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Apprenticeship Patterns by Adewale Oshineye, Dave Hoover

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Confront Your Ignorance

If we value independence, if we are disturbed by the growing conformity of knowledge, of values, of attitudes, which our present system induces, then we may wish to set up conditions of learning which make for uniqueness, for self-direction, and for self-initiated learning.

Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person

Context

You have identified gaps in your skillset, gaps that are relevant to your daily work.

Problem

There are tools and techniques that you need to master, but you do not know how to begin. Some of these are things that everyone around you already seems to know, and there is an expectation that you already have this knowledge.

Solution

Pick one skill, tool, or technique and actively fill the gaps in your knowledge about it.

Do this in whichever ways are most effective for you. For some people, the best approach involves trying to get an overview by reading all the introductory articles and FAQs they can get hold of. Other people find that jumping straight to the construction of Breakable Toys is the most effective way to understand something. Whichever approach works for you, don’t forget to ask around to your Kindred Spirits and mentors to see if anyone already has this skill and is willing to share what they’ve learned. Sometimes others will be trying to acquire this skill as well, and by working together you can make better progress. At some point you will have gained a satisfactory level of ability in this new area, and then you can decide whether it is more productive to dig deeper or to turn your attention to the other gaps in your skillset. There aren’t enough hours in the day to hone all your skills to a high level, so you must learn to make the necessary trade-offs between them.

This pattern is closely tied to Expose Your Ignorance, but implementing it is less of a challenge to your pride because it can be done in private, without anyone else ever finding out the things you did not know. However, as an apprentice with aspirations to mastery, you need to be willing to Expose Your Ignorance as well. Using this pattern in isolation (that is, confronting your ignorance without exposing it) runs the risk of encouraging a culture where failure and learning are unacceptable because everybody does their learning in secret. Remember that learning in public is one of the ways in which an apprentice begins the transition to journeyman. It’s a small step from learning where people can see you to teaching.

Even a successful application of this pattern can have negative side effects. The programmers who maintain your code are unlikely to appreciate it if your need to learn how to build complex concurrent systems leads you to write your own messaging system in Scala rather than using an off-the-shelf product. They’re going to be even more upset if they can’t ask you any questions about it because you’re currently at a conference. Finally, your employer is also unlikely to be understanding if your educational needs get in the way of the successful delivery of its project. In short, you need to be sensitive enough not to let your apprenticeship become a problem for the team. One of the distinguishing facets of the craft approach is a willingness to put the wider interests of your community before your own, rather than using the team and the client to further your personal growth.

On the other hand, it is also possible to Expose Your Ignorance without confronting it. People who do this merely shrug apologetically when confronted by their ignorance, as if to say “that’s just the way it is.” This leads to a lifetime of being humble, ignorant, and overly dependent on other members of the team. Eventually, it leads to teams where each member defends her own little silo of knowledge and shrugs when a problem crosses into someone else’s territory.

So it’s important to strike a delicate balance between this pattern and Expose Your Ignorance. Confronting your ignorance on its own leads to arrogant infovores who never get anything done, while exposing your ignorance without seeing it as a problem to be solved leads to excessive humility and helplessness.

Action

Take the list of items from Expose Your Ignorance and strive to learn each one, crossing them off the list as you do so. This new knowledge you have may reveal gaps you hadn’t noticed before; don’t forget to add these things to your list.

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