Through the Eyes of the Apprentice – Mentoring Advice for the Master

Like many nerds out there, I enjoy tech podcasts.  Datanauts is one of my favorites and a must listen for the technology professional.  A recent episode on masters and mentorship was one of their absolute best, and the career discussions on it can be applied to any field.  In this episode, guest Don Jones makes a thought provoking comment:  “you can be master and apprentice all at the same time.”

Think about that for a second.  Do you think of yourself as a master?  Or do you normally identify more with the apprentice, a mere padawain seeking to learn and master a trade?

A master is not just a skilled tradesperson but someone skilled and able to teach. The master’s job is to train an apprentice and to help him / her one day become a master.  It’s a role taken up to protect and preserve the craft for future generations.  Once an apprentice achieves the level of master, there is room for another apprentice to take up the trade.  In honor of teacher appreciation week, the following advice for the master encourages a look at the process through the eyes of an apprentice.


The beginning is usually one-sided.

While I do believe the master should always be on the lookout for new talent, often times the apprentice is seeking a master.  A person begins seeking advice, desiring feedback, or wants to learn a new skill / trade.  He / she takes the initiative to ask a friend, a family member, a colleague, a peer, or perhaps even a professional networking group.  Someone offers advice that resonates.  Another conversation ensues.  The would-be apprentice recognizes expertise in the person offering guidance.  Before either party realizes it, the advice seeker who started the journey has now found a master from which to learn.  The apprentice is ready.


Why are you the master?

There is a reason the apprentice has selected you.  Hopefully you know why.  The reason lies in something you possess that they seek…knowledge and experience.  Whether you thought of yourself as a master or not, you have been chosen.  This is a high compliment whether it be your first time as a master or your forty-first.  This is not the time for impostor syndrome. Acknowledge it in humility, and ponder carefully what to do next.


Be willing to make the commitment, or just say no.

Are you capable and willing to train someone?  Think on this carefully.  Just as the apprentice is committing to learning a craft or skill, so must the master be committed to teaching it.  If you cannot commit to the time and effort, don’t take on an apprentice.  Be helpful, and put the apprentice in touch with a suitable master if you must decline.


Wait…I have an apprentice?

Get to know the apprentice.  Is he / she ready to take on the trade and ready to do the work?  What is his / her motivation?  What does the apprentice expect from you?  What does a successful relationship look like in the apprentice’s eyes?  Can you meet the expectations, and if not, are you willing to stretch yourself to do it?  Be honest about your capabilities as a master.  What are your expectations?  Communicate them clearly to the apprentice.  Do both sides agree on a direction?  Proceed.  Be prepared to speak up if you and the apprentice are not a good fit for one another.


Remember where you started.

Every master was once an apprentice.  Can you remember what it was like to learn the first lessons or what the beginning of training was like?  The apprentice is delving into a whole new world and taking a risk.  Provide structure in the form of a regular cadence with measurable goals and milestones.  Be an encourager.  Help the apprentice slowly push beyond perceived limits while maintaining accountability.  Avoid overwhelming the apprentice.


Meet the apprentice where he / she is.

How many students come into class knowing all of the pre-requisites, or better yet, how many people hired for a job were fully qualified based on job the description?  Don’t start with Calculus if the apprentice needs to build his / her Algebra skills, for example.  You know the requirements to be a master, so start building a firm foundation the apprentice can use for the remainder of the apprenticeship even if it takes more time in the beginning.  Give the apprentice the opportunity to succeed by moving at the proper pace.  Add challenges and extensions when the apprentice is ready.


Learn new approaches to teaching.

People have different learning styles, and two different apprentices will require slightly different types of feedback, oversight, and instructional methods.  Find what fits the apprentice the best through experimentation.  Be willing to change the approach if something is not effective.  Ask the apprentice for feedback on what they feel is working and what isn’t.


Encourage creativity.

The path to mastery is different for each of us.  Both you and the apprentice should have fun along the way.  Change things up now and then.  Let the apprentice instruct you for a change on a specific concepts.  Give feedback on the effectiveness of the instruction.


Let your passion be contagious.

Can the apprentice see how much you enjoy and appreciate the craft?  Your influence will affect whether the apprentice continues the journey or decides this is the wrong pursuit.  Passion cannot be taught.  A true master will possess this quality long before he / she becomes a master.


Let the apprentice struggle.

As the master, most of the time you have the answers, or you have the experience that leads to the answers.  Don’t solve every problem for the apprentice.  Step in when the apprentice is in over his / her head, of course.  But in general, allow the apprentice to struggle with skills and concepts, and provide guidance instead of providing answers that nullify a good opportunity to learn.


Let the apprentice go.

Is the apprentice ready to operate on his / her own as a skilled tradesperson?  In this stage, the apprentice leaves the master and becomes a journeyman, set on a path to gain unique experiences.  While not directly under the tutelage of a master, the journeyman may from time to time ask for guidance from a former master.  This is not a bad thing, but the apprentice will distance himself / herself from the master to grow.  Watch from a distance.  Help if you are needed, but avoid being used as a crutch.


The journeyman becomes a master.

If the apprentice continues to journeyman with the same desire and drive to be better, becoming a master is the next logical step.  After gaining experience, the journeyman may begin to influence and help peers without realizing what’s happening.  Sharing former experiences helps others avoid similar mistakes.  In this progression of helping others, a new master is born. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the master is waiting for an apprentice.


Be prepared to feel like you failed.

Regardless of the master’s efforts, not every journeyman will succeed after apprenticeship.  Not every successful journeyman will become a master.  There are a number of factors that could prevent someone from reaching the level of master.  A master does not own the choices of a former apprentice but can only influence the journey.  In taking the journey with an apprentice, the master has undoubtedly learned a few things and has been made better as a result.  Failure of the apprentice does not equal failure of the master.


A true master is a life-long apprentice.

To re-state the main point of the podcast I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you can be both the master and the apprentice.  A true master learns from everyone he meets and seeks to share this new found knowledge with others.  What’s holding you back from becoming a master?

Always two there are, a master and an apprentice.

One comment Add yours
  1. Nice article I enjoyed reading it. You made some good points and I especially agree with the part where you said everyone started as an apprentice as well.

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