Why We Have a Widening Apprenticeship Gap

apprenticeTHERE’S A GAP CAUSING A LOT OF UNSPOKEN PAIN, SHAME, CONFUSION, AND FRUSTRATION.  I want to speak up about this gap to see if my perceptions resonate and to see what we together can salve.

It’s a gap especially among creatives, creative professionals, freelancers, and solo-preneurs I’ve been tracking for over a year.

The gap in part has to do with expectations.

  • A college grad in marketing expects to be team leader in two years.
  • A 52-year-old executive expects to complete her first book during a 3-month break.
  • A creative 39-year-old teacher expects to have a thriving coaching business up and flourishing in 9 months.
  • An aspiring writer works on his novel for 8 years, never showing it to anyone, and then when it’s not accepted for publication is convinced that publishing is rigged.

It’s a gap between where we are and where we want to be. A gap between how long we think it should take us to arrive at our desired horizon and the reality of how long it takes to learn and assimilate a craft or skill set.

It’s a gap between being an amateur and an artist, an amateur and a coach or teacher or business owner worth investing in.

Call it the Apprenticeship Gap. I’ve been surveying this gap across industries – business, design, manufacturing, the arts, coaching – and it correlates, I think, with the economic recession coupled with certain cultural attitudes and assumptions. And the Gap seems to have grown wider in the past few years, especially among creatives whose field requires them to work mostly on their own.

I’m hazarding with you some initial ideas about why. 

Cause #1: Disruptions, the DIY Mindset, & Downloading Learning

The economy tanked in 2007-08. Businesses busted or tightened their belts while laid-off or disgruntled managers and executives tested out their businesses in new fields. Solos were and are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. economy.

New technologies put music, publishing, education, and solo-proprietorship into the hands of anyone with enough digital knowledge and resources to surf and download.

At the same time, online personalities spread the Nike Gospel of “Just Do it” – just leap, follow your passion, and dominate the world. TED Talks, Google, Wiki, the Khan Academy, and the DIY Mindset make it seem as if formal education and formal research are bloated, obsolete, and decidedly un-sexy.

A few problems here. Not everyone feels equipped to learn on his or her own.

We mammals learn from observation, imitation, emulation, making and testing things out, and useful feedback. So it might be presumptuous to think, as a culture, that we can pick up what we need to know from a few videos and articles and maybe a consultation or two, design a snazzy website, and assume a cocky attitude, and that is all ye need know to make it in the brave new world.

The consequences? We diminish learning. We diminish our trades and professions and crafts. We diminish the quality of our emotional and artistic exchange. If we live in an engagement economy, I want the quality of that engagement to be heartful and exceptional.

Cause #2: Creative Pros and Solos Are, Well, Solo

Recently, business leaders like IDEO CEO Tim Brown picked up on the Skills Gap of this epoch. His response? Apprenticeship models across the U.S. (already in place in countries such as Germany). He’s adamant about wanting to apprentice young people even before college.

Dorothy Leonard and Gavin Barton – authors of Deep Smarts – published an article in Harvard Business Review April 2013 called “Make Yourself an Expert: How to pull knowledge from the smartest people around you.” It’s actually not a DIY approach. It lays out steps for how people in business can create and seek out their own mentorships.

Even nerds have apprenticeship opportunities as the guys over at The Nerdery announced.

Yet, for artists, writers, freelancers, designers, and new solo-preneurs, their “business community” often is confined to the voices in their head, online interactions, or beer-drinking chums. Not so easy to find, “observe,” and study with mentors in this context. Even grad school programs can be hit-and-miss for whether or not you find a mentor. (I was fortunate to find two mentors, or they, me, in college and grad school, and I’ve been seeking others out ever since.)

We’re also a bit rebellious, which makes us challenging apprentices.

Cause #3: Field-Crossing Mixed With Shame

Consider this example: A world-traveling consultant mentors other people. She’s at the top of her game in her field. But she wants to write the book of her lifetime. After a few years of struggling, she finally admits, “As a writer, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

apprenticeboardThis admission came during a retreat I led in Taos. I led the group through a reflective activity involving what I call the Amateur-Maestro Continuum. And The Apprenticeship Gap was a revelation to many of them.

That admission makes us vulnerable especially at age 35 or 45 or 55 or 65, but it’s easier when we qualify it according to one new field: “When it comes to ___, I’m an amateur. And maybe I need help. Maybe there are things I need to learn how to do well. Maybe there’s knowledge I need to assimilate and make my own.”

If we’re unaware of this gap, we might blunder along trying the DIY way like a good self-possessed soldier, we fake it, or – worse – create self-denying excuses. “I’m a misunderstood genius.”  “The game’s rigged, unfair, outdated.” “I should be able to figure this out on my own.”

But finding the right support, the right mentor or mentors offers a huge relief.

Cause #4: Falling in Love, Impatience, & an Implicit Disdain for Learning

People new to creative arts love being amateurs – the root of which is “amateur.” They love process. And there should be no shame in one’s amateur status if that is where a person wants to be and find joy.

The tension and frustration comes when an amateur expects to be regarded as an artist without learning her stuff or be in professional conversation with others in her field – that is, by trying to leap over the Apprenticeship Gap. Eric Klein is a bestselling author whose books have brought dharma into business. He returned to an amateur’s passion of doodling. But he took his passion seriously and took commissions for his Dharma Doodles. And he’s studying another set of masters who’ve come before him – Charles Schultz, Maurice Sendak, and other great illustrators. He’s been apprenticing himself.

Cynthia Morris is proficient as an author and writing coach but recently has crossed into art. She also mentored herself and found one of her edges, her “weaknesses” in drawing and studied into that weakness instead of fleeing from it.

An amateur falls in love with a craft. An artist stands in love with the craft. In between is the apprentice.

And by the way, the apprenticeship never ends, even for maestros. Read Pulitzer Prize-winning Donald Murray’s keynote talk as case-in-point. He was 70 at the time.

For anyone who stays locked in the Amateur bubble for fear that the love will wane, here’s Murray at age 70, still calling himself an apprentice: “I live in a curious and delightful state of intense awareness and casual reflection that is difficult to describe.” Or Susan Orlean, as she reflects in the highly recommended Why We Write (Ed. by Meredith Maran; Plume, 2013):”You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard.

But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.”

And there’s the wonder.

There is much more we can unfold on this topic. What do we do as a culture? As leaders? As mentors? What do we do as self-proclaimed apprentices? How do we build a new culture of learning that lets us go deep while also moving forward?

Grateful as always to run with you,


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  1. Wow, Jeffrey, there’s so much in this article. I find myself jumping up at each paragraph, wanting to discuss it all with you.

    I see this a LOT in my writers’ coaching business – people decide they want to write (a book) and think it should be whipped out in 3 – 6 months.

    They grossly underestimate a) the actual work involved in writing a book and b) the time it takes to do that work.

    These may seem like harmless inaccuracies, but it takes a toll on people’s confidence. I have to do a lot of work with people to help them appreciate that it just takes time, focus and patience. It’s not a lack on their part; it’s just that writing is real work and takes effort. And learning. And emotional wrangling. Etc, etc.

    It used to drive me crazy when people wanted to be a (paid) writer within a year. Without study. Without apprenticeship. A wannabe architect wouldn’t presume to try to build a building without first learning how! Why would a writer?

    When I first began to write, I gave myself five years to write without worrying if it was good or going anywhere. I just wrote and wrote and studied and studied. At the end of the five years, I sought publication. I grew from there.

    I (unconsciously) did the same with my art. For five years, I’ve been filling illustrated journals. Now, I am working to bring my art to the next level and out into the world.

    I don’t know why I did that five year thing; I think I knew that I needed space to create and learn without too much pressure. I want that for others.

    This is a big issue and I am glad you wrote about it. I hope your article helps people take a deep breath and gather patience and tutelage for the work ahead.

    Thank you for this thorough and thoughtful piece!

    1. Hi Cynthia, love your attitude towards learning/studying. As to the 5 year rule/system that evolved in your experience, it’s interesting that in the ‘old day’ of real universitary studies you would have a 10 terms curriculum – adding up to exactly these 5 years. Maybe a certain degree of mastery simply takes it’s time – and 5 years is a good point to start from. Best wishes from Starnberg today!

    2. Cynthia ~ Thanks for dropping by. You’re right: Misperceptions take a toll on people’s confidence.

      I’ve learned to screen prospective clients now on my pro bono calls. I specifically ask them about their expectations and what they aspire to learn how to do well.

      5 years: A client told me 3 years ago, “I think writing this novel will take me 5 years. How does that sound?” Me: “Refreshing!” Amidst a busy life and personal setbacks, she finished the draft valiantly this past January. And, boy, is she committed to the craft. That’s the client I thrive with.

  2. Hi Jeffrey, thanks for the inspiring article! I feel that – even though there is a lot of talk going on about lifelong learning it’s more the talking than the doing that’s happening. This also accounts for Europe / Germany in that case. And it does not only account the creative arts.

    For example I started to learn how to ski with 32 – and now it’s taken quite a time, but I’ve learned how to ski. Lots of people thought this to be strange (‘either you learn it as a kid or never’) – but actually it simply takes time and practice whether you start at the age of 5 or 32. People also thought it ‘uncool’ that I would join the ski school (the same thing a kid would of course be sent to) – but I did – and that way I got a much better feel of what exactly I am doing there. Then I could add and mix it with practice and books and videos, watching really good skiers and what they would do – but it’s the mixture.

    Another learning experience I’ve had in the last years was/is to play Golf. I’ve started in a quite down-to-earth place which I like – but on the negative side: There were lots of other beginners simply doing desperate things with their golf clubs – just the way I did. There was nothing to be inspired about – rather some bad examples of how to NOT do it. Then I spent the holidays in France and there was Golf court with huge training facilities where all the international elite would train. I was afraid this environment would feel too intimidating. However, it turned out to be quite the contrary: Even sitting on the terrasse sipping on a glass of wine I would learn so much from their training techniques. Whithout even paying a coach I learnd more in a week than the whole year before. So it seems to be a lot about inspirational learning environments where you can really learn from the pros.

    Last but not least I feel this apprenticeship gap exists in an especially bad way when it comes to entrepreneurship – at least in Germany. Network get togethers too often mean meeting other people who are just as clueless as you are :))!

    So for me it’s about:
    – the license / to be allowed to go through and enjoy real learning processes as a grown-up person
    – an environment that stimulates growth ambition – and gives you hints as to how to so it
    – a sound mix of media/DIY/practice/learning with/from others

    By the way – I’ve found “12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women” a really helpful read – and the most of the content probably is also helpful for men.

    Thanks for the inspiration to think more closely about this!


    1. Kristin~
      I find so helpful the attributes of an optimal learning environment you lay out. Thank you! I also really appreciate your two examples.

      BTW, you and Cynthia are reminding me that I have a violin/fiddle that’s been collecting dust in my studio since September. Plus, I have Jay Ungar’s daughter Ruthie down the road ready and willing to apprentice me! I need to make time for this starting this summer.

    2. Kristin –
      I’m glad you mentioned Germany, too. Tim Brown also references in his NPR interview that over 50% of Germans under age 22 are in an apprenticeship program. I’ve been aware of this model for years back in the ’90s when I was studying education reform. There are definite cultural implications at work here in the assumptions about education and learning in the U.S.

  3. Hey Jeffrey,

    Great post. When I was on sabbatical last year, I had a loose list called basically “Things About Writing I Don’t Understand Well Enough” and I set about finding books and teachers to work with who could help me move to an ever-deeper place with the craft of writing. Needless to say, I learned a ton, and am just now finishing up a final week of a five month program with an amazing mentor whose specialty is exactly my biggest weakness: story structure.

    When I talked about this when I returned to the college in the fall, I was amazed by the blank looks (and this was from teachers…very educated teachers…) Why would I do something like that? I already have two master’s degrees. I already direct a creative writing program. Why, basically, would I still want to learn? People even asked me why I was going to Taos to work with you (didn’t I already teach writing & yoga?) 🙂 As if there were only one way …

    But I think the root question they were really asking was more “why would I want to admit there are things I still need to learn” though. Why would anyone want to take a class from someone who still is taking classes? Why should the school employ me as the ‘expert’ if I was back taking foundation classes? It was eye-opening, and it helped me recognize one roadblock toward ‘mastery’ is how others may view continued learning. We went to school already. Didn’t we get it? How can we ‘get’ it once if we can only question to the level of our current progress? And as we hopefully grow always deeper into our art and craft, wouldn’t our questions deepen? And wouldn’t we want to find new sets of people to have different levels of conversations with? I was surprised that these questions weren’t common questions, especially from people who were supposed to be committed to specific fields of study or art. My path has worked basically like this: When I first started teaching writing 20 years ago I knew everything about writing. Now, I have no fixed idea at all about writing, only that I need to follow it. A degree means nothing if what it did was close the door.

    There’s a fear in being vulnerable enough to admit that capital A Art is
    just too big to ever come close to “getting it”. It’s endless. We don’t need to be the smartest. We just need to keep asking and showing up. Education has shifted so much to ‘outcomes’ and data-driven learning. Kids aren’t learning how important it is to question, to be in not-knowing without imploding. There may be a single answer to 2 + 2; but there is no single answer to any question that art poses & I’m seeing more and more how students have no tools to deal with that. They signed up for ‘answers’. (And I assume the higher up you go in math, the less concrete it becomes too … but college algebra did it for me!)

    Could go on … 🙂

    1. Laraine~
      Your story is so remarkable to read. Thanks for being vulnerable, too, in sharing it. Your point about peers’ perceptions is spot-on. I think our being concerned with what our field peers will think if we’re seeking “continuing education” holds us back. You’re in the throes of academia, too, which has its own peculiar set of rules when it comes to this topic. (Been there. :-)) There are just so many layers to your story that I want to have you, Cynthia, and Kristin over for tea right now so we can pow-wow. 🙂

      A fellow called me two years ago. Client: “I’m taking up piano lessons and shooting for a recital some day. I want to learn from you how to write a novel the way I’m learning how to play piano.” That intention led to a great journey. Despite working for a corporation, having his first baby, and even losing his job, he finished the fifth critiqued version of his high-concept novel this year and is shipping it to agents this month. Over and over, it is the client with a gem of raw talent + devotion as an apprentice whether as a solo-preneur, designer, artist, or writer who ultimately feels deep gratification in the work we do.

  4. Hi Jeffrey… terrific post.

    As someone who has been deeply involved in my life in two different art forms—piano and painting—I can pretty much agree with everything you’ve said here. In working though the issues you bring up, there have been several points that come back to me again and again.

    • It takes a constellation of abilities to succeed in any endeavor, and I’ve found that having the insight and perspective to really know what they are and where my strengths and weaknesses are requires a real cultivation of sincere inward looking. And, the evaluation of a trusted coach helps. Trusted coaches are very hard to find, because in almost all fields, the success the coach has had tends to create an ego that makes them either worthless or damaging.

    • It’s good to know the difference between a teacher and a mentor. A teacher can help you build skills, and mentor can show you how to live the life.

    • You can have a goal, but you have to love the process, the problem solving, the daily work, building skill, growing in insight. The life is in the studio (or other workplace). It is slow, sometimes boring, sometimes inspiring, day-by-day, one foot in front of the other. You have to love that. Success, either financial or recognition may or may not come. All you really can count on is the love of the work.

    • Know when to stop working with the teacher or mentor. Otherwise you will never develop your own voice, the legs you need to stand on your own. This is the move difficult part, I think, because you move into a complete void. There are no right or wrong answers, no standard except what you set. And, most importantly, you have to finally decide what you truly like, believe, want, and are willing to do.

    I’m always on the journey, so this is just the view from this point…

    Thanks again for the stimulating discussion…

    1. Thomas –
      Thank you for these remarkable insights.
      * The difference between a teacher & mentor: That is so helpful and is something I’ve been sitting with for a few weeks.

      * Yes, you have to love the messy process, and you have to love the limitations of your medium, right?

      * Yes, know when to stop working with the mentor. Otherwise, you remain a perennial apprentice in the worst sense (although we’re always learning).

      * I appreciate what you observe, too, both about ‘constellations’ and about the egos of trusted coaches. Too true, and I must be vigilant and merciless at times with my own.

      Deep gratitude for your insights,

  5. I appreciated this article and comments, not so much because of the references to those who underestimate the time and dedication that it takes to produce good results, but for the reminder of the journey and its intrinsic value. Our world culture has become one of speedy results. The media reports on great success. Sometimes these are reported in ways that make it seem that natural talent and genetics take the credit for these successes. However, for many of us who have been through the educational system, writing appears to be the great equalizer. After all, even writing this comment or a blog, or something on FB, presents many of us with the illusion that we are undiscovered or underappreciated talents. My guess though, is that there are more people today who understand not only the need to apprentice, but also have an awareness of different methodologies for improving our chances of mastering various fields. The popularization of Anders Ericssons’ work exemplifies this trend.

    George Leonard’s book Mastery: The keys to Success and Long Term Fulfillment (1992) presents a short, eloquent and relatively thorough analysis of this topic. In his introduction commenting on his article in Esquire that became the incentive for the longer treatment in his book, he sums it up: “The purpose of the feature was to describe the path that best led to mastery, not just in sports, but in all of life, and to warn against the prevailing bottom-line mentality that puts quick, easy results ahead of longterm dedication to the journey itself.”

    1. Marvin~Thanks to you, I have been reading this evening Leonard’s elegant book as well as some others on mastery. I’ll look up Ericsson’s work, too. I find it interesting how Leonard writes of American society’s sabotaging or distracting ways on the path toward mastery – patterns we find in 2013. Thanks for your reflections.

  6. This is something I have been contemplating a lot recently because of work I am beginning with Stephen Jenkinsen who I first learned about in a movie you may have seen called Griefwalker. The “alone” or lonely artist part of this is, I think, the first pull toward something we don’t know, but we long for. No matter if it is writing or painting, the inner creative is calling out to express itself. And I would say anyone who writes is a writer and anyone who paints is a painter. She may be an uninteresting or even barely-competent writer, and his paintings may not be an even vaguely close result of what was yearning to be painted, but the act itself, the doing earns not mastery (of course) but the use of the verb. This can dumb it down and can be dangerous because, then, anyone can fancy herself to be a “good” writer. Etc. But the creative act it self is the lonely part because you are lonely for the very thing you are trying to create. That is why you are lonely. I think the psychology is the easy way to look at it. The whole culture is shamed, etc. But to drop that way of contemplating, is to step back from the “rightness” of that loneliness. As if lonely is to be feared or solved or cured easily. That word — easily — runs our lives. We are a culture, I think, driven by “easy.” Easy meals. Easy skillsets. Easy education. Culturally, we have decided hard is just too hard, and therefore, is not valuable. So the lonely is the quest for the divine in the very thing we want to create. It’s extremely hard in our world to find true masters. Because there are very few of them, and I think that right and proper. But to go to a master, if you can even find one, is in, itself, a distinct right of passage. The master does not make it easy on the student. There is no quick reward and very often you must engage in practices and disciplines you do not understand and you need to do it with reverence. Another word in our culture that is not always prized. You have to be willing to learn and not know. And I know, that is very hard, especially in a reductionistic culture that tells me “knowing” is everything. And what is missing from all of it is this: time. It takes time to learn and work. It really does take a willingess to be itchy, uncomfortable and to to not have your questions answered. A master will not rob you of the experiential, but force it on you. I could really go on, but I’m going to stop there. Your write makes me feel very, very good about working together because your beautiful write tells me that maybe we honor the same things. After 16 years of practicing shamanism, I feel I am a solid beginner. And that’s it. I know I am a beginner at writing. And because I am one of the most impatient people I know, that makes me wanting to write a book it’s own kind of torture. See, I am a product of the culture, too, of course. I want it now. But if I call upon my knowledge of reverence, I KNOW now just aint in the cards. Work, time, learning are what is needed. I am glad you are calling me to wonder.

    1. Lora~
      I’ve been contemplating and reading much about masters and mastery. I appreciate the insight about finding a master as a rite of passage. Very true. Thank you.

  7. Jeffrey:

    Love this post – but I am going to comment on it from the angle that I know best and that is through childbirth education!

    We have a generation of expectant parents who are not feeling any need to actually take a class to learn anything about this subject, well, because all they really need to do is download a few videos and maybe read a book and they’re all good. So for me there is some level of frustration around the fact that we have many, many people who feel like all the “education” they need can be found somewhere “out there” instead of taking the time from their admittedly busy lives to sit with a group of others who are in the same boat and learn from one another.

    I am more than happy to help steer that boat from time to time, but honestly, it is through the personal connection to others that these parents learn so much. Everyone thinks they are so connected these day via FB and other social media, but REAL connection happens when people are sitting across from one another and sharing their vulnerabilities and realizing that they are not the only ones who are experiencing this. And I have found that in doing this work for the past 15 years that I learn SO much from the parents who come to my classes. They have influenced how and what I teach over and over again.

    I also feel like I spent a tremendous amount of time when I began this career seeking out mentors in the field specifically to learn from them the intricacies of teaching and teaching well. In fact, I just sent a letter of gratitude just yesterday to two of my mentors from so long ago expressing just how much they helped to shape me as a new instructor and how thankful I am that they continue to inspire me and challenge me to always seek to learn more and more about my craft as an educator.

    As a writer, I can only come to this group as a complete amateur. I cannot in any way pretend to be anything else – I’ve never written anything in my life before, really. And the thought of embarking on this journey at times fills me with both uncontainable excitement and joy mixed with nerve-wracking dread and fear. So, no ego in the way for me – I come ready and more than willing to learn the hows and the whys of idea, and structure, poetry of the language and the most elegant way of expressing my thoughts on paper. I am concerned that I will need to be weaned at some point from being the forever amateur and will need help in recognizing that I am ready to move from this place in to the next. But always learning, always.

    1. Barb~ Your insights here are much appreciated. The assumption that no education is needed. The need for face-to-face interaction. The search for a mentor. The admission of being a “complete amateur.” That willingness, openness to learn primes the path.

  8. Hi Jeffrey~

    Lots of thought provoking things here. Both in your article, and in the comments. One thing that struck me was Laraine’s comment “And as we hopefully grow always deeper into our art and craft, wouldn’t our questions deepen?…Kids aren’t learning how important it is to question, to be in not-knowing without imploding.” I would add that as adults we are still learning and understanding how to be in this space without imploding, too. And I think this is what can feel so hard for us at times as apprentices-we want to stay true to our voice & vision, believe in what we have to say and the experience we are writing from, and yet the more we learn and the further we trek into the artistic and academic jungle, the more we do start to question where we are on the spectrum, and if there is an audience for what we are up to. I wonder if this is part of what keeps some of us thinking that DIY is “safer” than what it will feel like to be in a space of not entirely knowing where our work is leading us. I do think too that the testing out model is important, to allow ourselves to experiment with our writing, sharing it and seeing if it is connecting with people in the way we envision it to, and yet there is always the perpetual question around if we need more incubation. I do love process, and the times where I had less expectations for my writing-how it should look or feel-are the times it’s felt like it’s flowed the most freely and authentically. I think that is something that is important too: finding the balance between letting people take the journey with us and still molding and fine-tuning our voice along the way, versus waiting until we are “perfectly” polished and poised. I think we long to be writing and connecting with people as the Selves we are today, in this very moment of our evolution, and sometimes wonder if that is compatible with knowing we still need to apprentice.