He disappeared into a room, and you didn’t see him again until it was done

Friday, August 7th, 2020

Ryan Holiday illustrates the best career advice he ever received with a story from the NFL:

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, according to his biographer David Halberstam, he wrote some 250 letters to college and professional football coaches. Nothing came of it except a unpaid job for the Baltimore Colts.

The Colts’ head coach desperately needed someone for the one part of the job everyone else disliked: analyzing film.

Most people would have hated this job, especially back then, but it turned out to be the springboard through which the greatest coach in football was launched into his legendary career.

In this lowly position, Belichick thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it, and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for. “He was like a sponge, taking it all in, listening to everything,” one coach said. “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,” said another.

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 exploiting in the game.

It’s a strategy that all of us ought to follow, whatever stage of our careers we happen to be in. Forget credit. Do the work.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    I’ve done grunt work. It didn’t pay off for me this way.

    I’ve also done high paying work, and got stuck with the blame for decisions made by others. That’s how you make others look good, and it sucks.

    What matters more than credit or the work is having a boss who won’t screw you over. That’s the right lesson to take from this. Cherish the good bosses.

    By the way, isn’t Ryan Holiday self employed? As a kind of spin doctor? Oh, wait. He’s an author now. He’s got a book out: Trust Me, I’m Lying.

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    I’m nothing special as a precision machine maintenance person, but I’m known to be reliable and ‘expert’ at least compared to the average folks. Keeping that reputation means something to me personally. My advice to the younger is to become an expert at something in your field through knowledge and willingness to learn. I give this advice to apprentices or to those heading into the military. Be known for something so that your name is associated with getting the job done. Do it for yourself even if the boss is an ass who takes the credit.

  3. Jim says:

    If you have a “boss” you have already lost the game.

    Try owning your own sales process.

    That’s a good start.

    Or be owned by another man.

    Whatever, it’s your life.


  4. Mike in Boston says:

    If you have a “boss” you have already lost the game.

    I have a boss.

    He’s better at bringing in clients than I am.

    He puts in more hours writing bids than I do.

    He puts me to work for his clients when I don’t have enough work of my own, which is often.

    When I help keep his clients happy, he is happy.

    I am not as natural as this particular game as he is, but for as long as I keep trying to improve at it, I am confident that he’ll help me learn to play it better.

    Of course, your mileage (and boss) may vary.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    Mike, a good boss is an ally. But not all bosses are good bosses.

    When I was young, the conventional wisdom was you get an education and a gray flannel suit and then get a job as an employee at some company with health insurance and a 401-K and that’s it. This is what they tell you. That’s the blue pill. Be a good boy and everything will be fine.

    Then your first place of employment gets shut down, and you start to think you’ve been sold a bill of goods.

    Then you notice that your second employer keeps bringing in outsiders and consultants instead of promoting from within.

    And then you’re red pilled.

    I’ve had good bosses. God bless them. But I’ve had more bad bosses than good bosses. And the best boss I’ve ever had was me. That boss always had my best interests at heart. He screwed up a lot – as they all do – but he always learned better – as they don’t all do.

    Capitalism is creative destruction. Everything is temporary. Loyalty (except to self) is not inherently a virtue. All employment is temporary by nature. The only thing wrong with all that from my point of view is nobody told me. The game is just fine, just not the game they told me I’d be playing.

    Also it hurts that I got zero education that was relevant to the way the world actually works. I had to learn everything the hard way.

    Maybe if I’d taken a lot of business courses in college instead of focusing on technical skills I’d have been in better shape. Or maybe not. I took some of those courses later, and they seemed like a lot of flimflam.

  6. Ghost Sniper says:

    Mike sed: “I am not as natural as this particular game…”

    It doesn’t come natural for anyone, everyone has to learn how to be free. After all, all of us endured at least 12 years of slave mind washing.

    You learned how to be a slave and you can learn to not be a slave too. The choice is yours.

    FWIW, I am a mostly self taught architect and structural engineer and I had 31 jobs by the time I was 30 years old and decided I just couldn’t take it any more and started my own business, learning something new every day. I’ve been self employed since 1986 and will die as free as I can be.

    You have to want it. Most people have become accustomed to the yoke.

  7. Dr. Dog says:

    I would add a twist to Wang Wei Lin’s comment. It is not sufficient to be ‘expert’. One must be expert in that ‘one thing’ that makes the company tick. Every company has a bread and butter mission that is essential. Be THAT guy/gal.

    Doing so takes one off a beaten track somewhat. You have to understand how your firm earns its money, even if you are a machinist. What is gained is you know better than most how your function affects the company better than anyone else. But there is an additional plus, you can pretty much have defined your career path if that is your desire. There is more to ‘follow the money’ that its associated with a crime drama.

  8. The Great Leap Forward says:

    Production is obsolete as part of the vaunted service economy. Let me serve you some ice with your 64oz. sugar water. Here are some free pop up ads. Catch me on social media for cancel culture approved hivemind groupthink videos and memes.

  9. Bill says:

    Here in the USA it is really criminal negligence, IMO, the way we give young people absolutely NO vocational testing,training, mentorship and guidance, unless they enter the military, in which case they will get some of this, or they have the very good fortune to be born into a family with a family business, which can be a good default position for making your way in the world.

    Instead the older generations breezily throw bromides at them, or if pressed, tell them to read ‘What Color is Your Rainbow’. So we end up with millions of seriously unhappy young adults using drugs and antidepressants, displaying worthless college degrees, going rudderless through life.

    Other countries, specifically Germany, Switzerland, Russia and many others, have kids sit for a battery of vocational aptitude tests that direct the student’s educational direction and early career goals. It’s not a perfect system but it’s SOMETHING whereas we offer our young people NOTHING, and then when our failure to plan becomes planning to fail we default to telling the kids that they are LAZY, morally deficient, because after all this is America and all you have to do is double down, triple down, even if don’t really know what the fuck you are doing.

    Horatio Alger needs to die.

  10. Waiting for the Storm says:

    I never turned down an assignment. Well, once, when it was the equivalent of professional suicide (and I paid dearly for it). I volunteered for the worst, least glamorous jobs around. For diversions, I found small, quick tasks that would have a big impact quickly. I did everything with enthusiasm and completely. Most times, early delivery under budget. I never blamed anyone else for my own failings and gave credit when it was due.

    I had fun and was reasonably successful, in a geeky sort of way. I was, also, the go away and show up with the answer type of guy.

  11. Robert Orians says:

    I started out after a major career disruption as a grunt . I was the best fookin’ grunt the guy ever had . He bragged on me and I soon started a better job . After a half dozen better jobs I became the head of a large company north of the Mason-Dixon and retired at that position . I never sucked a$$ nor did I even once snitch . I worked hard and played fair . And prayed and paid !

  12. Jim says:


    He sounds like a decent guy.

    If he is teaching you to fish then it is a very different thing than if he is doing some other thing.

    Indeed, if you foresee yourself, at some definite future point, able to leave his aegis and strike out for yourself, he is more a mentor than a boss.

    “Boss” is a subtly pejorative word, indicating subjection, suggesting the chief mechanism of subjection, specialization, i.e., compartmentalization.

    And always is there the Eternal Question:

    Do you prefer hard liberty before the easy yoke of servile pomp?

  13. Jim says:


    Decisionmakers bring in “outsiders” firstly because they (the outsiders) are swayed less by perverse institutional interests and secondly because they (the decisionmakers) enjoy the company of free men.

    Capitalism is a fancy word for ROI, or return on investment, where “return” means “more than you put in”. Thus, “returning value to shareholders”.

    Because all value is created not by workers but by owners, it is only fair that the equity value of the economy be preserved under all circumstances.

    This is how the world actually works.


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