Getting Perspective

I have a lot of glaring faults, and very few advantages in life… but the one advantage that has helped me the most in my career has been my memory.

I’m no savant. I often forget why I came into a room… the names of even close friends often disappear from my mind like smoke in front of a fan… and if I hadn’t mastered the art of making lists, I’d be one lost and startled puppy during the workday.

No — it’s my long-term memory that has served me so well. It’s not like I could tell you what I ate for lunch forty years ago on this date (that kind of specific memory recovery apparently happens to some people as they age, though). But I CAN tell you what it felt like to be, for example, a teenager in the early spring of 1968. Not just the sixties, mind you — 1968 specifically, with all the events and Zeitgeist of that particular year.

And not in an annoying “Boomer rosy glasses” kind of way, either. It wasn’t paradise back then. Things weren’t “better”… just different.

What I recall (besides certain specific adventures and discoveries and humiliations) is the nature of being young. I’ve always been able to bond quickly with people of all ages, from all sorts of different backgrounds… mostly because there’s almost always something in their life experience that I can genuinely identify with.

Because I remember how it felt.

I vividly recall being a small kid, a rebellious teen, an arrogant college bon vivant, a clueless young adult, and on up the ladder. Through a series of lucky and unlucky accidents, I experienced — early, so the lessons burned themselves into my brain — true love and angst-ridden heartbreak, death-cheating misadventures, and an insider’s view of every social revolution that rained down on the western American landscape last century.

This avalanche of experience is not unusual for someone my age.

What IS unusual… is that I remember it all. It’s rare for me to meet a contemporary who has any good stories from those years, even though their eyes light up whenever I remind them of the particular “feel” of those times.

Many people consider looking back to be an unworthy skill. What’s done is done, and all that. Don’t live in the past.

Not for a writer. I’m not ready to pen my autobiography yet, but I think about it. Not because I experienced any kind of high drama that would make Hollywood swoon… but because living a full life means knowing how others have lived theirs.

And I want to be part of that link between the future and the past.

I’m a sucker for biographies. Unless you devour at least a few biographies, you will never know what it was like to live in a different time. Each era is fascinating, from ancient civilizations through the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages, right up until this afternoon in certain parts of the world. You lose something important by ignoring what life was like for a medieval peasant, or a Ming Dynasty monk, or a 17th century Dutch explorer.

And yes… this kind of knowledge actually helps you with marketing and advertising.

Because, at its most basic, marketing crosses paths with behavioral psychology (why people do what they do), anthropology (the study of man’s quest for civilization), and the evolving history of good old street-level “get through the day” survival skills.

Dan Kennedy and I have discussed the nature of the modern entrepreneur. We like the ambition and attitude of the younger guys out there tearing it up online… but, as older marketers with proud scars from a lifetime of economic adventure, we also marvel that many of them have yet to experience a true recession. It’s easy to imagine that many of them would get blown away by a real disaster like so many puppies caught in a hurricane.

The dot-com bust of 2000 was really just a burp in the system, and even the 9/11 downturn was mild compared with past economic upheaval.

Since the late eighties, in fact, the American economy has gone apeshit. A sober look at the climb of the of Dow Industrial Average can ignite a fear of heights.

Nevertheless, there are MANY younger entrepreneurs I know who I would bet on in any crisis. They may not have lived through the full spectrum of business horrors, and may be utterely dependent on the Web for survival… but they all share a curiosity about life and their fellow man that will help them thrive no matter what happens down the road.

And that curiosity leads them to seek knowledge and advice from the rich resource of books and the stories of veterans. Including biographies of people long gone.

I’m not looking forward to writing my own biography in order to enjoy any notoriety or fame it might bring — in fact, if I’m gonna be totally honest, I have to wait until many of my friends are dead before I can share some of the juicier chapters. I wouldn’t dare reveal the truth while it could possibly hurt their careers right now. I’m not that guy.

So it will have to wait a bit longer before being published.

No, there’s another reason why I want to write it. I have a pretty typical American past — which means almost no verifiable past at all. My father’s lineage ends with his father — I have no idea who my paternal great grandparents were. No photos, not even names. And my mother’s history ends with her parents, too. My grandfather ran away from home at 13, met my grandmother when she got off the boat as a fresh immigrant from France, and that was that. There’s a couple of old tintype photos floating around the family, but no identifying notes on who’s who.

One of these ancient photos, though, is of a young man who vaguely looks like me. It startled me when I first saw it. From his clothes and certain other clues, I’m guessing the shot was snapped just before World War One. This relative, whoever he is, would have been long dead before I was born.

And I wonder what his life was like. And I imagine what a genuine thrill it would be to find his diaries or — even better — a real autobiography he’d written. It wouldn’t matter whether he’d lived a grand life, or a mundane existence without drama.

I just wonder what it felt like to be him. Living then.

And so, I want to write my autobiography — and tell the brutal truth, as I experienced it — not for me, or my friends. But for that kid down the line, who might not have a clue what it was like now.

I’ve always had friends of vastly different ages. I often find myself having a thoroughly engrossing conversation with two people who are, respectively, fifteen years older and fifteen years younger than me. When they’re open to each other’s views, it’s a wonder to behold (and a conversation worth having).

And what’s fascinating is that — while we all retain a certain arrogant attitude about our own experiences — at the heart of it, we’re all stunningly similar.

Marketers who understand this are way ahead of the game. You don’t have to struggle to wonder “what the kids want” in new products, and you don’t regard people older than you as grouchy alien beings with unknowable needs.

What I’m telling you is that a good salesman plucked from the Middle Ages — once he got over the shock of the new technology of modern life — would still be able to sell stuff to YOU, today.

Dull marketers share the very wrong notion that there is nothing to be learned from the past. They will forever struggle, because they lack perspective… and future changes (which are happening faster and faster) will throw them, because they don’t have an overview of life that allows for quick adaptation.

I really enjoy modern life. But I liked it just as much before personal computers came along, too. I’m rolling with the punches… armed with the knowledge (earned from reading biographies) that things will ALWAYS change.

And there will always be a way to adapt and thrive.

One of the things I remember about being young is that — as a teenager — more stuff will happen to you in a day, than will happen to an adult in a month.

When you’re still full of piss and vinegar, that’s fun. I liked living through radically-new adventures each week, never knowing where I’d wake up Sunday morning.

But I also like being settled in middle age, and getting into productive routines as a veteran writer and marketer. I can finally take longer views of things, and plan ahead. What a concept.

Still, though, when necessary during a consultation, I can quickly bring up the feeling of living day-to-day at an age where the world is still mostly a mystery. There are good parts to this feeling, and bad parts. It’s complex, like all humans are.

But you can learn to understand where the other guy — or the other prospect — is at in their life… by applying the lessons you’ve learned in yours, and the lessons you’ve gathered from studying people in general.

Your market is one long passing parade, and it can look like a disorganized mob scene if you don’t understand the fundamentals of how people live their lives.

With perspective, it all comes into focus. People are people. Their needs, dreams and fears haven’t changed much since the dawn of time.

My recommendation: Work a few biographies into your reading schedule, and soon. And strive to feel what it was like back then.

What you learn — about yourself, and about your fellow man — will help you become a better communicator and (if pay attention) a killer salesman.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

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  • ken oneill says:

    Dang it John.
    Even though your just pondering writing it . I already want to read it . How many autobiographies are out ther Writtne by succesful freelancers . Who made lots of money . WIthout building large organizations ?

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