Distant Mentors

“One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.”

Friedrich Nietzsche


The renowned business leader Bill Gates has a distant mentor that he looks up to — A person he has never met, who lived in a different generation — And that person is the physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman is best remembered for his contributions in the field of quantum physics, as well as for being a great teacher. He had an astonishing ability to explain complex concepts in the most fun and interesting ways, which he leveraged on by conducting a series of lectures for people who had the faintest understanding of physics.

Referring to Feynman’s explanation on the process of combustion, Gates said, “He’s taking something that is a little mysterious to most people and using very simple concepts to explain how it works. He doesn’t even tell you that he’s talking about fire until the very end, and you feel like you’re kind of figuring it out together with him.” He added, “Feynman made science so fascinating. He reminded us how much fun it is, and everybody can have a pretty full understanding. He’s such a joyful example of how we’d all like to learn and think about things.”

Much like Gates would embody in his own life and work, Feynman always pushed himself to have a deep understanding of everything he learned, and his eyes saw the world in such childlike wonder. He dedicated a video describing Feynman’s influence on him, which he titled, The Best Teacher I Never Had.

In his book Mastery, Robert Greene remarked that an “apprenticeship phase” is a crucial part in our process of mastering a craft. This is the phase where we soak up as much knowledge and practical skills as we could before we can develop our own authentic voice. Ideally, an apprenticeship involves us directly working with a mentor to streamline our learning process. This way, we can spend less valuable time on learning from avoidable mistakes, and we can learn to be more objective and detached in our work as we receive criticism and guidance from our mentor.

But of course, a good, living mentor isn’t always easy to find nearby. Under circumstances like this, a self-directed apprenticeship would be the way to go. This means you’re learning from “teachers you’ve never had” — Whether they’re living or dead — By drinking deeply from their work.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin mentioned that he learned to become a better writer by imitating and reproducing articles he read when he worked at his brother’s printing business. He said, “About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.” Franklin would channel the voices of the authors he imitated, while also adding his own preferences and improvements.

For Hunter S. Thompson, he went so far as to type out his favorite books in learning to write. Johnny Depp, who portrayed Thompson in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas said of him, “You know Hunter typed The Great Gatsby. He’d look at each page Fitzgerald wrote, and he copied it. The entire book. And more than once. Because he wanted to know what it felt like to write a masterpiece.”

According to his biographer Kevin T. McEneaney, “Thompson appropriated armloads of office supplies” for the task, and he also typed out Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and “some of Faulkner’s stories—an unusual method for learning prose rhythm.” A close reader of Thompson would be able to recognize the traces of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald in his writing — Especially the latter, as Thompson first called his Fear and Loathing book The Death of the American Dream, imaginably inspired by Fitzgerald’s first Gatsby title, The Death of the Red White and Blue.

In the case of the Nobel Prize winning songwriter Bob Dylan, he claimed that “I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.” For about 4 years, Dylan did not write any songs and only listened to folk standards — He sang them day and night, and even went to bed singing them. He knew his folk vocabulary so well that he could perform a song within just an hour of learning. Crediting folk songs for writing some of his best lyrics, he said, “If you sang (John Henry) as many times as me, you’d have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ too.”

So here are a couple of strategies for learning from distant mentors.

Firstly, go down rabbit holes. Other than devouring the works of an artist you admire, learn everything there is to know about her way of thinking — Read her essays, her letters, her interviews — So that you could have a glimpse into her mind and the thinking behind her work. That being said, it’s worth doing some research on her influences as well. Find out about the artists she likes, and look for traces in her work that would indicate how she was influenced by them. While you’re at it, repeat all the same steps for her influences too. As you do this long enough, you’ll start to see both unique qualities as well as common patterns in the artists you study.

Secondly, find the “why” behind the “what”. In an interview with Guitar Center, John Mayer gave an insight on how he studies his influences. He said, “My advice might sound a little unfun, but everything you learn — Learn the thing that is the building block for the thing you just learned. And that might be scales, instead of just parts of songs. Trace back why you like the thing, and learn the thing that made the thing you like, and you will be five times better every time you do that.”

Illustrating the intro of his song Gravity, he demonstrates that if all you learn is which notes to play, then “You don’t have an understanding of the guitar. You have an understanding of Gravity”. Instead, he suggests the learner to understand that the intro is a part of a larger scale that works across the neck of the guitar.

He challenges the learner to rip him off not by replicating Gravity, but by creating something different from the same scale. “Whatever you learn is the tip of the iceberg. Dive underwater and find the rest of the iceberg, and you can rip me off in more fundamental ways — And I mean this,” he said. “Use a different part of that scale but learn the rest of it. And then you can always play with that vocabulary.”

He added, “So everything you learn — Learn why, and then reverse-engineer it. Do it every time you want.”

As we close off this article, note that in learning from your distant mentors, you’re not trying to be like them. You’re trying to be like you. The point is to learn how your craft works, and then get your own ideas so you can create something utterly new and different.

As Austin Kleon wrote in Steal Like an Artist, “In the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.”

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