Tuesday, 9:20pm
Reno, NV
Yep, nothin’ gets by me, cuz I’m a real fart smeller… uh, I mean smart feller.” (Cousin Donald)


It took me an awful long time to figure out that — to get anywhere in life — I would have to buckle down and actually get good at something.

That was a painful realization. I was thirty-two at the time, no longer young, no longer having fun doing the things that had pleased me so thoroughly just a year or so earlier.

I was done with having potential.

Screw potential.

Potential can murder your life.

All through my formative years, I was given special attention because I could draw well (I had weekly cartoon stips in both my high school and college newspapers) (even won a Quill & Scroll award)… had some musical ability (my ragged bands played for friends’ parties and at school dances)… and evidenced a little precociousness with my fiction writing.

Relax. I sucked at fiction. I wrote complete stories, was all. On my own time. This amazed teachers, but it wasn’t anything all that great. Any early signs of authorship had absolutely no correlation to copywriting. In fact, it probably set me back a couple of years.

As I’ve often said, it’s easier to teach a near-illiterate salesman to write good copy, than it is to teach salesmanship to someone with a Ph.D in English literature.

But back then, I was just good enough at several creative skills to suffer the curse of potential.

You know what potential does? It gets you credit for not actually doing anything difficult. You get used to the easy accolades… and never develop good work habits, cuz it’s no big deal for you.

During my days hanging with the “D” list Hollywood crowd, I saw the ravages of potential up close and personal. Most of the folks who’d ever been praised for a small acting gig, or had a bad TV screenplay optioned, or had scored a “meeting with John Candy’s people”… coasted on that cloud for as long as possible.

For many, their brush with success became a standing joke. We’d make bets on how long they’d wait before bringing it up to someone new. (Average time: About three minutes.)

If I was in charge of the world, I’d take every kid with potential aside… and clap them all into a boot camp, where we’d wipe that smirk off their face. And make ’em earn some real kudos.

It’s the only way to save most of them.

The most vivid example of potential versus reality I ever saw was down in Miami Beach, after it’d become a hotbed of the fashion world. Every day, several buses would arrive, crammed with young women who were the best-looking creatures who’d ever graced the small town they’d just come from.

And it took about an hour for them to realize that, as god-like as they were treated back home, here in the center of the model universe, they weren’t even on the map.

It isn’t fair.

But it’s the way it is.

So the person with a little “natural” talent at something may have a tiny advantage over the raw rookie who never heard the term “potential” tossed their way.

But that tiny advantage is irrelevant… unless it gets honed into a big advantage.

And guess what? It takes just about the same amount of hard work to hone a little talent, as it does to go from zero to hero.

Never let your perceived lack of natural ability stop you from trying something.

I’m thinking about this, after seeing Bela Fleck, Stanley Clarke and Jean Luc Ponte at the Hawkins outdoor amphitheater tonight. Stunning expertise there — on violin, gut bass, and jazz banjo.

They were dressed casually, they didn’t require any formal introductions, they joked and were at ease with each other and the crowd while they played.

And it was exquisite.

These guys are experts. And if you listen closely, you can catch pieces of Bach, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Coltrane and Weather Report licks thrown in, as teasing references.

Nice stuff. I’ve been following these musicians, separately, for thirty years. They were damn good back then. They are transcendental now.

Earlier today, I hung out in the kitchen while a new repairman took apart the built-in microwave, found hidden ice blocking the fan in the freezer, and showed me the right Allen wrench to use on the locked-up garbage disposal.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching him work. In another life, I could have happily been an odd-jobs artist… going deep into the mechanical flotsam of our lives.

He had a complaint — he’d hired, and fired, almost twenty different guys in the past year, trying to find someone who could handle some of the repair work for his thriving business.

The problem was best illustrated by the last guy — who wasted forty-five minutes trying to remove a plastic cover inside a broken dishwasher door… and finally brought the entire door back to the shop. He insisted it was permanently welded shut. The boss took it apart in twenty seconds.

“The thing is,” he told me, “that guy should have been humiliated. But he wasn’t. These rookie repairmen all want me to teach them the specifics of doing each job… but it ain’t like that.”

“It’s the process they need to learn,” I said.

“That’s right. Not the details of just that one job. They need to fall in love with figuring this stuff out.”

“It’s the same with advertising,” I said. “Great ads are the result of great sales detective work. And few want to put in the sweat.”

“Damn straight,” he said. And refused payment for fixing the fridge. Said it was his pleasure, because he enjoyed talking to me as he worked.

So… I’ve been thinking about expertise. What it is, what it takes to attain it. And what it means, after you have it.

And while I’m thinking… I get an email from someone that says: “Hey John. I want to be a world-class copywriter. What do I do to get started?”


And it dawns on me. Finally.

There’s a great quote I like: Learn your craft first. It won’t stop you from being a genius later.

The musicians tonight displayed genius, yes… but they expressed it through a master craftman’s skill level.

The repairman seemed to be working magic, listening to the freezer and finding the exact problem as if by divining the source. But really, he was just using the skills of his craft — figuring things out.

I’ve argued before that Picasso ruined painting. Not on purpose, of course. He went off on a totally bitchin’ tangent that riveted the world.

But everyone who learned painting after that, started with Picasso’s abstracts. They completely ignored the fact he was an accomplished realist, first. Knew his craft.

He broke the rules, only after showing he was a master of those rules.

The minions who followed, showed little consciousness of any rules at all. They want credit for being creative… “like Picasso.”

They want you to gaze at their crap, and fathom the potential there.

Because, you know, it’s abstract.

But they lack real craftmanship.

Pisses me off.

You can get away with it, of course, in “art”.

But not in marketing.

All the top guys are super-skilled craftsmen at their job. They learned to write well, and they learned the essentials of great marketing… sometimes painfully, taking however long it required.

Draft after draft after draft. Job by job. Client by client.

There are shortcuts to the gig… but you still have to patiently learn the craft first. This is the thing so many rookies can’t quite get a handle on. You don’t just become world-class because you really, really, really want it.

Be a craftsman. There’s some transcendental joy in knowing you’ve mastered something beyond the smirk of potential.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

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  • Paul Schneider says:

    Very good John.

    Funny how hard work — effective work not busy thinkingless activity is very often the only real barrier to entry and later success.

    Like Henry Ford said: thinking is the hardest work and that??s why so few will do it. What could require more thinking than learning?

    Makes me happy to live in a time of such unlimited opportunity – so much change, so much to learn…
    and so few prepared to do it!

  • Andrew says:

    Stanley Clarke? Is he still alive? I still have my copy of Romantic Warrior and his album with Lopsy-Lu on it. It was one of the first bass solos I learned in my fomative years. Aside from Jaco, he was my favorite at the time. And Jean Luc Ponte, I still have Cosmic Messenger on vinyl. What a memory trip that was. Bela Fleck, phenomenal Banjo, but not a big fan.

    I began playing bass when I was 15 and was told to learn everything. ‘Listen and play’ was the mantra I received from my teachers. (and no, they weren’t public school) Street musicians. Guys who played music for a living. They had to come up with the goods or starve. It was a real proving ground for me. Being 20 and working with a bunch of guys who called me a kid. But they liked my drive and interest. I was a sponge for the music.

    Sadly, many of the musicians I met later on were mostly ‘College Educated’ Muso’s. Tons of chops, but nothing interesting to say. As Miles Davis said to Bob Berg (saxophonist), “You got to take the horn outta’ ya’ mouth.” “Problem is, that guy never stops playin’.”

    I guess we don’t all here the message.

    Regards, Andrew

  • Frank Kern says:

    Recent studies by the University of Idaho have proven that Bela Fleck is telepathic.

  • John,

    That was great. I’m a musician who often talks like you do about learning the conventions first before you can go post-conventional. Nobody likes to hear it. They want to be “free” and “spontaneous” which translates into “learning the rules is a pain in the ass” and “you can’t tell me what to do.”

    And you kicked my ass because I’m tired of showing potential. I’ve zigzagged through much of my life and I’m only just getting acquainted with the straight line.

    Thanks for the inspiration!


  • BruceR says:

    John, all your posts are good – this one was GREAT, at least for me. It really hit the mark. Unused, or mis-used POTENTIAL is wasted…natural God given talent can often do more harm to a person’s future than the lack of talent…all it takes is living some hard, frustrating years to realize that consistent focused EFFORT trumps mere talent almost every time…(I wish I’d known that 20 years ago)


  • Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero says:

    “Potential can murder your life.”

    Scarier words were never spoken to a mother. I have two kids – the oldest struggles with EVERYTHING. The youngest floats effortlessly through life – truly gifted at anything he touches.

    While I never wish pain and struggle on anyone, I do see how challenges make you step up to the plate.

    “Character-building”, right? It still sucks when you’re going through it.

  • I had to laugh about this one:

    “You don’t just become world-class because
    you really, really, really want it.”

    it sort of ruines the positive thinking concept
    that is so precious to many. Plays nicely
    along with chasing every quick-fix-push-that
    button. Never get into anything and basically
    never really understand any one thing in

    Of course, I’m a musician so I would get away
    with lots of crap. But I choose not to. It’s boring.

  • “It took me an awful long time to figure out that — to get anywhere in life — I would have to buckle down and actually get good at something.

    That was a painful realization. I was thirty-two
    at the time, no longer young, no longer having
    fun doing the things that had pleased me so
    thoroughly just a year or so earlier.

    I was done with having potential.

    Screw potential.

    Potential can murder your life.”

    These words cant be truer to me. It’s as if John
    is speaking to me.

    All thru my 34 long years in this world, I am
    always counted as “someone with potential”

    Results to show – Not much I can be proud of.

    Atleast to the level I am capable of, I am yet to
    reach that place.

    Though I have to start two years later than John,
    it can’t come at a more oppurtune time.

    Being good at a craft, to learn the craft – Man
    word oozing with wisdom and prophecy.

    Hey John mark my words here, I’ll give a report
    to you in a years time and I’ll show how much I
    have learned my craft and how much I achieved
    because of that.

    thanks John. My grandchildren will be thanking you for this.

    Edward Santosh

  • John Thomas says:


    Hmmm… Sounds familiar. Musician. Creative. Intelligent. Can write. Can speak. Heck, was president of the debate team, and was in all those “smart-people” classes.

    I’ve always had “potential” coming out of my butt, but I’ve never really cracked down and focused. Never really had to.

    But I’ve got reasons to do so now (three of them).

    Thanks for the gentle kick. I needed that.


  • Roberta says:

    Unbelievable concert last night in Atlanta with Fleck, Ponte and Clarke. I was taken back in time. Their abilities are astounding alone, exquisite as a trio.

  • mark grove says:

    Potential? Hmmm? if that’s the case with the majority of people, we’re screwed. At least the people who don’t take action to become
    competent craftsmen at what ever we do, and learn how to market properly.

    Just my stupid 2 cents guys.

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