This review first ran in the Jan. 30 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
By Ryan Holiday
Portfolio / Penguin
One of the all-time greatest coaches broke into the National Football League by doing unpaid grunt work.
Bill Belichick, who’s coaching in his seventh Super Bowl this Sunday, got his start by analyzing thousands of hours of game film for the Baltimore Colts.
“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 of the Colts coaches.
Belichick didn’t demand to get paid. He didn’t tell the coaches that he was too smart and talented to waste his time watching film. He didn’t expect to be showered with praise for his insights and ideas. He didn’t walk around the office boasting that he was destined for a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.
Instead, Belichick quietly got to work, paid his dues and adopted what Ego is the Enemy author Ryan Holiday calls the canvas strategy.
It’s a strategy where you help yourself by helping others. You trade short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff. “Find canvases for others to paint on. Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be respected, you can forget credit. You can forget it so hard that you’re glad when others get it instead of you – that was your aim, after all. Let the others take the credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal.”
The culminating effect of the canvas strategy is profound, says Holiday. You learn from solving diverse problems for other people. You earn a reputation for being indispensable. You develop new relationships and build a bank of favours that you can later cash in.
We can adopt the canvas strategy at any time and at any stage in our careers. “Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself. The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction; just as the canvas shapes the painting.”
Following the canvas strategy is one way to keep our egos in check and avoid an unhealthy belief in our own importance.
Ego is our enemy, says Holiday. Ego seduces us by telling us we’re special, better than everyone else and the rules don’t apply to us. It’s “the petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility – that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.”
Learning to manage our egos will keep us humble in our aspirations, gracious in our successes and resilient in our failures.
“What is rare is not raw talent, skill or even confidence but humility, diligence and self-awareness,” says Holiday. “If the belief in yourself is not built on actual achievement you are setting yourself up for a precipitous rise followed by a calamitous fall.”
Social media does us no favours. Talk and hype have replaced quiet action away from the spotlight, warns Holiday. “We seem to think that silence is a sign of weakness. That being ignored is tantamount to death. So we talk, talk, talk as though our life depends on it. The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.”
And when faced with life’s inevitable setbacks, we console ourselves on social media and indulge in self-immolation. We cry how it isn’t fair and blame others. We traffic in conspiracy theories, promise retaliation and plot our revenge. “We don’t need pity – our own or anyone else’s,” says Holiday. “We need purpose, poise and patience.” We need stoic resilience and increased self-awareness, something that an unchecked ego will block.
Learning to supress, subsume and direct our egos is the best guarantee that we’ll make a difference and leave our mark, whether we’re leading a small business, a major organization, an NFL team or the most powerful nation in the free world.
@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999..