Gaining Mastery: The Three Vital Steps of the Apprenticeship Phase
by Robert Greene
Art of Manliness
Note: This is an excerpt from Robert Greene’s new book Mastery
that he’s kindly allowed us to republish here on AoM. We’ve
talked about mastery on the site before, and the one aspect of gaining
mastery in any skill that gets overlooked by young men is what Greene
calls the “Apprenticeship Phase.” It’s the time
when you have to pay
your dues and quietly work on what seems
like boring drudgery. But in order to become truly great at
something, it’s a phase that cannot be skipped. That’s
why I asked Mr. Greene if we could re-publish this excerpt here.
I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Mastery.
It’s one of the top five books I’ve read in 2012.
can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
In the stories
of the greatest Masters, past and present, we can inevitably detect
a phase in their lives in which all of their future powers were
in development, like the chrysalis of a butterfly. This part of
their lives a largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts
some five to ten years receives little attention because
it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery. Often
in their Apprenticeship Phase, these types are not yet much different
from anyone else. Under the surface, however, their minds are transforming
in ways we cannot see but contain all of the seeds of their future
Much of how
such Masters navigate this phase comes from an intuitive grasp of
what is most important and essential for their development, but
in studying what they did right we can learn some invaluable lessons
for ourselves. In fact, a close examination of their lives reveals
a pattern that transcends their various fields, indicating a kind
of Ideal Apprenticeship for mastery. And to grasp this pattern,
to follow it in our own ways, we must understand something about
the very idea and necessity for passing through an apprenticeship.
we are inculcated in culture through a long period of dependency
far longer than any other animal. During this period we learn
language, writing, math, and reasoning skills, along with a few
others. Much of this happens under the watchful and loving guidance
of parents and teachers. As we get older, greater emphasis is placed
on book learning absorbing as much information as possible
about various subjects. Such knowledge of history, science, or literature
is abstract, and the process of learning largely involves passive
absorption. At the end of this process (usually somewhere between
the ages of eighteen and twenty-five) we are then thrust into the
cold, harsh work world to fend for ourselves.
When we emerge
from the youthful state of dependency, we are not really ready to
handle the transition to an entirely independent phase. We carry
with us the habit of learning from books or teachers, which is largely
unsuited for the practical, self-directed phase of life that comes
next. We tend to be somewhat socially naïve and unprepared for the
political games people play. Still uncertain as to our identity,
we think that what matters in the work world is gaining attention
and making friends. And these misconceptions and naïveté are brutally
exposed in the light of the real world.
If we adjust
over time, we might eventually find our way; but if we make too
many mistakes, we create endless problems for ourselves. We spend
too much time entangled in emotional issues, and we never quite
have enough detachment to reflect and learn from our experiences.
The apprenticeship, by its very nature, must be conducted by each
individual in his or her own way. To follow precisely the lead of
others or advice from a book is self-defeating. This is the phase
in life in which we finally declare our independence and establish
who we are. But for this second education in our lives, so critical
to our future success, there are some powerful and essential lessons
that we all can benefit from, that can guide us away from common
mistakes and save us valuable time.
transcend all fields and historical periods because they are connected
to something essential about human psychology and how the brain
itself functions. They can be distilled into one overarching principle
for the Apprenticeship Phase, and a process that loosely follows
is simple and must be engraved deeply in your mind: the goal of
an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma,
but rather the transformation of your mind and character
the first transformation on the way to mastery. You enter a career
as an outsider. You are naïve and full of misconceptions about this
new world. Your head is full of dreams and fantasies about the future.
Your knowledge of the world is subjective, based on emotions, insecurities,
and limited experience. Slowly, you will ground yourself in reality,
in the objective world represented by the knowledge and skills that
make people successful in it. You will learn how to work with others
and handle criticism. In the process you will transform yourself
from someone who is impatient and scattered into someone who is
disciplined and focused, with a mind that can handle complexity.
In the end, you will master yourself and all of your weaknesses.
This has a
simple consequence: you must choose places of work and positions
that offer the greatest possibilities for learning. Practical knowledge
is the ultimate commodity, and is what will pay you dividends for
decades to come far more than the paltry increase in pay
you might receive at some seemingly lucrative position that offers
fewer learning opportunities. This means that you move toward challenges
that will toughen and improve you, where you will get the most objective
feedback on your performance and progress. You do not choose apprenticeships
that seem easy and comfortable.
In this sense
you must see yourself as following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin.
You are finally on your own, on a voyage in which you will craft
your own future. It is the time of youth and adventure of
exploring the world with an open mind and spirit. In fact, whenever
you must learn a new skill or alter your career path later in life,
you reconnect with that youthful, adventurous part of yourself.
Darwin could have played it safe, collecting what was necessary,
and spending more time on board studying instead of actively exploring.
In that case, he would not have become an illustrious scientist,
but just another collector. He constantly looked for challenges,
pushing himself past his comfort zone. He used danger and difficulties
as a way to measure his progress. You must adopt such a spirit and
see your apprenticeship as a kind of journey in which you will transform
yourself, rather than as a drab indoctrination into the work world.
Apprenticeship Phase The Three Steps or Modes
With the principle
outlined above guiding you in your choices, you must think of three
essential steps in your apprenticeship, each one overlapping the
other. These steps are: Deep Observation (The Passive Mode), Skills
Acquisition (The Practice Mode), and Experimentation (The Active
Mode). Keep in mind that an apprenticeship can come in many different
forms. It can happen at one place over several years, or it can
consist of several different positions in different places, a kind
of compound apprenticeship involving many different skills. It can
include a mix of graduate school and practical experience. In all
of these cases, it will help you to think in terms of these steps,
although you may need to give added weight to a particular one depending
on the nature of your field.
One: Deep Observation The Passive Mode
When you enter
a career or new environment, you move into a world with its own
rules, procedures, and social dynamic. For decades or even centuries,
people have compiled knowledge of how to get things done in a particular
field, each generation improving on the past. In addition, every
workplace has its own conventions, rules of behavior, and work standards.
There are also all kinds of power relationships that exist between
individuals. All of this represents a reality that transcends your
individual needs and desires. And so your task upon entering this
world is to observe and absorb its reality as deeply as possible.
mistake you can make in the initial months of your apprenticeship
is to imagine that you have to get attention, impress people, and
prove yourself. These thoughts will dominate your mind and close
it off from the reality around you. Any positive attention you receive
is deceptive; it is not based on your skills or anything real, and
it will turn against you. Instead, you will want to acknowledge
the reality and submit to it, muting your colors and keeping in
the background as much as possible, remaining passive and giving
yourself the space to observe. You will also want to drop any preconceptions
you might have about this world you are entering. If you impress
people in these first months, it should be because of the seriousness
of your desire to learn, not because you are trying to rise to the
top before you are ready.
You will be
observing two essential realities in this new world. First, you
will observe the rules and procedures that govern success in this
environment in other words, “this is how we do things here.”
Some of these rules will be communicated to you directly
generally the ones that are superficial and largely a matter of
common sense. You must pay attention to these and observe them,
but what is of more interest are the rules that are unstated and
are part of the underlying work culture. These concern style and
values that are considered important. They are often a reflection
of the character of the man or woman on top.
You can observe
such rules by looking at those who are on their way up in the hierarchy,
who have a golden touch. More tellingly, you can observe those who
are more awkward, who have been chastised for particular mistakes
or even been fired. Such examples serve as negative trip wires:
do things this way and you will suffer.
reality you will observe is the power relationships that exist within
the group: who has real control; through whom do all communications
flow; who is on the rise and who is on the decline. These procedural
and political rules may be dysfunctional or counterproductive, but
your job is not to moralize about this or complain, but merely to
understand them, to get a complete lay of the land. You are like
an anthropologist studying an alien culture, attuned to all of its
nuances and conventions. You are not there to change that culture;
you will only end up being killed, or in the case of work, fired.
Later, when you have attained power and mastery, you will be the
one to rewrite or destroy these same rules.
you are given, no matter how menial, offers opportunities to observe
this world at work. No detail about the people within it is too
trivial. Everything you see or hear is a sign for you to decode.
Over time, you will begin to see and understand more of the reality
that eluded you at first. For instance, a person whom you initially
thought had great power ended up being someone with more bark than
bite. Slowly, you begin to see behind the appearances. As you amass
more information about the rules and power dynamics of your new
environment, you can begin to analyze why they exist, and how they
relate to larger trends in the field. You move from observation
to analysis, honing your reasoning skills, but only after months
of careful attention.
We can see
how Charles Darwin followed this step quite clearly. By spending
the first few months studying life on board the ship and perceiving
the unwritten rules, he made his time for science much more productive.
By enabling himself to fit in, he was able to avoid needless battles
that would have later disrupted his scientific work, not to mention
the emotional turmoil these would have presented to him. He later
practiced the same technique with gauchos and other local communities
he came in contact with. This allowed him to extend the regions
he could explore and the specimens he could collect. On another
level, he slowly transformed himself into perhaps the most astute
observer of nature the world has ever known. Emptying himself of
any preconceptions about life and its origins, Darwin trained himself
to see things as they are. He did not theorize or generalize about
what he was seeing until he had amassed enough information. Submitting
to and absorbing the reality of all aspects of this voyage, he ended
up piercing one of the most fundamental realities of all
the evolution of all living forms.
there are several critical reasons why you must follow this step.
First, knowing your environment inside and out will help you in
navigating it and avoiding costly mistakes. You are like a hunter:
your knowledge of every detail of the forest and of the ecosystem
as a whole will give you many more options for survival and success.
Second, the ability to observe any unfamiliar environment will become
a critical lifelong skill. You will develop the habit of stilling
your ego and looking outward instead of inward. You will see in
any encounter what most people miss because they are thinking of
themselves. You will cultivate a keen eye for human psychology,
and strengthen your ability to focus. Finally, you will become accustomed
to observing first, basing your ideas and theories on what you have
seen with your eyes, and then analyzing what you find. This will
be a very important skill for the next, creative phase in life.
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© 2012 The Art of Manliness