Last week when I discussed perseverance, a commenter sympathized with my welding frustration by telling me of her own frustration learning how to sew. Her comment got me thinking about the difference between daily skills and what I’ll call apprentice skills. In the past, people did far more for themselves than we do now, and they’d grow up learning a variety of simple(ish) daily skills most of us no longer know how to do. They’d mend their own clothes, grow their own food, make their own soap and candles, etc. Now, largely due to ready-made materials, we don’t grow up learning how to do these things. While I am making efforts to live a more self-sufficient lifestyle, I’m grateful for this. I love not only being able to easily purchase what I need from a grocery store but the amazing access I have to products from all over the world. I don’t want to go back to a time when I could only work with the base materials I produce myself or have to wait until a merchant ship comes in with treasure from another land.
This distancing from basic skills, however, has shortened my patience. I’m used to having something immediately at hand. And most skills I’ve tried to pick up–like soap-making or mixing a facial moisturizer or counter spray–don’t require much training or practice, just the ability to follow a recipe. (Making fancy soaps with color patterns is skill intensive; mixing lye with fat for basic soap is not.) With this history of near-instant success, when I started welding, I got frustrated on day one when I couldn’t make a straight welding bead within the first couple tries. The commenter I mentioned was talking about her own frustration with sewing, and how she kept tangled the thread. We both felt like clearly we weren’t good at these! But I thought about it some more and realized that neither of us is trying to pick up a basic, daily skill. We’re working on a trade that, in the past, people went through an apprentice system and learned mastery over several years.
The difference between a daily skill and an apprentice skill is the difference between learning to string a necklace with glass beads and learning to blow glass beads to make a necklace. It’s the difference between fixing a hem or repairing a broken leg on a chair, and sewing a pair of pants or building a chair from scratch. Apprentice skills are not normal DIY skills everyone was expected to have in the past. If I want to learn one–like metalcraft–I have to have patience with myself and with the time it takes to go from apprentice to journeyman to master.
We live in a world that allows us not only instant access to purchase goods, but instant access to sell goods without the traditional gatekeepers. I see this in publishing all the time, when people draft a manuscript and then rush off to Amazon to self-publish it. It took me years to hone my writing to the point where a publisher would license it, and I’m glad I took that time to work and practice until I was ready with a quality product. This doesn’t mean I’m against self-publishing. I self-published a holiday story last year, and I may do it again in the future. There are many quality manuscripts self-published by people who have taken the time to apprentice their craft. But it’s easy to make the mistake of rushing into it. It’s easy to forget that some skills take time.
It’s ironic to me that in a day and age in which we live longer than ever (at least we were before the rising economic disparity and health crisis), we seem to have less patience for apprenticing a craft. I live my life sometimes like tomorrow won’t be here–when I have a much better chance at having many tomorrows than my ancestors did. It helps me to think of them and remind myself that if they, with their shorter and often more brutal lives, could have the patience and perseverance to spend years working toward mastery of a craft, I can do the same thing.
Do you practice any apprentice crafts? I’d love to hear about your challenges and your inspiration for persevering!
* For those less geeky, Padawan is the word for a Jedi apprentice.
+ Featured Image: Benjamin Franklin as a Printer’s Apprentice