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Finally, we live in a culture that generally values intellect and reasoning with words. We tend to think of working with the hands, of building something physical, as degraded skills for those who are less intelligent. This is an extremely counterproductive cultural value. The human brain evolved in intimate conjunction with the hand. Many of our earliest survival skills depended on elaborate hand-eye coordination. To this day, a large portion of our brain is devoted to this relationship. When we work with our hands and build something, we learn how to sequence our actions and how to organize our thoughts. In taking anything apart in order to fix it, we learn problem-solving skills that have wider applications. Even if it is only as a side activity, you should find a way to work with your hands, or to learn more about the inner workings of the machines and pieces of technology around you.

Many Masters in history intuited this connection. Thomas Jefferson, who himself was an avid tinkerer and inventor, believed that craftspeople made better citizens because they understood how things functioned and had practical common sense—all of which would serve them well in handling civic needs. Albert Einstein was an avid violinist. He believed that working with his hands in this way and playing music helped his thinking process as well.

In general, no matter your field, you must think of yourself as a builder, using actual materials and ideas. You are producing something tangible in your work, something that affects people in some direct, concrete way. To build anything well—a house, a political organization, a business, or a film—you must understand the building process and possess the necessary skills. You are a craftsman learning to adhere to the highest standards. For all of this, you must go through a careful apprenticeship. You cannot make anything worthwhile in this world unless you have first developed and transformed yourself.

STRATEGIES FOR COMPLETING

THE IDEAL APPRENTICESHIP

Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; and if it is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach .

—MARCUS AURELIUS

Throughout history, Masters in all fields have devised for themselves various strategies to help them pursue and complete an Ideal Apprenticeship. The following are eight classic strategies, distilled from the stories of their lives and illustrated with examples. Although some might seem more relevant than others to your circumstances, each of them relates fundamental truths about the learning process itself that you would be wise to internalize.

  1. Value learning over money

In 1718, Josiah Franklin decided to bring his twelve-year-old son Benjamin into his lucrative, family-run candle-making business in Boston as an apprentice. His idea was that after a seven-year apprenticeship and a little experience, Benjamin would take over the business. But Benjamin had other ideas. He threatened to run away to sea if his father did not give him the choice of where he could apprentice. The father had already lost another son who had run away, and so he relented. To the father’s surprise, his son chose to work in an older brother’s recently opened printing business. Such a business would mean harder work and the apprenticeship would last nine instead of seven years. Also, the printing business was notoriously fickle, and it was quite a risk to bank one’s future on it. But that was his choice, his father decided. Let him learn the hard way.

What young Benjamin had not told his father was that he was determined to become a writer. Most of the work in the shop would involve manual labor and operating machines, but every now and then he would be asked to proofread and copyedit a pamphlet or text. And there would always be new books around. Several years into the process, he discovered that some of his favorite writing came from the English newspapers the shop would reprint. He asked to be the one to oversee the printing of such articles, giving him the chance to study these texts in detail and teach himself how to imitate their style in his own work. Over the years he managed to turn this into a most efficient apprenticeship for writing, with the added benefit of having learned the printing business well.

After graduating from the Zurich Polytechnic in 1900, the twenty-one-year-old Albert Einstein found his job prospects extremely meager. He had graduated near the bottom of the class, almost certainly nullifying any chance to obtain a teaching position. Happy to be away from the university, he now planned to investigate, on his own, certain problems in physics that had haunted him for several years. It would be a self-apprenticeship in theorizing and thought experiments. But in the meantime, he would have to make a living. He had been offered a job in his father’s dynamo business in Milan as an engineer, but such work would not leave him any free time. A friend could land him a well-paid position in an insurance company, but that would stultify his brain and sap his energy for thinking.

Then, a year later, another friend mentioned a job opening up in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. The pay was not great, the position was at the bottom, the hours were long, and the work consisted of the rather mundane task of looking over patent applications, but Einstein leaped at the chance. It was everything he wanted. His task would be to analyze the validity of patent applications, many of which involved aspects of science that interested him. The applications would be like little puzzles or thought experiments; he could try to visualize how the ideas would actually translate into inventions. Working on them would sharpen his reasoning powers. After several months on the job, he became so good at this mental game that he could finish his work in two or three hours, leaving him the rest of the day to engage in his own thought experiments. In 1905 he published his first theory of relativity, much of the work having been done while he was at his desk in the Patent Office.

Martha Graham (see here for more on her early years) first trained as a dancer at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, but after several years she determined she had learned enough and needed to go elsewhere to sharpen her skills. She ended up in New York, and in 1924 was offered a two-year stint as a dancer in a follies’ show; it was well paid, and so she accepted. Dancing is dancing, she thought, and she could always work on her own ideas in her free time. But near the end of the term, she decided she would never again accept commercial work. It drained her of all of her creative energy and destroyed her desire to work on her own time. It also made her feel dependent on a paycheck.

What is important when you are young, she decided, is to train yourself to get by with little money and make the most of your youthful energy. For the next few years she would work as a dance teacher, keeping her hours to the minimum for survival. The rest of the time she would train herself in the new style of dancing she wanted to create. Knowing the alternative was slavery to some commercial job, she made the most of every free minute, creating in these few years the groundwork for the most radical revolution in modern dance.

As previously narrated in chapter 1 (see here), when Freddie Roach’s career as a boxer came to an end in 1986, he took a job as a telemarketer in Las Vegas. One day, he entered the gym where he himself had trained under the legendary coach Eddie Futch. He found many boxers there who were not receiving any personalized attention from Futch. Even though he was not asked, he began to hang around the gym every afternoon and help out. It turned into a job for which he was not paid, so he held on to his telemarketing position. Working the two jobs left just enough time to sleep. It was almost unbearable, but he could withstand it because he was learning the trade for which he knew was destined. Within a few years he had impressed enough young boxers with his knowledge to set up his own business, and was soon to become the most successful boxing trainer of his generation.

It is a simple law of human psychology that your thoughts will tend to revolve around what you value most. If it is money, you will choose a place for your apprenticeship that offers the biggest paycheck. Inevitably, in such a place you will feel greater pressures to prove yourself worthy of such pay, often before you are really ready. You will be focused on yourself, your insecurities, the need to please and impress the right people, and not on acquiring skills. It will be too costly for you to make mistakes and learn from them, so you will develop a cautious, conservative approach. As you progress in life, you will become addicted to the fat paycheck and it will determine where you go, how you think, and what you do. Eventually, the time that was not spent on learning skills will catch up with you, and the fall will be painful.

Instead, you must value learning above everything else. This will lead you to all of the right choices. You will opt for the situation that will give you the most opportunities to learn, particularly with hands-on work. You will choose a place that has people and mentors who can inspire and teach you. A job with mediocre pay has the added benefit of training you to get by with less—a valuable life skill. If your apprenticeship is to be mostly on your own time, you will choose a place that pays the bills—perhaps one that keeps your mind sharp, but that also leaves you the time and mental space to do valuable work on your own. You must never disdain an apprenticeship with no pay. In fact, it is often the height of wisdom to find the perfect mentor and offer your services as an assistant for free. Happy to exploit your cheap and eager spirit, such mentors will often divulge more than the usual trade secrets. In the end, by valuing learning above all else, you will set the stage for your creative expansion, and the money will soon come to you.

  1. Keep expanding your horizons

For the writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), her childhood represented a kind of Golden Age. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a town that was something of an anomaly in the South. It had been founded as an all-black township in the 1880s, governed and managed by its citizens. Its only struggles and sufferings came at the hands of its own inhabitants. For Zora, racism had no meaning. A spirited and strong-willed girl, she spent a lot of her time alone, wandering through the town.

She had two great passions in those years. First, she loved books and reading. She read everything she could get her hands on, but she was particularly drawn to books on mythology—Greek, Roman, and Norse. She identified with the strongest characters—Hercules, Odysseus, Odin. Second, she would spend much of her time listening to the stories of locals as they gathered on porches and gossiped or related folk tales, many of them dating back to the years of slavery. She loved their manner of telling stories—the rich metaphors, the simple lessons. In her mind, the Greek myths and the stories of Eatonville citizens all blended into one reality—human nature revealed in its most naked form. Walking alone, her imagination would take flight, and she would begin telling her own strange tales to herself. Someday she would write all of this down and become the Homer of Eatonville.

Then in 1904 her mother died, and the Golden Age came to an abrupt end. It was her mother who had always protected and sheltered Zora from her father, who thought her strange and unlikeable. Eager to have her out of the house, he shipped her off to a school in Jacksonville. A few years later, he stopped paying her tuition and essentially abandoned her to the world. For five years she wandered from one relative’s house to another. She took up all kinds of jobs to support herself, mostly housekeeping.

Thinking back to her childhood, she could remember a sense of expansion—learning about other cultures and their history, learning about her own culture. There seemed to be no limits to what she could explore. Now, it was the opposite. Worn down by work and depression, everything was tightening around her until all she could think about was her own tiny world and how sorry it had become. Soon it would be hard to imagine anything besides cleaning houses. But the paradox is that the mind is essentially free. It can travel anywhere, across time and space. If she kept it confined to her narrow circumstances, it would be her own fault. No matter how impossible it seemed, she could not let go of her dream to become a writer. To realize this dream, she would have to educate herself and keep her mental horizons expanding by whatever means necessary. A writer needs knowledge of the world. And so, thinking in this way, Zora Neale Hurston proceeded to create for herself one of the most remarkable self-directed apprenticeships in history.

Since the only jobs she could get at that moment were housecleaning, she managed to land work in the homes of the wealthiest white people in town—there she would find plenty of books. Snatching a few moments here and there, she would read portions of these books on the sly, quickly memorizing passages so she could have something to go over in her head in her free time. One day, she discovered a discarded copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost in a garbage can. It was as good as gold for her. She took it wherever she went, and read it over and over. In this way, her mind did not stagnate; she had created for herself a strange sort of literary education.

In 1915, she landed a job as a lady’s maid to the lead singer of an all-white traveling troupe of performers. For most, this would mean yet another subservient position, but for Hurston it was a godsend. Many of the members of the troupe were well educated. There were books everywhere to read and interesting conversations to overhear. By observing closely, she could see what passed for sophistication in the white world, and how she could make herself charming to them with her stories of Eatonville and her knowledge of literature. As part of the job, they had her trained as a manicurist. She would later use this skill to find jobs in the barbershops in Washington D.C., near the Capitol. The clientele included the most powerful politicians of the time, and they would often gossip as if she weren’t even there. For her, this was almost as good as reading any book—it taught her more about human nature, power, and the inner workings of the white world.

Her world was slowly expanding, but still there were severe limitations on where she could work, on the books she could find, on the people she could meet and associate with. She was learning, but her mind was unstructured and her thoughts unorganized. What she needed, she decided, was formal education and the discipline this would bring her. She could try to patch a degree together in various night schools, but what she really wanted was to regain what had been taken away from her by her father. At twenty-five she looked young for her age, and so chopping off ten years in her application, she gained admittance to a free public high school in Maryland as a freshman.

She would have to make the most of this schooling—her future depended on it. She would read many more books than were required, and work particularly hard on any writing assignments. She would befriend teachers and professors with the charm she had established over the years, making the kinds of connections that had eluded her in the past. In this way, a few years later, she gained admittance to Howard University, the leading institution of black higher learning, and made the acquaintance of key figures in the black literary world. With the discipline she had gained in school, she began to write short stories. Now, with the help of one of her connections, she got a short story published in a prestigious Harlem literary journal. Seizing opportunities whenever they appeared, she decided to leave Howard and move to Harlem, where all of the leading black writers and artists were living. This would add another dimension to the world she was finally able to explore.

Over the years, Hurston had made a study of powerful, important people—black and white—and how to impress them. Now in New York, she used this skill to great effect, charming several wealthy white patrons of the arts. Through one of these patrons she was offered the opportunity to enroll in Barnard College, where she could finish her college education. She would be the first and only black student there. It had been her strategy to keep moving, keep expanding—the world could quickly close in on you if you stayed put or stagnated. And so she accepted the offer. The white students at Barnard were intimidated in her presence—her knowledge of so many fields far exceeded their own. Several professors in the anthropology department fell under her spell, and sent her on a tour through the South to gather folk tales and stories. She used the trip to immerse herself in hoodoo, the southern black version of voodoo, and in other ritual practices. She wanted to deepen her knowledge of black culture in all of its richness and variety.

In 1932, with the Depression raging in New York and her employment opportunities drying up, she decided to return to Eatonville. There she could live cheaply, and the atmosphere would be inspiring. Borrowing money from friends, she proceeded to work on her first novel. From somewhere deep inside, all of her past experiences, her lengthy and multifaceted apprenticeship, rose to the surface—the stories from her childhood, the books she had read here and there over the years, the various insights into the dark side of human nature, the anthropological studies, every encounter that she had paid attention to with so much intensity. This novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, would recount the relationship of her parents, but it was really the distillation of all of her life’s work. It spilled out of her in a few intense months.

The novel was published the following year and became a great success. Over the next few years she wrote more novels at a furious pace. She soon became the most famous black writer of her time, and the first black female writer ever to make a living from her work.

Zora Neale Hurston’s story reveals in its barest form the reality of the Apprenticeship Phase—no one is really going to help you or give you direction. In fact, the odds are against you. If you desire an apprenticeship, if you want to learn and set yourself up for mastery, you have to do it yourself, and with great energy. When you enter this phase, you generally begin at the lowest position. Your access to knowledge and people is limited by your status. If you are not careful, you will accept this status and become defined by it, particularly if you come from a disadvantaged background. Instead, like Hurston, you must struggle against any limitations and continually work to expand your horizons. (In each learning situation you will submit to reality, but that reality does not mean you must stay in one place.) Reading books and materials that go beyond what is required is always a good starting point. Being exposed to ideas in the wide world, you will tend to develop a hunger for more and more knowledge; you will find it harder to remain satisfied in any narrow corner, which is precisely the point.

The people in your field, in your immediate circle, are like worlds unto themselves—their stories and viewpoints will naturally expand your horizons and build up your social skills. Mingle with as many different types of people as possible. Those circles will slowly widen. Any kind of outside schooling will add to the dynamic. Be relentless in your pursuit for expansion. Whenever you feel like you are settling into some circle, force yourself to shake things up and look for new challenges, as Hurston did when she left Howard for Harlem. With your mind expanding, you will redefine the limits of your apparent world. Soon, ideas and opportunities will come to you and your apprenticeship will naturally complete itself.

  1. Revert to a feeling of inferiority

Attending high school in the late 1960s, Daniel Everett was a bit of a lost soul. He felt trapped in the California border town of Holtville, where he grew up, and totally disconnected to the local cowboy way of life. As narrated in chapter 1 (see here), Everett had always been drawn to the Mexican culture that existed among the migrant workers on the margins of the town. He loved their rituals and way of life, the sound of their language, and their songs. He seemed to have a knack for learning a foreign language and picked up Spanish rather quickly, gaining a bit of entrée into their world. To him, their culture represented a glimpse of a more interesting world beyond Holtville, but sometimes he despaired of ever really getting away from his hometown. He began to take drugs—for the time being, at least, they offered an escape.

Then, when he was seventeen, he met Keren Graham, a fellow student at his high school, and everything seemed to change. Keren had spent much of her childhood in northeastern Brazil, where her parents had served as Christian missionaries. He loved to hang out with her and listen to her stories of life in Brazil. He met her family and became a regular guest at their dinners. He admired their sense of purpose and dedication to their missionary work. A few months after meeting Keren he became a born-again Christian, and a year later they were married. Their goal was to start a family and become missionaries themselves.

Everett graduated from the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago with a degree in Foreign Missions, and in 1976 he and his wife enrolled in the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)—a Christian organization that instructs future missionaries in the necessary linguistic skills to translate the Bible into indigenous languages and spread the Gospel. After going through the course work, he and his family (which now included two children) were sent to SIL’s jungle camp in the region of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, to prepare them for the rigors of missionary life. For a month the family had to live in a village and learn as best they could the indigenous language, a Mayan dialect. Everett passed all of the tests with flying colors. Based on his success in the program, the faculty at SIL decided to offer him and his family the greatest challenge of them all—to live in a Pirahã village, deep in the heart of the Amazon.

The Pirahã are among the oldest inhabitants of the Amazon. When the Portuguese arrived in the area in the early eighteenth century, most of the tribes learned their language and adopted many of their ways, but the Pirahã resisted and retreated further into the jungle. They lived in deep isolation, with little contact with outsiders. By the time missionaries arrived in their villages in the 1950s, there were only some 350 Pirahã still alive, scattered in the area. The missionaries who tried to learn their language found it impossible. The Pirahã spoke no Portuguese, had no written language, and their words, to Westerners, all sounded alike. SIL had sent a couple in 1967 to learn the language and finally translate part of the Bible into Pirahã, but they could make little progress. After more than ten years of struggling with the language, they were driven half-mad by the task and wanted to leave. Hearing all of this, Everett was more than happy to accept the challenge. He and his wife were determined to be the first ones to crack the code of Pirahã.

He and his family arrived at a Pirahã village in December 1977. In his first few days there, Everett used all of the strategies he had been taught—for instance, holding up a stick and asking for their word for it, then dropping the stick and asking for the phrase to describe the action. In the months to come, he made good progress learning basic vocabulary. The method he had learned at SIL worked well, and he worked assiduously. Every time he heard a new word, he wrote it down on three-by-five note cards. He punched holes in the corners of the cards, carried dozens of them on the loop of his pants, and repeatedly practiced them with villagers. He tried to apply these words and phrases in different contexts, sometimes making the Pirahã laugh. Whenever he felt frustrated, he would look at the Pirahã children who picked up the language with ease. If they could learn it, so could he, he kept telling himself. But every time he felt like he was learning more phrases, he had the equal sensation that he was really getting nowhere. He began to understand the frustration of the couple that had preceded him.

For instance, he kept hearing a word over and over again that seemed to translate as “just now,” as in “the man had just now left.” But later, hearing it in a different context, he realized that it in fact referred to the precise moment when something appears or disappears—a person, a sound, anything. The phrase was really about the experience of such transitory moments, he decided, which seemed to resonate a lot with the Pirahã. “Just now” did not begin to cover the rich meanings of it. This started to happen with all kinds of words he thought he had understood. He also began to discover things that were missing in their language that went against all of the linguistic theories he had been taught. They had no words for numbers, no concept of right and left, no simple words that designated colors. What could this mean?

One day, after more than a year living there, he decided to accompany some Pirahã men deep into the jungle, and to his surprise he discovered a whole other side to their existence and language. They acted and spoke differently; they employed a different form of communication, talking to one another in elaborate whistles that clearly replaced spoken language, making them stealthier in their hunting forays. Their ability to navigate this dangerous environment was impressive.

Suddenly something became clear to Everett: his decision to confine himself to village life and simply to learn their language was the source of his problem. Their language could not be separated from their method of hunting, their culture, their daily habits. He had unconsciously internalized a sense of superiority to these people and their way of life—living among them like a scientist studying ants. His inability to pierce the secret of their language, however, revealed the inadequacies of his method. If he wanted to learn Pirahã as the children did, he would have to become like a child—dependent on these people for survival, participating in their daily activities, entering their social circles, feeling in fact inferior and in need of their support. (Losing any sense of superiority would later lead to a personal crisis, in which he would lose faith in his role as a missionary and leave the church for good.) He began to enact this strategy on all levels, entering a realm of their lives that had been hidden to him. Soon all kinds of ideas about their strange language came to him. The linguistic oddities of Pirahã reflected the unique culture that they had evolved from living in isolation for so long. Participating in their lives as if he was one of their children, the language came alive from within, and he began to make the kind of progress in Pirahã that had eluded everyone else before him.

In his apprenticeship in the jungles of the Amazon that would later lead to his career as a groundbreaking linguist, Daniel Everett came upon a truth that has application far beyond his field of study. What prevents people from learning, even something as difficult as Pirahã, is not the subject itself—the human mind has limitless capabilities—but rather certain learning disabilities that tend to fester and grow in our minds as we get older. These include a sense of smugness and superiority whenever we encounter something alien to our ways, as well as rigid ideas about what is real or true, often indoctrinated in us by schooling or family. If we feel like we know something, our minds close off to other possibilities. We see reflections of the truth we have already assumed. Such feelings of superiority are often unconscious and stem from a fear of what is different or unknown. We are rarely aware of this, and often imagine ourselves to be paragons of impartiality.

Children are generally free of these handicaps. They are dependent upon adults for their survival and naturally feel inferior. This sense of inferiority gives them a hunger to learn. Through learning, they can bridge the gap and not feel so helpless. Their minds are completely open; they pay greater attention. This is why children can learn so quickly and so deeply. Unlike other animals, we humans retain what is known as neoteny—mental and physical traits of immaturity—well into our adult years. We have the remarkable capability of returning to a childlike spirit, especially in moments in which we must learn something. Well into our fifties and beyond, we can return to that sense of wonder and curiosity, reviving our youth and apprenticeships.

Understand: when you enter a new environment, your task is to learn and absorb as much as possible. For that purpose you must try to revert to a childlike feeling of inferiority—the feeling that others know much more than you and that you are dependent upon them to learn and safely navigate your apprenticeship. You drop all of your preconceptions about an environment or field, any lingering feelings of smugness. You have no fears. You interact with people and participate in the culture as deeply as possible. You are full of curiosity. Assuming this sensation of inferiority, your mind will open up and you will have a hunger to learn. This position is of course only temporary. You are reverting to a feeling of dependence, so that within five to ten years you can learn enough to finally declare your independence and enter full adulthood.

  1. Trust the process

Cesar Rodriguez’s father was a lifelong officer in the U.S. Army, but when Cesar (b. 1959) chose to attend the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, it was not because he was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was probably heading toward a career in business. He decided, however, that he needed some discipline in life, and there was no more rigorous environment than the Citadel.

One morning in 1978, during his sophomore year, Rodriguez’s roommate told him that he was going to take the exams that the army, navy, and air force were offering for entrance into the aviation branches of their forces. Rodriguez decided to come along and take the exams just for the hell of it. To his surprise, a few days later he was notified that he had been accepted by the air force for their pilot training program. The initial training, to take place while he was still at the Citadel, meant taking flying lessons in a Cessna. Figuring that would be fun, he entered the program, not entirely sure how far he would take it. He passed the training exams rather easily. He enjoyed the mental challenge, the complete focus that flying required. Perhaps it would be interesting to take the next step. And so, after graduating from the Citadel in 1981, he was sent to the ten-month pilot instruction school at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

At Vance, however, he discovered that he was suddenly in over his head. Now they were training on a subsonic jet, the T-37. He had to wear a ten-pound helmet and a forty-pound parachute on his back. The cockpit was unbearably small and hot. The instructor sat uncomfortably close in the seat beside him, observing his every move. The stress of performing, the heat, the physical pressures of flying at such speeds would make him sweat profusely and shake. He felt as though the jet itself was pounding and beating him as he flew. And then there were so many more variables to be aware of in flying a jet.

Working on the simulator, he could fly with relative confidence and feel as if he were in control. But once he was strapped into the jet itself he could not suppress a feeling of panic and uncertainty—his mind could not keep up with all of the information he had to process, and it was difficult to prioritize his tasks. Much to his dismay, several months into training he received failing marks on two consecutive flights, and was benched from flying for an entire week.

He had never failed at anything before; it was a matter of pride that he had conquered everything that had been presented to him so far in life. Now he faced a possibility that would devastate him. Seventy students had started out in the course, but almost every week one of them was cut from the program. It was a ruthless, whittling-down process. It looked as if he would be the next one to be cut, and such cuts were final. Once he was allowed back into the plane, he would only have a few chances to prove himself. He had already been trying his hardest. Where had he gone wrong? Perhaps unconsciously, he had become intimidated and afraid of the flying process itself. Now he was more afraid of failing.

He thought back to his days in high school. Despite his relatively short height, he had managed to become the quarterback of his high school football team. Back then he had also experienced moments of doubt and even panic. He had discovered, however, that through rigorous training—mental and physical—he could overcome his fear and almost any deficiency in his skill level. In football practice, placing himself in circumstances that had made him feel uncertain had helped him to become familiar with the situation and not so afraid. What was necessary was to trust the process and the results that would come from more practice. This would have to be the way forward in his current situation.

He tripled his time with the simulator, habituating his mind to the sensation of so many stimuli. He spent his off-hours visualizing himself in the cockpit, repeating the maneuvers he was weakest at. Once he was allowed back in the plane, he focused much harder, knowing he would have to make the most of each precious session. Whenever there was a chance to have more air time, for instance when another student was sick, he grabbed it. Slowly, day by day, he found a way to calm himself in the pilot seat and get a better handle on all of the complex operations. In the two weeks after being allowed back into the plane, he had managed to rescue his position for the time being; he was now ranked somewhere in the middle of the group.

With ten weeks remaining in the program, Rodriguez took stock of the situation. He had come too far not to succeed. He enjoyed the challenge, he loved flying, and now what he wanted more than anything in life was to become a fighter pilot. That would mean graduating from the program near the very top. Among his group were several “golden boys”—young men who had a natural flair for flying. They not only handled the intense pressures, they fed off of them. He was the opposite of a golden boy, but that had been the story of his life. He had succeeded through his determination before, and now it would have to be the same. In these final weeks he was to train on the supersonic T-38, and he asked his new instructor, Wheels Wheeler, to work him to death—he had to move up in the rankings and he was prepared to do whatever it took.

Wheeler obliged him. He made Rodriguez repeat the same maneuver ten times more than the golden boys, until he was physically sick. He homed in on all of Rodriguez’s flying weaknesses and made him practice on the things he hated the most. His criticisms were brutal. One day, however, as he was flying the T-38, Rodriguez had a strange and wonderful sensation—it seemed like he could feel the plane itself at the edge of his fingertips. This is how it must be for the golden boys, he thought, only for him it had taken nearly ten months of intense training. His mind no longer felt mired in all of the details. It was vague, but he could sense the possibility of a higher way of thinking—seeing the larger picture of flying in formation, while also commanding the complex operations in the cockpit. This sensation would come and go, but the feeling made all of the work worthwhile.

In the end Rodriguez graduated third in his class, and was promoted to fighter-pilot lead-in training. The same process would now repeat itself in an even more competitive environment. He would have to outdo the golden boys through practice and sheer determination. In this manner, he slowly rose through the ranks to become a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. During the 1990s, his three air-to-air kills in active duty brought him closer to the designation of ace than any American pilot since the Vietnam War, and earned him the nickname the Last American Ace.

What separates Masters from others is often something surprisingly simple. Whenever we learn a skill, we frequently reach a point of frustration—what we are learning seems beyond our capabilities. Giving in to these feelings, we unconsciously quit on ourselves before we actually give up. Among the dozens of pilots in Rodriguez’s class who never made the cut, almost all of them had the same talent level as he did. The difference is not simply a matter of determination, but more of trust and faith. Many of those who succeed in life have had the experience in their youth of having mastered some skill—a sport or game, a musical instrument, a foreign language, and so on. Buried in their minds is the sensation of overcoming their frustrations and entering the cycle of accelerated returns. In moments of doubt in the present, the memory of the past experience rises to the surface. Filled with trust in the process, they trudge on well past the point at which others slow down or mentally quit.

When it comes to mastering a skill, time is the magic ingredient. Assuming your practice proceeds at a steady level, over days and weeks certain elements of the skill become hardwired. Slowly, the entire skill becomes internalized, part of your nervous system. The mind is no longer mired in the details, but can see the larger picture. It is a miraculous sensation and practice will lead you to that point, no matter the talent level you are born with. The only real impediment to this is yourself and your emotions—boredom, panic, frustration, insecurity. You cannot suppress such emotions—they are normal to the process and are experienced by everyone, including Masters. What you can do is have faith in the process. The boredom will go away once you enter the cycle. The panic disappears after repeated exposure. The frustration is a sign of progress—a signal that your mind is processing complexity and requires more practice. The insecurities will transform into their opposites when you gain mastery. Trusting this will all happen, you will allow the natural learning process to move forward, and everything else will fall into place.

  1. Move toward resistance and pain

A. Bill Bradley (b. 1943) fell in love with the sport of basketball somewhere around the age of ten. He had one advantage over his peers—he was tall for his age. But beyond that, he had no real natural gift for the game. He was slow and gawky, and could not jump very high. None of the aspects of the game came easily to him. He would have to compensate for all of his inadequacies through sheer practice. And so he proceeded to devise one of the most rigorous and efficient training routines in the history of sports.

Managing to get his hands on the keys to the high school gym, he created for himself a schedule—three and a half hours of practice after school and on Sundays, eight hours every Saturday, and three hours a day during the summer. Over the years, he would keep rigidly to this schedule. In the gym, he would put ten-pound weights in his shoes to strengthen his legs and give him more spring to his jump. His greatest weaknesses, he decided, were his dribbling and his overall slowness. He would have to work on these and also transform himself into a superior passer to make up for his lack of speed.

For this purpose, he devised various exercises. He wore eyeglass frames with pieces of cardboard taped to the bottom, so he could not see the basketball while he practiced dribbling. This would train him to always look around him rather than at the ball—a key skill in passing. He set up chairs on the court to act as opponents. He would dribble around them, back and forth, for hours, until he could glide past them, quickly changing direction. He spent hours at both of these exercises, well past any feelings of boredom or pain.

Walking down the main street of his hometown in Missouri, he would keep his eyes focused straight ahead and try to notice the goods in the store windows, on either side, without turning his head. He worked on this endlessly, developing his peripheral vision so he could see more of the court. In his room at home, he practiced pivot moves and fakes well into the night—such skills that would also help him compensate for his lack of speed.

Bradley put all of his creative energy into coming up with novel and effective ways of practicing. One time his family traveled to Europe via transatlantic ship. Finally, they thought, he would give his training regimen a break—there was really no place to practice on board. But below deck and running the length of the ship were two corridors, 900 feet long and quite narrow—just enough room for two passengers. This was the perfect location to practice dribbling at top speed while maintaining perfect ball control. To make it even harder, he decided to wear special eyeglasses that narrowed his vision. For hours every day he dribbled up one side and down the other, until the voyage was done.

Working this way over the years, Bradley slowly transformed himself into one of the biggest stars in basketball—first as an All-American at Princeton University and then as a professional with the New York Knicks. Fans were in awe of his ability to make the most astounding passes, as if he had eyes on the back and sides of his head—not to mention his dribbling prowess, his incredible arsenal of fakes and pivots, and his complete gracefulness on the court. Little did they know that such apparent ease was the result of so many hours of intense practice over so many years.

B. When John Keats (1795–1821) was eight years old, his father died in a riding accident. His mother never quite got over the loss and died seven years later—essentially leaving John, his two brothers, and one sister orphaned and homeless in London. John, the eldest of the children, was taken out of school by the appointed trustee and guardian of the estate, and enrolled as an apprentice to a surgeon and apothecary—he would have to earn a living as quickly as possible, and this seemed the best career for that.

In his last few terms at school, Keats had developed a love for literature and reading. To continue his education, he would return to his school in his off-hours and read as many books as he could in the library. Sometime later, he had the desire to try his hand at writing poetry, but lacking any kind of instructor or literary circle he could frequent, the only way he knew to teach himself to write was to read the works of all of the greatest poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He then wrote his own poems, using the poetic form and style of the particular writer he was trying to model himself after. He had a knack for imitation, and soon he was creating verses in dozens of different styles, always tweaking them a little with his own voice.

Several years into this process, Keats came to a fateful decision—he would devote his life to writing poetry. That was his calling in life and he would find a way to make a living at it. To complete the rigorous apprenticeship he had already put himself through, he decided that what he needed was to write a very long poem, precisely 4,000 lines. The poem would revolve around the ancient Greek myth of Endymion. “Endymion,” he wrote a friend, “will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention…—by which I must make 4000 lines of some circumstances and fill them with Poetry.” He gave himself a rather impossible deadline—seven months—and a task of writing fifty lines a day, until he had a rough draft.

Three-quarters of the way through, he came to thoroughly hate the poem he was writing. He would not quit, however, willing his way to the end, meeting the deadline he had set. What he did not like about Endymion was the flowery language, the overwriting. But it was only by means of this exercise that he could discover what worked for him. “In Endymion,” he later wrote, “I leaped headlong into the Sea and thereby became better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore and…took tea and comfortable advice.”

In the aftermath of writing what he considered to be a mediocre poem, Keats took stock of all of the invaluable lessons he had learned. Never again would he suffer from writer’s block—he had trained himself to write past any obstacle. He had acquired now the habit of writing quickly, with intensity and focus—concentrating his work in a few hours. He could revise with equal speed. He had learned how to criticize himself and his overly romantic tendencies. He could look at his own work with a cold eye. He had learned that it was in the actual writing of the poem that the best ideas would often come to him, and that he had to boldly keep writing or he would miss such discoveries. Most important of all, as a counterexample to Endymion, he had hit upon a style that suited him—language as compact and dense with imagery as possible, with not a single wasted line.

With these lessons in hand, in the years 1818 to 1819, before he became gravely ill, Keats would produce some of the most memorable poems in the English language, including all of his greatest odes. This added up to perhaps the most productive two years of writing in the history of Western literature—all of it set up by the rigorous self-apprenticeship he had put himself through.

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