Five years ago I dropped out of a PhD program and started my first company. I had no idea what I was doing and made every mistake you could imagine. Needless to say that business didn’t last very long.
Since then I’ve gone on to start three more companies — one venture-backed, two service-based — each with varying levels of success and failure.
From these experiences there’s one lesson I’ve learned that’s remarkably simple, exceedingly powerful and virtually universal: good things happen when you’re helpful.
I was recently introduced to Ryan Holiday’s “canvas strategy”. In short, his “canvas strategy” speaks to the notion of identifying mentors and actively finding ways to support them and their missions. It’s about being humble, doing the dirty work, making them look good and learning from your experiences along the way.
“Find and make canvases for other people to paint on.”
This apprentice model has proven tremendously successful throughout history. Holiday describes the best apprentices as the ones who are able to “clear a path” for their mentors.
“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.”
However, many of us nowadays are too anxious to lead. That or we lack the humility to do the unsexy work that no one else wants to do. Yet the reality is if you clear a path for others, you ultimately help steer its course. At the same time you create a unique path for yourself.
So, how should you go about instituting your own “canvas strategy”?
When it comes to being helpful and instituting your own canvas strategy, you should attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful. Additionally, you should hone in on the shortcomings they have that you can address with your strengths.
If you can identify the right people and organizations where your strengths will compliment their weaknesses, you’ll be well-positioned to make them even more successful. At the same time you’ll see first hand how they operate, the diverse problems they solve and why they do things the way they do.
Complimentary skill sets however aren’t always enough. Sometimes it’s a matter of doing what needs to get done. I.e., helping them save time and removing distractions that will hinder their progress and focus. This may not involve the most compelling set of tasks and responsibilities, but it’s an investment in your development that’s worth making.
Too often too many of us feel entitled to success. Our egos cloud our judgement and stymie our progress. The canvas strategy, however, requires modesty and patience.
To successfully institute the canvas strategy you have to be willing to set aside your ego. It’s a long-term investment and there are significant and meaningful returns to be had.
Be comfortable playing the long game.
Help your mentors who you respect and admire succeed overtime and in parallel learn how they lead, operate and execute from within their organizations. This will present you a highly unique and vivid picture into the underlying characteristics and systems that ultimately make them successful.
“Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room — until you change that with results.” — Ryan Holiday
We approach our work with our clients in this way. That is to say, we strive to clear a path for them, compliment their weaknesses with our strengths, and invest in their long-term growth and success.
It’s rewarding work, but at the end of the day we’re entitled to nothing.
Therefore, it’s paramount we make ourselves indispensable and constantly seek to identify new canvases upon which they can paint. It’s remarkably simple, exceedingly powerful and virtually universal.
Good things happen when you’re helpful.
Also shared on Upstate Interactive.