Mastery

Emile Adan, Apprentice (1914). Library of Congress.

There seems to be some kind of magic around the number three. Learning is often structured in three phases, roughly related to beginning, intermediate, and advanced.

  • For K-12 education, we have elementary school, middle school, and high school.
  • For higher education, we have bachelor’s, masters, and doctoral degrees.
  • For college faculty, we have assistant, associate, and full professors.
  • In lots of professions, we have associate, principal, and partner.
  • In culinary work, we have cook, sous-chef, and chef de cuisine.
  • And in traditional trades, we have apprentice, journeyman, and master.

The interesting level to me in all of these cases is the middle one, at least in part because it’s the only one with an accomplishment on both ends. For the apprenticeship, we come in knowing nothing whatsoever. At the end of mastery comes either retirement or death. But we have to test out of apprenticeship to become a journeyman, and then test out of that to become a master.

The term journeyman comes from an era in which the skilled trades were exclusively practiced by men. So, of course, does master, from magistrate, or the guy in charge. Gender-neutral alternatives for journeyman have been proposed: journey-level, or journeyperson (ick), or trade worker. But let’s think about what the three levels entail with regards to working life before we start to mess with the language.

At the lowest level—cook, or apprentice, or associate—we’re talking about someone who works under supervision, someone with a senior eye on their efforts. We trust that they can get the job done (they won’t work here long if they can’t), but their agendas are set by others. As an associate at Jay Farbstein and Associates 20 years ago, I was given specific tasks to do by my superiors, and checked in on a regular basis about how things were going and what I ought to be doing next. I was 40 years old and had a PhD, I wasn’t a total beginner, but I wasn’t at a position where I was leading my own projects; I was fulfilling project components for others.

The middle level connotes a position of trust and independence. A principal in a big architecture or law firm has project-level authority. They work directly with clients, supervise other workers, run day-to-day contact with subcontractors. They know enough to coordinate a pretty good sized project, and are entrusted by their business as managers. In the kitchen, the sous-chef drives the daily operation, manages inventory and ordering, does some training, steps in whenever one of the line or prep cooks (or even sometimes the dishwasher) is in the weeds. Whether lawyer or electrician or restaurateur, that middle level is crucially important, and a person at that point is a fully vetted professional.

The “journey” of journeyman has three competing meanings. The term originally seems to be a bastardization of the french journee, or day, and it meant an employee paid by the day (as opposed to the apprentice, who got paid with a bowl of gruel and a straw mat in the corner). But once the word became anglicized, it took on the connotation of the independent professional able to journey out onto a work site by himself to get things done. The journey was often more literal: the journeyman was an apprentice ready to leave the nest, deemed worthy by another shop of being employed (and paid). In some guilds, the journeyman was expected to really journey, to go on a grand tour for a few years and work as an employee for multiple masters of the same guild, so as to learn different approaches to the work.

Entry to the master level was a matter of professional consensus, in which the other masters of the guild approved the new member, often after the journeyman had produced a master piece (a material version of a qualifying exam). Here’s one, from France in the mid-19th Century:

From the collection of the Cooper Hewett, Smithsonian Design Museum. Photographer: Ali Elai

Once anointed, a master could own his (or her) own shop. Could make decisions about the kinds of projects and clients to take on, the kinds of equipment and facilities to invest in, the kinds and numbers of apprentices to accept. Law and architecture firms use partner to denote the same level, someone with a financial and strategic interest in the business as a whole rather than merely managerial responsibility for a project. The chef de cuisine or executive chef is most often the restaurant’s owner as well, making decisions about exactly what goes on the menu, about the culinary and hospitality principles of the whole endeavor.


All of this meandering is my way of thinking through what it would mean for me to move from journeyman to master writer. What does it mean to demonstrate mastery? And the historical answer is the shift from capability to strategy.

Hmm… more soon.