How to Become the Ideal Apprentice: Part III

Deep within the Amazonian rainforest live the Pirahã, who speak a language so isolated that it has become the subject of intense controversy within the linguistic community. That debate was sparked by the findings of one man: a Christian missionary named Daniel Everett.

Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; and if it is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach.

—Marcus Aurelius

Enter Robert Greene

The path to greatness is simple. It’s the path followed by everyone from Renaissance artists to the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. In writing my first four books, I immersed myself in the study these types of people—some of most powerful figures in history. Over the course of many hours of thinking, researching and writing on excellence—the last four years of which were dedicated to writing my newest book—I discerned an unmistakable formula for becoming the best. That formula is revealed in Mastery.

Today I’d like to share the first in the journey to Mastery: how to begin an apprenticeship  Throughout history, it’s always been the way that Masters acquired their education. There are many different strategies for getting yours but make no mistake: you cannot become great without mentors and masters to teach you the necessary skills of your chosen craft. And if you can accept and internalize this fundamental part of the learning process, you will be one step closer to achieving mastery yourself.

Part III: Revert to a feeling of inferiority

Attending high school in the late 1960s, Daniel Everett was a bit of a lost soul. He felt trapped in the California border town of Holtville, where he grew up, and totally disconnected to the local cowboy way of life. Everett had always been drawn to the Mexican culture that existed among the migrant workers on the margins of the town. He loved their rituals and way of life, the sound of their language, and their songs. He seemed to have a knack for learning a foreign language and picked up Spanish rather quickly, gaining a bit of entrée into their world. To him, their culture represented a glimpse of a more interesting world beyond Holtville, but sometimes he despaired of ever really getting away from his hometown. He began to take drugs—for the time being, at least, they offered an escape.

Then, when he was seventeen, he met Keren Graham, a fellow student at his high school, and everything seemed to change. Keren had spent much of her childhood in northeastern Brazil, where her parents had served as Christian missionaries. He loved to hang out with her and listen to her stories of life in Brazil. He met her family and became a regular guest at their dinners. He admired their sense of purpose and dedication to their missionary work. A few months after meeting Keren he became a born-again Christian, and a year later they were married. Their goal was to start a family and become missionaries themselves.

Everett graduated from the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago with a degree in Foreign Missions, and in 1976 he and his wife enrolled in the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)—a Christian organization that instructs future missionaries in the necessary linguistic skills to translate the Bible into indigenous languages and spread the Gospel. After going through the course work, he and his family (which now included two children) were sent to SIL’s jungle camp in the region of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, to prepare them for the rigors of missionary life. For a month the family had to live in a village and learn as best they could the indigenous language, a Mayan dialect. Everett passed all of the tests with flying colors. Based on his success in the program, the faculty at SIL decided to offer him and his family the greatest challenge of them all—to live in a Pirahã village, deep in the heart of the Amazon.

The Pirahã are among the oldest inhabitants of the Amazon. When the Portuguese arrived in the area in the early eighteenth century, most of the tribes learned their language and adopted many of their ways, but the Pirahã resisted and retreated further into the jungle. They lived in deep isolation, with little contact with outsiders. By the time missionaries arrived in their villages in the 1950s, there were only some 350 Pirahã still alive, scattered in the area. The missionaries who tried to learn their language found it impossible. The Pirahã spoke no Portuguese, had no written language, and their words, to Westerners, all sounded alike. SIL had sent a couple in 1967 to learn the language and finally translate part of the Bible into Pirahã, but they could make little progress. After more than ten years of struggling with the language, they were driven half-mad by the task and wanted to leave. Hearing all of this, Everett was more than happy to accept the challenge. He and his wife were determined to be the first ones to crack the code of Pirahã.

He and his family arrived at a Pirahã village in December 1977. In his first few days there, Everett used all of the strategies he had been taught—for instance, holding up a stick and asking for their word for it, then dropping the stick and asking for the phrase to describe the action. In the months to come, he made good progress learning basic vocabulary. The method he had learned at SIL worked well, and he worked assiduously. Every time he heard a new word, he wrote it down on three-by-five note cards. He punched holes in the corners of the cards, carried dozens of them on the loop of his pants, and repeatedly practiced them with villagers. He tried to apply these words and phrases in different contexts, sometimes making the Pirahã laugh. Whenever he felt frustrated, he would look at the Pirahã children who picked up the language with ease. If they could learn it, so could he, he kept telling himself. But every time he felt like he was learning more phrases, he had the equal sensation that he was really getting nowhere. He began to understand the frustration of the couple that had preceded him.

For instance, he kept hearing a word over and over again that seemed to translate as “just now,” as in “the man had just now left.” But later, hearing it in a different context, he realized that it in fact referred to the precise moment when something appears or disappears—a person, a sound, anything. The phrase was really about the experience of such transitory moments, he decided, which seemed to resonate a lot with the Pirahã. “Just now” did not begin to cover the rich meanings of it. This started to happen with all kinds of words he thought he had understood. He also began to discover things that were missing in their language that went against all of the linguistic theories he had been taught. They had no words for numbers, no concept of right and left, no simple words that designated colors. What could this mean?

One day, after more than a year living there, he decided to accompany some Pirahã men deep into the jungle, and to his surprise he discovered a whole other side to their existence and language. They acted and spoke differently; they employed a different form of communication, talking to one another in elaborate whistles that clearly replaced spoken language, making them stealthier in their hunting forays. Their ability to navigate this dangerous environment was impressive.

Suddenly something became clear to Everett: his decision to confine himself to village life and simply to learn their language was the source of his problem. Their language could not be separated from their method of hunting, their culture, their daily habits. He had unconsciously internalized a sense of superiority to these people and their way of life—living among them like a scientist studying ants. His inability to pierce the secret of their language, however, revealed the inadequacies of his method. If he wanted to learn Pirahã as the children did, he would have to become like a child—dependent on these people for survival, participating in their daily activities, entering their social circles, feeling in fact inferior and in need of their support. (Losing any sense of superiority would later lead to a personal crisis, in which he would lose faith in his role as a missionary and leave the church for good.)

He began to enact this strategy on all levels, entering a realm of their lives that had been hidden to him. Soon all kinds of ideas about their strange language came to him. The linguistic oddities of Pirahã reflected the unique culture that they had evolved from living in isolation for so long. Participating in their lives as if he was one of their children, the language came alive from within, and he began to make the kind of progress in Pirahã that had eluded everyone else before him.

In his apprenticeship in the jungles of the Amazon that would later lead to his career as a groundbreaking linguist, Daniel Everett came upon a truth that has application far beyond his field of study. What prevents people from learning, even something as difficult as Pirahã, is not the subject itself—the human mind has limitless capabilities—but rather certain learning disabilities that tend to fester and grow in our minds as we get older. These include a sense of smugness and superiority whenever we encounter something alien to our ways, as well as rigid ideas about what is real or true, often indoctrinated in us by schooling or family. If we feel like we know something, our minds close off to other possibilities. We see reflections of the truth we have already assumed. Such feelings of superiority are often unconscious and stem from a fear of what is different or unknown. We are rarely aware of this, and often imagine ourselves to be paragons of impartiality.

Children are generally free of these handicaps. They are dependent upon adults for their survival and naturally feel inferior. This sense of inferiority gives them a hunger to learn. Through learning, they can bridge the gap and not feel so helpless. Their minds are completely open; they pay greater attention. This is why children can learn so quickly and so deeply. Unlike other animals, we humans retain what is known as neoteny—mental and physical traits of immaturity—well into our adult years. We have the remarkable capability of returning to a childlike spirit, especially in moments in which we must learn something. Well into our fifties and beyond, we can return to that sense of wonder and curiosity, reviving our youth and apprenticeships.

Understand: when you enter a new environment, your task is to learn and absorb as much as possible. For that purpose you must try to revert to a childlike feeling of inferiority—the feeling that others know much more than you and that you are dependent upon them to learn and safely navigate your apprenticeship. You drop all of your preconceptions about an environment or field, any lingering feelings of smugness. You have no fears. You interact with people and participate in the culture as deeply as possible. You are full of curiosity. Assuming this sensation of inferiority, your mind will open up and you will have a hunger to learn. This position is of course only temporary. You are reverting to a feeling of dependence, so that within five to ten years you can learn enough to finally declare your independence and enter full adulthood.


Did you like this article? Here are five (5) more exclusive chapters on apprenticing from Mastery, in order:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Robert Greene‘s newest book Mastery (view trailer) examines the lives of historical greats like Darwin, Mozart, and Henry Ford and distills the traits that made the masters. It is an excellent complement to The 4-Hour Chef. Robert also authored the massive international bestsellers The 48 Laws of PowerArt of SeductionThe 33 Strategies of War, and The 50th Law.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.