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Why Tom Brady Had To Come Back

True confession: I’m a Tom Brady fan (please don’t stop reading).

But when I saw that Tom Brady was coming out of retirement to go back to football, I had mixed feelings. I’m partly a fan of Brady for his talent, but even more so because he has lasted. I love seeing some level of permanence in an increasingly “disposable” culture. But there is a graveyard of quarterbacks (and athletes) who have stayed one season too long, both in sports and in workplaces. In my book on succession I call this “Brett Farve Syndrome.”

Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time. And GOATs tend to do what nobody else has. So maybe he will wear another Super Bowl ring. And I’ll admire his commitment to one craft all the more.

But too often, people stay too long in one spot. When talking about Brady’s un-retirement with my wife, she asked a great question: “I wonder if he’s coming back because he doesn’t know how to do anything else?”

Contrast that to the life of John Madden. Earlier this season when Madden died, my teenage sone referred to him as “the video game guy.” I remember him as “the Monday Night Football guy.” And my dad remembers him as “Coach Madden.” What a career.

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Mr. Madden mastered the art of pivoting long before pivoting was cool. From football player, to coach, to commentary, and finally to video games- he took the sport he loved, read the ever-changing times, and diversified his work, creating a career that progressed continuously.

After years of work to make it to the NFL, John Madden was injured in his first year as a pro. So what did he do? Reinvent. He entered coaching, learned a new trade, and mastered it. Then, after winning a Super Bowl, on top of the coaching world by 42, Mr. Madden “retired” from coaching – citing burnout.

But he failed “retirement,” and entered the TV world, going on to become the voice of football, teaching so much of America the basics of the game. He won 16 Emmys in his television career. All of this from a man who spent the first part of his career with hard-nosed coaching.

Even then, Mr. Madden left commentary and became the face of EA sports video gaming. What man late in his career reinvents himself again, only to rise to the top of a brand new industry?

I’ve spent the last 13 years of my career interviewing thousands of executives and helping organizations find the very best talent for their team’s top positions. The longer I do my job, the more convinced I am that the ability to pivot careers and reinvent is a rare and golden trait.

We are in a season of turnover. As I predicted in 2020, more people than ever are re-evaluating their career. If you are considering what you want your professional career to look like over the course of your entire life, which of these men are you going to emulate? Whether you’re going to be consistent in your next steps or pivot into something entirely new, what’s the next phase for you? You only have one chance to leave a legacy, so choose wisely.


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