The Magic of Apprenticeship — A How-To Guide 77 Comments
In 1902, Einstein (far right) formed “The Olympia Academy” with two friends, who met to discuss books about science and philosophy. Three years later, Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis papers vaulted him to international fame.
I’m asked “How do I find a mentor?” all the time.
I’ve never had a good answer. The sad fact is this: people you want as mentors don’t want to view themselves as pro-bono life coaches. So what to do?
First, change the question. Perhaps it’s a cliche to say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears, but it’s a prescription in disguise. Here, the better question is “How do I become an ideal apprentice?”
The best treatment of apprenticeship I’ve ever found is in Mastery, the latest book by Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power. His writing on apprenticeship, mentor cultivation, and in-depth mastery of skills makes Mastery the perfect companion book to The 4-Hour Chef, in my opinion. It’s one of the few books I made time to read cover-to-cover in the last few months.
The below article explores examples of world-class apprentices and how you can emulate them. Once you do that, growth is a foregone conclusion.
Enter Robert Greene
The path to greatness is simple. It’s the path followed by everyone from Renaissance artists to the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. In writing my first four books, I immersed myself in the study these types of people–some of most powerful figures in history. Over the course of many hours of thinking, researching and writing on excellence–the last four years of which were dedicated to writing my newest book–I discerned an unmistakable formula for becoming the best…
Today I’d like to share the first in the journey to Mastery: how to begin an apprenticeship. Throughout history, it’s always been the way that Masters acquired their education. There are many different strategies for getting yours, but make no mistake: you cannot become great without mentors and masters to teach you the necessary skills of your chosen craft.
Part I: Value Learning Over Money
In 1718, Josiah Franklin decided to bring his twelve-year-old son Benjamin into his lucrative, family-run candle-making business in Boston as an apprentice. His idea was that after a seven-year apprenticeship and a little experience, Benjamin would take over the business. But Benjamin had other ideas. He threatened to run away to sea if his father did not give him the choice of where he could apprentice. The father had already lost another son who had run away, and so he relented. To the father’s surprise, his son chose to work in an older brother’s recently opened printing business. Such a business would mean harder work and the apprenticeship would last nine instead of seven years. Also, the printing business was notoriously fickle, and it was quite a risk to bank one’s future on it. But that was his choice, his father decided. Let him learn the hard way.
What young Benjamin had not told his father was that he was determined to become a writer. Most of the work in the shop would involve manual labor and operating machines, but every now and then he would be asked to proofread and copyedit a pamphlet or text. And there would always be new books around. Several years into the process, he discovered that some of his favorite writing came from the English newspapers the shop would reprint. He asked to be the one to oversee the printing of such articles, giving him the chance to study these texts in detail and teach himself how to imitate their style in his own work. Over the years he managed to turn this into a most efficient apprenticeship for writing, with the added benefit of having learned well the printing business.
After graduating from the Zurich Polytechnic in 1900, the twenty-one-year-old Albert Einstein found his job prospects extremely meager. He had graduated near the bottom of the class, almost certainly nullifying any chance to obtain a teaching position. Happy to be away from the university, he now planned to investigate, on his own, certain problems in physics that had haunted him for several years. It would be a self-apprenticeship in theorizing and thought experiments. But in the meantime, he would have to make a living. He had been offered a job in his father’s dynamo business in Milan as an engineer, but such work would not leave him any free time. A friend could land him a well-paid position in an insurance company, but that would stultify his brain and sap his energy for thinking.
Then, a year later, another friend mentioned a job opening up in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. The pay was not great, the position was at the bottom, the hours were long, and the work consisted of the rather mundane task of looking over patent applications, but Einstein leaped at the chance. It was everything he wanted. His task would be to analyze the validity of patent applications, many of which involved aspects of science that interested him. The applications would be like little puzzles or thought experiments; he could try to visualize how the ideas would actually translate into inventions. Working on them would sharpen his reasoning powers. After several months on the job, he became so good at this mental game that he could finish his work in two or three hours, leaving him the rest of the day to engage in his own thought experiments. In 1905 he published his first theory of relativity, much of the work having been done while he was at his desk in the Patent Office.
From the time he was born in 1960, Freddie Roach was groomed to be a boxing champion. His father had been a professional fighter himself, and his mother a boxing judge. When Freddie was six he was promptly taken to the local gym in south Boston to begin a rigorous apprenticeship in the sport. He trained with a coach several hours a day, six days a week.
By the age of fifteen he felt like he was burned out. He made more and more excuses to avoid going to the gym. One day his mother sensed this and said to him, “Why do you fight anyway? You just get hit all the time. You can’t fight.” He was used to the constant criticism from his father and brothers, but to hear such a frank assessment from his mother had a bracing effect. Clearly, she saw his older brother as the one destined for greatness. Now Freddie determined that he would somehow prove her wrong. He returned to his training regimen with a vengeance. He discovered within himself a passion for practice and discipline. He enjoyed the sensation of getting better, the trophies that began to pile up, and, more than anything, the fact that he could now actually beat his brother. His love for the sport was rekindled.
As Freddie now showed the most promise of the brothers, his father took him to Las Vegas to help further his career. There, at the age of eighteen, he met the legendary coach Eddie Futch and began to train under him. It all looked very promising— he was chosen for the United States boxing team and began to climb up the ranks. Before long, however, he hit another wall. He would learn the most effective maneuvers from Futch and practice them to perfection, but in an actual bout it was another story. As soon as he got hit in the ring, he would revert to fighting instinctually; his emotions would get the better of him. His fights would turn into brawls over many rounds, and he would often lose.
After a few years, Futch told Roach it was time to retire. But boxing had been his whole life; retire and do what? He continued to fight and to lose, until finally he could see the writing on the wall and retired. He took a job in telemarketing and began to drink heavily. Now he hated the sport—he had given it so much and had nothing to show for his efforts. Almost in spite of himself, one day he returned to Futch’s gym to watch his friend Virgil Hill spar with a boxer about to fight for a title. Both fighters trained under Futch, but there was nobody in Hill’s corner helping him, so Freddie brought him water and gave him advice. He showed up the following day to help Hill again, and soon became a regular at Futch’s gym. He was not being paid, so he kept his telemarketing job, but something in him smelled opportunity— and he was desperate. He showed up on time and stayed later than anyone else. Knowing Futch’s techniques so well, he could teach them to all of the fighters. His responsibilities began to grow.
Working the two jobs left just enough time to sleep. It was almost unbearable, but he could withstand it because he was learning the trade for which he knew was destined. One day Virgil Hill showed him a technique he had picked up from some Cuban fighters: Instead of working with a punching bag, they mostly trained with the coach, who wore large padded mitts. Standing in the ring, the fighters half-sparred with the coach and practiced their punches. Roach tried it with Hill and his eyes lit up. It brought him back into the ring, but there was something else. Boxing, he felt, had become stale, as had its training methods. In his mind, he saw a way to adapt the mitt work for more than just punching practice. It could be a way for a trainer to devise an entire strategy in the ring and demonstrate it to his fighter in real time. It could revolutionize and revitalize the sport itself. Roach began to develop this with the stable of fighters that he now trained. He instructed them in maneuvers that were much more fluid and strategic.
Within a few years he had impressed enough young boxers with his knowledge to set up his own business. Soon he left Futch to work on his own. He quickly established a reputation for preparing his boxers better than anyone else, and within a few years he rose to become the most successful trainer of his generation.
It is a simple law of human psychology that your thoughts will tend to revolve around what you value most. If it is money, you will choose a place for your apprenticeship that offers the biggest paycheck. Inevitably, in such a place you will feel greater pressures to prove yourself worthy of such pay, often before you are really ready. You will be focused on yourself, your insecurities, the need to please and impress the right people, and not on acquiring skills. It will be too costly for you to make mistakes and learn from them, so you will develop a cautious, conservative approach. As you progress in life, you will become addicted to the fat paycheck and it will determine where you go, how you think, and what you do. Eventually, the time that was not spent on learning skills will catch up with you, and the fall will be painful.
Instead, you must value learning above everything else. This will lead you to all of the right choices. You will opt for the situation that will give you the most opportunities to learn, particularly with hands-on work. You will choose a place that has people and mentors who can inspire and teach you. A job with mediocre pay has the added benefit of training you to get by with less— a valuable life skill. If your apprenticeship is to be mostly on your own time, you will choose a place that pays the bills—perhaps one that keeps your mind sharp, but that also leaves you the time and mental space to do valuable work on your own. You must never disdain an apprenticeship with no pay. In fact, it is often the height of wisdom to find the perfect mentor and offer your services as an assistant for free. Happy to exploit your cheap and eager spirit, such mentors will often divulge more than the usual trade secrets. In the end, by valuing learning above all else, you will set the stage for your creative expansion, and the money will soon come to you.
Did you like this article?
It’s just the first of a 6-part series on apprenticeship, provided exclusively for this blog by Robert. Here are links to the rest, all of which teach different lessons and approaches using real-world examples:
Robert’s Mastery examines the lives of historical greats like Darwin, Mozart, and Henry Ford and distills the traits that made the masters. It is an excellent complement to The 4-Hour Chef. Robert also authored the massive international bestsellers The 48 Laws of Power, Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War, and The 50th Law.
Posted on November 12th, 2012