We all learn. We learned to walk, speak, and math. We learned how to do the tasks that we now do in our jobs, every day. And most of us, along the way, had the benefit of learning from someone more advanced than us. We were the Apprentice to their Master.
I’ve written before about “Imposter Syndrome” and how it’s larger in our heads. This is an extension of that theme, but perhaps more actionable.
In ages long since past, most trades were based on apprenticeships (it happens now, but it’s rarer). Young apprentices would sign on with a master, often paying an apprenticeship fee to learn the master’s trade. They would eventually be deemed a journeyman, working productively in their trade for many years. With enough experience under the belts, they’d eventually set off on their own, opening a new shop in a different village, and becoming a master in their own right.
And eventually – and this is the part the story usually, critically, misses – their master would die.
Patents, if I may diverge for a moment, represent a unique balance in society. The main point of a patent is not to protect the patent-holder and grant them a monopoly. The main and original point of a patent was born of paranoia: we, as a society, were afraid that we’d never be able to figure out how the wonderful invention worked. So a patent was a lure: tell us how it works, so we may replicate it without you, and in exchange, we will grant you a monopoly on it for some years.
Apprenticeship systems, to return to our story, also serve a balance. A master has little reason to share trade secrets developed over a lifetime. So why take on an apprentice, who will eventually become a productive journeyman – but will eventually leave and become a competitive master? Death. Society, concerned about losing skills in critical trades, wanted to ensure a continuance. And so masters were encouraged – paid – to take on apprentices, ensuring that these critical trades could continue, even though society at the time lacked formal educational channels to preserve knowledge.
Apprenticing, then, is pointless unless the apprentice eventually becomes the master. And the role of the master is, primarily, to teach new apprentices.
If you’re still not grasping the point, let’s be clear: you should not be learning anything about your trade from other people unless you plan to teach it to other people. The point is preserving knowledge and continuing the craft. People don’t help you just so you can get a better job and so you can live a better life. If there’s one thing that infuriates me about online Q&A forums, it’s the number of people who sail in, ask people to spend valuable time solving their problem, and then vanish into obscurity. Without giving back.
“But,” you may think, “I’m still a journeyman, I have nothing to offer.” Bullshit. Stop saying that, stop thinking it. Knock it off. By definition, anything you have learned is something that not everyone has learned, and so there are people yet to learn it. Find them. Teach them. Otherwise, you are – again, by definition – being a selfish apprentice. You are contributing to the decline of your trade, by allowing information to be contained solely in your skull, and not passed on to others.
If you do not plan to be the master, then stop being the apprentice. If you are learning without teaching, please go away. Make room for someone who has more than their own self-interest in mind. Make room for an apprentice who will care about the craft, its preservation, and its improvement. In our modern age, you do not have to wait to become a master in order to teach; you can begin contributing immediately. You didn’t pay for your apprenticeship, and so there’s no reason to wait until someone is willing to pay you.
Teaching does not always feel rewarding. It doesn’t need to be. It is a repayment of something that was done for you. It is not a good thing that you do; it is an obligation that you have. If you are not preserving and expanding your trade, then you are a leech, and you do not deserve to prosper in it.
Whom have you taught, lately?
UPDATE: I’m humbled by the positive responses to this article, but felt it could have been more actionable. I expanded on this (a lot) and produced an entire book around this theme. If you’re interested, check it out.