Friday, March 26, 2010
My second paying job out of high school was as an apprentice scientific instrument maker in the machine shop at the National Bureau of Standards. I was the first candidate accepted into their apprenticeship program. Once accepted, I spent the next four years learning the art and craft of using hand and machine tools to make useful items out of metal. When I graduated four years later as a journeyman, I knew how to grind my own tools and mount them correctly in the machines. I knew how to operate the machines themselves, some of which had seemed as complex as a multi-engine aircraft when I first saw them. By the end of my time, I was able to build complex assemblies from scratch. Moreover, at the end of the day I was able to point to or hold something in my hand and say with a degree of pride "There it is. I made it. And it's right." I owe my trade to a succession of senior mechanics who were entrusted with the responsibility of passing their skills to me. These men would show me how something was done, and stand by to see that I did it right. They showed me how to check my own work and then followed through by checking it exactly as they had taught me. And they exercised extreme patience when my fumble-fingered first attempts produced not the desired item but a useless piece of scrap. As I worked under the guidance of my instructors, I learned that each of them had at least one person whom they considered to be a better craftsman and to whom they would go for guidance when faced with a difficult set up or fabrication challenge. My instructors were quick to point these men out and to introduce me to them; they wanted to be sure I learned how to do things right, and they wanted me to learn from the best. My instructors were equally quick to point out those from whom I should not learn, lest I pick up bad habits. Through their actions, those who gave me my trade made me want to be like them, a master of the craft. Mostly by example, my instructors taught me the truth of words first spoken by Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit." My apprenticeship not only gave me a trade; it taught me to practice excellence, to make it a habit, and in all things to become a master of the craft. And that has made all of the difference in the world.