3 Inviolate Rules We Routinely Violate

One of the reasons I got into teaching was a special notebook I kept throughout the early years of my freelance career.

In that notebook, I wrote down every non-writing rule I came across in business. These were not the tactics and tricks and secrets I was using to actually write copy. All those notes and insights went into different files.

No, this one special notebook was simply called “Nuggets”. I was hanging around stars, geniuses and wizards who constantly spouted little tidbits of wisdom — the guiding rules of their life — and I was astonished that few people were as knocked out by the power of these nuggets as I was.

I started my career as a freelance copywriter in a state of near-utter cluelessness… and I pounced on every shred of advice and insight I could find. I guarded that notebook like it was gold.

There was more to living a good life than just earning big fees as a writer.

As I began to taste success and enter doors previously closed to me, I saw the wreckage of ruined lives all over the place — guys who had achieved great things in business, but whose personal lives sucked beyond belief.

The first decision, I realized, was simply taking the obvious steps to getting your professional act together.

But the next decision was just as critical — and usually overlooked.

You gotta get your mojo together, too.

You must weld the Yin to the Yang.

I can always tell when a copywriting student is gonna go places in this biz — he pays as much attention to the non-writing advice as he does to the specifics of crafting sales pitches. Most are too full of raw ambition to see that “success” needs to be defined… and it’s different for everyone.

Nobody gets out of this world alive.

In the end, it’s not how much you earned, but how well you lived that matters.

And that’s where these “nuggets” come in. Back in the ’80s, there were oodles of books coming out that purported to tell you how to live. The best-sellers were like Robert Ringer’s works — tough, no-nonsense updates on Machiavelli and Sun Tsu’s “Art of War”. It was good stuff… but a little lopsided on the “kill first, ask questions later” model.

If all you read was the hard-core “greed is good” manuals, you might have succeeded at reaching your goals… but there was a good chance you’d be alone at the end of the day. And miserable.

I was fortunate to discover the other side of the “rules for life” literary trend. Og Mandino, for all his sappiness, still delivered a useable message of hope and empowerment. And the Americanized Zen of David Reynolds (“Constructive Living”), when balanced against Ringer’s “take no prisoners” tactics, offered you a breathtaking menu of life lessons that came close to supplying you with what it took to be a complete person.

Still, I noted that many of the basic rules my mentors were relying on each day weren’t represented in the popular books.

So I kept meticulous notes. And I took the lessons to heart.

I’ll share just three with you here. A sliver of insight, culled from a long career at the edge.

I’ve called them “inviolate” rules… meaning, you shouldn’t violate them, ever, if you want to live a super-disciplined life.

But I noticed that even the most disciplined and ambitious and proactive guys I learned from… violated nearly every rule they had, at one time or another.

And that’s another rule: There are always exceptions.

The difference is all about keeping your eyes open, and acknowledging to yourself that you are consciously going against your own rule.

Sometimes, life is like a horror movie. Yeah, you should never go down into the dark cellar after hearing screams… but if you’re the go-to guy in the group, then that’s what you gotta do. Even if doing so goes against the very fiber of your being.

Here are 3 “inviolate” rules that are routinely violated:

Rule #1. No good deed goes unpunished.

It’s astonishing to me how often this rule proves itself. I’m a generous guy, and I was raised to enjoy doing things for people. It’s a habit. When I’m in a position to help someone else out, I often jump up and go out of my way. It’s just my nature — and I’m not alone.

Americans in general — despite our current spate of bad PR in the world — are generous people.

But you cannot do something for another human being with the expectation that you will be rewarded. First, because that diminishes the act of kindness.

And second… because doing something nice for someone often kickstarts a thought process in the person being helped that doesn’t end until he’s convinced you OWE him even more help. More of what you did for him, and more of everything in general.

The psychological roots of this weird thinking are deep, and if you pay close attention you’ll discover that even you have engaged in it. (I distinctly recall being overwhelmed with gratitude at the better-than-I-expected salary I received from a mentor… and, less than a month later, assuming he should also kick in for a new car. I was horrified to realize I was punishing him for kindness… but at least I caught myself, and nipped that ungrateful demon in my head in the bud.)

And yet… I have never stopped doing good deeds. The idea of going through life refusing to be generous just because many people will consider you their private sugar-daddy is… well, it’s an ugly idea.

I’ll continue to violate this rule… but I’ll be ever vigilant to the possible consequences.

Being generous doesn’t require that you be a sucker, too.

If I do something for someone out of the goodness of my heart, and they shit on it… well, fine. They’ve burned a bridge, and it’s not my problem.

And it’s not gonna sour me on helping others.

Rule #2: All clients suck.

This is an easy one. All clients DO suck… because the very nature of being a client means you want something from the person you’ve hired. And as much as that hired gun is a pro — with good work habits and a dedication to deadlines — he still resents the fact that his skills have been bought with coin.

I try to make my freelance students understand that they are, essentially, whores. You take the cash, and work up a rabid enthusiasm for your client’s business and life. You are his new best friend, and you’re in it with him 110%… until you’ve fulfilled your paid-for duties.

Then, you’re outa there like a kid on the last day of school.

And the client, once he has what he needs from you, can’t wait to see the door hit you in the butt (most of the time).

It’s an adversarial relationship. Each side feels they gave it up too cheap.

What’s funny about this… is that YOU suck when you’re own client. Writing for yourself is one of the hardest jobs you’ll ever take on… and you must assume a schizophrenic duo-personality if you’re gonna be successful. Cuz you gotta kick your own ass, and set your own deadlines.

Still… in the end, the savvy freelancers among us all continue to hire ourselves out to new clients… and the smart business owners among us continue to hire new talent.

With your eyes open, and no illusions that these people really are your new best friends, you can make it work.

Rule #3: Do not go into business with friends.

I’ve seen 30-year friendships burst asunder, long-term marriages collapse, and even brothers never speak to each other again… all after making the decision to go into business together.

The trouble is in believing your closeness will overcome all problems.

You know… the way teenagers believe love will conquer all.

If you truly value any relationship, you will build a wall between it and your business life.

And yet… I have consistently violated this well-established rule time and time again.

What saved me… was the reality check I gave myself and the other people in the drama: If this goes bad, I will kill the association where it stands.

And I’ve done it. Over the years, I have tried a dozen times to bring friends into the world of entrepreneurism, and especially advertising. They had nothing going in their lives, were rudderless and desperately seeking a clue… and I gave them one chance to come aboard.

I had a single simple requirement: They had to get serious.

I would bend over backward helping them the entire way — personally teaching them what they needed to learn, overseeing their efforts, being that “secret weapon” watching their backs at all times. I would take them on as a private project, and pour myself into the job.

But they had to get their game on, and do what I told them to do. When it was about business, we were no longer equals (as we were in regular life) — they had to obey, and follow through, and trust me.

Of the dozen I brought into the field… only ONE ever made it a career. The others just couldn’t get past the idea of their friend getting serious about all this… business crap.

The one who stuck it out? I still act like a drill sergeant around him when the subject is business… and he has prospered. And, we still have the friendship, mostly — it’s changed a bit, but we’ve made it work. It’s like putting on a different costume, playing a different role depending on the circumstances.

It can be done. It’s not easy, though. Most people screw it up… and lose the relationship.

I violate this rule just as I do the others — with my eyes wide open.

I’m even partnered up with one of my closest life-long friends… and while we watch out for the pitfalls, there is always the chance it could turn out badly. Money and success can ruin anything.

But in a full life, you choose your battles and you choose your rules.

And even the hard-core rules were made to be broken — if you pay attention.

Still, it’s good to know the rules in the first place. It’s sorta like having a flashlight as you go down those dank cellar steps.

No, wait — it’s like being able to rewrite the script as you go. Maybe not the entire plot, but a lot of it.

Yeah, we do need the stinkin’ rules.

We just don’t have to always follow them.

Stay frosty…

John Carlton

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

  • Brian Jones says:

    Now that’s the attitude I like to hear from a teacher. Reminds me of some of the better sports coaches I’ve had in my life. I look forward to learning from you.


  • Ramon Thomas says:

    John this blog is like a god-send. I’m in a really shit place in my career right now. And I think I’ve violated Rule 1 more than any other.

  • BrettFromTibet says:

    rockin’ blog post! You copy is some of the most readable and riveting….

  • John,

    Nicely done man.

    Sometimes we forget those “other rules” that can actually have a larger impact on our business and personal lives.

    The wise one speaks again. And many shall listen.

    Joseph Ratliff

  • Tom Tolman says:

    Interesting, thought provoking and timely stuff.
    Keep up the good work.

  • John- You are one of the best when it comes to pulling visual imagery out of your readers minds. I loved the bit about the dark cellar.

    Great tips as well. My wife and I are both working on entrepreneurial endeavors (separate ones luckily). You did make me realize that I need to watch out for bring too much of my professional baggage home with me. It is slowly poisoning my relationships with my wife and kids. Something I will now be more mindful of, thanks to your insights.

    Keep ’em coming!


  • Swans G Paul says:

    Dear John,

    Thanks for your advice. I hope that the question below doesn’t get you to violate rule # 1.

    I was reading a testimonial by Harlan Kilstein. I think you told him to :” Get Serious”

    How does one get serious in direct response advertising?

    Does it mean adopting a “do or die” attitude?

    Does it mean spending hours on end copying direct response ads written by you, Gary Halbert, Gary Bencivenga?

    Does it mean writing the 17th version of the sales letter?

    Does it mean telling the client that you want to write a different type of copy and if it doesn’t work, you’ll re-write until it beats the current control?

    Some day, perhaps, you’ll write a blog entry about “Getting Serious”.

    Swans G Paul
    P.S: Why is it so hard to copy the magic of your sales letters? I stare and stare at them. I copy them and yet I feel that there is a hundred miles of distance between what you write and what I wrote. Ouch. Have a great day.

  • Whoa, John. That was a great post. I agree with all three rules. But the one about clients sucking (duh) was particularly true when you are your own client. Boy is my copywriter just not getting those deadlines met. I’ll be bringing Sybil to work starting tomorrow to kick some ass. Thanks for everything.

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