The Canvas Strategy — What Ben Franklin and Bill Belichick Have in Common (#165)

Photo credit: ©Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media.
Photo credit: ©Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media.

“The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.” – Ryan Holiday

My job is usually to deconstruct world-class performers from business, military, entertainment, politics, or athletics, and then to tease out the routines and habits you can use.

In this particular episode, I’m going to share an overarching strategy that has been used by many of the greats. That includes Ben Franklin, legendary NFL coach Bill Belichick, and many more. It is also how I built my network, how my first book hit the tipping point, how I became successful at angel investing, etc.

Of course, if you’re interested in the networking part of it, you can also read the blog post and listen to the episode, How to Build a World-Class Network in Record Time. But that is bonus credit.

The secret to all of the above is the “canvas strategy.”

And in this episode, Ryan Holiday, author of the new book, Ego Is the Enemy, will teach you how to apply canvas strategy to your life. (The book is also the newest addition to my book club, which can be found at

Please enjoy this excerpt with Ryan Holiday from Ego Is the Enemy!

#165: The Canvas Strategy -- What Ben Franklin and Bill Belichick Have in Common

Want to hear another podcast with Ryan Holiday? — In this episode, we discuss the “big three” stoics, how Stoicism applies to the modern world, and how to improve your decision-making when stakes are high (stream below or right-click here to download):

Episode 4: Ryan Holiday

This podcast is brought to you by Wealthfront. Wealthfront is a massively disruptive (in a good way) set-it-and-forget-it investing service led by technologists from places like Apple. It has exploded in popularity in the last two years and now has more than $2.5B under management. Why? Because you can get services previously limited to the ultra-wealthy and only pay pennies on the dollar for them, and it’s all through smarter software instead of retail locations and bloated sales teams.

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QUESTION OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

Show Notes

  • “Great men have almost always shown themselves as ready to obey as they afterwards proved able to command.” [06:53]
  • The definition (and pronunciation) of anteambulo. [07:04]
  • The problem with the patron-client system. [08:00]
  • The timeless indignity of the intern. [09:34]
  • Find canvases for other people to paint on (why being a path-clearing anteambulo for someone else also clears a path for you). [11:00]
  • Obeisance is the way forward. [11:52]
  • How Benjamin Franklin used the canvas strategy to learn how to be a better writer by anonymously penning the Dogood Letters. [12:32]
  • Franklin saw the benefit in making other people look good — even by letting them take credit for his work. [13:08]
  • Bill Belichick excels as a coach by embracing parts of the job other coaches usually hated. [13:25]
  • Bill Belichick’s father taught him how to use the canvas strategy to become a rising star without threatening or alienating anyone. [14:27]
  • Succumbing to the trappings of ego make using the canvas strategy impossible. [14:50]
  • Greatness comes from grunt work. [15:22]
  • The cumulative value of the canvas strategy. [15:41]
  • The cumulative effects of shunning obeisance. [16:37]
  • The person who clears the path — the lowly anteambulo — ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting. [18:34]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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33 Replies to “The Canvas Strategy — What Ben Franklin and Bill Belichick Have in Common (#165)”

  1. Love these “thinking” Friday episodes :). Not so much info but lot’s of food for thought! Thank you Tim!

    QUESTION OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode?

    Canvas strategy is about

    “Helping yourself by helping others”

    “Find canvases for other people to paint on”

    “Clear the path for people above you and you will create a path for yourself”

    “When we’re just starting out, we can be sure of a few fundamental realities:

    1) You are not nearly as good or as important as you think you are

    2) You have an attitude that needs to be re-adjusted

    3) Most of what you think you know or most of what you’ve learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong”

    “Greatness comes from humble beginnings.

    It comes from groundwork.

    It means you are the least important person in the room, until you change that with results”

    Reminded me of the principle laid out in a book “Be Nobody” by Lama Marut.

    “We’re all desperately trying to be somebody. Maybe, we’ve got it all wrong”

    1. “Not so much info but lot’s of food for thought! ” LOL you’re great on your point of view 😀

  2. Also, read this great article today. I thought lots of like-minded people might find it interesting. Seems to be in tune with the topic of today’s episode.

    “Traditional Economics Failed. Here’s a New Blueprint.”

    ~ Evonomics, Next Evolution of Economics

    Unhealthy societies think zero-sum and fight over a pie of fixed size. Healthy societies think 1 + 1 = 3 and operate from a norm that the pie can grow. Open, non-equilibrium systems have synergies that generate increasing returns and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The proper goal of politics and economics is to maximize those increasing returns and win-win scenarios.

    Since the mid-1960s, there have been profound advances in how we understand the systemic nature of botany, biology, physics, computer science, neuroscience, oceanography, atmospheric science, cognitive science, zoology, psychology, epidemiology, and even, yes, economics. Across these fields, a set of conceptual shifts is underway:

    Simple → Complex

    Atomistic → Networked

    Equilibrium → Disequilibrium

    Linear → Non-linear

    Mechanistic → Behavioral

    Efficient → Effective

    Predictive → Adaptive

    Independent → Interdependent

    Individual ability → Group diversity

    Rational calculator → Irrational approximators

    Selfish → Strongly reciprocal

    Win-lose → Win-win or lose-lose

    Competition → Cooperation”

    Today, emerging from our knowledge of emergence, complexity, and innate human behavior, a different story about self-interest is taking shape, and it sounds more like this:

    -What goes around comes around.

    -The better you do, the better I do.

    -It’s survival of the smartest—only the cooperative survive.

    -Teamwork wins.

    -There’s no such thing as a self-made person.

    -All for one, one for all.”

    Hope it’s not too much 🙂

  3. Patrons facilitate the advancement of their apprentices. Sometimes. But not always. In the same way that there are interns too concerned about their own glory, there are higher-ups who will only use the work of their direct-reports for their own advancement.

    People who follow Holiday’s advice as presented here will do well to remember the “sometimes” of the idea and to put limits on the work they will do for people or organizations unconcerned about the canvas of the people who work for them.

  4. Great concept. But framing the social dysfunction associated with subordination as primarily a jealousy problem seems wrong. The ancient slice-of-life parable reminded me of how Tim sometimes talks about the clarity gained through ‘simulating poverty’. Maybe a sort of “Relatability Reboot” self-help product could address these pain points. Or maybe one should go through a process like that without quantifying it, in the process, as that might ultimately impede the personal experience and inflate one’s sense of understanding for generalized experiences.

  5. The brief excerpt from Ryan’s new book is fantastic. My favourite quote:

    “Learn how to solve problems. Help yourself by helping others”

    Simple advice that can be very hard to do if you let your ego get in the way. The key is that you learn in the process.

  6. Excellent!

    Humility is a prerequisite to awareness. If you’re projecting biases and preconception because you ‘know it all,’ you’re not working on reality as it is, you’re working on a fantasy. An engineering parallel from control theory: you can’t control a system without accurate, real-time measurements. Those learning to meditate can see presence, clear observation, and calm acceptance as fundamental to peace of mind and effectiveness.

    The canvas strategy ties together so much I’ve been reading in an intensive effort to a: fix my attitude and b: become actually effective. I’ve been so grateful for the book recommendations in this podcast, listening to your guests is a masterclass in self improvement. This excerpt has many parallels with the Magic of Thinking Big, Think and Grow Rich, 48 laws of power, Tony Robbins talking about service, etc, etc. This sounds like a great coalescence of ideas, updated and generalized. I’ll give this one a read too.

    I wish I had these ideas years ago, but I take comfort that it’s an endless journey.

  7. Hi Tim – I listened to the podcast. Do you have any concrete examples of how you used this? Because it seems a bit like conventional wisdom already…like the “help your boss get a gold star” type of advice. I couldn’t get what is different about this….


  8. Interesting stuff. One of those areas where you know deep down that what’s being said is right, but that you know a lot of people won’t put into practice, due to natural tendencies that often get in the way. These would notably include peer pressure and the related non-altruistic phenomenon of ‘kicking the chair out from beneath others’ that is generally inherent in the workplace, but may actually lie much deeper, within a person’s own mind and symptomatic of the irrational sense of self-importance that inhabits us all.

    It would be interesting to get a take from Daniel Kahneman on this…

  9. As a middle school- high school professor I have been doing that for years, in the sense of helping students become succesful, feel smart, appreciated and daring. It was more about showing them the fact that they were amazing people with great potential,but pushing them to becoming act (in the philosophical sense), to turn into reality what they envisioned they could do or could perform. 18 years later, those same former students are now professionals, businessmen and even a few are into politics. Some have reached out (of their own accord), to offer help, connections, advice. If we could create a more sincerely helpful, amicable, synergic approach we could help each other constantly grow and develop, instead of behaving as egotistical self-centered idiots. Thanks for sharing a great article!

  10. Really nice Tim.

    This mindset of helping others is really something to become a habit.

    You’ve told a few stories about how you drove a van and helped organizing events, and I (and I would guess most of your fans) would love to hear more of how, when and where you applied the Canvas Strategy.

  11. Favorite quote of the day (taken from Forbes): “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”

    -Eleanor Roosevelt

    What does this quote have to do with ego or Tim’s episode here? Is one’s heart part of ego?

  12. “As with most scientific findings, I am sure there were others on earth at the time working on the same problems as he. As for his political contributions, I challenge the notion that someone else could not have provided political guidance in his stead.

    Ben Franklin is a LOSER. Get over him.”

    – Lots of people COULD do, were capable of having the same impact as Franklin but unfortunately we do not know about those individuals, care to explain why?

    “But it is tricky to suggest that ego is the “enemy.” What about self-love?”

    Ego: a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. What does it have to do with self-love and love for others/service to others and the world?

    Nick, seems like you should be doing the podcast and writing books instead of Tim and Ryan, hmmm why don’t you? 🙂

  13. Received your Instagram post of the bondage example and link to more images of eroticism. While that may be part of the culture where you live or in your home, I have no interest in combining this “art” and the other elements of your “typical” message that drew me to your posts and referrals in the first place. Good bye.

  14. After listening to this podcast, which applied to my current situation way more than I predicted, I had to read your other free material to get up to speed.

    A full workday later……

    I just finished reading your free 50 pages of the 4 hour work week. But actually it was only 49 pages… what gives?

    I guess I’m going to have to buy the book.

    Looking forward to it.

  15. THRILL SEEKER. My comments aren’t article related but more in general RE your content / technology. With all the accolades you’ve received, traffic and phenomenal quality of your guest speakers … its fair to say that you offer a treasure trove of information – virtual gold mine, the best there is. And its only going to GROW, faster. It would be great if you could take a page out of the Ted Talks site and offer some similar technology features for your listeners — a way to manage all the content with favorites, thumbnails, categories etc., and even better if you went to video option for podcasts. INVEST in yourself. you know, for Us!! ;-))

  16. Amazing Tim. Thanks for sharing!

    I’ve come to consider “effacing the ego” my overarching theme in the past couple years, after realizing that a lot of my creative pursuits were mostly about getting attention instead of providing value – in other words, I’d been very much motivated by my ego.

    Many resources have helped me in the way of overcoming this, but a quick and great introduction came via Derek and his post on choosing to live at the intersection of “happy, smart and useful”

    Will definitely check out Ryan’s book. Loved “the obstacle is the way”!

  17. Will listen to this later, but had to interject about Belicek : “without threatening or alienating anyone”? Pats fans will find this statement ridiculous. He’s one of the most hard ass coaches in NFL history (and we like him that way). Maybe a better example is called for (or maybe I should listen to the entire podcast before I take things out of context). While I have the haters’ attention: Free Brady! See you at the next Super Bowl.

  18. Great quick listen. Loads of content in this short form podcast. The entire time my mind kept bouncing back to this timeless quote by another great leader.

    “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.” Zig Ziglar

  19. Thanks Tim, great stuff as usual. One thing I’d be curious to have you expand on is why more people don’t think independently/for themselves, instead following the path of least resistance. What are the main barriers you see based on your experience/interviews? Any resources you’d point us to? Your pod cast is so helpful and I’m curious to better understand why more people don’t take advantage of learning opportunities like this. Thanks for what you do.

  20. Great post! Really enjoyed the examples and the tone of the speaker. However, I would want to be very careful about falling over to the other side of the argument- basically, crushing every other good feature of the soul along with the Ego to actually become quite useless in my own eyes. I have witnessed many people who achieve next to nothing because all they do is try to pacify (help?) everyone- their boss, spouse, kids, parents etc. I have experienced both sides of the spectrum at various stages of my life and find both to be equally ineffective. I am sure there is a fine balance to be achieved when working with the ego and it might not be that easy!

  21. Hi Tim.

    Good podcast.

    I get it and philosophically am very partial to the thinking around the canvass thinking.

    That said, in a world of the 1% or less, increasing inequality, (distorted ideas of) meritocracy, I feel and see many people, rich people, arguably “leaders” of sort, who are abusive and of themselves truly have little regard for others.

    How do you re think the canvass philosophy in this context?

    Regards, San

  22. Why is the intro running at a higher speed? Arnold sounds like a punk 🙂 (Usually the software speeds up the time without changing the pitch..)

    Otherwise great content as usual..

  23. For many lifelong learners, Ben Franklin seems to be held in particular admiration for his tremendous curiosity and genius contributions to science, politics, philosophy and more.

    However, what often frustrates me about our society’s celebration of, and fascination with, Franklin is that we usually gloss over the fact that he was a slave owner.

    We now live in a world of political correctness so, I imagine, many might roll their eyes at my frustration—after all, it is true that nearly everyone in Franklin’s time who contributed positively to our country also participated in one of our country’s deepest tragedies. Moreover, there are worse offenders in American history to be sure, since Franklin did eventually free his slaves. But let’s be honest here, this man was not Moses. Franklin freed his slaves only after a lifetime of benefitting at their expense.

    I do not believe it takes a genius to understand basic humanity. There might not have been many life-long abolitionists in the 1700s, but such people did exist and Franklin was exposed to them. After all, Quakers founded Pennsylvania.

    So does the fact that Franklin owned slaves discredit everything else he accomplished or contributed to society? No. From his work on electricity to the postal system, facts are facts—he had impressive insights.

    Here’s where I take issue: American pop-culture rarely acknowledges that our founding “fathers” are deeply problematic characters to idolize. These people were human, but they were not humanitarians.

    There are so many examples of other historic Americans whose wisdom we could celebrate. No person, living or deceased, is or was perfect. But let’s analyze folks who did not partake in crimes against humanity.

    Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that Tim or any of us need to tiptoe around topics. Political correctness should be left for politicians.

    I love the FHWW books and his podcast and have learned a tremendous amount from the information and guests on Tim’s show. This podcast is the only show I regularly listen to. From a fellow lifelong learner to the rest of my community, I just want to submit this food for thought. After all, community is all about participating and contributing meaningfully. I hope I have done so here.

    (Also on the topic of Franklin, and ego, I would also like to submit that Franklin quit his apprenticeship after he was mistreated. There is a distinction between selflessness and servitude. Like Adam Grant states, there’s a reason “otherish” givers are more likely to succeed vs. “altruistic” ones.)

  24. The canvas strategy works when you start operating from a position of skill and experience and can take things to the next level, you start as a follower but you eventually become a leader. Just by two pence worth – I believe it works and has for me in the past and will in the future, T.