The Canvas Strategy

December 10, 2008 — 21 Comments

When I first got a job as an assistant in Hollywood, someone told me that the best thing I could do as an assistant was to make other people look good. It ended up being pretty decent advice but it was nowhere near the right wording. I certainly wouldn’t have moved upwards as quickly as I have if I’d just sat there and worked on the way people thought about my boss.

What he should have said was this:

Find canvases for other people to paint on.

If you’re around my age, chances are you don’t know what you’re talking about. Most of the people the email me end up being creepy or wildly uninformed, or both. There’s one fabulous way to work that out of your system: giving an extra push to people who are already good and then learning from them as they get to work.

Or maybe you’re not that and you’re a bit of a prodigy. Unfortunately there is a small psychological bias known as value attribution and what is basically means is that we let context command our subjective judgments about people’s value. So you’re still fucked. You’re either appreciated as a token ‘young person’ (see: Brazen Careerist writers) or you’re ignored entirely because you don’t have ‘perspective’. The solution for that is the the same as above – pretend that you’re humble while you amass an arsenal.

That brings us back to the strategy: Find and make canvases for other people to paint on.

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.

It’s a different mindset than making other people look good, an approach that tends to imply a lot of ass kissing and ceding credit. Instead it’s finding the direction someone already intended to head and help them pack, freeing them up to focus on their strengths. The canvas strategy involves actively finding outlets for other people – in fact, actually making them better rather than simply looking so.

3 Keys:

1) Find new trains of thought to hand over for them to explore. Track down angles and contradictions and analogies that they can use. Ex: I was reading the biography of ______, I think you should look at it because there may be something you can do with the imagery.

2) Find outlets, people, associations, and connections. Cross wires to create new sparks. Ex: I know _________, and I think you two should talk. Have you thought about meeting ____?

3) Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Ex: You don’t need to do ___________ anymore, I have an idea for improving the process, let me try it so you can worry about something else.

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 is a rewarding and infinitely scalable power strategy. From what I can tell, it’s one of the few that age does not limit. It’s one you can do now – before you have a job, before you’re hired and while you’re doing something else. Maybe, like I have, you’ll find that there’s no reason to ever stop doing it, even once you’ve graduated to heading your own projects.

You don’t need email me, or Tucker or Ben or anyone else you want to work for anymore to ask how you can help. The Canvas Strategy is there. If you take it, you’ll realize what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating: the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas dictates the painting.

Only One Way to Build a New Media Presence Pt II

December 7, 2008 — 1 Comment

It goes something like this:



December 2, 2008 — 12 Comments

Have you ever been listening to someone justify an idea and while they were doing it, took a look around the room and thought to yourself, how can they not see how poorly this is going? I also imagine that rarely, if ever, you’ve taken that same look while you were talking and felt the panic and desperation of realizing that it was all falling short.

Now what’s more likely, that you’ve never lost a crowd or that maybe you just can’t tell either?

The Boydian Lowball

November 28, 2008 — 12 Comments

John Boyd had a rule that whenever he was using data as support for an argument, he’d deflate the numbers to understate his case. The idea was use lower number while making a strong case; when he was challenged and fact checked, it’d always be worse when the new calculations came in. A lot of people confuse this with managing expectation, but it’s a philosophically different way to think about strategy. Generally, he figured, that when people have a big stick they use it. To not use it, to keep it hidden, the mark of a different breed of person.

Here it is in a common form: You’re criticizing the moves of a program that you’re trying to restructure to the person responsible for making the change. The program keeps most of their information hidden because they’re upside down and don’t want to admit it. You’re certain they’re spending X and end up being wrong – it’s over. You say they’re spending X (on the high end of your spectrum) and end up being right – the reward is small and the risk was significant. Simply being right, you’ll find, is not as rewarding as it should be. So instead, you make the case with the lowest X you can justify and cede the verification to the person you’re pushing for change- the results turn the passive observer into an active participant. Since they were involved in the discovery, it’s their torch to carry now.

But that’s hard. You want to use the stick when you have it. You want to go for the win now because you want the credit, you want to be right, you don’t want another participant – you don’t like pretense when you have a sure thing. But think of it like being leveraged in a market position, it’s great until you blow up. And it only takes one time.

Using conservative inputs gives way to conservative outputs. A good operating plan leaves as many options on the table as possible. Conservative outputs give you space to move. Assumptions about data can be thought about the same way. Restraint is the mark of good strategy, even when you’re being aggressive. Round down your numbers, tone your bio, leave the hyperbole to someone else. Keep the stick hidden and think about the next move.

What I’m Reading

November 26, 2008 — 8 Comments

Spin : How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage by Michael Sitrick (good, surprisingly relevant considering it was written almost 10 years ago)

Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law by Martha C. Nussbaum (sort of just flipping through it at this point)

Spin-Free Economics by Nariman Behravesh (I was kind of hoping this would be an economics primer but really it’s mostly just a collection of the commonly held beliefs of modern economists)

Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary by Juan Williams (very interesting guy – it’s becoming much more common that I’m disappointing in the actual writing of the book. this was a good example)

Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship by Scott Donaldson (flipping through for research purposes. Hemingway destroyed Fitzgerald in one bold move)

Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr (I read a couple others and big chunk of this one. Everybody kept saying he was super ruthless and JFK’s enforcer but I didn’t find one interesting example, not ONE)

-Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy is actually really good, I was going the buy it on Amazon after but of course couldn’t because GNR did one of those obnoxious exclusive deals and there was no way I was driving to Best Buy

-Denis from Wikinomics responded to me calling him an asshole. He seems like a smart guy and as always, the book is fantastic.

-Somebody stole from Daniel at Cracked, who is a cool guy. He also managed to find and move into the single worst neighborhood in Los Angeles for almost no reason.

-Dickersonian questions are something I’d like to start using