Permissionless Apprenticeships: How To Really Find A Mentor

Darth Vader Being An Apprentice And Kneeling Before Emperor Palpatine

I once sent Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired Magazine and all-around Most Interesting Man Alive, a long-winded email asking him if I should drop out of college or not. The email had headers and sub-headers, a full bio, the whole nine yards. I asked a boatload of questions and kinda expected the answers to all my problems.

The response was... a two-sentence email.

Embarrassed and a little dejected, I went ahead and dropped out anyway.

In retrospect, his response makes total sense. I had unknowingly acted on some of the worst advice out there. I had tried to "Find a mentor".

Don't *Find* A Mentor

Wether it's Tai Lopez telling you all about his 'Knawledge' in his garage or Robert Kyosaki telling you to find your 'Rich Dad', you'd be forgiven for believing that finding a mentor is a surefire way to massive success. You sure as hell get bombarded by the message whenever you visit certain corners of the internet. But it just doesn't work like that.

"Go find a mentor" is terrible advice.

Sure - I'd love it I could get titans of industry to help me. I'd kill to spend hours with Tim Ferriss or Robert Caro, asking them for writing advice, or to run my business ideas by Elon Musk. Here's the hard truth: that's not going to happen by sending them an email that says "Hey, I'd like you to mentor me. Thanks!" Forget it.

First off, nobody's got time to 'mentor' you. The people you want as a mentor are busy as hell - which is why they're as successful as they are. Why should they commit to an unpaid internship for several hours a week to help some snot-nosed kid? Is that really the best use of their time?

Second, you're an unproven quantity. They know nothing about you. Your skillset, personality, interests, you name it. It's why Kevin Kelly couldn't tell me anything that I (in retrospect) could not have figured out through some Googling. He didn't know the first thing about me, so he couldn't tell me anything of worth. Simply put, asking people out of the blue to mentor you is stupid.

But what if we could make these people actually want to mentor us?

Permissionless Apprenticeships

Before you can learn directly under someone, you'll need to catch their attention. And according to Jack Butcher, a Permissionless Apprenticeship is the best way to do it. It can be summarized in one phrase: Start adding value.

The best way to gain the attention of your idol is to simply start working for them in public. Don't go looking for a job description they posted that fits your skills. Instead, create your own job description. Start adding value however you can by leveraging your unique skills.

They might not know you exist (yet), but that's alright. Just focus on creating valuable work for them. The attention will come.

So whether it's coming up with ways to improve their business, new content they can share with their audience, or something else entirely, it doesn't matter. What giving as much as you can. You'll need to give before you can receive.

The point here is to give them something of great value for free.

Permissionless apprenticeship is about doing the hard work of getting really good at helping others. If you're a programmer, you can redesign their website for free or create new features they can implement. If you're a filmmaker, you can cut up their content and create video compilations they can then share with their audience. It doesn't matter how you do it.

If you stick with it long enough and provide enough A-level work, your prospective mentor will inevitably take note.

In a best-case scenario, they'll realize you could be an amazing addition to their team and hire you on the spot. Worst-case, they share your work and give you a ton of free exposure. It's the ultimate positive-sum game.

Permissionless Apprenticeship: A How-To

Permissionless Apprenticeships are all about adding value. I know I sound like a broken record, but it's quite true. How you add value doesn't matter — though shoveling their driveway won't necessarily get you a lot of attention.

You're opting to be their unpaid employee. And the best employees add value. So you should start doing just that.

Start consistently delivering and overdelivering on value. Blow them away by how much you're willing to do for them. Give them an idea of how great an employee/mentee/Padawan you'd be.

To start your Permissionless Apprenticeship, there's four questions you should ask yourself:

1 - How Can You Add Value?

What unique skills do you have that you can use? Are you a programmer? A writer? Perhaps a videographer, business consultant, or dog whisperer? Whatever it is, figure out what would be most relevant to prospective mentors.

2 - What Are Your Main Interests?

What projects, industries, and topics are you most interested in? What would you absolutely love to work at? 

3 - Who are the people you want to work with?

Who are the movers and shakers in your industry? Who are the people you look up to? Most importantly, who are the people you would love to work for?

Make a list. Then pick the top three. Then the top one.

You've just found the person you're going to apprentice under.

4 - What will your job description be?

Combine your skills from Question 1 and the potential mentor from Question 3.

List out the ideas you have for adding value. What projects can you undertake that leverage your skillset? What exact project can you do? What's the smallest thing you can get started off with?

Then start doing it. Do the best work you can and share it on social media.

If you want a visual aid to help you in this process, Kurt Bostelaar created a great worksheet that you can download here.

There's one very important thing you need to remember.

It doesn't matter who you've got your eyes on. What industry you're in. Or what skill you specialize in. If you've got some relevant skill, you can leverage it. It doesn't matter how you do it, all that matters is you add value.

Your mentor might not take note right away. They're busy. They can't spend all day on Twitter. But just keep at it.

Day after day, week after week, keep producing value. Eventually, they'll take note.

Apprenticeships Work

Permissionless Apprenticeships are not a new phenomenon. They've been leveraged to great success in the past.

The 19th century physicist Michael Faraday took to sweeping floors just to get close to his hero Humphry Davy - the preeminent scientist of his day.

More recently, venture capitalist and billionaire Chris Sacca recalled in 'Tools of Titans' how he used to sit in on meetings while working at Google. Even if he wasn't invited to them, he'd just sit down. When asked what he was doing, he would reply that he was taking notes for them. It worked. He became a fixture in those meetings and got inside access to the highest levels of Google.

No matter how you do it, only focus on generating value. It might not pay off right away, but long-term doors will open for you. If others get results from our work, this in return helps you build a reputation for doing things you couldn't claim before. Even if nothing else works out, you can put the work in your portfolio and leverage it in the future.

Blake Masters & Peter Thiel

In 2012, Blake Masters attended a Stanford class called 'CS183: Startup', given by Peter Thiel. Just a couple of miles from where Chris Sacca sat in on Google meeting, Blake decided on his own Permissionless Apprenticeship.

During the entire course, he would take insanely detailed notes on the lectures. He then shared them on his personal blog as essays.

It blew up. It got shared hundreds of times. And Peter Thiel took note.

Shortly afterwards, Thiel and Masters reworked the lecture notes into 'Zero to One', which has since sold millions of copies.

Less than a decade after he decided to take it upon himself to transcribe Thiel's lectures, Blake is now the president of the Thiel Foundation and the COO of Thiel Capital.

Because he delivered enormous value, Thiel took note. That was all it took.

The Profile: Dwayne Johnson

Another great example are Polina Marinova Pompliano's profiles on celebrities such as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Elon Musk. These in-depth features, which might as well be called 'Permissionless Profiles', are incredibly detailed pieces on the philosophies, strategies, and tactics of these ultra-successful people.

By working in public and providing massive value, she managed to get her profile of the Rock to be noticed by the man himself, leading to massive exposure. The profile she did on him was shared on both his twitter with 15M+ followers and his Instagram with an eye-watering 220M+ followers.

At it's core, a Permissionless Apprenticeship is a true positive-sum game. You get experience, exposure, and potentially access to your mentor and your mentor gets a bunch of valuable work for free.

Value Above Everything

In the end, we don't get something just by asking for it. We don't get what we deserve. We get what we work for.

The best and brightest are busier and harder to reach than ever before. The internet has given everyone the equivalent of a loudspeaker. It's hard to stand out from the noise. And if you want to access and work directly under these people, that's exactly what you'll need to do.

Just like we'll remember a random act of kindness for months and years after the fact, so will people remember you spontaneously adding value. So instead of honing your cover letter or doing another extracurricular in order to pad your CV, maybe start trying something else.

Start working for your mentor. Start adding value.

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