Why You CAN Be the Master: A Story

This is an excerpt from my new book, Be the Master, available now at Leanpub. It’s the base for much of the book’s discussion, and so I thought I’d share it here. 

There’s a story from the 1700s about a blacksmith named Timothy, from a small village not too far from Lancastershire in England. Timothy had joined the smithy when he was twelve, and barely big enough to pick up one of the heavy hammers his Master (who is not named in the story) beat metal with. His first tasks were largely custodial – sweeping out the shop, keeping the forge hot, and so on. Eventually, he was given small errands to run around the village, such as delivering finished goods to customers. By age seventeen, he’d grown enough to swing the hammers himself, and he helped his Master with basic pieces. By twenty, he was working on his own for many basic projects – horseshoes were in particular demand, and this smithy was known for the unique, hoof-saving designs that Timothy’s Master had taught him.

By twenty-five, he and his Master were working side by side. Together, they’d been able to take on larger and more complex projects than the Master could have handled alone, and the smithy prospered. Timothy had begun to fiddle around with some designs of his own, including complex iron padlocks, which were relatively new for their village.

When Timothy was twenty-eight (and married, with two lovely, small children and a small house of his own), a few years after his Master had officially declared him a journeyman, his Master took on a new apprentice. At first, Timothy was relieved, because he’d still been stuck doing all the manual chores that his Master didn’t want to do, and a decade-plus of sweeping was starting to wear thin. The new apprentice was named Edmund, and he quickly started to take on the lowest of Timothy’s tasks.

As Edmund grew, their Master had him work closely with Timothy to learn the craft. The Master still took on most of Edmund’s education, but Timothy discovered that Edmund loved to cast small parts, and the two of them began to work together on ever-more-complex padlocks, in addition to the smithy’s continuing large output of horseshoes. In fact, Edmund through sheer accident discovered a technique for casting smaller parts with more precision, a technique he shared, with all the excitement of his youth, with Timothy. The two of them immediately devised a new lock design that took advantage of the new casting technique.

By the time Edmund was sixteen, Timothy was thirty-two – and their Master was pushing fifty. The Master had, in the past couple of years, gotten a bit frail. Some days, he wouldn’t come into the smithy at all, letting Timothy deal with customers, orders – and with Edmund. After a couple of years of essentially running the smithy himself on top of educating Edmund, Timothy was thinking about moving to a village that didn’t have a blacksmith, and setting up his own smithy. After all, if he was going to do all of the work, why not keep all of the income? But he’d grown to love his Master, and his family was thriving in the village, so leaving was difficult. Timothy decided to confront his Master about it.

“Master,” he said, “I feel as if you’re taking advantage of me. I run the smithy. I negotiate with our customers, I produce the majority of the work, and we rarely collaborate any more. Edmund helps on the larger pieces, now.”

His Master nodded. “That is as it should be. I built this business myself when I was young, and much of our trade comes from the reputation I began. You are a journeyman, and your share of the smithy’s profits are appropriate to your station.”

Timothy took a moment to calm himself. “I know, Master, and I do not disagree. But you are the Master, here, not I. So why am I also tasked with teaching our trade to Edmund, if I am only a journeyman?”

The Master paused for a moment. “I understand. Before I answer you, though, I have a question: do you feel you’re doing a good job educating Edmund?”

Timothy thought about it. “I do. He’s really coming along, and he’s making a number of smaller pieces on his own. And I do enjoy working with him and teaching him.”

His Master smiled. “A journeyman must do two things. The first is to obey his Master, which you have done, though I have asked much of you. The second is to learn when he is the Master.” His Master handed Timothy his keys to the smithy. “It took you a couple of years longer than I thought, Master Blacksmith, but now I can retire.”

Timothy objected. “Master,” he said, “I’m honored that you think I’m ready, but there’s still so much I don’t know. I’m not ready to be Master, yet.”

His Master snorted. “I never could make a proper shield,” he said, and walked out.

7 thoughts on “Why You CAN Be the Master: A Story

  1. Cisco - @CtmCiscotwt

    I can relate to this touching story. I have been working for my employer for 10 years. My current employer has been my true entrance into my craft. I have tried to become an unofficial evangelist to our juniors. I feel I still need work in becoming a master or evangelist but I like to share my experiences, working towards being a better listener and teacher.

  2. Donald Hine

    gentle note, there is no such place as “Lancastershire” Lancashire is the county, Lancaster is the county town.

  3. James

    Will the audio book version be read by you?

    When are you coming out with another IT ops News and Talk podcast? It’s been a few months and I’m craving another!

    1. Don Jones

      Yeah, I’ll be narrating. And soon – we only do the podcast when we’ve got interviews and such, so it’s a little hit or miss, but I just got a couple to share.

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