The canvas strategy: The case for going pro bono

I have been unemployed for almost five years now. Thanks to the visa restrictions I am still not eligible to work for pay. But, something amazing happened in this period when I was living one of my worst fears, which is unemployment.

I got an opportunity, a pro bono gig to practice my skills, cultivate new skills, and leverage my experience and education. I also, started reading and writing avidly and created a body of work in the form of four blogs. Not only that, I had an opportunity to master the art of homemaking where I optimized and automated everything in such a way that even if I start working full-time tomorrow, things are still going to be the same at home.

I was able to do all these only because I wanted to be useful to people around me. I didn’t let my sorrow of unemployment and lack of an income affect my ability to do work that matters. There’s magic in voluntarily enrolling yourself in serving others to help them accomplish their dreams. Embrace pro bono.

It’s worth taking a look at the supposed indignities of “serving” someone else. If you’re going to be the big deal you think you are going to be, isn’t this a rather trivial temporary imposition?

When you are just starting out, we can be sure of a few fundamental realities: 1) You’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are; 2) you have an attitude that needs to be readjusted; 3) most of what you think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong.

There’s one fabulous way to work all that out of your system: attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory — though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward.

This method is called the canvas strategy and it can actually, provide you with a competitive edge in the job market. Here’s how.

Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for 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.

That’s the other effect of this attitude: it reduces your ego at a critical time in your career, letting you absorb everything you can without the obstructions that block others’ vision and progress.

As Simon Sinek mentioned in his recently went viral talk of Millennials, ‘only service can save us‘. The canvas strategy advocates the same. We must prioritize work and creative expression over credit.

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 benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be 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. 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 can 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 the others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal.

Here are some of the ways you can implement the canvas strategy in your work and personal life.

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.

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.

Here’s the best part of this strategy – you can start whenever you want without waiting for anybody’s permission irrespective of your age limit, income level, and circumstances. You will also, be able to shed your ego and see things that others are unable to see.

The canvas strategy is there for you at any time. There is 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.


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