“Ready, Fire, Ai… SHIT! I Shot Myself In The Foot!”

Thursday, 8:33pm
Reno, NV
“…and it freakin’ hurts, too…”


The good thing about slogans… is that they can help you remember otherwise complex processes and lessons… and sort of compact a library’s worth of info down into a tidy, pithy, memorable saying.

The bad thing… is that you still gotta understand the “long” version of the process or lesson first.

Life tends to mess harshly with people who try to shortcut things, and operate with a knowledge base full of fortune-cookie-sized bits of insight.

Chew your ass up good, and spit you out. Ptooi!

I’ve seen it happen, a lot. Not pretty.

Take “ready, fire, aim.” Nice slogan. Smacks of contrarian attitude, a willingness to suck up risk and face the Unknown with minimum preparation, shows cool contempt for formal rules.

Oh, you bad boy, you.

There are around a gazillion business books out there right now using some variation of this slogan as their theme. As a catch-phrase, it kind of identifies how rebellious entrepreneurs like to think of themselves.

The thing is… I think everyone totally misunderstands the most critical part of that now-cliched slogan.

Most people focus on the “fire, aim” part. It’s out of order, implies jumping into the fray before wasting too much thought, suggests a dude willing to forgo complications of logic and foresight in order to get MOVING.

Action! That’s the ticket! (How come the phrase, “Action! Camera!” — the reversal of what they actually used to say in Hollywood — never caught on?)

And you know what? I agree with that “ready, fire, aim” sentiment… when it’s understood in its correct usage. I constantly urge people to “jump into the pool and just get wet… and stop bothering everyone already in with stalling questions about how deep the water is, how cold it is, does it taste like chlorine, and so on”. It’s a metaphor about getting past the paralysis that keeps so many wanna-be entrepreneurs from ever pulling the trigger on their career.

However… most folks only really hear the “fire, aim” part.

The more critical part — “ready” — gets no respect.

And yet, it’s the foundation of the entire slogan.

I always like to embarrass myself at this point, by relating a story about the early garage bands I joined back in the sixties.

It’s a good example of why “ready” is so damned important.

One day, I was twelve years old and oblivious of music. Then, I passed Mom’s kitchen radio just as the Kink’s “All Day and All Night” reached out of the tinny speaker and wrestled my heart into submission. I was literally dumbstruck by the force of good rock and roll.

Immediately, impacted hormones flooded my system, my voice changed, my face broke out, and I demanded that Pop buy me a guitar.

About half the boys in my class experienced the same epiphany: Guitar, rock, girls… snarl, grr, gnash.

And around three weeks later, several guys started forming bands. My garage became one of several “action central” bases of operation for a revolving cast of musicians and wanna-be musicians and never-gonna-be musicians over the next five years. (This is why I cannot get mad at the neighbor’s kid trying valiantly to play drums in the garage next door. This is karma paying me back for all those weekends of thrashing half-way through Gloria sixteen times in a row, never coming closse to finding the pocket or the groove or anything resembling a melody. And no one ever complained about the horrific racket. God bless ’em.)

Now, we’d never heard of “ready, fire, aim”… but most of the guys pushing for action in their band were practicing it.

I am woefully ashamed of this… but the first outfit I sat in with actually set up all their instruments… and then pretended to perform in the garage, while playing a record of a real band. (Forgive me, John Lennon.)

I actually went along for a few minutes — hey, it was an early form of karaoke — but quickly bailed. I had a smidgen of self-respect, apparently. I wanted to play, not fake it.

The next outfit (someone else’s garage again) had one guy who could actually strum barre chords (!)… and play several songs all the way through (!!!). I couldn’t have been more impressed if he had pulled a monkey out of his butt.

Within an hour, we had three or four tunes down. (By “down”, I mean we could start, meander through the verses, and end each song more or less at the same time, in the same key.) “Bam Bam”, the drummer, chased the beat like a wounded dog struggling to catch a garbage truck, and the singer — while forgetting nearly all the lyrics — had the hair-tossing thing down pretty good.

God, we sucked.

However… the singer was hot on moving to the next stage: Gigs!

He’d even convinced his younger brother to pitch our services to a nearby junior high for their upcoming dance.

This did not seem like a good idea to me. Three, maybe four songs, did not a set list make.

Fortunately, we failed the audition by blowing out an amp… and the bass player made the frosh-soph squad and decided he’d rather pursue a football career (still a better way to meet girls at that point), and the band fell apart. As most bands back then were wont to do.

The other guitarist and I felt a bond, and also felt strongly that before we humiliated ourselves onstage anywhere, we were gonna get good. Or at least good enough. And that meant learning 40 songs, all the way through without mistakes, verse/chorus/verse/attempt-at-copying-the-solo/chorus and thank you very much.

That realization was my first inkling of the critical importance of “ready”. I witnessed more than a few other bands do the incomplete “..fire, aim…” thing, to disasterous results. Ruined everybody’s evening, cleared the room, became social lepers the following Monday at school.

However, by sheer instinct (and chronic nightmares about screwing it up) Bob and I ground it out, over months, refusing to even get a bass player and drummer until we were prepared to move ahead aggressively. (Bob, if you get my blog up there, here’s a shout-out to ya — thanks for sharing all that tough work, and keeping a reasonable dream alive.)

We even took a few “practice” gigs at a local “hip” church… playing for a few hours on Sunday afternoons to an appreciative mob of kids (who had escaped Sunday school). We were loud enough (stressing our little 15-watt Silvertones and Princetons to the max) to drive the minister away, and just barely competent enough to get the crowd dancing and having fun. (It was one of the last completely sober audiences I ever played for.)

We were ready. And from that point until I left for college, Bob and I formed several tight little bands and played all over the county (and occasionally in the ‘burbs near LA).

The “fire” part became the pre-event negotiations for money. We were ballsy — not confident, mind you, but fairly aggressive about asking for top dollar — and told the sponsors whatever they wanted to hear to give us the job. One slow song between every two fast ones? Yeah, sure, of course. Hide backstage during breaks, and not talk to anyone? You betcha. Cut our hair? Well…

The “aim” part only slightly came into play. Some of the guys we pumped through our bands had an eye on hitting the “big time”, so they moved up to other bands with real management and contracts as soon as they could. Bob and I started dabbling in writing our own stuff, but we never really wanted much more than to play locally and have fun. We recorded some stuff on a reel-to-reel recorder, but never took it seriously.

We hit what we aimed for — a quickly-forgotten legacy of playing at high school dances, a few coming-out parties (debutantes, not gays), a few wild orgies on desolate ranches, the occasional country club soiree (“What? You don’t know any swing tunes?”). We were too young for the bar scene at that point, though we got snuck in a few times for private parties.

There was a lesson in all this, and I learned it.

When I began my freelance career as a copywriter, I concentrated for a very long time on getting “ready” for the first gigs — by speed-reading every book on advertising and business I could find, by seeking out mentors, by obeying my “gun to the head” philosophy of getting the job done right (even if the client was shocked by real salesmanship) (and even if it took me a week of all-nighters).

So, when I “fired” before “aiming” — by demanding high fees, and dictating deadline terms like I owned the place — I was prepared to deliver on all (or at least most) of my promises.

And even though I was a raw rookie, I was armed — through my “ready” obsessions — with better tools than most of the veterans I was competing with for jobs.

“Ready, fire, aim”, for too many marketers, is all about the pyrotechnics.

The real crux of the phrase, however, is in the “ready” part.

Hey — do you have any tales of “ready, fire, aim” going wrong? Could be educational for the rest of us… and cathartic for you. Confession heals the soul, you know.

I’d love to hear your own story of redemption here.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. By the way… at 6am West Coast Time, Friday (tomorrow, as I write this), we’re opening the store on the sought-after “Copywriting Sweatshop II” DVDs.

These are the DVDs from whence we’ve been pulling all those cool free video clips.

Those of you smart enough to sign up for “advance notice, with privileges” already know all this, of course. However, it is NOT too late to get in on the adventure.

Go here now, get hip and get happy:


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  • Kyle says:

    Now THAT was a “Rebel Rant” quality blog!!! Keep it up John! Brilliantly good post that has me thinking about times I’ve actually been prepared before jumping, and other… times I wish I’d forget… jumping too soon without being ready for the consequences.

  • Matt says:

    For a long time I’ve been thinking to myself: “Carlton is a marketing genius. Why the heck is he writing about, ummm ,life?

    Now I’m beginning to realize…

    Thanks. 🙂

  • Roy says:


    You’re supposed to put on your parachute
    BEFORE you jump out of the plane…

    Then you can pick a field to land in?!


    Nice post John. Thanks.


  • Rezbi says:

    This proves that the right attitude and confidence can get you places you’d otherwise have no chance getting into.

    Preparation gives you that confidence.

  • sammy says:

    nice one rezbi
    Great one john.
    I think i can relate. More than a couple of times with women i was a little too hasty, didn’t check in too deeply (just thinking about “firing” ha) and left myself with varying degrees of mess.
    lessons learned

  • Thanks for adding the CRITICAL part of that saying.
    I always loved it you just brought it to the next level of

    Rock on!
    John M.

    P.S. BTW, my ALL TIME favorite short, pithy “John Carlton quote” is:
    You want it, you take it, you pay the price. You should give the
    deep story on that line one of these days.

  • Louis says:

    Okay, here’s a story.

    I was trained as an army medic oh, about 4 years ago. The first live assignment I got was to do medical coverage for an airborne jump. That meant we stayed parked on the ends of the landing field and responded if anything came up.

    Sometime after lunch we were radioed that someone needed some attention. The senior medic with me was laying on top of the humvee and yelled down for me to start the truck. Hmm. I hadn’t been trained on that exactly so I didn’t know why it wouldn’t start. I don’t remember what was wrong now but it was something silly like not being in park.

    When we got to the casualty, she was mostly unresponsive though she could hear us and move some fingers. No one saw what had happened. She’d vomited and wasn’t responding to pain stimulus in her lower extremities.

    The senior medic asked for a piece of equipment that I knew I had in my aid bag. I went and got it no problem because my squad leader had drilled me the night before on knowing where everything was in my huge, multi-compartment bag.

    Then they asked for another piece of equipment to suction out the vomit from her mouth. I had no idea where that was because it wasn’t in my bag. I asked where to find it and was told in the truck. I went to the back of the truck and there was nothing there but some blankets.

    That was the moment when I realized I wasn’t as ready as I though I’d been. I had no idea what to do next.

    Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion after a word from our sponsors… (just kidding)

    By then there were more medical staff arriving like a couple of our PAs and most senior medics. They all knew where stuff was and they took care of her. Evidently she stopped breathing on the way to the hospital and I never heard what happened after that.

    What the unit also didn’t know was that they took all of our medical equipment with them when they went to the hospital. Someone would have gotten into serious trouble if they’d known more than 100 jumps were made without medical coverage the rest of that day. 🙂

    The after action review included me having to explain how stupid I felt for not knowing where anything was in the back of the truck.

  • john-carlton says:

    Hi John. It’s not my quote — it’s Bruce Springsteen, from “Prove It All Night”, on the Darkness At The Edge Of Town album.

    I think it’s a version of an even older saying that’s been around for a long time. But the way Bruce sang it, it’s pure poetry, and for me — for a long time now — it’s been a motto for living well and ethically: You want it, you take it… you pay the price.

    No free lunch. Don’t bitch about the cost of getting what you want. Devorar con mucho gusto.

    Between that line, and “Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims, and strap your hands ‘cross my engine” (“Born To Run”), alone, the Boss earned his way into the Hall of Fame.


  • Ralph says:

    Hey John,
    Thanks for the story.I love it when you bring me back to those simpler and more often then not happier times.We’re roughly the same age and experienced familiar history together just different coastlines ,probably smoked the same Columbian too. *Chuckle*

    Our “Band” of course had those grandios dreams.Fame,Fortune,Chicks,Babes whatever terminology-(insert Here).

    We were “learned” musicians and still blew it.You see.. being prepared in only one aspect (the music) didn’t cut it either.

    We knew nothing about business and promotion.

    When it comes to being prepared,there’s a whole boat load of things to consider before we “FIRE”!

    Thanks again John .Your Hippy’s still shining

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