How To Become a Professional At Whatever You Care About

Sunday, 5.30am

Sheffield, U.K.


You can observe a lot just watching – Yogi Berra

We live in a world where there is a shortage of teachers and mentors and, at the same time, unlimited opportunities to get better.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to learn a trade, you found someone who needed an apprentice and worked under them.

That teacher-student relationship was the main way new talent was developed for generations.

Now, we have courses for everything. You can learn to code in a weekend. Write, make pots or learn business studies.

So, what happens then?

The movies and success manuals would have you believe that if you’re hungry, always looking for new opportunities and pushing for those big chances you’re going to do well.

And that may be true.

But, is it good?

Will it make you a professional?

We know that there are no shortcuts to excellence in any field of work.

The 10,000 hour rule is about time – time spent doing deliberate practice. Practice that stretches and challenges you.

Take writing, for example. You’re often told that you’ll throw away your first million words.

That seems like a lot but, if you write 500 words a day, two hundred days a year, that will take you exactly ten years.

That ten-year period seems to be needed whatever you do.

It takes ten years to integrate into a new society as an immigrant.

Getting the hang of running a business seems to take that amount of time.

Becoming a musician or artist or craftsperson takes that amount of time.

And that’s time spent learning.

I’m fascinated by approaches to learning.

I read a quote the other day, browsing in a bookshop, while waiting for a train.

No thief, however skillful can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.’ – L. Frank Baum.

If you are fortunate enough to be apprenticed to someone then you have an opportunity to learn that few others have.

The Japanese have words to describe this process that are worth reading.

Minarai, for example, means “learning by looking”.

The idea is that a master does not “teach”. Instead, the apprentice, “steals the art” – works out what works over time.

An article by Dick Lehman gives us an insight into this process.

What is the teacher’s most important lesson?

An apprentice’s answer: “Your lesson to us is that we are to express ourselves as fully as possible – with all our might and strength; to be ourselves, and to work within the limitations that greet us; but, through our works, to express our spirit, mind and heart, as best we can.”

But what if you don’t have a master?

That’s where the Internet comes in.

There is an Indian story about a boy called Ekalavya who wanted to learn archery under the renowned teacher Drona.

He was rejected from the school so made a statue of Drona using mud and practised in front of it until his skills were better than Drona’s best students.

These days, the Internet gives us masters to watch on tap.

You can get everything from the words of Warren Buffett to interviews with artists who will show you what they do.

I think when you’re starting out it’s okay to think that you need to be shown what to do.

Very quickly, however, the most important thing becomes whether you spend your time watching, trying and learning.

Because it’s one thing to take a course.

It’s something else to walk the road towards being a professional.


Karthik Suresh

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