From Goofy to Great

UPDATED: August 17, 2012
PUBLISHED: August 17, 2012

When people talk about the 1997 film Devil's Advocate—which, admittedly, is rare—they bring up Al Pacino’s over-the-top performance as the devil (and maybe Charlize Theron’s less-clothed scenes). But there’s a terrific through-line in the movie that no one really talks about. Pacino, advising hot-shot lawyer Keanu Reeves, says, “No matter how good you are, don’t ever let them see you coming. That’s the gaffe, my friend.”

In the business world or even in our everyday lives, no one wants to be underestimated. Everyone wants to be celebrated—the star, the go-to talent. But being underestimated is an underestimated virtue.

When actor Jonah Hill first broke into movies, he did it playing schlubby dudes in comedy hits such as Superbad , Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Make no mistake: He was great at it, and all those films were major hits. Still, seven years ago, no one thought much about Jonah Hill. Meanwhile, he was already working behind the scenes.

Now let’s sum up his past two years: He was a writer, producer and star in the hit 21 Jump Street, and he created, wrote and starred in the animated Fox television series Allen Gregory. He also dropped significant weight after starring opposite Brad Pitt in Moneyball, a serious role that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

He told Esquire that during filming for Moneyball, when people asked him what he was working on, he would say, “I’m making an underdog movie. I’m making a movie about people who are taken at face value and aren’t seen for more than what they are at first appearance.… My character is basically invisible to the world. But the two of them change the way people think about a sport.”

Now, seemingly overnight, this schlubby comedy dude—the underdog—is a major player. And no one saw him coming.

“It is a little weird to me that he is now friends with Brad Pitt,” joked Hill’s good friend and frequent co-star Seth Rogan.

It was no accident. He’d been setting this stage for years, but no one paid much attention. For example, did you know that Hill was an associate producer on Sacha Baron Cohen’s film, Bruno?

After Moneyball, Hill was offered a role in Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained, though Hill couldn’t take it because of his schedule. “I was thrilled that [Tarantino] wanted me to be in it, and I’ve been offered a lot of dramas since,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “As I mature, my sensibilities have changed. I think once you get to a certain place, your career is all about delegating time and what you want to spend your time doing.”

Does that sound like a guy who thinks his success is accidental? Nothing happens for anyone in any field without talent. But go against your instincts: Question any “star” ambitions you have and consider the benefits of being underestimated. A lot can be accomplished below the radar. And when you deliver, your success has that much more impact.

You might love hearing: “We never saw you coming.”