed around the idea that it wasn’t about being an expert as much as it was about being a “skilled practitioner.”

However, this definition also fell short as we realized that we needed our definition of professional to extend to those who were seeking to become a skilled practitioner, as well as those who already were. Eventually we settled on “having demonstrated ability as a skilled practitioner or showing a strong desire to become a skilled practitioner.”

Career Activity

By and large, we came to the agreement that a professional was someone who was engaged in an activity with the goal of it becoming a career. However, we got tied up in the tense of this definition; we thought that it would be equally appropriate to consider someone who used to be in a profession, as well as someone who is today. We also felt that some hobbies were actually secondary careers that were more directly aligned with a person’s interests and, as a result, might become a career after retirement.

In many cases, we saw people who wanted to pursue an activity as a career but couldn’t because of the financial impact that it would have on their family. However, many of these folks seemed to us to be professionals. Failing to include them in our final definition of a professional seemed inappropriate.

We settled on a definition, which was “engaging in an activity that could be a career, was a career, or is a career.”

Professional Behavior

Perhaps the most telling definition for us, and the one that provided the greatest differentiation between the hobbyist and the professional, was the one which related to a professional standard of behavior. Although not every profession has an explicit standard of behavior, such as that of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, most of us can recognize standards of behavior that are “professional.” As we investigated our definition of the professional, we realized that we saw the greatest and most important differentiations in this area. We expected that the people that we wanted to become a part of our groups would behave in a certain, professional way.

The Hobbyist

One of the interesting things about the hobbyist definition is that it speaks about something that is done for pleasure and enjoyment; however, the definition of a professional has no mention of whether the activities are enjoyable or not. It is assumed that someone won’t like their professional activities or that their interest in the activities is unimportant. In our world, user groups gather people who enjoy what they’re doing enough, or are committed enough, to invest their after-hours time in learning more about the profession.

Because of this, in our final comparison, we decided that just because a hobbyist had to enjoy their activities didn’t necessarily mean that the professional couldn’t – just that it wasn’t required.

Putting it Together

When we stood back and looked at where we had been, we decided that our definition of a professional was: “a person who is currently engaged, was engaged, or strives to be engaged in a career, who conforms to a professional set of behaviors, and who seeks to become an expert at their chosen career.” Admittedly, this definition is skewed towards allowing new and energetic folks to be defined as professionals, and thus, be a part of our target market.

How does this fit your definition? E-mail me and let me know. You can also discuss this article here.

About the Author

Robert Bogue, MCSE (NT4/W2K), MCSA, A+, Network+, Server+, I-Net+, IT Project+, E-Biz+, CDIA+ has contributed to more than 100 book projects and numerous other publishing projects. He writes on topics from networking and certification to Microsoft applications and business needs. Robert is a strategic consultant for Crowe Chizek in Indianapolis. Some of Robert’s more recent books are Mobilize Yourself!: The Microsoft Guide to Mobile Technology, Server+ Training Kit, and MCSA Training Guide (70-218): Managing a Windows 2000 Network. You can reach Robert at

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