Being Told “No”

One of the fun parts of watching The Apprentice is seeing how younger, less experienced people handle business decisions. I’m sure that most of America is clueless about how they, personally, would solve any of the tasks given… but for veteran entrepreneurs and business owners, it’s refreshing to be presented with business puzzles, and match your wit against what the teams do.

Plus, best of all, you get to see conflict and resolution, all in one tidy hour.

The downside of this, of course, is that often the young contestants display such a piss-poor understanding of basic marketing and advertising savvy… that the show becomes a horror movie. Sort of like “Trump: The Slasher Version”.

The basics are all about concepts, pricing, marketing models and crafting a killer pitch aimed at the right target audience. Mostly, I think it’s unfair to expect kids (and yes, these are ALL kids) to cover so much conceptual ground with no mentoring, or time to study up. In real life, for example, you don’t just decide to create the graphics and copy for a product at four o’clock one afternoon, and have it finished by ten that night.

Especially if you’re clueless about how to do it. It’s like that oft-repeated scene in the old “Our Gang” shorts — Spanky and Alfalfa turn to each other and say “Let’s put on our own Broadway show!” (The same theme was repeated over and over for the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies, too.) And suddenly, you have these absurd Rube Goldberg machinations for lighting, stage design, curtains, and effects.

In the movies, it works out, somehow.

In real life… not so much.

But that’s the way this game is set up, and that’s the way they must play it.

During these more obtuse tasks — and I mean, really, why would Trump test the mettle of an apprentice by having them flog cheap brochures? — the show focuses more on the soap opera side of things.

Which, if you ever have to deal with people in your business, can be priceless.

Tonight, the tall, arrogant young woman Andrea got the axe. Bit of a surprise, because she seemed invincible in previous weeks — The Donald had taken to her, and she had a success record of being the honcho.

Here’s the lesson I was reminded of: I have had many clients over the years base their products around a “talent” — a person, who they either filmed doing something, or who was the “star” of the book or show. This is a good model, because it gives an otherwise corporate-looking product a little honest soul and personality.

The problem arrives when the “star” isn’t one of the owners. To take just one example, I have famous clients who are actually anonymous… and create products centered around people they find, film, and promote. The “star” of the show doesn’t get to make any decisions about the marketing, the advertising, or anything else. They just show up, do their thang, and collect a check.

Therein lies the rub of the model.

Time after time, my clients have taken someone with a little bit of honest talent (or an unexploited secret) who was living in obscurity… broke and desperate… and made them a household name.

At first, the “star” is flush with gratitude, and cooperative to a fault.

Then, the checks start arriving.

And everything changes.

I call it “The Primadonna Syndrome”. That’s our term for someone who suddenly believes that THEY are the reason the product sells so well.

It’s not the marketing. Not the list. Not the copy.

It’s them.

The transformation can happen slowly or (as is usually the case), almost overnight. It sort of depends who has their ear. I suspect it’s often the spouse… who, late one night after they’ve been celebrating the success of the promotion, leans over and says “Honey, they’re taking advantage of you, you know. You should be getting much, much more of the profit… because you ARE the star.”

And they come back, actually offended that they had been “taken advantage of” by my clients. A month prior, they couldn’t rub two nickels together, and now they’re cashing checks that are bigger than what they made the entire previous year.

Proof, they will tell you, that they’re a true “star”.

My clients made a lot of mistakes in the early days, before I helped them see how the “Primadonna Syndrome” would occur almost every single time. (Actually, it’s EVERY single time, but that’s a more advanced lesson.) For example, in the first few projects, they actually made the “talent” a quasi-partner, by cutting him in for a share of the profits. It seemed like a nice, fair share, too.

In terms of other businesses, it was friggin’ GENEROUS.

But the “star”, lacking experience in business, only saw the piece of pie he was being served, and judged it against what he imaged the other guys were divvying up.

Every single one of those relationships went south.

Do you know what my clients now say, when a “star” clears his throat to begin the “I should get a bigger cut” speech?

They say: “Next.”

Because there is a long, long line of other “stars” right behind Mr. Primadonna, eager to have their shot at being the “talent” in one of these lucrative projects.

It’s not the “talent” that makes the project work.

It’s the marketing. It’s the list. And it’s the copy.

(Actually, after so many years of dealing with ungrateful — but expected — greed, my clients now have a “Primadonna” talk with each new “star”… before the project rolls. They tell the “star” exactly how he is going to feel after receiving his check, and how that greed will transform his thinking. Then… they remind him that he only got his chance, because the guy in front of him actually said and felt those things. Sometimes, this warning alert can slow the progress of “Primadonna Syndrome”. But it never stops it entirely.)

The root of the problem is lack of business experience. A savvy guy understands the game, and understands his place in the game. You can change your place, and you can even sometimes change the game… but not by ignoring reality.

One of the primary lessons of business is networking — and that takes getting along with people. It really does. That’s why I stress the “bonding” process of advanced salesmanship so much. Your market is people, and your associates are people — and while you can still be an asshole and win (as The Donald has proven)… you can’t be a clueless asshole and win.

Tonight, this woman Andrea reminded me of every other person I’ve ever had to deal with… who had never been told “no” in her life. You don’t see this as much in older people, because they’ve had more of an opportunity to get bitch-slapped by life.

Old people can be amazingly arrogant, of course… but it’s often a savvier kind of arrogance. They know they have to back it up.

Younger people — especially attractive, well-schooled ones who have not yet lived through a real recession, let alone any grand disaster — have a more obnoxious kind of arrogance. And a lot of it is simply because they’ve gotten away with this crap their entire life, without ever being told “no”.

Andrea — this tall, imposing, imperious and, yes, arrogant woman — was reduced to tears tonight by getting told “no” by Trump. Her walls crumbled under the mildest of assaults, because life (to this point) had taught her that an arrogant attitude worked. And it will, to an extent. Most people recoil from any kind of confrontation at all, and so there is little initial feedback for the person ramming their way through life with blunt arrogance.

I was arrogant, once. The same kind of empty, unsupportable arrogance this young woman used as protection. But I didn’t become a freelancer until after I’d been fired from numerous jobs, and been told “no” by life a thousand times. I never liked it, but it steeled me against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune once I did go after success — without that experience of being told “no”, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

In fact, it’s probably the single most important realization you can make when you’re young, and arrogance comes so easily. Owning a little humility doesn’t stunt your abilities to get stuff done.

It just helps you shrug off the small shit.

And it puts a needed damper on your ego when you get too full of yourself.

Something to think about.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

Just enter your name and primary email address below and we'll send you the new report right away.

"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • gabriel dragomir says:


    I am 22, a student from Romania, and till this time I haven’t been told ‘No’ many times.

    Who suffers whenever hears ‘no’ is only the ego. What’s interesting is the construction of the ego, building it through school. This system made by society only hepls building the ego, and also helps building the ‘fear of rejection’.

    Only by this fear of rejection, and only by being afraid of the word ‘no’ beople, people endure so much for so little.

    Thank you for this article,

    Best wishes

  • John Rinaldi says:

    What’s amazing to me about this episode is the utter lack of salesmanship exhibited by these people! I heard things like: “Would you like to buy…?”, “Are you interested in purchasing…?”. Not a decent sales pitch from any of them. And these people are supposedly successful. At what? Certainly not moving product from their shelf to the other guys shelf.

  • ken oneill says:

    I keep missing the episodes .. i watched this one a little .. but it sorta annoyed me .. I am 28 i have recieved my but kicking from life and havn’t yet got on my sucess path. I didn’t do well in the classroom .. and i didn’t have a family who could clear my path to college . so i have hit plenty of no’s in my life .. they bother me some . but non of them ruin my life .

    Though .. there are times i look at people my age .. who’s parents are still supporting them . yes i still live with my parents . But it had been a decade sence mother did my cloths . i make most of my own food . and pay my bills .

    it is funny when you see these people .. with aduldt children who are still home .. and their mother is cooking ,cleaning .. doing their laundry.. paying some of their bills . and the Kids are working making over 50k a year ..

    there are to many people who’s view of tough times are not being able to buy your morning coffee at starbucks.


  • Dave says:

    Ah, you frikkin’ nailed it with the ‘Primadonna Syndrome’!

    Well said.

    I’m just trying to crunch my way through these invaluable archives (I’m still a rookie) and you laid out my experience verbatim.

    My first project was with a “star”. It went amazingly well… they got a partner… and then BAM! Before we’d even rolled the product out – it went sour as a kumquat.

    He was a changed person. I pulled out of the product and now I’m kicking myself I hadn’t read this post sooner!

    Thanks John,
    I’ve got a few years left to get through!

  • >