How to Become the Ideal Apprentice: Part V

Before starting Ford Motor Company in 1903, Henry Ford launched two failed automobile companies. He is here with Barney Oldfield in 1902.

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 V: Apprentice Yourself in Failure

One day in 1885, the twenty-three-year old Henry Ford got his first look at the gas-powered engine, and it was instant love. Ford had apprenticed as a machinist and had worked on every conceivable device, but nothing could compare to his fascination with this new type of engine, one that created its own power. He envisioned a whole new kind of horseless carriage that would revolutionize transportation. He made it his Life’s Task to be the pioneer in developing such an automobile.

Working the night shift at the Edison Illuminating Company as an engineer, during the day he would tinker with the new internal-combustion engine he was developing. He built a workshop in a shed behind his home and started constructing the engine from pieces of scrap metal he salvaged from anywhere he could find them. By 1896, working with friends who helped him build a carriage, he completed his first prototype, which he called the Quadricycle, and debuted it on the streets of Detroit.

At the time there were many others working on automobiles with gas powered engines. It was a ruthlessly competitive environment in which new companies died by the day. Ford’s Quadricycle looked nice and ran well, but it was too small and incomplete for large scale production. And so he began work on a second automobile, thinking ahead to the production end of the process. A year later he completed it, and it was a marvel of design. Everything was geared toward simplicity and compactness. It was easy to drive and maintain. All that he needed was financial backing and sufficient capital to mass produce it.

To manufacture automobiles in the late 1890s was a daunting venture. It required a tremendous amount of capital and a complex business structure, considering all of the parts that went into production. Ford quickly found the perfect backer: William H. Murphy, one of the most prominent businessmen in Detroit. The new company was dubbed the Detroit Automobile Company, and all who were involved had high hopes. But problems soon arose. The car Ford had designed as a prototype needed to be reworked—the parts came from different places; some of them were deficient and far too heavy for his liking. He kept trying to refine the design to come closer to his ideal. But it was taking far too long, and Murphy and the stockholders were getting restless. In 1901, a year and a half after it had started operation, the board of directors dissolved the company. They had lost faith in Henry Ford.

In analyzing this failure, Ford came to the conclusion that he had been trying to make his automobile serve too many consumer needs. He would try a second time, starting out with a lightweight and smaller vehicle. He convinced Murphy to give him another chance, something rare in the fledgling automobile business. Still believing in Ford’s genius, he agreed, and together they formed the Henry Ford Company. Right from the start, however, Ford felt the pressure from Murphy to get the automobile ready for production so as to avoid the problems he’d had with the first company. Ford resented the interference from people who knew nothing about design or the high standards he was trying to establish for the industry.

Murphy and his men brought in an outsider to supervise the process. This was the breaking point. Less than a year after its establishment, Ford left the company. The break with Murphy this time was final. In the car business, everyone wrote Henry Ford off. He had blown his two chances and nobody was ever given a third, not with the amount of money at stake. But to friends and family, Ford himself seemed blithely unconcerned. He told everyone that these were all invaluable lessons to him—he had paid attention to every glitch along the way, and like a watch or an engine, he had taken apart these failures in his mind and had identified the root cause: no one was giving him enough time to work out the bugs. The people with money were meddling in mechanical and design affairs. They were injecting their mediocre ideas into the process and polluting it. He resented the idea that having money gave them certain rights, when all that mattered was a perfect design.

The answer was to find a way to maintain complete independence from the financiers. This was not the usual way of doing business in America, which was becoming increasingly bureaucratic. He would have to invent his own form of organization, his own business model, one that suited his temperament and needs—including an efficient team he could trust, and the right to the final word on every decision.

Considering his reputation, it would be almost impossible to find backing, but several months into the search he found an ideal partner—Alexander Malcomson, an émigré from Scotland who had made his fortune in the coal business. Like Ford, he had an unconventional streak and was a risk taker. He agreed to finance this latest venture and to not meddle in the manufacturing process. Ford worked at creating a new kind of assembly plant that would give him more control over the car he wanted to design, now known as the Model A. The Model A would be the lightest car ever made, simple and durable. It was the culmination of all of his tinkering and designing. It would be assembled along a line that would ensure speed of production.

With the assembly plant ready, Ford worked hard at getting the team of workers to churn out fifteen cars a day—a rather high number back then. He oversaw every aspect of the production—it was his car from the inside out. He even worked on the assembly line, endearing himself to the workers. Orders started pouring in for the well-made yet inexpensive Model A, and by 1904 the Ford Motor Company had to expand its operations. Soon it would be one of the few survivors from the early era of the automobile business, and a giant in the making.

Henry Ford had one of those minds that was naturally attuned to the mechanical. He had the power of most great inventors—the ability to visualize the parts and how they functioned together. If he had to describe how something worked, Ford would inevitably take a napkin and sketch out a diagram rather than use words. With this type of intelligence, his apprenticeships on machines were easy and fast. But when it came to mass producing his inventions, he had to confront the fact that he did not have the requisite knowledge. He needed an additional apprenticeship in becoming a businessman and entrepreneur. Fortunately, working on machines had developed in him a kind of practical intelligence, patience, and way of solving problems that could be applied to anything.

When a machine malfunctions you do not take it personally or grow despondent. It is in fact a blessing in disguise. Such malfunctions generally show you inherent flaws and means of improvement. You simply keep tinkering until you get it right. The same should apply to an entrepreneurial venture. Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies. It is hard to find out such things from people, as they are often political with their praise and criticisms. Your failures also permit you to see the flaws of your ideas, which are only revealed in the execution of them. You learn what your audience really wants, the discrepancy between your ideas and how they affect the public. Pay close attention to the structure of your group—how your team is organized, the degree of independence you have from the source of capital. These are design elements as well, and such management issues are often hidden sources of problems.

Think of it this way: There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done. In fact, it is a curse to have everything go right on your first attempt. You will fail to question the element of luck, making you think that you have the golden touch. When you do inevitably fail, it will confuse and demoralize you past the point of learning. In any case, to apprentice as an entrepreneur you must act on your ideas as early as possible, exposing them to the public, a part of you even hoping that you’ll fail. You have everything to gain.


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.