The youth are obliged by society to purchase their independence at the cost of equivalent work for the benefit of others. Society has a bias for practical skills, and does not regard one as an adult until he earns a blameless living and produces something greater than himself. The core component of what it means to be an adult is competence, aptitude, having the ability to make a mark, to strike roots in the world. It is the part of adulthood to create something of worth, and in this endeavour we broaden and consolidate our physical existence; we achieve maturity by giving more than we take, by being more useful and functional than dependent. Early life then is an apprenticeship in making oneself valuable for the community.
The apprenticeship is an error ridden process. One answers what appears as a ‘call to adventure’, a rite of passage, from where we leave maternal certainty and enter the black forest. We are fools at first, and make hundreds of mistakes. But through iron and force we are made brave. Every achievement and failure is a victory for our character, but for any victory there must be the risk of failure; and the willingness to risk being a failure is the prerequisite to becoming a master. That is the purpose of the apprenticeship: to give you a space in which you can fail without any consequence except the strengthening of your personality. Through the process of acquiring a skill one transforms mind and character and makes oneself creatively and emotionally independent. One could go as far as to say that the skills and the knowledge you learn do not matter so much as the person you are becoming as you get better at what you do. It is said that when a man gets strong at weightlifting, his mind gets strong also. And the same is true of every skill which requires patience and work. Skill and character are developed simultaneously, in unison, and with enough force of will and courage one eventually achieves mastery in both his chosen skill and his character.
In every trade and craft, and what we might nowadays call the ‘arts’, there are a set of agreed standards and rules which have been compiled through centuries of experience, and which identify the specifics on how best to approach certain tasks and requirements. Often these rules are unspoken and cannot be found in any textbook or classroom; rules are cultural, assumed as natural, taken for granted — and do not make sense to anyone who is not affected by them. The role of a master is to introduce you to the culture, to the rules which regulate the environment. And he does this by allowing you the opportunity to observe him during his working day. One observes, and one eventually comes to appreciate the intelligence with which the master goes about his work. Through observation the apprentice first trains himself in the fundamentals, and then eventually in the details.
Things seem simple at first, but when ones gives close attention one finds they are more complex and require more time and effort than expected. But there is beauty in the details, and the apprentice must learn to cherish them in his craft. It is to an extent necessary that one finds enjoyment in the intricacies of his work; that he not only takes pleasure in the final outcome of his labour, but also in making the little things perfect, and in achieving small improvements every day. If the master is good, and takes pride in work, then an appreciation for the craft is afforded to the apprentice vicariously; the apprentice learns to love only so much as the master does. Over time the eyes and hands of the master are passed on to the apprentice, who will forever judge his work by the standards of his former boss. If he is self-taught, or an artist, or both, then he will judge himself according to the works of those masters who inspired him most.
Only by working the rituals, repeating the practice over and over, can any significant degree of understanding or talent be developed. Every occupation I can think of has its routine formulas and methods, which every man must repeat each working day. But in an apprenticeship repetition of the same skill is not a static thing, rather it is the necessary process by which one learns and attains mastery. In repetition there manifests a cycle of rebirth, wherein one is born anew stronger with every rotation. It is an endless cycle, a self-evolving circle, through which we twist and turn, and seemingly end up in the same place. I write at my desk in the morning, then I clear my desk in the evening, and return the next morning, and so on. I have kept this routine for many years, and will continue so long as it serves me.
From one perspective I am in the same place; but from another I have changed more than I can know — a new man, with new powers, self-respect, and advanced experience. Within this repetition one undergoes a process of hard wiring, whereby the practiced skills become instinctive and automatic, such that what was once difficult becomes easy. Every man was first an amateur, and he makes himself good through work and patience, day in day out, doing the same things again and again until they are absolutely right. The master is not one who is a ‘natural artist’, or has a ‘gift’ — I am doubtful such things exist; and even if they do one could not tap into them without the steel of hard work. Rather the master is he who most respects and reveres his craft, his tools, and so allows himself time to do the work well.
In the later phases there comes a time during every man’s apprenticeship when one has learned all the theories, mastered all the techniques, and fortified himself with a complete arsenal of ready-made phrases, favourite quotes and passages, and scientific theories, concepts, and creeds. He has adopted the talent of his master, taken all there is to take, but he is still not satisfied; there is a creeping sense of meaninglessness, because he knows he is merely imitating, that he has spent the last years as an imitator, and has nothing yet which he could call his own, which has his own imprint. In the past he had expected to find a clue to the secret on how the masters became masters, and all he found was more hard work, monotony and studying. On this path, the hero’s path, one must, I believe, eventually hit a dead end.
And at this point there is nothing for one to do except start again and approach the same set of tools and gears as if it were for the first time. Knowledge is inexhaustible, but after years of consuming one becomes constipated with the rotting flesh of information and facts and statistics. The only relief is to grow desperate and completely abandon all the theories, the metaphysics, the hopes and dreams; the things which you thought could save you, but were actually conspiring to defeat you. In short, you humble yourself, and strip away all the medals and certificates, if only so that you can recover some degree of freedom and insist on yourself for a while, rather than always turning to some ancient master to do the work for you. Those years in which one studies the masters are not futile; they are a necessary foundation. But the ultimate purpose, the final end, of any apprenticeship is to build upon the framework provided by those who went before, to add a new layer, to develop your own style, a language for yourself with the distinction of your character.
Thank you, Harry J. Stead