A couple of months ago, I read The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam (affiliate link). It’s a pretty fun read if you’re a football fan.
(Well… it’s a pretty fun read if you’re a football fan who loves the New England Patriots. I can’t say much for all of the New England haters out there.)
The book has stuck with me for a while now, and it’s not for football reasons. I can’t remember much about Belichick’s defensive strategy when he coached the Cleveland Browns. (In the end, I think that “don’t coach the Cleveland Browns” is a pretty good strategy in and of itself.) What I do remember is realizing that Belichick is one of the all-time greats, and that Halberstam does a pretty good job of showing how it all came together. I have no intentions of becoming a football coach any time soon, but I think there are some lessons that we can all take and apply to our own careers.
First and foremost, you need some natural talent. Belichick has amazing eyesight and fantastic peripheral vision. If he didn’t see well, he wouldn’t be nearly as good at breaking down game film. He’s also an intelligent man, which is kind of a prerequisite if you want eventually be known as a genius-level football strategist. All-time greats pretty much always have an advantage over the rest of us that gives them a (could be figurative, could actually be literal) leg up. We can’t all be born with Michael Phelps’ flipper-like feet or Bill Belichick’s eyesight. What we can do is be aware of the things that we’re good at, and nurture them.
Which brings me to doing what you love. Belichick took his innate talents and then worked his ass off to hone and refine them. Much of this effort can be attributed to his drive and perfectionism. But you don’t spend 10 hour days studying your opponents’ pass rush unless you eat, sleep, breathe, and (above all else) love football. Finding a job that you love and then working your ass off go hand and hand. I’m sure that there are plenty of masochists out there who can work long hours on things that they hate doing, but most of us are only going to make the effort for something that we actually enjoy doing. We can’t all be ice cream testers or rock stars, but there are enough career options out there that we should all be able to find jobs that we enjoy doing (and then I guess we can pay janitors a million bucks an hour, because I’m pretty sure there aren’t many folks out there whose passion is garbage). I feel very fortunate to have wandered my way into the AV industry, which ended up being a career path that I enjoy to the point that I program my own Crestron lights at home. I wouldn’t co-host an AV podcast or write a tech blog if I didn’t love this stuff. Loving what you do is like having a secret advantage over all of your competitors that don’t like your jobs very much.
All of the practice in the world isn’t going to be very useful if your technique is flawed. Which is why we all need to find a mentor (or coach!) to teach us how to do it right the first time. Belichick’s father, Steve, was a gifted (assistant) coach in his own right. Belichick grew up watching his dad work, and helping him out in the film room. He learned coaching fundamentals at a very young age (I’m pretty sure most other ten-year-olds would prefer to spend their days riding their bicycles). I was fortunate that my first job as a Crestron programmer put me in a junior position to an experienced programmer who was damn good at it. I learned more from him than I learned from any and all other sources. My Grandmother learned this decades ago: find someone who’s good at whatever it is that you want to do, and then ask them as many questions as you can.
Of course, all of the natural talent, hard work, determination, grit, coaching, etc won’t do much for you if you can’t find a job. And this is where it’s pretty darn useful to know a guy (or gal). After college, when Belichick was looking for work in football, his dad (remember him? already a football coach?) made a few calls on his behalf. One of them landed him his very first gig. Granted, it was low-paid and lowly. Belichick toiled in a long series of relatively menial jobs, working his ass off and working his way up. Unless your dad is the CEO of Annheuser-Busch, everyone has to start off somewhere. But it sure helps if you can get a foot in the door. We don’t all have connections that are as immediately obvious as a Dad who works in the football industry. We do, however, know people who know people. Sometimes it takes a little digging to figure out who can help you out. Something else that helps? Cultivating a reputation for hard work and excellence. I’ve found more than one job because someone I did work with told the hiring manager that I would be a great addition to their team. At a certain point, your work speaks for itself. And that can cut both ways.
So, what does this have to do with my job as a programmer? To a certain extent, I will cop to the fact that I just kinda liked the title. But owning your own career also requires a certain amount of self-awareness. Thinking about Coach Belichick and how he’s achieved everything that he’s done has given me some great perspective and insights into my own work. I know that cultivating my own passions makes work more fun, and gives me a bit of a career boost. I’m not shy about asking smart people how they would do things. And I know I won’t get anywhere by sitting on my laurels.
They say that nobody goes to their death bed wishing that they’d spent more time at the office. Most of us have to spend 40+ hours at work every week. We might as well get good at something that we enjoy doing.