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

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Putting a face to a voice — or not.

noface   My business is highly unusual, even among other free agent writers I know, in that I rarely meet my clients face to face. I’ve worked with people for years and yet know them only by their voice on the phone, their e-mail demeanor, their project savvy (or lack thereof).

I had the rare opportunity last Friday to meet one of my favorite clients for the first time. This is a national company I’ve worked with for 8 years or so, with offices all over the U.S., but I only started working with the Pittsburgh office a couple years ago. Elicia and I met for lunch downtown, and it was great to be able to put a face to the voice on the phone and hear about the company firsthand.

She is every bit as vibrant and intelligent in person as she is on the phone and in e-mail. What struck me most, though, is that I have a good 10-12 years on her. Funny thing about voices — unless someone is quite old or quite young, it’s hard to judge age. But yet, there I was — the older woman. Less hip. More hips.

I distinctly remember being one of the youngest at work — if not a wunderkind then at least a kind. Now I can be characterized as “that nice middle-age woman who writes for us.”

I still work with and have stayed friends with coworkers from 20 years ago. We all stumbled into middle age together, so it was hard to notice. But it happened. In fact, when Mike and I met a couple of dear friends for brunch today, our first five minutes were spent excitedly talking about new bifocals, cholesterol test results, and the merits of flaxseed and fish oil. Until we caught ourselves, had a good laugh about our collective geezerhood, and moved on to fresher topics.

So, is my age a help or a hindrance? Does it scream “experience” or “expiration,” especially considering that I work in marketing, where people create buzzes, gain mindshare, crave sticky Web pages, know what’s hot, and disdain what’s not. I honestly don’t know, and I’m not at that place where I can ask my client, “So, were you shocked at my age?”

What I do know:

  • Hair coloring is my friend (even though my mysteriously thinning hair is not).
  • I’m grateful for the visual anonymity of phone and e-mail (and not only because I can work in my bathrobe).
  • I’ve earned these smile lines, but the wonders of “aesthetic enhancement” are sounding better and better. As the commercial says, “Everyone will notice but no one will know.” Now that’s the work of a brilliant marketing writer, at any age.

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
~ Satchel Paige