The Magic of Apprenticeship — A How-To Guide

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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.

THE LESSON:

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.

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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:

Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

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 12, 2012.

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77 comments on “The Magic of Apprenticeship — A How-To Guide

  1. There should be little talk of mastery or expertise whether in Greene’s book-Mastery or Ferris’ book-4HC, without a discussion on the work of Anders Ericsson. I live in NYC and was able to get advanced copies of both books from Strand Books. I have read them both and both books completely dismiss the work of the preeminent scholar on this subject-Ericsson.

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    • Tim’s method for accelerated learning implicitly applies the principles of deliberate practise (Ericsson’s thesis).

      Just because he wasn’t mentioned (and really, an appendix and bibliography would fill another book) doesn’t mean his work was dismissed.

      Like

      • Have you read the 4HC? Have you read Ericsson? It would seem that you have not because there are fundamental contradictions in the two methods. If you have not, I won’t even go into the details but in any case to not mention Ericsson would be similar to teaching you how to hack this new form of mathematics called “calculus” without giving credit to Newton. Even Newton said “…if I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of Giants.” If Newton-the greatest mind in the last 500 years-can give credit where credit is due, shouldn’t Ferris? To the astute thinker-there might seem be a contradiction-if Ferris’ methods differ from Ericsson’s, then why would he give credit to Ericsson? The reason why is that Ericsson is the scientist credited with isolating the methods that lead to Expertise and Mastery. From Chess, Music, Sports, Medicine…any domain, deliberate practice is the mechanism whereby humans acquire consistently superior performance. Ferris should either credit Ericsson and extend his methodology or explain why despite Ericcson’s methods, his methods are effective. Either way, Ferris’ methods (or anyone’s) should be explained vis a vis the proof established by Ericsson. Ferris methods are more “hacks” that take you from the conscious stage of skill acquisition to the automatic stage of skill acquisition faster-which has a place. If you have to get good (in the top 25 %) of people attempting to acquire the skill, then getting there faster will help. But to go from the top 25% to the top 5% or even top 2% is much, much harder and does require at least 5000 hours. At that level you cannot go around hardship, you have to go through it.
        The thing with Greene-is that his survey of mastery is based on his assessment of historical accounts of eminent people. And does not clearly establish the cause of mastery. His material is almost historical fiction because he attempts to describe what Einstein, Darwin and others where thinking at the time which obviously he could not have known. Greene is more self help than a blueprint to becoming a master. In the case of Ferris-he should attempt to compete in a domain that has clearly established standards such as chess, memory competitions, weightlifting, music, etc. Using his methods for 6 months to a year he should try to compete against someone who has been practicing deliberately for 5-10 years and see if there are any differences-much suspicion is that there would be striking differences.

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      • “In the case of Ferris-he should attempt to compete in a domain that has clearly established standards such as chess, memory competitions, weightlifting, music, etc. Using his methods for 6 months to a year he should try to compete against someone who has been practicing deliberately for 5-10 years and see if there are any differences-much suspicion is that there would be striking differences.”

        Fully agree.

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  2. Sooooo good. It’s crazy to see how Einstein dealt with a common problem many students, especially business students like myself, are faced with today:

    Do you follow your interests at the risk of not being able to pay your bills and stress out from month to month, or do you follow a relatively well walked path with a consistent paycheck and hope to have your fun once you’re “stable?”

    So many times our parents tell us, “listen, you can be pie in the sky and hope you become the one out of 1000′s who get lucky enough to have your idea get popular, or you can pay your bills, it’s that simple.”

    Like

  3. Mastery just arrived in the mail! I skipped to the chapter on Emotional Intelligence and read it right away. I’ve looked for books on the subject but never been satisfied with the results, even from Daniel Goleman. This chapter hits the spot, and contains more practical application than a whole book on the subject.

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  4. I’m a 45 year old doctor who practiced Family Medicine for 12 years. I got very burnt out after feeling the crunch of southern California managed care reimbursements and government interventions affecting my patient interactions and plummeting my bottom line. I went to an American Academy of Family Practice annual conference in 2005 for my continuing medical education and attended a seminar addressing the future of Family Medicine. After I heard what the pundits of our organization stated we needed to do as a specialty to remain “relevant” , I realized that I just couldn’t keep doing this anymore. I listened to the audio book, “The Four-Hour Work Week”,
    and it became my bible. I got into Aesthetic Medicine temporarily but found it was not really practicing medicine.

    I’m writing to you now because this recent blog you posted about Apprenticeship is essentially what I had to do to find a better solution for myself. I discovered a new but rising specialty in medicine called Phlebology, which focuses on treating people with leg pain resulting from varicose vein disease. There are no residencies that teach this. I took a huge pay cut, and trained with a world expert who took me on. I worked for her for free, and she taught me the trade. It took two years, and my family and I barely got by, but I now work in the specialty in a small practice, I earn 5 times more money than I did as a family doctor, I work 4.5 days a week (I’ll get to 4 hours a week eventually!), no nights, no weekends, no night call. I’m a gazillion times happier, and so is my family now that I can be home to spend time with them. Being an apprentice is a difficult period, but it’s worth it. Thanks for solidifiying that in your blog.

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  5. I enjoyed this series–thanks for posting. I especially liked Part III – revert to a feeling of inferiority. I think this can be applied to many areas of life, especially relationships, where inferiority, or at least vulnerability, is known as a key trait for building true intimacy. Very similar to pride & humility–a traditional vice & virtue pair that seems backwards in today’s society as people are encouraged to be proud of who they are and ultimately “better” than someone else. A true path towards selfishness. What a shame.

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  6. FYI, the audiobook version of “Mastery” is available on iTunes.

    I could never get through more than 1 book per month until I started audiobooks. Now it’s 2-3 books per WEEK.

    If reading isn’t your thing, try shifting the medium to audio. You’d be surprised how much easier information is to consume that way.

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  7. Tim,

    Do you consider this a form of Mentorship? I sure do. It is interesting how reading, and now watching videos and media clips, and serve as a mentor. What it lacks is an ability to ask questions that pertain to our unique circumstance. The internet provides us with a chance to ask questions, and hopefully get some useful feedback, but it does not guarantee an answer.

    Also I was wondering how you feel about a Mastermind group acting as an apprenticeship? I love your picture of Einstein’s Mastermind group to begin the article. How can we leverage these groups to learn and help us on our journey?

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  8. Tim,

    You know what my only mentors are books on loan from my local library such as Screw It, Just Do It by Richard Branson. But truth be told, it doesn’t really help and I’m just stuck. I’ve recently joined mixergy.com and I’ve found that to be quite helpful but so far as a real-life mentor I don’t have one.

    I work for a large supermarket and I feel like a cog in the machine. I’m just itching to start a small business start-up and finally take responsibility for my future and change my life and my wife’s as well.

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  9. Hi Tim, thanks for the

    I made you a video on You-Tube, I really hope you can take 6 mins to listen to me. :)

    Dani

    PS: Your attitude towards life is so amazing I would say it’s as inspiring as your business plan. Thanks again! :)

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  10. You are quick, Tim. I’ve been taking my time with the book — I’m only half way through. I love Greene’s work; it truly is a breath of fresh air.

    Mark Blasini

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  11. Excellent article, Tim! Thank you! This is so true: you cannot become great without mentors and masters to teach you the necessary skills of your chosen craft.

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  12. Love Love Love! I’m constantly preaching about picking a job based on what you have to gain, knowledge & skill wise instead of money. If your there to learn you won’t be in an entry level job for long.

    I work for myself now but in the past the longest it took me to get promoted was 3 months and the shortest 1 day.

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  13. “Work to Learn, not to earn.”

    I believe I read this quote in “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, but it’s made a huge difference on my work experience & the time it takes for me to learn something. And it fits exactly what this article is trying to state…

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  14. So true. Valuing learning over just making more money will always pay off over time. Figure out what you enjoy doing and then put yourself into a situation where you can learn about it.

    Another important principle is that you should strive to excel at what you do, not just to be competent.

    I authored the personal development book “The Success Formula for Personal Growth.” Its companion website is GetSuccessQuotes.com and has thousands of personal development quotes and success quotes and tips.

    Jerry

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  15. Hey Tim! I am a big fan of your books and life philosophy. Right now I’m in the middle of the Greene’s Mastery and in fact just finished reading the chapter on apprenticeship.

    However, when I was reading it I felt that it went against what you preached in 4HR Workweek since Greene advocates submitting to reality, while you argue that reality is negotiable. And so I was a little surprised that you give it a praise here (even though it’s for a different aspect)

    So can you (of maybe anyone reading this comment :) ) please tell me how would you combine these two seemingly opposite approaches together? Thank you in advance.

    Holla from Moscow :)

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  16. I’m currently reading the book, on See People as They are: Social Intelligence. Love the story of Benjamin Franklin, how he learned his lessons and decided to spend more time studying human behavior.
    Worth re-reading

    Like