Robert Greene on The Apprenticeship System and How to Effectively Start a New Job

Robert Greene, the author of The 48 Laws of Power states that the ultimate form of power is mastery.

In Mastery, his other book focused on the concept throughout history, with support of biographical stories of the great masters such as Darwin, da Vinci, Goethe and Faraday, Greene describes in depth the road to achieving Mastery in one's chosen field.

In part II of the book, Greene refers to the apprenticeship model of the Middle Ages as “the greatest system ever invented for the training of skills and the achievement of tacit knowledge”. He points out that the system, although originating in the Middle Ages, has since evolved together with new systems of production:

In the Middle Ages, during the birth of modern capitalism and the need for quality control, the first apprenticeship system appeared, with its rigidly defined terms. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, this model of apprenticeship became largely outmoded, but the idea behind it lived on in the form of self-apprenticeship—developing yourself from within a particular field, as Darwin did in biology.

Although the apprenticeship system has changed through ages, and in many professions of the day is not as formal, when stepping into a new field, changing jobs or your role within a company, it helps to realize that you are entering an Apprenticeship phase in your life:

After your formal education, you enter the most critical phase in your life—a second, practical education known as The Apprenticeship. Every time you change careers or acquire new skills, you reenter this phase of life.

What remains the same today as it had been for the masters of the past, is that when you are new to a craft you'll go through a time of intense learning and discovery. Greene structures this process in three overlapping steps:

  • Deep Observation (The Passive Mode)
  • Skills Acquisition (The Practice Mode)
  • Experimentation (The Active Mode)

Step One: Deep Observation

Without mentorship from a dedicated master, one can easily miss out on important learnings when they find themself in a new environment. The Deep Observation step is crucial for understanding the inner workings of the field (or the new workplace) and creating a mental map of the rules and interactions around you. Greene expands on this:

When you enter a career or new environment, you move into a world with its own rules, procedures, and social dynamic. For decades or even centuries, people have compiled knowledge of how to get things done in a particular field, each generation improving on the past. In addition, every workplace has its own conventions, rules of behavior, and work standards. There are also all kinds of power relationships that exist between individuals. All of this represents a reality that transcends your individual needs and desires. And so your task upon entering this world is to observe and absorb its reality as deeply as possible.

The greatest mistake you can make in the initial months of your apprenticeship is to imagine that you have to get attention, impress people, and prove yourself. These thoughts will dominate your mind and close it off from the reality around you. Any positive attention you receive is deceptive; it is not based on your skills or anything real, and it will turn against you. Instead, you will want to acknowledge the reality and submit to it, muting your colors and keeping in the background as much as possible, remaining passive and giving yourself the space to observe. You will also want to drop any preconceptions you might have about this world you are entering. If you impress people in these first months, it should be because of the seriousness of your desire to learn, not because you are trying to rise to the top before you are ready.

[...] You will be observing two essential realities in this new world. First, you will observe the rules and procedures that govern success in this environment—in other words, “this is how we do things here.” Some of these rules will be communicated to you directly—generally the ones that are superficial and largely a matter of common sense. You must pay attention to these and observe them, but what is of more interest are the rules that are unstated and are part of the underlying work culture.

[...] The second reality you will observe is the power relationships that exist within the group: who has real control; through whom do all communications flow; who is on the rise and who is on the decline.

Step Two: Skills Acquisition

As Greene clearly points out, this is the most critical phase on the path to completing a successful apprenticeship, i.e. breaking into a new field or a job role. It can be long and tedious if you're just starting out in a profession, or much shorter if you are changing environments within the same field. Regardless, Greene gives valuable advice on how to approach the learning process:

First, it is essential that you begin with one skill that you can master, and that serves as a foundation for acquiring others. You must avoid at all cost the idea that you can manage learning several skills at a time. You need to develop your powers of concentration, and understand that trying to multitask will be the death of the process.

Second, the initial stages of learning a skill invariably involve tedium. Yet rather than avoiding this inevitable tedium, you must accept and embrace it. The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stage of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise.

Step Three: Experimentation

The final step in the apprenticeship phase is about taking your newly acquired skills, applying them in new ways and exposing them boldly to criticism of peers:

This is the shortest part of the process, but a critical component nonetheless. As you gain in skill and confidence, you must make the move to a more active mode of experimentation. This could mean taking on more responsibility, initiating a project of some sort, doing work that exposes you to the criticisms of peers or even the public. The point of this is to gauge your progress and whether there are still gaps in your knowledge. You are observing yourself in action and seeing how you respond to the judgments of others. Can you take criticism and use it constructively?

[...] Most people wait too long to take this step, generally out of fear. It is always easier to learn the rules and stay within your comfort zone. Often you must force yourself to initiate such actions or experiments before you think you are ready. You are testing your character, moving past your fears, and developing a sense of detachment to your work—looking at it through the eyes of others. You are getting a taste for the next phase in which what you produce will be under constant scrutiny.


Greene goes on to conclude and restate that the apprenticeship model, although antiquated in many fields, is a very useful model when thinking of beginning one's job or a career:

Many people might find the notion of an apprenticeship and skill acquisition as quaint relics of bygone eras when work meant making things. After all, we have entered the information and computer age, in which technology makes it so we can do without the kinds of menial tasks that require practice and repetition; so many things have become virtual in our lives, making the craftsman model obsolete. Or so the argument goes.

In truth, however, this idea of the nature of the times we are living in is completely incorrect, even dangerous. The era we have entered is not one in which technology will make everything easier, but rather a time of increased complexity that affects every field. In business, competition has become globalized and more intense. A businessperson must have a command of a much larger picture than in the past, which means more knowledge and skills. The future in science does not lie in increased specialization, but rather in the combining and cross-fertilization of knowledge in various fields.[...]


All excerpts above are taken from Mastery by Robert Greene.

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