Designing Your Own Apprenticeship: How to Build a Team of Mentors

Recently, a friend wrote a book about how she’s always longed to go to Paris but finally resigned herself to the fact that she won’t. And she’s okay with that. Because Paris, for my friend, is not something out there. It’s what’s right in front of her.

The Art of Designing Your Own Apprenticeship

I love that. She’s given up on the veneer of a life captured on Instagram and rejected the promise of fulfillment a city can bring. Instead, she’s embracing the life she has to live right now and discovering some extraordinary lessons in the process.

For some reason, I couldn’t help but think about my recent post on Medium on networks and how Hemingway’s move to Paris changed his life and career. But for every Hemingway in Paris, there’s a Bronte in rural Haworth.

As I’ve said before, creative success does not happen in isolation. So what network did the Bronte sisters have access to, living in rural England in the 1850s? Certainly not the host of influential artists and authors Hemingway had in Paris in the 1920s. What was the team of mentors that led to their inarguable contribution to the world of literature? Who did they have?

Well, they had each other. And in light of my friend’s book, I am left wondering:

What if the thing you’ve always wanted was actually right in front of you?

Jeff Goins

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The other weekend, I hosted a conference of 150 people from all over who had come together to learn how to build an audience around their messages. At the conference, we kept bringing up the metaphor of the “table.” For us, this meant the place where life is shared and lives are changed. We had people sit at round tables and told them to discuss each speech delivered from stage, sharing what they learned and helping one another apply the lessons.

One takeaway was the table you’re called to may not be a new network. Often, the place where breakthrough happens is the place you find yourself in right now. And that little idea changes everything.

Accidental apprenticeships

In the Middle Ages, we had a different way of getting experience and gaining access to networks.

Under the apprenticeship system, a person worked for free in exchange for an education. The student often lived in the same house as the teacher. This was the way a person became a professional — it was a totally immersive process — and it began as early as age twelve.

After completing the first stage of apprenticeship, the student, now called a “journeyman,” could venture out and travel to other cities for work. What a journeyman could not do, though, was take on apprentices. That right was reserved only for masters.

In many ways, a journeyman was still a student, though now able to be paid. To be a journeyman meant applying the techniques your teacher had passed down to see if they worked in the real world. It was a test, to see if you had what it took.

There was a certain amount of restlessness to being a journeyman. After a season of wandering, you had to submit a master work to the local guild and if they found it worthy, you were accepted in the guild, becoming a master. If not, you might have to wander forever.

How long do you think this process of apprenticeship took? How long to learn a new trade, practice it, and eventually earn the right to teach others?

A far cry from the modern two-month internship today, an apprenticeship took at least ten years. It was an excellent way of learning a skill under the guidance of someone wiser and more experienced. But in modern times, this ancient art of diving deep into a craft has but disappeared.

Now, the responsibility for reaching your potential is up to you.

This is more than a challenge; it’s a cruel taunt. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps can only take us so far, and despite what we’ve heard, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. We are all products of our environment, influenced by the people we encounter and the places we live. In other words, we need help. So how do we find it?

Finding your calling will not happen without the aid and assistance of others. Every story of success is, in fact, a story of community. Some people will help you willingly, while others may contribute to your education on accident. But if you are wise, you can use it all.

This is what I call an “accidental apprenticeship.” Here’s how it works.

Designing your own apprenticeship

Three years ago, three people I barely knew got together and decided they wanted to start a mastermind group. Each asked three other people, and that’s how the twelve of us started getting to meet every week. We’ve been doing it ever since.

Honestly, this was not the table I hoped to be invited to. I didn’t even know it existed. But this group has been the source of my greatest professional and personal growth in the past decade. Finding your own network may lead to a similar breakthrough. Just remember these three steps:

  1. Decide what you want to learn. Try to get as specific as possible. Listen to your life and pay attention to what it says. Once you get clear on this, share it with people you know so that you can get connected to others who want similar things.
  2. Identify a community you can learn from. Don’t look for a single mentor; look for a group of them. Most mentoring is not between individuals but amongst peers. Even in the Middle Ages, this was often the case. In the studio of a master, there were sometimes a dozen students all working together under the tutelage of a teacher but also learning from each other.
  3. Use the collective resources of the group to help everyone reach their goals. If the group is not already meeting together, then it’s your job to call them together. Help everyone understand what each individual brings to the table and encourage them to share their talents.

This was what the Bronte sisters did for each other. They didn’t have access to the world’s greatest writing teachers, so they became the network they needed. They created their own group of mentors that would help them succeed, writing stories as little girls and sharing them with one another.

I think the lesson here is obvious: Don’t neglect the opportunity you have to create the network you need with the people who are already around you.

Don’t miss where you are right now

At the Tribe Conference, when we were saying goodbyes on the last day, I was happy to see people who sat together all weekend exchanging phone numbers and email addresses. They got it. Community creates opportunity. And if that’s true, then one of the best things we can do is create more communities.


Sometimes, I think, we get the wrong idea when we see people who succeed because of their network. We think the largest groups with access to the most important people are where growth happens. But often, success is the result of everyday effort multiplied by a small group of people.

We forget that when Hemingway went to Paris, the world didn’t yet know who Gertrude Stein or Ezra Pound was. James Joyce was only beginning his literary career. And Paris was just a cheap place to live.

When you think about your Paris, that place where your greatest growth happens, try to remind yourself that these places can happen anywhere — in the hustle and bustle of 1920s Paris, the rural farmland of 1850s England, and all points in between.

And as you consider who should be sitting at your table, that small group of people who will transform your life, remember these people do not have to be famous. They just have to be committed. What makes a group special is not the prestige of any single member but the collective wisdom it shares. This is where that old quote by Margaret Mead still rings true:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

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When we gather around any given table, we create community. And we can always squeeze in one more chair. If you don’t have a seat yet, then you just might be the one who is supposed to call everyone together.

In case you missed our little gathering, here are some snapshots as told by the attendees themselves:


  • To read more about the Bronte sisters and how they helped each other become great writers, check out Bounce by Matthew Syed.
  • To learn more about accidental apprenticeships and how they work practically, listen to this podcast I did on apprenticeship.
  • To learn how to create your own mastermind group, listen to this podcast.

Want to dive deeper into this? Get my best-selling book The Art of Work plus $250 in bonuses including free videos and a workbook.

What’s one thing that you could do today to start creating the kind of community you need? Share in the comments.

25 thoughts on “Designing Your Own Apprenticeship: How to Build a Team of Mentors

  1. Jeff, I loved the line that she “rejected the promise of fulfillment that a certain city can bring.” It reminds me of that great line in Lonesome Dove: “Life in San Francisco is still just life.” Part of the problem is that while a new situation may offer new perks, it also offers new challenges. It’s still just life. Thanks for another great post.

  2. I’m in a Mastermind Group (via Google Hangouts) and one of our members was at your conference. He told us the one message that kept coming to the forefront was “Just help people.” I’m beginning the see my own efforts adjust to this very thought. Good stuff.

  3. Jeff, the Tribe Conference redefined the word “Tribe” in my world (and showed me how to connect with and build a community). I will see you at next year’s gathering. THANK YOU!

  4. What a great article Jeff. You always provoke thoughts around implementable ways to move forward. Besides saying.. you’re kicking ass on promoting your book and what you do in the world… I’ll add that my action step today is to pre-write enough posts for Facebook for the next 2 weeks. (that’s around 40 posts.)

    That will build my tribe through engagement, connection and inspiration. Thanks again!

  5. Jeff, I am humbled, and grateful. Thanks for the share(s)! I have read some of the other ref’d posts, and look forward to reading the rest. So many great perspectives! #tribeconf was so huge, I’m still processing. Awesome post, too. (“collective wisdom” – YES!) I have been churning so many thoughts around this lately, and have a piece in the works on the topic. Two things I can share now are (1) as creatives, we have to be careful about giving any one person (or influencer) too much power over our success (emotionally/psychologically). And, (2) “knowing people” isn’t a substitute for hard work or producing a quality product. We need to work hard, hone our craft, and celebrate every connection we make. Like the apprenticeship model, it is a long-term journey . . . every step and every connection count along the way.

  6. I LOVE this part:

    “And as you consider who should be sitting at your table, that small group of people who will transform your life, remember these people do not have to be famous. They just have to be committed.”

    I think too often people trying to “make it” rely on getting attention from others who are already famous/successful, and we forget about the potential of people like ourselves.

  7. Wow, Jeff! This post is so powerful. So often we think we have to go after the big, the shiny. What you are saying here is to pay attention to the little things, like building relationships with those around you. Our faithfulness in the little things makes us able to handle bigger things. And so growth happens over time. Almost unnoticed until we look back. Thank you for championing the little things that make all the difference.

  8. Amazing post, Jeff! My platform is still in infancy stage and I was reminiscing while reading this on the chapter in your book about these apprenticeships of yesterday. Finding you has been immensely helpful. Thank you!

  9. Jeff this is Amazing ! , each article carries with it Food for Thought . I am so glad that i Made this decision. What More Can i SAY ! Andy Doris article on ” why you should give up on happiness ” And Go after this instead . After reading this i took a deep breadth to re-think about The “Definition of happiness. ” if we are truely pursuing it The right way Thanks on your article about apprenticeship , very educative and encouraging . I will Go for it , Love it . It is good to Share. Thanks for Helping

  10. Jeff, I’ve stated it in an Email, but this is a better place to again say, thank you for “thinking up/dreaming up” the Tribe conference!
    I believe it was Anne of Green Gables who said: “It was a scathingly brilliant idea!” (perhaps Shirley Temple?) Nevertheless, the concept of “tribe” (being part of a community) found new meaning and perspective for me in Nashville.
    The pivotal part of using “round tables” – priceless, excellent and effective.

    A question – your mastermind group: do they consist only of bloggers and non-fiction writers?

    Great post.
    Thanks, Jeff!

  11. I can go out and start searching for groups of writers and other coaches who can help each other out with their wisdom and experiences. Listening to Chris Ducker one of his suggestions to a mastermind was don’t be the smartest guy in the room. You’ll get much more out of it.

  12. Thanks for this Jeff.

    I have been self employed for just over a year now and all the work I have received has been through the network of relationships I have built up over the years. Just today I received some Social Media work through a friend of a friend.

    I believe that this can transfer over into our online world. I just rewatched Pat Flynns video about building a community of raving fans.

    The principles are the same. Build a few special, deep relationships rather than a smattering of shallow connections.

    Any thoughts on building online relationships of depth?

    Keep up the great work. Love your podcast

  13. I’ve often wished for an apprenticeship, and I realized about 12 years ago that, given my circumstances, it probably wasn’t going to happen. So I started searching out wisdom on the internet. I set myself on a course of study to learn how to manage a home, how to parent wisely, how to deal with the special needs our daughter brought, how to do just about everything. And now, I’m soaking in the wisdom of other writers, trying to re-awaken a passion. You are one that I’ve been reading for a while, and I’m thankful for your willingness to share your wisdom.

  14. What could I do to create the kind of community I need? Give myself permission to consider it not only possible, not essential.

    When you let the everyday life of a freelancer swallow you whole (lists! interviews! pitches! deadlines! edits!), you adopt a lifestyle that consists mainly of putting out fires.

    That “everyday life of a freelancer” could also mean the everyday life of a parent, teacher, salaried employee, student, child, midlifer or retiree. It’s so easy to believe we don’t have time to think about the future because that day’s needs are too pressing.

    But if you don’t think about the future you’ll likely wind up with someone else’s version of it. What are we doing right now — even in small ways — to create the lives we want to live?

    Good question. Thanks for making me ask it of myself.

  15. Jeff – this is my first post to you. I am in the process of building a counseling center at our large church, building from scratch, and trying to business case my way into a full time director position to run it all. Umm – help. There’s a very large community here in soCal, once I market it and open it up, I know we’ll be more than booked. I’m reaching out to the Goins’ gathering and you personally. Have you dealt with this particular niche before?

  16. Jeff, while the conference was going on I was busy being a newlywed and had some regret about not being able to go to the conference, though I love my new life. But this post has astounded me. I wanted to travel, write, and paint. I wanted so much from the world, all that was changed when I decided to marry a missionary. Now, my job is to give. I must admit, I was a little disappointed. But maybe this is what you’ve been telling me all along. 🙂 And with this post you have made me realize, I have a huge network of friends, people all over the world who are interested in similar things. Maybe I have my own mastermind group and didn’t even know it. I’m going to start working on it, right away. Thanks so much!

  17. Thank you, Jeff, for this article. It just so happens that I am at the crest of creating my own community and am in the process of gathering information in order to go about it in the right way. It’s already been hit and miss, and I feel as though I’m back at the drawing board so to speak.

  18. Jeff, thank you! To answer this specific question:
    1/ the necessity of understanding what I am looking for and where to look (you are giving us that needed – and freeing – information.
    2/ with awareness I can review the people I know already (as I do this, I’m becoming conscious of some surprising things!)
    3/ act on the new understanding- which takes conscious effort on my part.
    4/ learning how to build a mastermind group, using the internet and the coffeepot.

    I’m in the middle of 2 and 3. again, THANK YOU!

  19. Jeff, I a new follower as I am newly in the blogging world sharing my thoughts on life as well as others with whom I resonate. I am continue to learn that community is so important to personal growth as well as career growth. I have a small group of people I engage with monthly from a leadership coach to a spiritual director. But they are usually one on one. This article has encouraged me to find a group that meets to discuss and talk! Thanks. I have two questions for you. First, I live and work overseas and it can be quite costly to come to the States every year for Tribe. I was wondering if there was a way we could praticipate via online (tweets, etc)? Obviously the cost of the conference would still apply and it wouldn’t be nearly as great as in person, but it would be helpful for those of us over here. Or, are there plans for “regional” conferences around the globe? Just wondering! Thanks again!!

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