Please enjoy this transcript of “#165: The Canvas Strategy — What Ben Franklin and Bill Belichick Have in Common.” In this episode, Ryan Holiday shares an excerpt from his book Ego Is the Enemy. It was transcribed and therefore might contain a few typos. When interviews last 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
Listen to the episode here or by selecting any of the options below.
Tim Ferriss: Hello boys and girls. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss show. I’m sitting outside on a beautiful summer day listening to the birds. And my job is usually to deconstruct world class performers to tease out the routines, habits and so on that you can use from people at the top of whatever field they happen to be a part of, military, entertainment, politics, chess, athletics, you name it.
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, it includes legendary NFL coach Bill Belichick and many, 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 and the list goes on. Of course, if you’re interesting in the networking part of it you can also read a blog post and listen to an episode titled How to Build a World Class Network in Record Time, but that is additional credit. This time we’re gonna talk about the canvas strategy.
And there is some Latin pronunciation, just a few words, in this episode. And I’m sure people will get their knickers in a twist about how to say things properly but it could be [inaudible], it could be something else. And Ryan has done his homework. And I say Ryan because this is from the brand new book by Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy.
And you might recall that Ryan wrote The Obstacle Is the Way, a collection of stoic wisdom and principles and stories that was embraced by people at the highest levels of athletics, the Seahawks, the Patriots, managers, players. It just turned into a phenomenon that was covered by Sports Illustrated. I think Ego Is the Enemy is just as good, if not better. I saw early, early editions of the manuscript and provided feedback. It is therefore the newest book in my book club. And there are only eight or nine books over the last few years that I’ve selected for this. And you can see all of them at Audible.com/TimsBooks. That’s Audible.com/TimsBooks.
But this episode is very much self sufficient and I think it’s a lesson that more and more people need to learn or at least embrace, revisit in their lives, and that is the canvas strategy. So please enjoy this description and this meandering exploration with Ryan Holiday from Ego is the Enemy.
Ryan Holiday: Follow the canvas strategy. Great men have almost always shown themselves as ready to obey as they afterwards proved able to command [inaudible]. In the Roman system of art and science, there existed a concept for which we have only a partial analog. Successful businessmen, politicians or rich playboys would subsidize a number of writers that encouraged artists and performers.
More than just being paid to produce works of art, these artists performed a number of tasks in exchange for protection, food and gifts. One of the roles was that of an anteambulo, literally meaning one who clears the path. An anteambulo proceeded in front of his patron anywhere they traveled in Rome, making way, communicating messages and generally making the patron’s life easier.
The famous epigramist Martial filled this role for many years, serving for a time under the patron mala, a wealthy businessman and brother of the stoic philosopher and political advisor Seneca. Born without a rich family, Martial also served under another business man named Petulius.
As a young writer he spent most of his day traveling from the home of one rich patron to another providing services, paying his respects and receiving small token payments and favors in return. Here’s the problem. Like most of us with our internships and entry level positions or later on publishers or bosses or clients, Martial absolutely hated every minute of it. He seemed to believe that this system somehow made him a slave aspiring him to live like some country squire like the patrons he serviced.
Martial wanted money and the state that was all his own. There he dreamed he could finally produce his works in peace and independence. As a result his writing often drags with a hatred and bitterness about Rome’s upper crust from which he believed he was cruelly shunted aside.
For all his impotent rage what Martial couldn’t see was that it was his unique position as an outsider to society that gave him such a fascinating insight into Roman culture that it survives to this day. Instead of being pinned by such a system, what if he’d been able to come to terms with it? What if, gasp, he could’ve appreciated the opportunities it offered? Nope, it seemed to eat him up inside instead.
It’s a common attitude that transcends generations and societies, the angry, underappreciated geniuses forced to do stuff she doesn’t like for people she doesn’t respect as she make her way in the world. How dare they force me to grovel like this. The injustice, the waste.
We see it in recent lawsuits in which interns sue their employers for pay. We see in kids more willing to live at home with their parents than submit to something they’re overqualified for. We see it in an inability to meet anyone else on their terms, and unwillingness to take a step back in order to potentially take several steps forward. I will not let them get one over on me. I’d rather we both have nothing instead.
It’s worth taking a look at the supposed indignities of serving someone else because in reality, not only is the apprentice model responsible for some of the greatest art in the history of the world. Everyone from Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci to Benjamin Franklin has been forced to navigate such a system. But if you’re going to be the big deal you think you’re going to be, isn’t this a rather trivial imposition?
When someone first gets a job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice, make other people look good and you will do well. Keep your head down, they say, and serve your boss. Naturally this is not what the kid who is chosen over all the other kids for the position wants to hear. It’s not what a Harvard grad expects. After all, they got that degree precisely to avoid this supposed indignity.
Let’s flip it around so it doesn’t seem so demeaning. It’s not about kissing ass, it’s not about making someone look good. It’s about providing the support so that others can be good. The better word for this advice is then, find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.
When you’re just starting out we can be sure of a few fundamental realities. One, you’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are. Two, you have an attitude that needs to be readjusted. Three, most of what you think you know or most of what you learn in books or in school is out of date or wrong.
There’s one fabulous way to work all of that out of your system. Attach yourself to people in organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into their and move both forward simultaneously. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory though hardly is effective. Obeisance is the way forward. That’s the other side of this attitude. It reduced your ego at a critical time in your career, letting you absorb everything you can without the obstructions that block other’s vision and progress.
No one is endorsing sycophancy. Instead it’s about seeing what goes on from the inside and looking for opportunities for someone other than yourself. Remember that anteambulo means clearing the path, finding the direction someone already intended to head and helping them pack, freeing them up to focus on their strengths. In fact, making things better rather than simply looking as if you are.
Many people know of Benjamin Franklin’s famous letters written under names like Silence Dogwood. What a clever young prodigy, I think, and missed the most impressive part entirely. Franklin wrote those letters, submitted them by sliding them under the print shop door and received absolutely no credit for them until much later in his life. In fact, it was his brother, the owner, who profited from their immense popularity, regularly running them on the front page of his newspaper.
Franklin was playing the long game though, learning how public opinion worked, generating awareness of what he believed in, crafting his style in tone and wit. It’s a strategy that’s used time and again over in his career, once even publishing in his competitor’s paper in order to undermine a third competitor for Franklin saw the constant benefit in making other people look good and letting them take credit for your ideas.
Bill Belichick, the four-time Super Bowl-winning head coach of the New England Patriots made his way up the ranks of the NFL by loving and mastering the one part of the job that coaches disliked at the time, analyzing film. His first job in professional football for the Baltimore Colts was one he volunteered to take without pay, and his insights which provided ammunition and critical strategies for the game were attributed exclusively to the more senior coaches.
He thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for. He was like a sponge taking it all in, listening to everything, one coach said. You gave him an assignment and he disappeared into a room and you didn’t see him again until it was done, and then he wanted to do more, said another. As you can guess, Belichick started getting paid very soon. Before that as a young high school player, he was so knowledgeable at the game that he functioned as sort of an assistant coach even while playing the game.
Belichick’s father, himself an assistant football coach for Navy, taught him a critical lesson in football politics, that if he wanted to give his coach feedback or question a decision, he needed to do it in private and self effacingly so as not to offend his superior. He learned how to be a rising star without threatening or alienating anyone. In other words, he mastered the canvas strategy.
You can see how easily entitlement and a sense of superiority, the trappings of ego, would have made the accomplishments of either of these men impossible. Franklin never would’ve been published if he prioritized credit over creative expression. Indeed when his brother found out, he literally beat him out of jealousy and anger.
Belichick would’ve pissed off his coach and then probably have been benched if he’d go up to him in public. He certainly wouldn’t have taken his first job for free, and he wouldn’t have sat through thousands of hours of film if he cared about status. Greatness comes from humble beginnings. It comes from grunt work. It means that you’re the least important person in the room, and to change that with results. There is an old saying, “Say little, do much.” What we really have to do is update and apply a version of that to our early approach, be lesser, do more.
Imagine if for every person you met you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them and you looked at it in a way that entirely benefitted them and not you? The cumulative effect this would have overtime would be profound. You would learn a great deal by solving diverse problems, you’d develop a reputation for being indispensable; you’d have countless new relationships. You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road. That’s what the canvas strategy’s about, helping yourself by helping others, making a concerted effort to trade your short term gratification for a longer term payoff.
Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be respected, you could forget credit. You can forget it so hard that you’re glad when others get it instead of you. That was your aim, after all. Let others take their credit on credit while you defer and earn interest on the principle.
The strategy part of it is the hardest. It’s easy to be bitter like Martial, to hate even the thought of subservience, to despise those who have more means, more experience, more status than you, to tell yourself that every second not spent doing your work or working on yourself is a waste of your gift to insist, I will not be demeaned like this.
Once we fight this emotional and egotistical impulse, the canvas strategy is easy. The iterations are endless. Maybe it’s coming up with ideas to hand over to your boss, find people, thinkers, up and comers to introduce them to each other, cross wires to create new sparks. Find what nobody else wants to do and do it. Find inefficiency and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away.
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’s a rewarding and infinitely scalable power strategy. Consider each one an investment in relationships and in your own development.
The canvas strategy is there for you at any time. There’s no expiration date on it either. It’s one of the few that age does not limit on either side, young or old. You can start at any time, before you have a job, before you’re hired and while you’re doing something else, or if you’re starting something new or find yourself inside an organization without strong allies or support. You may even find that there’s no reason to ever stop doing it, even once you’ve graduated to heading your own projects. Let it become natural and permanent. Let others apply it to you while you’re too busy applying it to those above you.
Because if you pick up this mantle once, you’ll see what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating. The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.
Tim Ferriss: Hey guys, this is Tim again, just a few more things before you take off. Number one, this is Five-Bullet Friday. Do you want to get a short email from me – would you enjoy getting a short email from me every Friday that provides a little more soul of fun before the weekend? And Five Bullet Friday is a very short email where I share the coolest things I’ve found or that I’ve been pondering over the week. That could include favorite new albums that I’ve discovered, it could include gizmos and gadgets and all sorts of weird stuff that I’ve somehow dug up in the world of the esoteric, as I do. It could include favorite articles that I’ve read and that I’ve shared with my close friends for instance.
And it’s very short. It’s just a little tiny bite of goodness before you head off for the weekend. So if you want to receive that, check it out. Just go to FourHourWorkWeek.com, that’s FourHourWorkWeek.com all spelled out and just drop in your email and you will get the very next one. And if you sign up, I hope you enjoy it.
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.
Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)