blank canvas trap

Skies the limit.

Feel free to do whatever you wish.

It’s a new role so we are open to fresh ideas.

It’s wide open, we are looking for you to tell us.

Sound familiar? These are just some of the many phrases associated with the phrase “it’s a blank canvas” when a recruiter or hiring manager tells you about a new opportunity.

Exciting…yes. Blank canvas…not so fast.

It sounds great if you are a commissioned artist about to take on your next masterpiece or a toddler with a bucket of finger paints, but if you’re anyone else – be cautious of this phrase and here is why:

  • The term “blank canvas” implies many things, potentially too many things. It’s a statement that on the surface sounds amazing but having the opportunity to do whatever you want almost sounds too good to be true and that’s because it is.

When it comes to working in a company or organization, they aren’t simply going to give you the keys and say good luck. That doesn’t happen to even the smartest, highest paid and most well like CEO’s. Even if it’s their company, they still are accountable to others. Short of a recruiter or hiring manager handing you an actual blank canvas, you should pause and re-think the statement.

You see the problem isn’t the statement itself but rather what you aren’t saying when you hear it.

Opportunities are what make life special and that’s where you can grow and learn. The key is making sure the opportunity is one you wish to take on and one that’s going to work for you.

Maybe Milton had the right mindset when it came to opportunities. You see, most people when told “it’s a blank canvas” immediately fall into one of two mindsets:

  1. Wow, this is amazing – think of all the possibilities.
  2. Oh my, that could be too much, too big or too vague.

Neither one is better than the other as it solely depends on the person and the opportunity. However, there is a third mindset which I believe is a combination of the above and what you should really be thinking:

It’s not what’s on the canvas that you should be considering or worried about but rather the size of the canvas itself.

Think about it for a moment:

  • The canvas represents the opportunity.
  • What goes on the canvas are your talents, skills and vision.

You want to be asking (and thinking about) these questions:

  • What type of support will I have to achieve this masterpiece? Even the most tortured artists had an assistant, a muse or a helper. Who will be yours?
  • When is this canvas supposed to be completed? What’s the realistic timing around the “ask” and the deliverable. Do you know what the expectations are around this deliverable?
  • What’s the value of this completed piece of work? Many times, organizations aren’t clear on what they need or asking for and it’s your job and responsibility to dig into the details and find out. Does the company truly value the type of art you are going to create?
  • Where will the finish piece reside? No one likes to pour the heart out on to a canvas only to have the completed piece sitting in a dark warehouse, safe and wrapped up from daylight only to hang around (pun intended) for a rainy day.

Final thoughts: If you don’t have the right size canvas to support your talents, passion and the accountability for the opportunity – you will most likely be frustrated. Have you ever seen a 4×4″ Jackson Pollack? Me neither. That’s because his style rarely if ever was meant for such a small canvas. In your career and in life, make sure the size of your canvas matches both your vision, skills and style.

The floor is yours: What questions do you ask when new opportunities arise?

Please leave your comment below as your insights are greatly appreciated and a learning opportunity for everyone reading this article.

With leadership,

Joshua /

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