Apprenticeship: A Fast Way to Become Great

“If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time insight into and understanding of many things.” – Vincent van Gogh

For centuries, people have been learning marketable skills by apprenticing themselves to masters. In a standard apprenticeship program, there are three basic stages — and for each stage, there is a distinct way of learning and, usually, a distinct master.

By putting yourself through these same stages today, you can quickly and easily become truly great at what you want to do, whether that thing is painting, dancing, writing direct-mail copy, or getting rich through real estate.

Stage 1: Learning the basics

The novitiate stage is about learning the basics — and the best way to learn quickly is under the guidance of a master teacher, not a master “doer.” It would be a waste of time to pair a novice with a master doer. The novice wouldn’t understand what the master had to teach him, and the master probably wouldn’t have the patience (or the skill) to teach the novice.

The common denigrating adage “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach” is misguided. Why? Because a good teacher isn’t necessarily good at practicing the skill. He does, however, understand it and know how to expertly communicate that understanding — something a master doer often can’t do. This is the reason it’s usually a mistake to look to a master when you know absolutely nothing about the subject you want to learn.

If you want to become a master real-estate developer, for example, start by taking a course on real estate by someone who really knows how to teach it. Shop around and ask for recommendations. Spend some extra time locating a great teacher or a great teaching program. Don’t settle for less. If he or it costs more, pay it. Don’t go to Donald Trump — even if he is your uncle — for the ABCs of real estate. He won’t want to bother to explain fundamental things like negative amortization to you, and you’ll waste your time.

Stage 2: Becoming competent

Once you have learned the basics — and that should take about six months for most “financially valuable” skills — it will be time to move to the next stage. I don’t know what this stage was called in the past (if it had a name at all), but it is a process that many of the great masters of the past went through — and one that I highly recommend to you.

This is when you learn the things that most teachers cannot teach you — the “how-to” secrets that are largely invisible to outsiders. This is the period during which you move from “understanding about” a skill to becoming competent at it. Becoming competent in any complex skill takes about 1,000 hours.

You can do it faster than that by attaching yourself to a good teacher or teaching program in Stage 1 and then by learning the “how-to” secrets in the most efficient way possible. Everything I’ve done or seen done points to only one way to do this. And that — to put a noble name on it — is called “mimesis,” or the process of copying. In other words, in Stage 2, you copy the work of masters in your field.

To go back to our real-estate example, say you’ve finished your six-month study of the basics. You know the major concepts, you understand the power of leverage, and you know how to get loans, negotiate commissions, and budget your acquisitions. Now, it’s time to put what you’ve learned into practice.

But instead of doing that by actually spending your money, you do it by imitating the masters. You study the great real-estate deals of the past. You read biographies and talk to brokers. You interview real-estate developers and study the newspapers. You imagine yourself doing everything that has been done already — and, bit by bit, you internalize the process.

The purpose of this step is to put yourself through actual real-estate transactions without subjecting yourself to financial risk. By imitating the masterful work of those who went before, you will begin to understand what they did at an intuitive level. You will develop your own instincts about what to do and what not to do — which you can’t always learn from a teacher.

Speed is your enemy during the mimesis period. Take your time and do everything right. Make sure every practice step is a perfect one, and you’ll never have to worry about making the big mistakes in actual practice.

Step 3: Developing mastery

Only now, after you have learned the basics of your subject and have practiced the skills . . . only now that you have achieved a level of competence . . . are you ready for a one-on-one relationship with a master. By stepping into the shadow of someone who practices your skill at a world-class level, you have the opportunity to advance your skills much more quickly than you could do otherwise — and to learn tricks and techniques you might not discover on your own for decades.

Ironically, and unfortunately, just when most people get to the point where they’d benefit most from the guidance of a master, they try to go out on their own. Since they are already competent, they make the mistake of thinking that they can begin working immediately and independently at this point — and having put six months into a study program and 1,000 hours into imitating the masters, they are understandably eager to get going.

But if you ignore the master-apprentice stage, chances are you will spend the rest of your life practicing your skill as a “B player.” By putting yourself at the feet of a master, you can make that extra leap — from good to great — and enjoy all the wonderful benefits of being a master yourself.

If you want to enjoy the reputation of being great at what you do . . . if you would like to know that your work is really astounding . . . if you want to earn great money and be in charge of your career . . . you absolutely have to take this third and most important step. Being an apprentice requires both humility and confidence. You are already good at what you want to do. Naturally, you’d like to think you are as good as the best. But if you can recognize that the great practitioners in your field are doing something more . . . if you can humble yourself to recognize that you are not that great . . . then you will be able and even willing to apply for an internship in the right way: by getting down on your knees and begging for it!

Begging for an apprenticeship takes humility . . . but believing that you will be able to benefit from the experience takes confidence. Think of it this way: The master knows something that you don’t. If you could learn it, you could do what he can do. Maybe even do it better, since it’s possible you know something he doesn’t. As an apprentice, your job is not to show him what you know or impress him with the extra knowledge you have. Your job is to learn his secret and how to apply it. And the best way to do that is to happily provide him with whatever menial work he wants from you . . . anything (washing his windows, bringing him coffee, etc.) . . . and be extremely and forever grateful for what he gives you in return.

What you give him — however much it is — will only make his life a bit more comfortable or productive. But what he will give you — the otherwise invisible secrets you’ll learn from him — will change your life

In short:

1. Make an objective assessment of your current skill level. Are you a beginner, an intermediate, or someone who is already competent?

2. Advance your learning by selecting the learning method that matches your stage. If you’re a beginner, don’t make the mistake of thinking that a master can or will help you.

3. Work smart till you become competent — and then resist the urge to strike out entirely on your own. Remember, the time you really need a master to help you is precisely when you think you already know it all.