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