The Canvas Strategy: how helping others helps you

First, a confession:

My name is Adrienne, and I’m a podcast addict.

Maybe it was all that NPR growing up, but I just luuurrrrve listening to podcasts. I can listen to them while commuting, doing chores around the house, going for a walk, or just lying in bed. In fact, if I’m having trouble sleeping, I find that storytelling podcasts are the perfect tonic to lull me into dreamland. That’s right, I’m taking back bedtime stories! They’re not just for kids anymore.

But podcasts aren’t just entertainment. Some of my favorite podcasts are educational and/or motivational/inspirational, and I have had many a breakthrough while listening.

Recently, while listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast, I discovered a concept that is so central to support work I had never thought to give it a title. It’s called The Canvas Strategy, and the TL:DR is that, to be successful in a given field, particularly if you’re just starting out, focus on improving the work of others by giving them…

Background with blank canvas on wooden table

…a “canvas” to paint on

Rather than constantly pointing to your own work, seeking approval and trying to get noticed, this strategy redirects energy outward, offering ideas, observations, introductions, constructive feedback, support, and encouragement to those around you.

This should be sounding pretty familiar by now. Because it’s what EA’s do every day.

And in listening to this podcast I realized just what an underappreciated and underestimated strategy it is.

Often support roles are looked down upon as mere stepping stones to bigger and better things. There is a general assumption that “assistant” is an entry-level position from which one will eventually move on–and “up” the proverbial corporate ladder.


Try telling most folks to put their focus on making other people look good; they will look at you like you’re some sort of masochist who just suggested they try stapling their eyelids. But for those of us who have chosen Executive Assistance as a career path, the wisdom of the canvas strategy immediately registers and resonates.

We EAs understand that when you put your focus on getting noticed and appreciated, you are A. not focused on what’s best for your team/company, which is self-defeating in the long term, and B. making the measurement of your success something outside of your control, not to mention rather difficult to gauge.

Conversely, when you channel your energy toward helping those around you do their best work, some remarkable things occur.

  1. You learn, grow, and improve. When you support others you can’t help but learn from them. Watching the way others do things will inevitably help you refine your own methods and expand your areas of expertise.

  2. You forge genuine connections. It’s no secret that when you offer someone a value add with no expectation of reciprocation, that endears you to them. It also gives you a clear understanding of who they are and how they function, which is the cornerstone of true and lasting connection. More connections = more opportunities. Period.

  3. You find more meaning. When you have an outward focus, you will inevitably find yourself gravitating toward the people and projects that you find to be the most exciting and important, rather than limiting yourself to whatever you think you can shine at, or whatever is tossed onto your plate. Meanwhile, studies show that A. finding meaning at work is more important than feeling happy in terms of one’s overall well-being, and B. people are more motivated by meaning than by money. So by improving the quality of work and life of those around you, you’re also improving your own.

Being an assistant can be demoralizing at times. Since our job is to minimize friction and maximize productivity for others, our work is rarely noticed unless something has gone wrong. Overt appreciation is often in short supply, and it can feel, at times, as though we are invisible. So it’s important for us to find ways to create meaning for ourselves and offer support to each other. Openly embracing and proselytizing the canvas strategy is a great way to honor and celebrate support as a legitimate and satisfying long-term career track.

So the next time someone asks you what you do for a living, don’t just say “I’m an assistant.” Instead, tell them what you do: you create opportunities, forge connections, tear down obstacles, and improve both the work and quality of life for all those you come into contact with. You are the curator of incredible works of art.

And I challenge you to take it a step further. Ask them how they bring value to their coworkers. Challenge them to shift their own focus, and to “ask not what your company can do for you, ask what you can do for your company.”


Live bravely, work deliberately, and eat good chocolate.

#career #personaldevelopment #relationship

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