The Canvas Strategy

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.

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.