Learn the Rules Like a Pro, So You Can Break Them Like an Artist.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” is attributed to Pablo Picasso. Variations of it have been used widely by people from The Dali Lama to Fashion Guru Alexander McQueen, which is where my story begins…

Once upon a time my friday evenings typically involved quality moments at the bar in Pontyclun Rugby Club. You get the picture, a robust discussion of culture, philosophy, macro-economics and global politics (and beer).

So, you can imagine how easy it was for me (8pm on a friday evening) to merge seamlessly with the crowds at The Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Waiting patiently in a very warm queue to see the sellout Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty.

I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it. High Fashion isn’t really my thing. My impressions of Alexander McQueen’s work were based upon occasionally flicking through the pages of Vogue. All pretty scary stuff as far as I could see.  

So, I’m shuffling along with the crowds, feigning interest, when I’m suddenly confronted with a quote from McQueen that changed everything. “You’ve got to know the rules to break them… That’s what I’m here for – to demolish the rules but keep the tradition”.

I was transfixed – I was immediately out of the line and pushing my way back in at the start of the exhibition. I was like a man on a mission, reading everything I could and looking at the displays with renewed interest. What on earth was going on you might now be asking.

Alexander McQueen Spent 5 Years as an Apprentice. It turns out that McQueen left his East End school (with one O Level in Art) at 16 years of age and went to work as a Tailors Apprentice in London’s Savile Row. During this period, including two years at a military tailors, he learnt how to produce beautifully tailored garments.

A Masters Degree in Fashion at St Martins College followed, and the rest is history (very interesting history as it happens). One of the things that stood out for me in the exhibition was the fact that McQueen was always recognised for his skill and ability in garment making – he knew how things worked.

When you look at what he produced in his early years, you can see this – and you know it is there with the more ‘avant grade’ productions from later years – they wouldn’t exist without that deeper understanding (even the birch plywood dress).

The quote “you’ve got to know the rules to break them….” beautifully sums up that approach. It also embodies why I think the idea of an apprenticeship (time spent learning your craft) is so very important. As Picasso said, it’s all about “learning the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.

How do Apprenticeships Work? Apprenticeships have been around since the 1300’s and have been broadly defined as ‘a person who learns a trade from a skilled employer, for a fixed period at low wages’. I think there’s a bit more to it nowadays and it is worth a look at the Wikipedia description of apprenticeships, particularly in countries like Germany and France.

It you fancy going deeper, The Educational Theory of Apprenticeship is also worth a look. This is all about ‘learning through the physical integration into practices associated with the subject’, getting your ‘hands dirty’. I particularly like the explanation of the passage of a novice through to ‘journeyman’ in 5 Phases:

  1. Modelling – the learner observes and contemplates. Basically you have a look at what the expert is doing and think about what you have seen.
  2. Approximating – in non-critical scenarios, the learner mimics the actions of the teacher. There is opportunity to make mistakes and fail in this ‘non-critical’ environment, and essential part of the learning process.
  3. Fading – the learner (still within a safety net) starts to ‘play’ with what they have learnt , and there is less dependence upon the teacher.
  4. Self Directed Learning – the learner attempts actions in the real world, where the scope is well understood. They only seek assistance from the expert when required.
  5. Generalising – the learners skills are applied to multiple scenarios in the real world as they continue to learn and grow their ability. Within each of these phases there is an emphasis upon thinking and reflecting upon what you have experienced and learnt.

I think this is a very useful model that can be applied far more widely than trade and craft apprenticeships. All sorts of activities and professions (and dare I say Leadership and Management) could benefit from people spending time going through these phases.  To sum up what I’ve picked up from my recent experiences of learning about apprenticeships:

  • They take time (typically between 2-7 years to fully learn and understand)
  • You need to know how things work (learn the rules)
  • There needs to be a ‘safe’ space to learn from mistakes (and failure)
  • You have to keep learning (or you’ll stay as a ‘Journeyman’)

Fast Track Graduate Schemes. Finally, I do wonder if there is a case for taking more of an apprenticeship approach to ‘fast track’ graduate schemes?

Based on what I’ve been reading I think that you do need time to learn how things work. You also need time to test, fail and make mistakes – it’s a key part of learning. How many fast track schemes allow this?

Ultimately you really need to learn the ‘rules’ (written and unwritten) – only then can you behave like Picasso, The Dali Lama and Alexander McQueen. It takes time, failure and hard graft.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Understanding ‘how things work’ really is necessary to perform any task or job.
  2. This will take time, commitment and a fair bit of failure, reflection and thinking, as well as the practical stuff.
  3. If you want to break the rules like a pro/effectively, you really need to understand what you are breaking, so learn them in the first place.

Thanks to my old school friend Ian Davies for also inspiring this post with our chats about apprenticeships, and for coaching one of my sons in the dark arts of quality management systems.


About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

11 Responses

  1. In public services we often rely on training as the default for personal learning and development, and it’s interesting to see a different approach highlighted. This reminded me of your post on Hackdays (http://whatsthepont.com/2015/01/29/10-of-my-development-needs-and-cardiff-nhs-hackday/) in that there are diffent ways we can take this forward that may perhaps be more effective.

    At the Cardiff Hackday Joseph showed me how the process worked, I copied him (which felt a lot like the educational approach above) and as a team we put a passable prototype together. I’ll be honest, I’m still a long way from coding, but was more useful (and cheaper) than your average course.



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