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Soulful Sundays: Apprenticeship

"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly." -G. K. Chesterton



There is a Taoist tale, recorded first by Zhuangzi in the 4th century BC, of a butcher named Cook Ding. In this story a nobleman watches Ding cut apart an entire ox with incredible speed and dexterity. The butcher later informs his observer that he has not sharpened his knife in over nineteen years because he never dulls it. Interestingly, although he has ostensibly mastered his skill, Ding remains humble and talks about still needing utmost concentration with difficult cuts. This is the beginner's mind acting within the master's life.


I remember the first animal that I butchered. The year was 2012 and it was my first real year of hunting white-tailed deer in the mountains of Virginia. I went out before the sunrise on a cold December morning and posted up on a hill to sit with my muzzleloader. After about three hours I was ready to go home for lunch when I heard a group of deer running toward the bottom of my hill. My brain went into auto pilot, and I raised my rifle to take a shot at one of the larger does. I remember the scene so vividly it could have been yesterday.


I remember the shot, the sound of ringing in my ears, and the way the other deer stood around as their companion died. I remember field dressing the deer with my hunting mentor, hanging her up for processing, and the long day of work that was to follow. This was the first animal that I had ever killed and it taught me more than any textbook ever could. And it all began with becoming an apprentice of the hunt.


There is an infinite number of domains that we will never know. No one among us can learn every language nor master every skill. While there is no limit to what we can learn, there is a hard limit on how long we have to learn it. I see so many people stagnate in their lives, though, because they fail to see the value of apprenticeship. Being an apprentice in the the classic sense involves studying directly under a skilled teacher, but it also includes apprenticing yourself to a pursuit. That could be literally anything. What appears simple is actually quite rich once you commit to learning more about it.


What separates the beginner from the master? Is it familiarity? Skill? Experience? Talent? Perseverance? Passion? Perhaps, it is a combination of all of them. What separates us from our dreams is our openness to doing things poorly, at least for a while. Think of something that you would like to improve upon. Do it three times a week for thirty minutes at a time. You can always add more practice later. While you practice focus not on perfection, but on incremental improvement. One of the reasons that all human children can become fluent speakers in just a few years time is that they are not afraid to make mistakes. Adopting that same mindset can be powerful beyond belief. Be an apprentice of life.

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