The Canvas Strategy: Help Yourself By Helping Others

Before he became a successful epigrammatist, Marcus Valerius Martialis spent most of his early life serving the rich and wealthy.

Martialis would perform a variety of tasks for his patron; he would travel with them everywhere they went, clearing their path and communicating their messages. He was an anteambulo —  a person who cleared the path for others.

As a young man, Martialis detested this job. He wanted an estate where he could produce his works in peace and independence; a place where he would not have to bear with the whims and fancies of the powerful. He spent his early days bitter about being shut out from Rome’s upper society. To him, it was a travesty that no one would recognise his immense potential.

The Canvas Strategy

Martialis’ story is only too relatable. How many of us have had to slog for someone who was in a higher position without being recognised for our talents? To be treated with less respect than we deserve? 

Ryan Holiday describes this perfectly in Ego Is The Enemy

“It’s a common attitude that transcends generations and societies. The angry, unappreciated genius is forced to do stuff she doesn’t like, for people she doesn’t respect, as she makes her way in the world. How dare they force me to grovel like this! The injustice! The waste!”

But he then goes on to ask: 

“If you’re going to be the big deal you think you are going to be, isn’t this a rather trivial temporary imposition?”

This is why Holiday suggests that we adopt the Canvas Strategy: find canvases for other people to paint on. Clear their path for them. Help them look good; but most importantly help them be good. 

The logic is simple but it remains a difficult pill to swallow nevertheless. We know that we’re ultimately in a system where we are here to help someone else with their problems. But we never imagine that we will be at the bottom; after all, we spent years in university earning our degrees precisely to avoid this supposed indignity. 

The strategy sounds simple — until you have to carry it out. 

All The World’s A Stage

I imagine that there’s probably a psychological reason why we find it difficult to be unrecognised and unappreciated. 

We like to think of ourselves as the protagonist of our stories. That we’re the hero of our stories, and we should be focused on our own character arcs. It’s natural because we see the world only through our own perspective. 

And yet, not all of us are capable of playing a leading role. There are times when we are more suited to be Samwise Gamgee than Frodo Baggins; more Scottie Pippen than Michael Jordan; more Robin than Batman. The show cannot go on without these supporting characters. Far better to play a smaller role excellently than a bigger one poorly. 

Here’s the secret that Holiday drops about supporting characters — people love them. As he tells us in Ego Is The Enemy, the cumulative effect of playing a supportive role is profound: 

“You’d 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 is about — helping yourself by helping others.”

And then maybe in the next act, we get to take on a larger role. 

A Timeless Strategy

Because the Canvas Strategy is so simple, it is available to anyone who is willing to adopt it. It doesn’t discriminate between the old and the young, nor the talented and the untalented. The only requirement is humility. 

It’s easy to be bitter and despise those who have more means, greater experience, and higher status than you. To hate the mere thought of subservience. But if we can fight this egoistical impulse, do the work, and trust the process, the possibilities are endless. I end off with this quote from Holiday who puts its so well: 

“The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes it paintings.”

If only Martialis knew.