Create More Value Than You Consume

“Think Different.” “Don’t be evil.”

It’s common for brands to have catchy taglines. The former is from Apple. The latter was made famous by Google. At Automattic, our goal is to “democratize publishing.” We also have a creed that helps to guide our actions with some simple statements.

In a recent Tim Ferriss podcast with Tim O’Reilly, I was introduced to another slogan (for O’Reilly Media), “Create more value than you capture.” The slogan has stuck with me since I originally heard it on the podcast.

The real implications of “create more value than you capture” extends beyond a company slogan and can really be used as a guiding value in your personal and professional life. It can influence the choices you make, the projects you pursue, the recognition you strive for, and how you treat others.

The Canvas Strategy and Receiving Credit

In Tools of Titans, author Ryan Holiday contributed a chapter on what he calls the “Canvas Strategy.” Holiday revisits the position of an anteambulo from Roman times. The word anteambulo literally translates to “one who clears the path.” During this period, the anteambulo would travel ahead of his his wealthy patron and just make life easier by communicating messages in the next town and generally getting things in order ahead of his patron’s arrival.

Holiday recounts the story of Martial, an anteambulo for a wealthy patron. Unable to see the value in his position and soak up the unique perspectives and experiences, Martial hated serving in the position of anteambulo. To quote Holiday in Tools of Titans (p. 335):

He [Martial] seemed to believe that this system somehow made him a slave. Aspiring to live like some country squire — like the patrons he serviced — Martial wanted money and an estate that was all his own…As a result, his writings often drags with a hatred and bitterness about Rome’s upper crust, from which he believed he was cruelly shunted.”

The Canvas strategy is all about changing your lens and perspective. Instead of focusing on your own masterpiece, you’re focused on how to create the best canvas for others to paint their masterpieces. It’s about “helping yourself by helping others.” You freely give away credit because that’s not what you’re after.

Holiday suggests a few potential iterations on the Canvas strategy:

  • Maybe it’s coming up with ideas to hand over to your boss.
  • Find people, thinkers, up-and-comers to introduce to each other. Cross wires to create new sparks.
  • Find what nobody else wants to do and do it.
  • Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas.
  • Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away.

– Tools of Titans, p. 338

Let’s zoom out for a moment and revisit O’Rielly’s slogan of “Create more value than you capture.” Traditionally, our perspective is “What’s in it for me? What can I take away from this transaction/project/task?” As the Canvas strategy illustrates, it’s far more important to flip the conversation around and focus on what you can offer. “What can I contribute? How can I help? How can I create value?” To quote Holiday one final time:

Make a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff.

What This Looks Like In Practice?

There’s value in just reminding yourself of O’Reilly’s mantra and the Canvas strategy. It flips your perspective and forces you to think unselfishly. To harken back to Holiday’s iterations though, I thought I would share some ways I’m trying to practice this mantra:

  • Always default to sharing what you know in public for free. This could be through blog posts, book notes, open source projects, etc. Give away 99.9% of your material. Make sure it’s the best possible quality. Then, if necessary, charge a premium for your very best work and make sure it over-delivers.
  • When dreaming up ideas, businesses, and projects, start with the question, “How can I help the most people?” instead of “How can I generate the biggest profit?” To paraphrase a quote from Derek Sivers, money is a side effect of creating value for the world.
  • Whenever applicable, give away credit. Don’t hold ideas close to your chest. Connect them with others in your organization or group that are better suited to execute them. Help them do so. Resist the urge to say, “That was my idea.”

The mantra of “Create more value than you consume” implies a simple change in perspective, but can you imagine if everyone thought and acted in that manner?