People used to work their way up from apprentices to journeymen to master craftsmen. This involved seven-year apprenticeships as indentured servants living, eating and working alongside master craftsmen and their families. While some of that is way out of date, some of it still makes sense.

Gallup suggests strengths are made up of talent, knowledge and skills. Adding experience and craft takes that to a different, even more valuable level.


  • Innate talent – born with or not
  • Learned knowledge – from books, classes, training
  • Practiced skills – from intentional, deliberate repetition
  • Hard-won experience – digested from real-world mistakes
  • Apprenticed craft – artistic care and sensibilities absorbed from masters over time


These build on each other.


Gallup defines talent as “the natural capacity for excellence.” But in Bounce, Matthew Syed suggests talent is a myth and it all comes down to practice. They could both be right in that it may be possible to overcome some lack of talent with deliberate practice. But having innate talent has to make it easier.


Almost every society on the planet agrees that education is a basic human right. Investing in learning always pays off. The more people learn about a subject, the better.


As the old saying goes, “What’s the best way to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. Practice. Practice.” But, as many have pointed it out, aimless, random practice gets you nowhere. Skills are built with intentional, deliberate repetition of important things so they become second nature.


To benefit from our mistakes, we have to be in a position to a) make them, b) understand them, and c) digest them so we don’t repeat them.

Practice works for things people do on their own. For things people do together or with an impact on others, people need experience.

Consider an orchestra preparing for a concert. Each learns their part of the music. Each practices to sharpen their skills. Both are necessary, but no sufficient. They need to rehearse together to build a shared experience and make their mistakes then and not in the performance.

This is part of why Eisenhower invaded North Africa before Europe – so his soldiers could get experience in battles they could afford to lose before engaging in the ones they could not afford to lose.


Craft-level artistic care and sensibilities are not innate talents. They can’t be learned. You can’t practice them. And while experience is important, it’s not enough. Real mastery of a craft is handed down from master to apprentice over an extended period of time.

Theater legend Oscar Hammerstein handed down his craft to Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim saw Hammerstein as a surrogate father, worked as a $25/week gofer at age 17 on Hammerstein’s show Allegro, and devoted himself to Hammerstein’s tutorials on rhyme, characterization and storytelling, and demanding homework.

College coaching legend Nick Saban (Alabama) was an apprentice to NFL coaching legend Bill Belichick (Patriots) for four years before going to Alabama. Their attention to detail, systems and processes are still so similar that players moving from Alabama to the Patriots hardly feel like they are switching coaches.

Great sushi chefs start their apprenticeships with years of rice making.

No one goes straight from medical school to being a surgeon. They spend years as residents (apprentices.)

Eisenhower learned his craft as a general by serving on the general staff of several other great generals (as an apprentice) before he ever commanded armies in battle.

Implications for you

Know what you want from the people you’re developing, including yourself; and know what you’re willing to invest to get it. Knowledge and skills always matter. Hard-won experience takes you to the next level – only if it is hard-won. Mastering a craft requires a whole different level of commitment.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #744) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

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