The Success Strategy I Wish I Could Give My Younger Self
At the height of the financial crisis in 1975, Bill Belichick — the now six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach of the New England Patriots — was 23 years old and unemployed. Desperate for a job in football after an assistant position fell through, he wrote some 250 letters to college and professional football coaches, according to his biographer David Halberstam. Nothing came of it except a job with the Baltimore Colts that paid $25 a week.
The Colts’ head coach desperately needed someone to break down and analyze game footage. Most people would have hated this job — especially back then, without the help of today’s sophisticated statistical-analysis programs — but it turned out to be the springboard that launched Belichick into his legendary (albeit complicated) career.
In this lowly position, Belichick thrived on what was considered grunt work. Said coach Ted Marchibroda: “You gave him an assignment and he disappeared into a room and you didn’t see him again until it was done, and then he wanted to do more.”
Most importantly, he made the other coaches look good. His insights gave them things they could give their players. It gave them an edge they would take credit for.
This is a strategy all of us ought to follow, whatever stage of our careers we happen to be in (or how we feel about the New England Patriots): Forget credit. Do the work.
I’m lucky someone told me that early on, when I was starting out as an assistant in Hollywood. Forget credit so completely, they said, that you’re glad when other people get it instead of you. The best thing you can do is make the boss look good.
It ended up being pretty decent advice, but I certainly wouldn’t have moved up as quickly as I have if I had only worked on the way people saw my bosses. Now that I’ve been around a bit, the lesson I’d give a younger version of myself is this: Find canvases for other people to paint on.
That could mean coming up with great ideas to hand over to your boss. It could mean finding tasks nobody else wants to do, and doing them. It could mean identifying leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. It could mean finding like-minded thinkers and introducing them to each other, crossing wires to create new sparks.
With the canvas strategy, as I call it, you’re helping yourself by helping others, making a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff. It’s something I’ve used throughout my career — as a research assistant for bestselling authors, as head of marketing for American Apparel, and now as a writer and media strategist — and it has yet to fail me.
There’s a common character that transcends generations — that of the angry, underappreciated genius who is forced to do stuff she doesn’t like for people she doesn’t respect as she makes her way in the world. How dare they force me to grovel like this. The injustice, the waste.
But when you enter a new field, you can usually be sure of a few things:
- You’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are.
- If you disagree, you have an attitude that needs to be readjusted.
- Most of what you think you know, or most of what you learned in books or in school, is out of date or wrong.
There’s one extraordinary way to work all of that out of your system: Attach yourself to people in organizations who are already successful, then move forward with them simultaneously. That’s the canvas strategy. It takes humility, but it also pays great dividends.
Imagine if, for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them, something that entirely benefitted them and not you. The cumulative effects of this approach over time would be profound.
You would learn a great deal by solving diverse problems.
You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable.
You’d have countless new relationships.
You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road.
Yes, it’s easier to get hung up on ego, to be envious of those with more means or experience, to tell yourself that every second not spent doing your work or working on yourself is a waste of your gift. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory. But doing so is hardly as effective.
The canvas strategy is a rewarding and infinitely scalable approach. Each time you use it, consider it an investment in relationships and in your own development. If you pick up this mantle once, you’ll see what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating: The canvas shapes the painting.