All downhill from here?

Here’s a notion I’m wrestling with: Do we really get “better” at our jobs over time? 

Let’s say I allow myself a learning curve — a generous one of 3 years — and assume I’m better now than when I was a rookie holding down my first writing job.

But even that assumption I question — I look at some of the projects I did “way back when” and am quite astounded. Some are way more difficult than I’d feel comfortable tackling now — a product of the first-class company I worked for back then, at least in terms of caliber of work.

But for argument, assume the learning curve idea is valid, and I did learn something in those first few years. Am I a better writer now than I was, say, 9 years ago when I first went out on my own?

I guess that depends on how you define “better.”

  • Am I more experienced? Absolutely. I have 800 or so projects under my belt in the last 9 years, of varying degrees of complexity and difficulty. I know how to work, that’s for sure.
  • Am I more versatile? Ummm, probably not. I’ve tended to specialize more since going out on my own, staying away from the really technical, deep topics I used to have to tackle at my first job (nuclear fuel, for example) and sticking to more B-to-B selling of services and such.
  • Am I more credible to clients? Maybe — there’s something to be said for having so much history and such wide-ranging project experience under one’s belt.
  • Am I more confident? Yes and no. Most of the time, I know I can do the job, but, even after all this time, there still is and always will be an element of “Geez, this is hard!” That element Gene Fowler talked about when he said, “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” I still get butterflies when I have a particularly tough assignment or when really smart people are looking at me to be the “expert” in how they should talk about themselves and their work.
  • But am I a “better” writer? I honestly don’t know. And that’s a little disconcerting. Have I just been spinning my wheels these many years? Has everybody else been spinning away, too?

Do we really become better secretaries, accountants, lawyers, doctors, builders, roofers, cops, bankers, artists, designers, architects after years on the job? Or is it just easier to go through the motions? Could I have written what I’m writing now 10 years ago? Can I write now what I could write then?

I think craftspeople probably do get better over time — the woodworker is more skillful, the seamstress more accomplished, the sculptor more adept. But I don’t have the answer for the rest of us. Maybe if I was a novelist I could improve that way — to tell richer stories, use words more poetically, portray characters more deeply and realistically. But I’m just a hack — not an artist! 

I’m curious what other people think. Conventional wisdom tells us more experience is better, with age comes wisdom, with practice greater skill. Are you better at your job now than you used to be? Am I better at mine? Or did we peak when we weren’t looking?

Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. 
Sometimes age just shows up all by itself. 
                                              ~Tom Wilson


  1. robbie said,

    Friday, January 11, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Hello hack. Aren’t we all hacks of some sort or another? I’m of the belief that the person makes the job, not the job makes the person. How we choose to use our brain is what separates the “good, better, best.” Sure, many jobs require some sort of basic knowledge (education, experience, training etc.) but once you have that, you’re done. That is, you should be really good at the job. Why do you need to improve? Isn’t it human nature to get to the point of simply going through the motions, day-to-day. Maybe it’s self preservation. Now jobs that require talent, that is something else because not everyone has talent. Maybe it boils down to motivation. I don’t know, I’m just a hack!

  2. WritingbyEar said,

    Friday, January 11, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    I know, it’s interesting isn’t it. I think it also has to do with how you look at your job — does it define you, is it just a way to make money, is it what you do vs. who you are? Usually, I’m just glad I’m able to do something that’s not as time-consuming as a “real” job where I’d have to be somewhere 9 hours a day would be…

  3. Mel L said,

    Friday, January 11, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    I guess I’m at a point in my life where I’m realizing that I’ll always be journeying, never arriving–so I’ll always have a long way to go, in work or play or family or whatever. If I think of it that way, then I’m probably not getting better–I’m just getting more comfortable with my flaws and shortcomings, because I see now that they’re shaping my journey as much or more as the few successes are. Does that make sense? We get brighter in some ways, but we fade in others… and that’s okay. We’re like an ever-changing tapestry. Well, maybe not–perhaps I’ve taken this too far. I’ll shut up now. I have no answer! And I suspect I may have peaked years ago!

  4. WritingbyEar said,

    Monday, January 14, 2008 at 9:46 am

    I like the tapestry idea — I can see that — brighter, fading, seeing something new over time. I do feel a lot of the time that I’m searching for “what’s next.” Especially because this is as long as I’ve been at any job, and it does get old, even though I’ve managed to make it as painless as I can by working from home and picking and choosing clients.

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