Rats ‘n’ Us

I just finished a long phone call with Gary Halbert.

We talked about rats. And then we talked about his decision to quit writing his newsletter.

This was a fairly typical conversation, as our chats go. During all those years I served as his right-hand man, we often spent half our time on-stage at seminars whispering and gossiping like schoolgirls. People in the audience were driven nuts, wondering what the heck we were talking about so urgently, and would do all sorts of sneaky shit to find out. Like “accidentally” leaving a tape recorder on the floor near us, or buying “remote listening” contraptions from the Spy Shop.

As far as I know, no one ever succeeded. At least I hope not.

See, we seldom talked about anything relevant to the business at hand during seminars. We’d been doing Hot Seats and such for so long, and knew the process so thoroughly, that we usually had the answer to anyone’s problem before they finished asking it. So we got bored.

One particular seminar, Gary leans over to me and says “Hey, John. I can see up the dress of that woman in the second row!” I spit up a mouthful of coffee — the bastard had timed that comment just right.

I got him back later, of course. But that’s a story for another time.

Right now, unless you’ve been hiding in a cave, you must know that Gary recently sent out email announcing the end of his newsletter. The last issue is now up at www.thegaryhalbertletter.com.

He’s going to explain, in due time, what he means by “retiring” the newsletter… but I can say with some authority that he himself is not retiring from the scene.

So don’t panic.

I cannot imagine a world with the guy.

Gary and I have been close friends for over 18 years now. I met him at a private party at Jay Abraham’s house just after he had begun writing his newsletter, and we hit it off pretty much right away. I gave up a lot to go work with him — I’d already established myself as a freelancer with major LA agencies, had controls with several of the large financial mailers, was ghost-writing with top copywriters like Jim Rutz. (And even did some fullfilment writing for Gary Bencivenga.)

I was trying hard to fit into the “normal” freelance scene, but I often felt restricted. And bored. Gary offered immediate relief — he was funny, irreverent, and liked to stir shit up. He loathed being bored even more than I did.

Plus, of course, he knew more about the true art of writing killer ads than everyone else combined. He was fresh out of Boron, had put his life back together, and was licking his chops at all the opportunity out there for a street-smart writer with a deep, deep bag of tricks.

I walked away from a prime spot near the center of the “normal” direct response world, without a glance back, when Gary asked me to come work for him. His first year’s worth of newsletters had given me more ammo for my own bag of tricks than everything else I’d read or learned to that point. And I was one of those guys who devoured the library, stalked out-of-print books, and worked for free for Jay just to be able to hang out in his offices.

Working with Halbert was the wildest ride of my life. I saw a dozen other people try it while I was there, and they all flamed out from stimulus overload. I hung in through good times — where we made a lot of money — and bad times — where we squandered opportunities and life seemed like one long slow-motion train wreck.

It was all a continuous lesson, in business, in writing, in life. I learned from him, he learned a bit from me, and we both learned super-advanced stuff neither of us had imagined was out there.

We long ago went our separate ways in business, but remained good friends and confidants. I know I can pick up the phone anytime I need to rant and he will make time for me. And I do the same for him.

And yeah, we still spend a lot of time gossiping and savaging the political and social sides of our culture. But we manage to squeeze in a few tidbits, here and there, about marketing and making money. Every phone call is worth a whole new mini-education.

It’s been a good friendship, worth millions in earthly riches and priceless in intellectual sustenance.

What’s odd is that we have remained friends despite being opposites in many ways. I prefer quiet, calm environments with occasional bursts of excitement. Gary likes to kick the beehive every day.

However, we share a basic world-view: There ain’t nothing inherently noble about being human. You gotta work through a jungle-full of liability to attain even a small amount of grace.

There are a couple of famous rat studies we both find relevant to our lives. Researchers use rats a lot because the little rodents share our basic nervous system. What irritates or pleases a rat, also irritates or pleases most humans.

Get over it.

In one study, scientists put what they knew to be a “sustainable” number of rats into one large cage. They functioned well in this environment, mating normally, rearing little baby rats, getting along with each other.

Then, the lab coats began to add more rats. Just a few more. To see what happened. Quickly, the large cage became Chaos Central. Result: Cannibalism, buggery, murder, rape, and lots of eating the young.

All because of overcrowding.

In the other study, the coats introduced alcohol to a normal society of rats. Most of them avoided it, some used it as “Miller Time”, and a percentage just went overboard. The stats mirrored what we know of alcohol use in normal human environments.

Then the researchers, always happy to screw things up, raised the stress level of the rats. Loud noises, cage jarring, unpredictable electric shocks, all sorts of disorienting stuff.

Result: The tea-totalling rats started guzzling booze. The Miller Time crowd became 24-7 lushes. And the alcoholic rats literally drowned themselves in the liquor.

What does all this mean? Well, besides revealing how sadistic the guys in lab coast can be, it at least makes you think about modern life, and our place in it.

Humans like to think of ourselves as above the animal world — cleaner, smarter, better suited to rule the planet.

We are, of course, none of these things. We make a mess of everything we touch, and there’s some strong evidence that we’re killing the surface of the earth.

Plus, we make people like Britney Spears rich and famous. Could Hell have noises any worse than what she produces?

We’re more like shaved apes who stumbled a few feet away from the jungle than we want to admit. Our biggest survival asset, in fact, is our denial system. Something bad coming our way? No problem. Ignore it.

But most of all… we are vulnerable to stress in ways that sneak up on us.

Both Gary and I have been around for a long time. We don’t feel old, don’t look our ages, and we’re actually healthier than a lot of the younger guys in this biz.

But we’ve absorbing stress for decades. When things go well, you ignore the stress because you’re having fun. When things go south, the stress starts to eat you alive.

Over time, it all adds up.

And you know what? Sometimes, we just want to go away and watch waves crash on the beach… for a very, very long time.

Burn-out is common in advertising. I have a theory that writing sales copy actually ignites a different part of your brain, and it’s a very vulnerable part that can get trashed easily.

Guys like Gary, and me, have put our ass on the line for you. Yes, we can be self-aggrandizing fools, and yes, we have been rewarded for annointing ourselves guru’s.

But I can tell, after years on the inside of the “expert world”, that we wouldn’t expose ourselves this way, for any amount of money, if we didn’t love to teach.

My first big thrill as a copywriter was getting that first check for a job. Then, seeing one of my pieces succeed like crazy. Then, finding out I actually had a reputation, and that people were seeking me out.

But the BIGGEST thrill I’ve ever gotten… is that first pile of testimonials from people I’d given advice to when I started www.marketingrebel.com.

If you have experience teaching, you understand. Making money is one thing, and I like it. But helping other people is a rare event in most people’s lives. It does something to you, deep inside.

And you fall in love with what you do all over again.

I know Gary. Maybe as well as anyone else around, except for his family and girlfriend.

And I can tell you — the guy has teaching in his blood. If he’s decided that a monthly newsletter is nudging his “stress meter” too high, I’m the first friend to tell him to give it a rest.

But you haven’t seen the last of him. The stress comes and goes, and even the most dedicated need to take a friggin’ break once in a while. Cut him some slack. He’s poured his heart out to you guys for almost twenty years now, and has made many of you millionaires.

This has been a true Golden Age of information, and Gary was one of the guys who started the ball rolling. There are a ton of other “experts” out there, and many of them are worth following.

But there’s only one Gary Halbert.

There will always be only one Gary Halbert.

And he’s still here, still full of piss and vinegar, and if my intuition is any good, he’s gonna remain on the scene.

Kickin’ beehives.

John Carlton

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  • John Thomas says:

    You know, John, I’m just thankful that Gary has been so generous with his knowledge (especially with the newsletters).

    No complaints here.

    He’s earned whatever break he wants to take (and my thanks,too).


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