Ryan Holiday does some great work with his books and newsletter on how we can apply stoic teachings to our lives. There is so much great advice in this philosophy and in Ryan’s writings on it but one that really stuck with me recently was the concept of the “Canvas Strategy” I first read about in Ego Is The Enemy.
In ancient Rome successful businessmen and politicians etc. would subsidize up and coming artists, writers, and philosophers in a variety of ways. One of them was to fill the role of anteambulo – literally translated to “one who clears the path”. History is full of successful people who started out as apprentices. Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci were two of them. Ben Franklin wrote under a pseudo name (Silence Dogwood) so he could hone his craft in anonymity – never getting credit for some great work while his brother’s publishing company profited off of it.
This isn’t always how people operate. One of the anteambulo’s, Martial, couldn’t get out of his own head. He kept thinking it was an injustice that he had to serve Seneca and that if he was just already wealthy he’d have all the time to master his art. We see this in people who would rather suffer financial hardship than take a job that’s “beneath” them. Sometimes people believe they need to “toot their own horn” and that these subservient roles are an indignity.
But if you change your mindset from the normal human approach, turning this around, making other people look good isn’t demeaning. You’re clearing the path for them and in doing so creating success for yourself too. You’re finding canvasses for others to paint on and in doing so you both win. When you attach yourself to good people and organizations and “subsume your identity into theirs [you both] move forward simultaneously. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory – though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward.” Ultimately by being the canvas, you get to take part in what the final painting becomes. By embracing this mindset, the ego is reduced. What seems like an injustice becomes the vehicle to success – the obstacle is the way.
The canvas mindset is great analogy and reminder to think about others. The counterintuitive aspect of this is that in helping someone else succeed, you too become successful.