Writer’s note: This is something I wrote and posted on the LinkedIn blogging platform back in September of 2015. To this day, I still receive comments from readers who can relate to what I wrote. I am re-posting it this evening on my blog, because I have a new friend who is having a really difficult time after losing a parent. I am hoping they may find some sense of solace in this piece.
You're lost on a path deep in a foggy woods, and you're not sure which direction will lead you back to the main road. That’s what it feels like when you’ve lost your edge.
Writing has always been my professional edge. Employers, prospective employers, mentors, peers, and others have repeatedly told me that I have an ability to tame words and make them jump through hoops.
A few years ago I left a corporate job to work on my master’s degree. The CEO, for whom I had written speeches, responses to crisis situations, key message points, news releases, and industry articles, asked me, “But what will you do?”
I could read between the lines; this practical man wondered how I would pay my bills without my corporate salary.
Before I had a chance to respond, he quickly answered the question himself.
“You will write,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Indeed. My ability to craft sentences is what pays my bills.
It was Isak Dinesen, authoress of Out of Africa, who said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”
When my Father died back in January of this year, words became more like a balm for me as I threw myself into writing his obituary and eulogy. After the funeral, during sleepless winter nights I threw myself into creating a new writing project.
At 3 a.m. on cold winter mornings I would be at my computer working on Beautiful Letters. Conceiving the idea, developing the plan, designing the website (a real challenge for someone who is not a designer), and writing the website copy became a healing therapy for me.
However, a scant two months after I buried my Father, I was laid off from my position as Public Relations Director for an advertising agency. This was not completely unexpected. The business was in financial turmoil, and, in fact, four months after I was dismissed, the agency shuttered its doors forever. Still, the emotional and financial toll it took was significant because I was already at a low point.
Once again, I looked to my writing as a coping mechanism that would accompany me on my journey through this second loss. Wordsmithing didn’t just give me a professional leg up; it provided catharsis and comfort. I knew I could write myself into—or out of—almost any situation.
That is, until I lost my edge.
When it happened, I couldn’t believe it. For the first time in my life, the inkwell ran dry. I couldn’t string two sentences together to craft an email that sounded literate.
Run-on sentences, words misspelled, redundancies, no focus. It was not my writing. Yet, it was my writing. That was the scary part. The process exhausted me. As dramatic as this sounds, after writing a simple email I felt like I needed a nap.
My angst continued throughout May, June, July, and into the middle of August. This was all particularly concerning because I was searching for a new career opportunity. I painstakingly proofread my cover letters to prospective employers, but I eventually asked a friend and former colleague to vet them because I didn’t trust myself. I had lost my edge and the more I tried to regain it, the more my words fell flat on the page.
Reclaiming your edge
What I experienced was not simply a severe case of writer’s block. It was worse, and it was painfully protracted. It's only been in the past month that I’ve begun to make real progress. Writing is becoming easier, and words are once again starting to flow and come to me. I’m not quite “there” yet, but I’m moving in the right direction. It won't be long now. In fact, writing this blog post is a major leap. It’s certainly not my best work, but it’s a start.
In my case, I lost my professional edge because of grief related to major, back-to-back losses in my life. But people lose their professional edge for all sorts of reasons. Even happy events, such as the birth of a new baby, a marriage or a child going off to college for the first time can rock your world and adversely impact your professional prowess.
Here are some practical and inspirational things I have learned as a result of wandering in my own professional wilderness for the past several months:
When you’re going through a temporary dry spell where you’ve lost your professional edge, enlist a trusted colleague to vet your most important work to ensure that it’s accurate and meets professional expectations. You're only human, and now's the time to ask for some help. You can return the favor someday.
Don’t hide in a cave during your drought; however, you might want to keep a lower profile than usual. Don’t make promises to bosses, coworkers and clients (or anyone else) you can’t keep. If you can avoid it, now is not the time to take on additional projects.
Understand that you probably won’t regain your edge overnight. It will likely return gradually and incrementally. In my case, over the course of four-and-a-half months I went from not being able to write a single sentence to writing this post.
Whatever the edge is that you’ve lost, walk away from it for awhile. Focus on something else—preferably something new—for a few days, or a few weeks or months (you will know the right timing for your situation). For example, if you’re a writer, sign up for a weekend camping trip. If you’re a graphic designer, do volunteer work for a children’s charity. If you’re in sales, take a kickboxing class. Don’t dwell on whatever area of professional expertise eludes you at the moment. Step out of your own way by doing something completely different and enjoyable.
Remember the third chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes? The one the Byrds wrote a song about back in the 60s?
And to everything there is a season… including a time to “get” and a time to “lose.”
I've thought about those words quite a lot the past several months and have discovered wisdom in them. No matter how badly you want to reclaim your professional edge, you can’t force its return. I speak from experience when I tell you that it doesn't work that way. So be patient. And rest assured, you will eventually get your professional groove back—in due season.