The Canvas Strategy

December 10, 2008 — 25 Comments

When I first got a job as an assistant in Hollywood, someone told me that the best thing I could do as an assistant was to make other people look good. It ended up being pretty decent advice but it was nowhere near the right wording. I certainly wouldn’t have moved upwards as quickly as I have if I’d just sat there and worked on the way people thought about my boss.

What he should have said was this:

 

Find canvases for other people to paint on.

 

If you’re around my age, chances are you don’t know what you’re talking about. Most of the people that email me end up being creepy or wildly uninformed, or both. There’s one fabulous way to work that out of your system: giving an extra push to people who are already good and then learning from them as they get to work.

Or maybe you’re not that and you’re a bit of a prodigy. Unfortunately there is a small psychological bias known as value attribution and what is basically means is that we let context command our subjective judgments about people’s value. So you’re still fucked. You’re either appreciated as a token ‘young person’ (see: Brazen Careerist writers) or you’re ignored entirely because you don’t have ‘perspective’. The solution for that is the the same as above – pretend that you’re humble while you amass an arsenal.

That brings us back to the strategy: Find and make canvases for other people to paint on.

The Roman’s had a loose word for the concept: anteambulo and it meant a person who cleared the path in front of their patron. If you can do that successfully, you secure a quick and educational power position.

It’s a different mindset than making other people look good, an approach that tends to imply a lot of ass kissing and ceding credit. Instead it’s finding the direction someone already intended to head and help them pack, freeing them up to focus on their strengths. The canvas strategy involves actively finding outlets for other people – in fact, actually making them better rather than simply looking so.

3 Keys:

1) Find new trains of thought to hand over for them to explore. Track down angles and contradictions and analogies that they can use. Ex: I was reading the biography of ______, I think you should look at it because there may be something you can do with the imagery.

2) Find outlets, people, associations, and connections. Cross wires to create new sparks. Ex: I know _________, and I think you two should talk. Have you thought about meeting ____?

3) Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Ex: You don’t need to do ___________ anymore, I have an idea for improving the process, let me try it so you can worry about something else.

In other words, discover opportunities to promote their creativity, find outlets and people for collaboration, and eliminate distractions that hinder their progress and focus. It is a rewarding and infinitely scalable power strategy. From what I can tell, it’s one of the few that age does not limit. It’s one you can do now – before you have a job, before you’re hired and while you’re doing something else. Maybe, like I have, you’ll find that there’s no reason to ever stop doing it, even once you’ve graduated to heading your own projects.

You don’t need email me, or Tucker or Ben or anyone else you want to work for anymore to ask how you can help. The Canvas Strategy is there. If you take it, you’ll realize what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating: the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas dictates the painting.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

25 responses to The Canvas Strategy

  1. Is there anyway to view all your blog posts in one single .doc file? I’m going through the archive putting them into a chronological order so I can read all of it.

  2. Excellent post, Ryan. Thanks.

  3. One of the most impressive people I have met this year is someone who excels at this one skill, and I think that’s what makes him stand out.

    Your description and explanation of what I’ve seen him doing are useful to me and certainly to others as well. Thanks for putting the post together.

  4. I generally like your posts, but every so often you produce something that I really enjoy, that somehow answers a question that I could not quite put to words.

    In this case, I reckon that I have wondered how you approach and grab the ear of more important figures without completely ingratiating yourself. For me, it’s more than just a question of ass kissing, but rather an issue about potentially “ceding credit” when one could find a more mutually beneficial strategy — and it seems that you have a solid, well-articulated grasp on that strategy.

    Your second key, in particular, reminds me of some of the roles (Connectors and Mavens) suggested by Gladwell in ‘The Tipping Point’. Was this a primary source of inspiration, or did other readings also support the development of that key?

  5. Well Gladwell’s concept of the connector is more for spreading ideas but sure. Tim Ferriss is a better example.

  6. Awesome post. This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell a little as well, but more importantly I think it really ties in with your posts about creating a new media resume.

    It’s so easy to email someone a link or an article or whatever that you think may be of value to someone. You can tag a bookmark for someone on delicious so it shows up in their inbox with a helpful note from you, “I think this could be relevant for your marketing strategy” or whatever. It costs nothing except a little time, and it can get your foot in the door.

  7. Ryan, I have an idea for a blog where I rate my friends’ families out of ten. Do you think people would enjoy this?

  8. @Sam

    Perhaps the general audience would, but would the families in question appreciate it?

    From a value-perspective: who are you to judge these people, and what does it add to your potential blog?

    What does this say about you?

  9. Sam, please tell me you’re being facetious.

    Ryan, how about a new blog where you just write about your new ideas and strategies exclusively? I think people would enjoy this.

  10. Can I just do it here though?

  11. Great advice–why is left out of major career books, like Carnegie’s How to Influence People? This should definitely be an addendum.

  12. Really liked this post.

    It’s weird, seeing this broken down in keys. These things always came natural to me or maybe I just decided this was the type of person I wanted to be at an early age. I had a lot of people influencing me at a young age, so I probably picked up on this and deal with everyone in my life like this on a daily basis.

    Just to add something that hasn’t been discussed that is somewhat related. I had a good friend in high school that was very popular. What made this guy so popular is not only had he built a great amount of value in himself, but whenever he interacted with anyone, he would put that person up on a pedestal and make them feel like the most important person in the world. He was able to do this while throwing a spotlight on your specific qualities unique to you, and enhancing them with his own spin. The guy showed me a lot. It works best if you are a good listener, have the confidence to react, and own a dynamic personality yourself. I feel that’s kind of similar to these principles.

  13. I just saw Tim Ferris’s article on Napoleon. It’s cool to see you actually using this. Very impressive.

  14. Just found this post after trying to work out what the new book is about. This sums it up nicely! I’m interested… Wish I had read this when I was young- and was able to remove the ego- to enact the strategy!

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