Being a Good Apprentice
The majority of my current knowledge comes from my many mentors. From graphic design to beekeeping to farming, these are all thing I’ve learned from people more knowledgeable than me on the subject.
Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what I believe makes a successful mentor/apprentice relationship. I’ve been in both positions, as the apprentice and as the mentor. Some relationships were successful, long lasting friendships, some were frustrating and draining. Maybe you’ll agree with me, and maybe you won’t. Everyone learns differently, but this is what’s worked for me.
Note: When I use the word “Mentor,” I probably mean “Master.” This article is centered around the experience of learning a skill from a person who has years of experience and knowledge. I just couldn’t bring myself to use the word “master.”
How To Be a Good Apprentice
Really Look at Your Goals: Think about WHY you want to learn from your potential mentor. This isn’t about WHAT specifically you want to learn. When I went to work at a goat dairy for 2 months, the reason why I wanted to work there was to experience working on a goat dairy, because I felt like one day I wanted to have my own. Simple as that. I didn’t break it down further, into specific goals, because doing so meant I might set myself up for disappointment if those weren’t met. Instead I chose to go and experience it all. When I’d learn of something unique while working there, like cheesemaking or hay farming, I’d ask if I could learn more or try my hand at it. This made me a more useful apprentice because I put myself 100% into doing what was needed at the farm, instead of steering my experience with my own ideas of WHAT I specifically wanted out of it.
Be Humble: This is hard to do when you’ve been successful elsewhere in your life. But it is completely necessary to be a good apprentice. Being humble isn’t about apologizing and expecting forgiveness. It is accepting that you are clueless, going to fuck up, and that you’ll be generally worthless in the beginning. Choosing to be the apprentice to someone means removing all Ego from your person and just throwing your vulnerable self into the work that you’re learning to do.
Remember This Isn’t About You: This apprenticeship isn’t your opportunity to do things your way or insist there is a better way to do something. This isn’t your chance to prove yourself in a grandiose way. Your mentor isn’t expecting you to suddenly make their lives easier, they’re not looking for a hero or someone to throw themselves over the puddle where they’re about to walk. This is not your opportunity to change their system or their workspace or their routine. I’ve worked with many mentors whose way of doing things was an absolute trainwreck. Inefficiencies galore, messes, unfinished projects EVERYWHERE. But it was never my responsibility to point it out to them. I tell people that some of the most valuable things I learned from working with mentors have been examples of how I don’t want to do things. It’s not about forcing yourself into thinking your mentor is a flawless human with a perfect way of doing things, it’s seeing their flaws and their inefficient systems and accepting them for who they are. Often times this will give you a chance to put yourself in their shoes and look at your own future realistically: If you were doing what they were doing for as long as they’ve been doing it, would you be perfect?
Blank Slate a Little: Especially if you’re working someplace new, here’s a chance to hibernate parts of your personality. Don’t be afraid to become someone you’re not normally, and try out new ways of thinking or acting. I find this is a great way to reinforce who you are at your core. Many habits I formed for fun while apprenticing stuck with me in my Real Life. This point is also meant to temper your urge to have an ego. Remember this isn’t about you, so don’t spend tons of time dwelling on your life when there are things to be done. During downtime or when asked, feel free to share aspects of your life that help your mentor paint a picture of who you are. The longer you work together, more things will come out naturally, building a relationship between you two, instead of it being explicitly about work. Constant self absorption is very useless and often frustrating for your mentor.
Get Uncomfortable: We learn so well when we are experiencing hardship. Push yourself, challenge yourself, and go beyond what you’re comfortable with. Regret choosing to do this work! When you’re alone, cry a bunch! Hate your mentor with the fury of 5,000 suns. Go to sleep and do it all again in the morning. Working with a beekeeper in Eugene was one of the most challenging things I’d ever done, not because of the beekeeping but because of everything else. my accommodations, household drama, the neighbors stealing my stuff, my miserable personal life; At night I’d have to read a book ’til my eyes shut to keep from crying myself to sleep. During the workday, though, I was given so many sublime moments of joy working with the bees, especially in contrast with how miserable I was at times. I toughed it out as long as I financially could. It was a transformative experience, especially because of how hard it was.
They’re The Boss: For once in your fragile adult life just shut up and let yourself be bossed around. And I don’t mean in an asshole way… hopefully your mentor is not an asshole. I mean put yourself at their mercy and do what they ask. If they aren’t telling you to do something, ask if there is anything you can do. The best skill I picked up from a mentor (and my favorite trait to see in an apprentice) is doing what needs to get done before I’m asked to do it. This shows your mentor that you’re paying attention. It also makes them likely to give you responsibilities because they don’t feel like you need to be babysat constantly. Make it a habit to constantly ask yourself “what are they probably going to ask me to do next?”
When In Doubt, Ask: Remember, this isn’t about your way of doing things. Ask if there is a particular way to do something if your mentor wasn’t clear about the task. Ask ask ask ask. Always ask. Lose your pride and ask. If you feel self conscious, my trick is to say “sorry for asking so many questions, I just want to get it done right.” You doing this to learn. Why short yourself?
Above All, Become a Sponge: Look, listen, ask questions. Observe intensely. Hopefully the reason you chose to work with this mentor is because you desperately wanted to know more about their field of expertise, enough to throw yourself at their mercy. For me, I read enough about a subject to become very interested in it, then go seek out opportunities to work with the subject hands-on. Thats how I learn best. By reading about the subject and building excitement, I create a sponge structure in my brain. It’s dry as hell and desperate for knowledge. Then, once I’ve started working with the subject with an expert, I quickly soak up knowledge. Every drop gets stored. I do most of this by listening, watching, and asking, because my genuine interest drives me to.
American Millennials, as much as I hate to use the word, have an unearned amount of privilege that other generations seemed to lack. Maybe that’s just stereotyping, but that’s what I hear from the news and I have also seen some examples IRL, too. We were taught that we are special, precious individuals who could do anything, which is true, but walking around flaunting this fact without doing anything tangible isn’t contributing much to your world. My experiences apprenticing have made me a better team player, a better leader, and a better listener (hopefully.) It was because I listened, got uncomfortable, and shed my pride when given the opportunity to work with someone more experienced than myself. I think everyone should try it.
Thank you for reading my perspective!