My first job out of college was as an apprentice to a picture framer. It was 25 years ago and in many ways, it has shaped who I am as a professional to this day.
When I got my bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1996 I wanted to frame a few of my works. Being a craftsman I got a book about picture framing and tried to do it myself. I wasn’t too happy with the result so I found myself going into a picture framing shop to consult with the master working there about what I was doing wrong. That visit ended up in a 2-year apprenticeship in his workshop :-)
The guy’s name was Haim and when I met him he was making picture frames for close to 15 years (25 years later he still does :-)). He took me in and what I got from him was an instant mixture of empowerment and accountability. I wasn't praised when I did good work and I wasn't berated when I messed up. Instead, I was constantly shown what the standard of GREAT was and then was expected to IMPROVE from iteration to iteration. Improvement, through a constant cycle of example > trial > feedback > and learning
Books can inspire they can’t teach
The picture framing book I got had all the information one needs to create a great picture frame. But reading it didn’t teach me how to be a picture framer. It was the 2 years of day in and day out, frame after frame, that taught me the craft.
Apprenticeship and empowerment
A year into the apprenticeship Haim found out he was sick and would need to be at home for close to a month. Instead of closing the shop, he asked me to be in charge. I was a solid picture framer by then but I had no idea how to run a business: work with suppliers, take orders, handle payments. But for some reason, Haim thought it was a good idea to let me operate the shop for him.
It was in those 4 weeks that everything I learned in the first year “melded” together and I became a picture framer. With his trust and empowerment, Haim gave the gift that allowed me to jump to the deeper water and a year later open my own picture framing studio.
Apprenticeship is about way more than skills
Seeing today how difficult it is for leaders to delegate and empower, I often wondered what it was that enabled Haim to trust me with way more responsibility than I was trained for. Looking back today I realize that it was knowing that I understood and practiced his core values that gave Haim the confidence to let me run the shop.
You see. Haim didn’t teach me those values as his apprentice. He showed me the values he stood for in countless little moments:
Like when he realized a frame wasn’t perfect (in ways a client would never know about) and decided we should do it from scratch even if it meant we will lose money on this job. Or when he realized a supplier didn’t charge him for something and insisted to correct the bill and pay for the supplies. Or when he spent 2 hours with an old lady consulting her with all the patients knowing she comes in every week and most likely will not order a frame ❤️.
And most importantly, it was in the endless, tiny, and respectful feedbacks he gave me any time I deviated from those values that I, as his apprentice, internalized them.
Once an apprentice always an apprentice
A few years later when I decided to pursue a career in design and was lucky to find my first position in the heat of the .COM era I embraced the apprentice mindset and I think it was key to my ability to grow as a professional. In each position I always ensured I had someone I could learn from and most importantly I never embraced the position of the one who “knows”. I was and still am the eternal apprentice.
For the first few years, I had an excel file named “What did I learn today?”. I used it to log everything I learned. From small stuff like a new keyboard shortcut in Photoshop, to mindset-changing insights, like learning about n AB tests, and the notion of testing for the first time in my life.
If I finished a day and didn't learn that meant I wasn’t curious, or worst, much worst, that I adopted the “I know” mindset which is the Kryptonite of the apprentice.
It’s all about the craft
In the 25 years that passed, I transitioned multiple times. From design to product management. From an individual contributor to an executive and then to a coach. But no matter what my “job” was I always remained an apprentice. I don’t manage my excel file for more than 20 years I do ask myself each day ‘What did I learn today?” in the endless pursuit to improve my craft and with it the value and impact I can provide.
To this day I carry in my wallet my 23 years old business card from the days I owned a picture framing workshop. I do it to remind myself that I’m a craftsman and apprentice. And once in a while, when I find myself talking with a young professional troubled that their career isn’t advancing fast enough, or that they are not growing, I take my old business card out of my wallet and talk to them about apprenticeship and lifetime journey of the craftsman/woman.
What did you learn today? :-)