“Nothing is impossible for a man who won’t listen to reason.” The Big Ugly Guy
Today would have been Gary Halbert’s 70th birthday.
Had he still been among us, I would have sent him (as I had for nearly 20 years) a hand-drawn, relatively obscene birthday card, which would leave him tickled for days. (You knew my first paying job was as a cartoonist, right? I was the only student on both my high school and college newspaper who was paid — a fat five bucks a strip, too, I’ll have you know — and while the aspiring journalists muttered about it, they mostly admitted that my modest weekly cartoon strip wasn’t half bad.)
Gary always made an appropriate fuss whenever anyone did anything for him. You felt appreciated, and eagerly anticipated the next time you could do it again.
It was not an obvious lesson in living well… but for those of us paying attention, it was a good one. He hadn’t grown up receiving much praise. Many another young man would’ve become bitter over that lack of encouragement… but not Gary.
Instead, he considered his options: Become a moody, sour asshole mad at a world that withheld pats on the back…
… or rise above the easy reactions, and choose the high road.
Dude took the less-traveled, more scenic route.
Gary had a lot of faults. No one disputes that.
But he also strove to do the right thing, whenever faced with forks in the road. He used as guideposts little sayings like “When faced with two choices, the harder one is probably the right one to make” (author John D. MacDonald, in his “Travis McGee” novels) (which Gary turned everyone he cared about onto) (I’ve read them all).
I was struck by how carefully Gary had assembled a personal “rule book” to live by. Many of these rules were simple sayings, or secular proverbs, or cliches. Their pedigree didn’t matter — what counted was how well they worked in the real world to help you be a good man and make better choices in difficult situations.
So there was seldom anything obviously profound in these rules. I’d heard most of them before.
The difference with Gary was…
… he actually got serious about trying to follow these rules.
Oh, he would screw up. I would not be surprised to hear from some biz associate or other, as a result of this post, claiming all sorts of shenanigans on Gary’s part. And I won’t get into it. I knew Gary well, and (way back when) was in the room during a few business transactions that later went sideways. And I’ve known a few businessmen who would abruptly shut up in mid-rant about Gary when they discovered who I was. Because I knew the truth, which was always much more complex than they would have you believe. (And guilt harder to assign.)
The denizens of the entrepreneurial world dearly love to trash-talk.
One of the first rules I picked up from Gary: Even the richest and most influential marketers are — at heart — still back in high school, nursing petty grudges, gossiping without shame, and overly concerned with an imaginary pecking order that serves no purpose other than bragging rights.
That insight has helped me tremendously over the years.
I am never surprised by the way rumors zoom around among my colleagues. I do not take things too personally, either… because (just like in high school) sometimes, it’s just your turn to be the grist for the rumor mill.
Get over it.
I keep my nose clean, go the extra mile, practice generosity generously, and never forget that I have to re-earn my reputation all over again every single day.
Keeps ya humble.
Few people who knew him would ever use the word “humble” to describe Halbert. And yet, as his long-time “road dog” who got to share thoughts at an intimate level, I would not hesitate to call him that.
Life humbled him. The demands of family, and meeting the nut for his payroll, and living up to his own legend were not simple tasks. Every day, he engaged life knowing that all manner of risk and danger and pitfall loomed — especially for a man bent on pushing the envelope and grabbing all the gusto available.
To many outsiders, he seemed like a super-confident “laugh at death” kinda silver-backed male. And he worked hard to earn his Top Dog title, and keep it.
But, when it was time to kick back, the humility returned. No one conquers life completely, not really. At best, you get one or two shots at achieving something great… or, if you have the fortitude to stay with it, you may get a chance to establish a legacy of good work. A legend, perhaps.
But you will never make life your bitch.
One of the ironies of leadership is that… if you don’t have doubts, you aren’t worthy of leading.
The great leaders just learn to navigate those doubts, and work through them until you can finally say “this is what we’re gonna do”… and be willing to stand behind that decision. Right or wrong.
And this ain’t Hollywood… so you aren’t guaranteed anything. Even good people fail spectacularly, and are ruined.
There’s no safety net out there.
Outsiders seldom see or acknowledge this wrestling match with doubt. They want their leaders to be principled, steadfast, and good at looking confident. They will also pillory any leader they perceive as “weak”.
Of course, outsiders have the luxury of being so hard on their leaders because they themselves will never have to face down a dilemna with no easy solution… or be responsible for all consequences of any action taken.
Naw. That crap is for leaders. Much better to sit back and let others figure things out. Besides, it’s fun to heckle and gripe and moan about leaders. If they can’t stand the heat, they should stay outa the kitchen, yadda yadda yadda.
I wanted no part of that game.
My lack of ambition both helped and hurt my relationship with Gary over the years. He was always pushing me to throw my hat into the guru ring, and I resisted because I knew from observing him that the job of “leader” mostly sucked.
I was more than content to be part of the power behind the throne. I didn’t need or want the lights at center-stage. I was much more interested in the “inner workings” of success… the stuff we dissected and discussed and cogitated on when no client could see or hear us.
When I was finally ready to become a teacher, I was REALLY ready. I’ve spent a long damn time digging deep into the functional details of success and the malfunctions of failure… and I’ve logged years worth of long, intimate chats with perhaps the most creative, brilliant and hard-core true advertising genius of our time.
I can tell who “gets” the really profound nature of this biz, because they love to hear the details of these discussions.
Most people find these stories boring. Or so opaque and vague as to be incomprehensible.
Most folks want the larger-than-life stories, with the easy punchlines. (Like the time Halbert dropped his pants in front of an all-Mormon business audience, just to see if he could shock them.) (Okay, and also to prove he wasn’t wearing women’s underwear, as I had insisted during the seminar.) (God, we were brutal with each other on stage.)
(Boxers, if you must know.)
(Oh, there are lots of stories about inappropriate dress with Halbert. Once, flying in late the night before for a seminar co-hosted with Michel Fortin, I found Michel in the bar and was shucking and jiving when Gary called my cell. He was up in his room, getting ready for his presentation, and insisted I come up to say hello. So Michel and I took the elevator up, knocked on Gary’s door… and he answered wearing jockey briefs and a Rolling Stone tee shirt. And maybe black socks. I was used to it — the guy never cared about clothes, and was impervious to embarrassment like that. He just liked to be comfy. You got in the habit of insisting he put on some friggin’ pants, and went on with the conversation. Poor Michel, though, looked stricken. It’s a good thing we were slightly hammered, so the shock could dissipate quickly… and we could get on with talking business and gossiping about other colleagues.)
(Gary also had an astonishing ability to trash a hotel room within minutes of checking in. It’s like his suitcase would explode or something. Piles of camera equipment, stacks of ads he’d ripped out of magazines on the plane, food trays, mysterious briefcases bursting with marketing reports and bottles of vitamins, a dozen pairs of glasses shrewn about, harmonicas, novels, cassette and VHS tapes and CDs, and impressive collections of the coolest toys from Sharper Image… either already broken or about to be, cuz Gary was rough with toys.)
The man embraced life, and USED everything he owned.
For a timid guy like me (who sometimes wouldn’t wear a “nice” shirt for years, because I didn’t want to “ruin” it) (and thus would give it away to Goodwill, never worn), this was another profound lesson… something missed or shrugged off by others.
The lesson: Don’t be terrified of your appetites.
Life respects and appreciates a person with a good appetite, well indulged.
A little moderation is nice, just to avoid excess. But dive in with gusto, dude.
A lesson like that is even more meaningful when you discover that Gary was essentially a shy guy, devoid of any natural confidence. His upbringing tried to put him into a box, where he would be a good little sheep.
And he squared his shoulders, refused the limitations ladled onto him… and got busy making his own damn place in the world.
You gotta respect that. Every day, he dug deeper into his reserves of guts, brains and strenght than most people even suspect a person can dig… and went about the never-ending tasks of attempting to wrestle the universe to its knees.
He wasn’t fearless. He faced down his fear.
And he wasn’t a “gifted” genius. He loaded up his mind, body and soul with the tools he needed to do battle and win. It was a lifelong process. Not easy. But he loved the action.
Another lesson: Enjoy the process.
Hell… LOVE it, if you dare.
Finally, here are two of the biggest, and most lasting lessons I got from The Big Ugly Guy:
Big Damn Lesson #1. Gary had a vicious temper. Most people don’t know this, because they never saw it. I never caught more than a glimpse of it myself in ten years of road-dogging.
It wasn’t because he was keeping a lid on his temper.
It was because, long before I met him, he realized he needed to dominate it. Not just lock it down… but obliterate it.
And he did. Using a unique pairing of innocent sounding rules that pack a lot of hidden power.
Thus: “All mistakes made from enthusiasm are forgiveable.”
Too many people secretly enjoy getting pissed off, or else have no control over it whatsoever. And they see every blunder that affects them as a personal insult.
I made several critical mistakes when I first started working with Gary. I expected to be at least berated and humiliated. One of those errors probably should have gotten me fired.
But no. Gary’s lusty use of humiliation was reserved for “fun” times. He dearly loved the give-and-take of manly insults and mockery, which you only delivered to friends you valued… and NEVER in anger. (Part of the reason we hit it off so quickly was my ability to nail his ass as good as he nailed mine.)
And those mistakes? Forgiveable. I was eager to prove myself in the job, and I moved too fast for detail work.
There was no sign that Gary was struggling to keep his cool. He was relaxed, figured out how to mitigate the damage and get back on track… made sure I realized the lesson… and we moved on.
Anger is a negative emotion. It will eat away at your lust for life, and poison your mind.
It is both a stupid reaction to anything (anything!)… and completely avoidable at all times. If you believe you have no control over your anger, you’re deluded. You do have control, and you can exert it immediately. It’s a learned habit. In our more animalistic past, back in the jungle, “rage” had a purpose in our survival toolkit. It’s long past useful, except in very rare cases.
Anger confuses most people. Their own is disorienting, and other’s is threatening. There is no power in anger.
But you can’t expect most folks to understand that.
Thus, the companion rule for this one is: “Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.” (From “The Godfather”, I think.) Power doesn’t rely on rage. You give up too much getting mad.
This is deep stuff, kids.
Most of the world may have heard these rules, but they ignore them.
Big Damn Lesson #2: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
This one often illicits a smile. It’s funny, in a twisted way.
But as a rule, it underscores another reason to nurture patience and Buddha-like good nature… even in the heat of business battle.
You do not offer help or favors with the idea that you win “points” by doing so. Human nature doesn’t work that way.
In fact, the person receiving the favor is put into an unsustainable state of discomfort — “owing” you because you did me a favor means I’m in debt. Unconsciously, or consciously, I will adjust this uncomfortable state until I’m feeling just dandy about myself and the way things are going.
This means — for many folks — that doing someone a favor means you will soon be a needle in their hide… and it’s YOUR fault this awkward situation exists. Cuz you helped.
Therefore, it will be okay to take further advantage of you. Punish you, in fact, for having the nerve to help me out.
But if you pay attention, you’ll see this rule is true more often than not.
Now, I could go on with details, but I’ll let you explore this rule for yourself.
The deeper significance isn’t in “knowing” that people are fucked up and will screw you for no good reason.
Naw. The real value of this rule is realizing that people are contrary creatures, often acting against their own best interest… and able to turn into ungrateful pissants while thinking themselves completely and utterly justified and righteous.
You don’t stop doing people favors, though.
You just don’t notch up a “favor owed” on them. You expect nothing in return.
If you do someone a good turn… you do it because it’s the right thing to do. Not because of any quid pro quo.
This isn’t “business as usual”. Working with Halbert, it was NEVER “business as usual.” Often, I would scratch my head for years figuring out how a lesson fit into my own life.
Very much worth it, though.
There is massive wisdom in small rules.
Knowing these rules is one thing.
Living them is quite another. It’s not easy, and it often goes against your “common wisdom” intuition.
Gary had no foundation to work up from when he created the man he became. He had to make it up as he went, struggling and failing and risking everything many, many times. No advantages…
… except a love of discovering “hints” about living well within little sayings and rules like this.
For me, his legacy had nothing to do with what others would call “success in business”.
For me, it was always about living life with more gusto. Chewing up the scenery, and forcing people to make room for you at the Feast.
Thanks, pal. Much appreciated.
And I’m doing my best to spread the real wealth around.
P.S. Gary’s sons (Bond and Kevin, who I’ve known for most of their lives) are finally able to rev up the old website again.
If you aren’t on their list, you are hearby informed that they are posting previously-unposted newsletters (from the early days, when Gary’s work was like an H-bomb going off in the business world).
Bookmark the site: http://www.thegaryhalbertletter.com