Why We Have a Widening Apprenticeship Gap
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.”
This 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.
WHERE TO FROM HERE
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,