This is The Accomplishment That Matters Most

A few years ago, Tim Ferriss asked if I would come over for dinner. It was clear he wanted to ask me something, although he wouldn’t say what. I really could not have guessed that he was asking permission to hire away my research assistant Hristo Vassilev to run his podcast, which Hristo has done ever since.

A couple years later, Tim would poach my actual assistant, Loni, too.

The reason for the dinner is that Tim is a good guy and more, Hristo had told Tim he would only accept the job if I was OK with it–but neither of them needed to worry. You should absolutely take the job, I said to Hristo. This is the kind of thing I was training you for.

I’m of course very proud of the books I have written and the things I’ve been able to do. I like accomplishing things. I like my success. But anyone who has seen someone they’ve discovered or mentored or opened doors for knows that there is something truly amazing about watching them succeed, when they go on to bigger and better things.

I just had this experience last month. Brent Underwood started as my intern more than a decade ago at the marketing company I was building. Actually, I hired several interns but he was the one that stuck.

Last month, I interviewed him on a very special day: He had just released his first book with Penguin Random House. That would have felt surreal enough if it weren’t for the fact that the book was about a town he owned and had turned into a hugely popular YouTube channel called Ghost Town Living. I have a bunch of plaques on my wall for my appearances on the bestseller list…but I took an incredible amount of pleasure and pride in designing one for his book (which debuted on the New York Times, USA Today and Publisher’s Weekly lists). It won’t hang on my wall, but it will look great on his.

To be clear, I’ve had some assistants and employees that didn’t work out. I’ve had some who I wouldn’t recommend to anyone and others who have just gone on to live normal lives. I’m by no means a perfect picker of talent or potential. But I think I’m pretty good. My last assistant currently runs a large nonprofit.  My current researcher, Billy Oppenheimer, now also works for Rick Rubin and sold his first book last year (he has a great newsletter I read every Sunday).

“Let the honor of your students be as dear to you as your own,” Rabbi Elazar famously said. It’s a wonderful little line, a thought I return to often.

In sports, a “coaching tree” is defined by the coaches and players and executives that a coach has discovered, hired, and mentored and what they go on to do in their careers. That’s a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot. I ended up doing a chapter on it in the new book, actually (BTW–you can preorder Right Thing, Right Now… right here if you want to take advantage of some of the awesome preorder bonuses we’re doing), because it deserves to be recognized outside of sports.

It’s just a wonderful way to measure a life.

By all-time wins, someone like Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs is a great coach. Five NBA championships, twenty-two winning seasons, two Olympic medals (one gold, one bronze) and a winning percentage of .657 But his coaching tree is unreal. Players like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili and Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard and now Wemby. At one point, nearly 30 percent of all the coaches in the NBA had worked for or played under Popovich, and his protégés have, independently, won eleven championships as head coaches (and one G League championship). Five times, someone from his tree has been named the NBA Coach of the Year. Of the current twenty-three black head coaches and GMs in the NBA, seven spent time under Popovich at the Spurs. Becky Hammon, the 2022 WNBA Head Coach of the Year, spent eight years with the Spurs, where she was the first female assistant coach in the NBA and the first to serve as an acting head coach after an ejected Popovich designated her his replacement (she won two-straight WNBA titles as a coach too).

Gregg Popovich’s coaching tree is so extensive, as one sportswriter put it, that it’s actually more like a coaching forest.

What a legacy! Because each one of the coaches and players he shaped has shaped and helped others, starting their own coaching trees that continue on.

Emerson wrote a lot of wonderful things, but one of his sentences is stuck permanently in my head for its sweetness and generosity and prescience. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Emerson gushed in a letter to a struggling Walt Whitman in 1855 (which Whitman promptly added as a blurb to the front of his then undiscovered, self-published masterpiece Leaves of Grass).

How lovely is that?

Without Emerson, the careers of Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Ellery Channing, Amos Bronson Alcott, and later William James (Emerson’s godson) and Alcott’s daughter Louisa May Alcott, would have gone very differently. And what of the people their work inspired? Who became poets because of Whitman or because they read Emerson’s essays 100+ years later?

Socrates had a coaching tree of about thirty-three students that we know of. We are all footnotes to Plato, it has been said, but Plato was himself a footnote to Socrates. There was a guy named Thomas Wentworth Higginson who translated Epictetus into English and led one of the first black regiments in the US Civil War. These are incredible accomplishments. But what a feather in his cap that he also helped discover and publish the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

That’s what I like about Popovich’s coaching tree. He didn’t just create a bunch of replicas of himself. Steve Kerr is a very different coach. Becky Hammon and Monty Williams look very different and come from very different places. Nor are all the coaches people he “discovered.” Some are people he gave second chances to. Or gave a safe landing in San Antonio. Maybe he gave them a job or recommended them for one somewhere else. Maybe he spoke up for them during a controversy. The point is, he used his clout, his resources, and his organization–a lot of time to mutual benefit, but sometimes out of pure kindness. That’s a powerful thing.

I can’t write about coaching trees without mentioning my mentor, Robert Greene, who taught me so much about not only writing, but life. It’s funny, Robert talked about “never outshining the master” and “let others do all the work but take all the credit” in the 48 Laws of Power, yet in reality, he’s generous, patient and supportive. No one has helped me more in my career.

How can I possibly repay him? I can’t…all we can do for a great mentor is to pay it forward.

I carry a debt now and I am only able to discharge it through Hristo or Brent or Billy or the random people who email me and ask for advice. I pay it forward through the work that I do. I pay it forward through writing this article if one person supports one person after reading it.  That’s the thing about coaching trees: they’ll die if you don’t tend to them, they survive through grafting and through reproduction.

At the end of your career and your life, you’re going to look back and be proud of your accomplishments. If these were achieved selfishly or solitarily though, it will seem empty and sad. At the end, you’ll be thinking about people. You’re going to think about what your kids have been able to do. You’ll be just as proud of what other people have done, what you’ve been a part of and connected to.

But only if you put the work into it now…working as hard to help others as you do yourself.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.