As a teenager, Benjamin Franklin apprenticed at his brother’s printing press, learning the printing trade, reading intensely and sharpening his writing skills.
Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; and if it is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach.
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. That formula is revealed in Mastery.
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. And if you can accept and internalize this fundamental part of the learning process, you will be one step closer to achieving mastery yourself.
Part II: Keep expanding your horizons
For the writer Zora Neale Hurston, her childhood represented a kind of Golden Age. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a town that was something of an anomaly in the South. It had been founded as an all-black township in the 1880s, governed and managed by its citizens. Its only struggles and sufferings came at the hands of its own inhabitants. For Zora, racism had no meaning. A spirited and strong-willed girl, she spent a lot of her time alone, wandering through the town.
She had two great passions in those years. First, she loved books and reading. She read everything she could get her hands on, but she was particularly drawn to books on mythology—Greek, Roman, and Norse. She identified with the strongest characters—Hercules, Odysseus, Odin. Second, she would spend much of her time listening to the stories of locals as they gathered on porches and gossiped or related folk tales, many of them dating back to the years of slavery. She loved their manner of telling stories—the rich metaphors, the simple lessons. In her mind, the Greek myths and the stories of Eatonville citizens all blended into one reality—human nature revealed in its most naked form. Walking alone, her imagination would take flight, and she would begin telling her own strange tales to herself. Someday she would write all of this down and become the Homer of Eatonville.
Then in 1904 her mother died, and the Golden Age came to an abrupt end. It was her mother who had always protected and sheltered Zora from her father, who thought her strange and unlikable. Eager to have her out of the house, he shipped her off to a school in Jacksonville. A few years later, he stopped paying her tuition and essentially abandoned her to the world. For five years she wandered from one relative’s house to another. She took up all kinds of jobs to support herself, mostly housekeeping.
Thinking back to her childhood, she could remember a sense of expansion—learning about other cultures and their history, learning about her own culture. There seemed to be no limits to what she could explore. Now, it was the opposite. Worn down by work and depression, everything was tightening around her until all she could think about was her own tiny world and how sorry it had become. Soon it would be hard to imagine anything besides cleaning houses. But the paradox is that the mind is essentially free. It can travel anywhere, across time and space. If she kept it confined to her narrow circumstances, it would be her own fault. No matter how impossible it seemed, she could not let go of her dream to become a writer. To realize this dream, she would have to educate herself and keep her mental horizons expanding by whatever means necessary. A writer needs knowledge of the world. And so, thinking in this way, Zora Neale Hurston proceeded to create for herself one of the most remarkable self-directed apprenticeships in history.
Since the only jobs she could get at that moment were housecleaning, she managed to land work in the homes of the wealthiest white people in town—there she would find plenty of books. Snatching a few moments here and there, she would read portions of these books on the sly, quickly memorizing passages so she could have something to go over in her head in her free time. One day, she discovered a discarded copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost in a garbage can. It was as good as gold for her. She took it wherever she went, and read it over and over. In this way, her mind did not stagnate; she had created for herself a strange sort of literary education.
In 1915, she landed a job as a lady’s maid to the lead singer of an all-white traveling troupe of performers. For most, this would mean yet another subservient position, but for Hurston it was a godsend. Many of the members of the troupe were well educated. There were books everywhere to read and interesting conversations to overhear. By observing closely, she could see what passed for sophistication in the white world, and how she could make herself charming to them with her stories of Eatonville and her knowledge of literature. As part of the job, they had her trained as a manicurist. She would later use this skill to find jobs in the barbershops in Washington D. C., near the Capitol. The clientele included the most powerful politicians of the time, and they would often gossip as if she weren’t even there. For her, this was almost as good as reading any book—it taught her more about human nature, power, and the inner workings of the white world.
Her world was slowly expanding, but still there were severe limitations on where she could work, on the books she could find, on the people she could meet and associate with. She was learning, but her mind was unstructured and her thoughts unorganized. What she needed, she decided, was formal education and the discipline this would bring her. She could try to patch a degree together in various night schools, but what she really wanted was to regain what had been taken away from her by her father. At twenty-five she looked young for her age, and so chopping off ten years in her application, she gained admittance to a free public high school in Maryland as a freshman.
She would have to make the most of this schooling—her future depended on it. She would read many more books than were required, and work particularly hard on any writing assignments. She would befriend teachers and professors with the charm she had established over the years, making the kinds of connections that had eluded her in the past. In this way, a few years later, she gained admittance to Howard University, the leading institution of black higher learning, and made the acquaintance of key figures in the black literary world. With the discipline she had gained in school, she began to write short stories. Now, with the help of one of her connections, she got a short story published in a prestigious Harlem literary journal. Seizing opportunities whenever they appeared, she decided to leave Howard and move to Harlem, where all of the leading black writers and artists were living. This would add another dimension to the world she was finally able to explore.
Over the years, Hurston had made a study of powerful, important people—black and white—and how to impress them. Now in New York, she used this skill to great effect, charming several wealthy white patrons of the arts. Through one of these patrons she was offered the opportunity to enroll in Barnard College, where she could finish her college education. She would be the first and only black student there. It had been her strategy to keep moving, keep expanding—the world could quickly close in on you if you stayed put or stagnated. And so she accepted the offer. The white students at Barnard were intimidated in her presence—her knowledge of so many fields far exceeded their own. Several professors in the anthropology department fell under her spell, and sent her on a tour through the South to gather folk tales and stories. She used the trip to immerse herself in hoodoo, the southern black version of voodoo, and in other ritual practices. She wanted to deepen her knowledge of black culture in all of its richness and variety.
In 1932, with the Depression raging in New York and her employment opportunities drying up, she decided to return to Eatonville. There she could live cheaply, and the atmosphere would be inspiring. Borrowing money from friends, she proceeded to work on her first novel. From somewhere deep inside, all of her past experiences, her lengthy and multifaceted apprenticeship, rose to the surface—the stories from her childhood, the books she had read here and there over the years, the various insights into the dark side of human nature, the anthropological studies, every encounter that she had paid attention to with so much intensity. This novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, would recount the relationship of her parents, but it was really the distillation of all of her life’s work. It spilled out of her in a few intense months.
The novel was published the following year and became a great success. Over the next few years she wrote more novels at a furious pace. She soon became the most famous black writer of her time, and the first black female writer ever to make a living from her work.
Zora Neale Hurston’s story reveals in its barest form the reality of the Apprenticeship Phase—no one is really going to help you or give you direction. In fact, the odds are against you. If you desire an apprenticeship, if you want to learn and set yourself up for mastery, you have to do it yourself, and with great energy. When you enter this phase, you generally begin at the lowest position. Your access to knowledge and people is limited by your status. If you are not careful, you will accept this status and become defined by it, particularly if you come from a disadvantaged background. Instead, like Hurston, you must struggle against any limitations and continually work to expand your horizons. (In each learning situation you will submit to reality, but that reality does not mean you must stay in one place.) Reading books and materials that go beyond what is required is always a good starting point. Being exposed to ideas in the wide world, you will tend to develop a hunger for more and more knowledge; you will find it harder to remain satisfied in any narrow corner, which is precisely the point.
The people in your field, in your immediate circle, are like worlds unto themselves—their stories and viewpoints will naturally expand your horizons and build up your social skills. Mingle with as many different types of people as possible. Those circles will slowly widen. Any kind of outside schooling will add to the dynamic. Be relentless in your pursuit for expansion. Whenever you feel like you are settling into some circle, force yourself to shake things up and look for new challenges, as Hurston did when she left Howard for Harlem. With your mind expanding, you will redefine the limits of your apparent world. Soon, ideas and opportunities will come to you and your apprenticeship will naturally complete itself.
Did you like this article? Here are five (5) more exclusive chapters on apprenticing from Mastery, in order:
Robert Greene‘s newest book Mastery (view trailer) 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.
Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.