“Road trip.” Otter and Boon, harmonizing (“Animal House”.)
You ever try packing for 10 days using only one carry-on bag?
With no chance of a laundry day?
Plus, I gotta look presentable, on stage, at a big seminar mid-way through the tip. That means slacks, dress shirt, coat (though, the concept of wearing a “coat” in South Carolina in late June kinda boggles the mind).
(On the other hand, have you ever been in Vegas in the summer — 110 outside in the shade — and freeze your butt off in a casino cuz they keep the a/c cranked up to “Polar”?)
My little suitcase has put up with trips like this for twenty years now. Until the seam burst or the wheels come off, I’m keeping it, too.
I like used stuff. Especially when I’m the one who’s used it. In the old days, you took pride in plastering your suitcase with travel stickers (Cairo with the pyramids, London with Big Ben, Paris with the Eifel Tower) — every one a testament to your willingness to get out and engage the world.
Nowadays, the best you can do is keep the little elastic bands with airline names on the handle. (I had a Pan Am tag on this carry-on until a few years ago, when a heartless baggage handler finally nicked it.)
Your main badge of honor now is, literally, the condition of your bag. The more wretched, the better, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, the zipper handles are gone, but it still seals up tight. I’m amazed at the resiliance of that little bag… it’s hauled and protected big wads of my gear, faithfully and without complaint, and survived world travel.
Good on ya, little bag.
Hey — I’m a veteran road warrior.
I learned all the tricks long ago (roll your clothes tight, don’t fold ’em when packing… hang wrinkled shirts in the bathroom and take a super-hot shower — the toasty mist will straighten everything out, though you gotta avoid getting anything actually damp or you’re screwed… stick to stuff that coordinates with black… stay away from white, which will look dirty before it actually is, while darker colors can actually be worn in romantically-lit rooms days after you’ve sloshed marinara on them… and the big one: Remember, if you’re gonna be in civilization, you can buy anything you forget to pack.)
But the main trick that has helped the most over the years… is all about attitude.
When you find yourself dreading travelling, then, dude, you’re jaded. Time for an attitude adjustment.
Shake off the irritation at the abysmal conditions of airline travel… get over your spoiled notions of what a hotel should be… and get your nose out of your cell phone long enough to realize that you’re on a friggin’ ADVENTURE.
The world abounds with stories all around you. Even wandering through the next state over offers all kinds of new experiences (the cuisine in Phoenix, for example, is sometimes radically different than Reno).
Well-rounded people who seek to live with gusto embrace travel.
As a marketer, it’s an opportunity to get out of your box, and rub elbows (literally, in coach) with the people who buy your crap.
You want something good to read? There are multiple non-fiction works that focus on how people travelled in other times — like, for instance, the Middle Ages.
In Europe, people travelled a LOT, which often surprises modern day spoiled trekkers. Journeys by ship were dangerous (pirates, weather, disease, falling off the end of the world) and months-long, caravans required a year to head out and come back (and you might never know what happened to them, once they went missing), and just going from one city to the next on horseback entailed all sorts of gnarly skills. And danger.
And it took a long time. You needed skills at managing your boredom and the lack of instant gratification.
And yet, people did it. It’s in our genes. You only get home-bound and agoraphobic when something knocks your internal gyro off balance.
Our default position… is to get out of Dodge, and go see what happens.
If you were to explain how you’re travelling next week to the East Coast, say, to someone just two generations behind us (early part of the 20th Century)… you would blow their minds. Jets, airports, taxis, hotels, a/c, ice machines, TV, wireless Web access, cell phones… except for the Transporter (damn it), we’ve got Star Trek beat.
Sure, it’s exhausting, and people are rude, and the TSA is staffed with morons following moronic rules. (We’re still the only country required to remove our shoes to get through security. I hate the politicians who like to keep people’s fear buttons tweaked, just so they can stay in power…)
But you’re going somewhere new. Or at least different than your home digs.
All sorts of new stuff could happen.
Over my career, the most exciting opportunities and advancements and “Eureka” moments… came while travelling.
No guarantee you’ll have a good time, of course.
But “adventure” isn’t necessarily about having a good time.
It’s about engaging the world, and testing your wits in new environments.
I try never to forget that. Cuz it’s so easy to get irritated, and moody, and bored when you’re sitting in an airport waiting for delays to resolve, or negotiating some disaster or other like lost luggage or lost reservations or just being lost. (I almost took the wrong plane, once. Before the current double-checking obsession, of course. The stewardess — that’s how long ago this was — mentioned the city the plane was headed, which wasn’t where I wanted to go, and I scrambled out the door just before they got the door closed. Sometimes, I wonder how different my life would be today if I’d stayed on that plane…)
Anyway, I’m off.
I’ll try to report here from the road, if anything interesting is going on.
Joke. I’m joking.
I expect the adventure of a lifetime to unfold over the next week, unpredicted and without warning…
“You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together… and blow.” Bacall, shutting Bogart up nicely
Hey, what kind of car do you drive?
Is it your dream car?
Do you even care what it looks like, or how it performs?
As a certified Boomer (who won’t shut up talking about Boomer-oriented shit), my heart has been broken by the automotive industry.
These days, I barely care about cars at all. I drive a Ford small SUV, mostly. (It’s actually the same size as the old Dodge vans I craved in my youth, and never owned.) (You know, the vans parked backwards at the drive-in, with the bumper sticker “If this van’s a rockin’, don’t bother knockin'”.)
(Oh, you don’t remember? Well, just take my word for it… vans were a cultural icon, and the VW minibus made a VERY different statement than a Ram B-series “adult toy” van.) (You’ll have to get me drunk to hear the good stories on this topic, of course…)
I treat the Ford like crap. Wash it maybe once a year, use the passenger side floor as a trash can, keep the back seats down and the dog beds in there as permanent furniture.
I actually enjoy driving it. Sunroof, decent stereo, and all that raw Ford 6-banger power.
Of course, I’ve only put a few thousand miles on it after three years. (And most of those have come from our trips to the coast.) I work at home, walk everywhere I can, stay barefoot and happy and off the roads.
My knees still buckle at the sight of a cherry ’55 Bel Air, or a ’62 Impala, or those growling muscle cars from the late sixties/early seventies. Reno has something called “Hot August Nights” every summer, and for a week, every bitchin’ automobile in the country (and many from overseas) is cruisin’ Virginia Street and crowding into viewing lots like a nest o’ nostalgia.
Now, I know that regulation saves lives and all that.
Still, I blame Ralph Nader and his do-gooder ilk for the descent into blah-ness that car design has sunk. No more fins, no more death-grin grills, no more suicide doors.
No more fun.
I remember the crucial day, in the early seventies, when someone stopped by to show off her brand-new Mustang.
I was horrified. The interior was a misshapen hulk of cheap plastic, and the lines of the body were breathtakingly dull.
What the hell had they done to that once-bitchin’ car? It’s like they were giving the finger to the Car God.
The GMC Gremlin had more personality. Heck, the infamous Pinto was a better looking design. (And in the late 80s, when the geniuses at Ford finally attempted some kind of retro re-do of the ‘Stang, they botched it totally. There is no soul left in Detroit, I’m sorry, man…)
The closest any automaker came to putting some oomph into design, after that, was Toyota. The 1980 Celica GT Hatchback was easily the ugliest car ever to roll off an assembly line. I gasped when I saw my first one.
Ah, but inside… it was like a super-snug cockpit. You slid into the bucket seat, and the dash embraced you, promising nasty highway fun.
The night I bought one, I drove up and down the central California coast with the ocean breeze coming in tangy and warm, and the amber dash lights lulling me into long dreamy stretches in fifth gear.
I actually lived out of that car for six months. Slept on friends’ couches when I could, but curled up in the back when I had to tuck into a hidey-hole lot somewhere to catch some zzz’s.
It became the infamous rattletrap I had when I began my freelance career. I kept it alive by sheer force of will. Brought a gallon of water down each morning to fill up the radiator, and kept a quart of oil in the backseat (used and replaced weekly).
When I turned her ignition off on that last day, she never roared to life again. I had driven her literally until she dropped, an exhausted, broken-blocked disaster with a date at the wrecking yard.
I teared up as she was towed away.
Still the most beautiful machine I’ve ever had in my life. For a full ten years, she had been my partner in escape, adventure and entrepreneurship.
Toyota broke the mold on that amazing car.
No, they literally broke the mold. They only produced that paticular model, with the in-your-face ugly lines and bizarre grill, for two years, I believe. Then they went boringly into “coupe land” (trying, like everyone else, to emulate the blocky Beemer model 2002).
I learned something about salesmanship through that car, though.
See, every single time someone would see it for the first time (especially after it was a few years old, and one of the few remaining unique designs left on the road)… they would whistle, or roll their eyes, or make some disparaging remark.
Which was fine. Whatever.
But once in a while, I’d insist they get in, and I’d drive them around and tell them stories about advenuters we (the car and I) had enjoyed. I made them sit in the driver’s cockpit, and soak up the amber grin of the dashboard lights. Feel how the stick shift melted into your hand like an extension of your arm.
Then I put them back in the passenger seat, rolled out into the street, and opened ‘er up on a straightaway, nailing their skulls back into the headrest.
I never got anyone to agree with me on how gorgeous that car was. (Beauty, beholder, and all that.)
But I did get almost everyone to understand why she was so much friggin’ fun to drive.
Fast forward a bunch of years.
Michele and I both yearned for some top-down driving. Living in snow country, convertibles were contra-indicated, however.
So we went in together and bought a third car. A “just for fun” car.
A Mazda Miata.
Oh, you’re sputtering, aren’t you?
That little piece of wannabe sports car?
Almost always, people grill me on “why”. They know I could afford a nice high-end sports car. A Porshe, a Beemer, a Mercedes… anything but that cheesy little Miata!
What was I thinking?
And I proceed to shut them up.
Did you know the history of the Miata? It was designed by Japanese engineers who swooned at the sight of the most classic sports roadsters of the fifties — the MG ragtops, the Truimph Spitfires, even the Lotus Elan.
Oh, there was and still is magic in the chrome, leather and glass of those amazing cars. The flow of the lines, the obvious shared DNA of WWII fighter planes, the wind-in-your hair exhilaration every time you passed thirty mph… those roadsters were the ultimate cocky bastards of the burgeoning American highway system.
There was just one problem.
The engines sucked.
In fact, the first question anyone asked you, after discovering you owned a MG Midget, was “Who’s your mechanic?”
So, for lazy guys like me, the ragtop remained an elusive dream. (I got deep into car culture as a teenager, but was more interested in the cartooning that accompanied the scene. Rat Fink, many of the guys from Mad, the expansion of pin-striping and flames and custom paint jobs with illustrations all intrigued me more than the grease-monkey details of conquering internal combustion. While other guys made goo-goo eyes at engine parts shrewn across the garage floor, I was too busy learning cross-hatch shading to get dirty.)
Enter the visionairies at Mazda.
They used the classic sports roadsters as their Holy Grail… and to a shocking degree, nailed it.
Pick up an issue of Car & Driver, or Road And Track, and see what those hard-to-please writers have to say about the Miata.
Hint: They love it.
I read as many of those articles as I could, going back to the introduction of the Miata twenty years ago. And every writer followed the same story line: They were skeptical… and then won over easily during their first test drive.
The Miata won’t win any races out there. But neither would those ancient UK and Italian ragtops.
The convertible ride isn’t about speed.
It’s about a brisk, smooth ride with five gears and top down… and every line of sight from the cockpit guilded with pure joyful design.
I’ve wanted my own thrashed-yet-dependable MG ragtop all my adult life… and with the Miata, I have the entire experience. Minus the undependable engine.
That Miata is a stud, and it can’t wait to get out on the road.
You wanna denigrate it, cuz it ain’t got G-force speed or deep-pocket sticker-shock pedigree?
But you’re dissing the classic roadster, dude.
This puppy is FUN to drive.
Most people aren’t prepared to be assaulted with actual affection for the car, when they insult it. “Hey, you got your girlfriend’s car today, huh?” Snicker.
Nope. It’s our car, and I love it. It’s a direct linear descendent of the MG… etc.
Shuts ’em up.
And you know what? People may fall back into their prior dismissal, after I’m gone… cuz the default opinion of the Miata (especially among men with weak confidence) is pretty strongly negative.
But when I see them later… a glimmer of a spark flashes in their eyes, even if they refuse to acknowledge the specialness of the Miata.
That glimmer… is the recognition that, through my story, they felt the raw heat of honest passion and affection coming off me. I’ve had guys who don’t even allow words like “passion” into their vocabulary admit that, around me, they understand how cool the car kinda is.
They’re not gonna rush out and buy one, of course.
But they do shut up. And consider a whole new and unexpected line of thought, contrary to their prior stance.
Hard-ass guys who wouldn’t flinch losing a finger in a lathe, will have to stifle a tear remembering going to their first baseball game with their Pop. Or the birth of their daughter. Or the last time they hung out with friends on a warm summer’s evening, half a lifetime ago when the world seemed… better.
And their first car?
Fuhget about it.
And pass the kleenex.
The memories that sustain most folks are too vague to be translated as meaningful stories. When you learn to put your feelings and thoughts and graphic detail into a tale — about anything — you possess a power to sway emotion and influence people.
As the Zen master once said… to become eloquent, you must first learn to shut up.
You actually do people a favor by crushing the thoughtless, meandering babble occupying their brains… and bringing new things into focus with a story that makes sense to their heart, as well as their head.
Something to think about, in your quest to learn the art of persuasion.
P.S. What was your first car?
P.P.S. Just a reminder: I’ll be on the road until the first week in July, so this blog may see spotty posts.
However, in normal situations, I’m posting every Monday and Thursday. Like freakin’ clockwork.
Sign up to be notified, in the box up there on the right. Yeah, I know you’re swamped with stuff to read… but really, this should be one of your first stops, twice a week.
Enjoy the summer as it starts to blossom…
P.P.S. Extra bonus story: The most classic American sports convertible — and even die-hard Corvette fans won’t argue too strongly against this — was the ’55 Thunderbird. (Astonishingly, even the design changes that car went through in the following six years were all stellar. Then, for reasons only the honchos at Ford can explain, they killed the T-Bird as a sports car, and re-birthed it as a mid-size sedan.) (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
I met one of the guys who helped with the design of that original T-Bird. They were artists. They broke rules, they took inspiration from the best of the Italian elbow-draggers, they channeled Hollywood sci-fi and art deco and Navy submarines… and they fussed over every detail of that design until it was perfect.
Not perfect in any crash-test way. Not perfect, even, in aeronautical glide.
It was perfect in the way Michealangelo’s David is perfect — the T-Bird was a design funneled through nature, physics, and art, and rolled onto the showroom floor with a thumbs-up from the gods.
What a car. The stuff of dreams…
“I’ll tell you what matters most in life: @#&*, %&*#@, and #@%&*. And if there’s any money left after that, more @#&*.” The Big Ugly Guy
Let’s talk more about Halbert’s legacy, what d’ya say?
His name keeps cropping up, both in praise and in confusion.
I’m thinking this is gonna be the case for a long time to come, too. The guy both intrigued and mystified people. While he was still around, he didn’t need anyone to speak for him, because he loved to engage in dialog about his theories, his lessons, and his own legacy.
And once he had your phone number, you could expect frequent late-night calls on every important subject under the sun.
(One thing I’m fairly proud of is realizing, years ago, how valuable and precious those calls were. It was never lost on me that I was privy to the intimate thoughts and ruminations of a towering figure in the game.)
Now that he’s causing trouble in another realm somewhere, it’s fallen to his old pals to metaphorically watch Halbert’s back.
It’s an interesting situation. When I first began my career, advertising legends like Claude Hopkins and Robert Collier had fallen off the face of the earth. Their books were out-of-print, and if you mentioned their names — even in a hard-crowd of marketers — you’d get blank stares.
Life’s like that. Some of the greatest groups in rock (if you count influence as a sign of greatness) spent their entire existence in near-obscurity. (Good example is The Flying Burrito Bros. Founder Gram Parsons’ voice has buckled the knees of many a now-famous musician — U2’s “Joshua Tree” album is a tribute to the dude, just for starters — and he’s an honored guest in the Rock Hall of Fame. But they were pretty much ignored during their brief glory days. Same with Arthur Lee and his band Love. Yet… whenever I urge some young musician to seek this music out — and I’m not alone in doing this — the result is always the same: No one who finally discovers this stuff can understand why it’s been overlooked, and remains nearly hidden except for small pockets of rabid fans.)
When Gary and I first met, we bonded because we were like “advertising geeks” sharing a respect for the forgotten genius of guys who died before we were born.
When I found out he had a thrashed photocopy of The Robert Collier Letter Book… and was willing to let me copy it… it was like discovering buried treasure.
It’s kinda hard to understand, now that you can find copies of nearly everything ever published online. And a whole fresh generation of guru’s are making sure that their students, at least, don’t forget about the past again.
There’s juice in the old stuff. While most of the rest of the world sinks into myopic delusion (believing that nothing old can possibly have value), the savvy few know better.
And continue to profit from this vast stash of overlooked swag.
I refuse to look at Gary’s stuff as “old”. Some of his references are dated, sure — especially in the 20-year-old newsletters. His genius was forged in the gnarly and complex world of direct mail and direct response print ads.
And yet he was hip to the ways marketing was morphing online. No one would mistake him for a tech-geek, but he was pointing out profit opportunities on the Web right up to the end.
No moss growing on that boy.
And because the fundamentals will never change — it all comes down to killer salesmanship, whether you’re marketing online, in the mail, on TV, or bouncing signals off satellites for passing UFO’s — his teachings will never become obsolete. No matter how dated you find some of his references.
He remains a primary source of what I call “the good stuff”. Not a secondary source, but a PRIMARY one.
A whole bunch of the guru’s out there would be mute without Gary’s influence, inspiration, and specific teachings.
… virgin mobs of rookies are crowding into the online marketing game every day.
And their first obstacle is to wade through the bullshit out there… and find trustworthy resources for info, tactics, and tools. And there are endless minefields of misinformation, wrong directions, and evil intentions looking to suck them in.
I do not envy anyone arriving in the online marketing world without friends or at least a clue.
But I do try to steer as many as I can reach straight, whenever possible.
Last week, a rookie posted something interesting on Michel Fortin’s “Copywriter’s Board” (a free online gathering place for freelancers of all stripes and persuasions).
Title: “Are all copywriters jerks?”
The entire thread includes input from a lot of smart writers, and it’s a fun read.
Usually, I just lurk in those forums (cuz, you know, I’m a little pressed for time). But this “jerk” post was right in my wheelhouse — the subject was Gary’s writing “style” (and also mine and a few other guru’s) and how… offensive… it was.
The writer was genuinely disturbed by the attitude and tone of “this guy Halbert”. It was exactly the sort of post that Gary would have loved to respectfully engage with… and I figured I’d chime in, since he couldn’t.
Respectfully, but with a heavy emphasis on reality.
Not that Gary (or any of us) needs defending. We’re all happy to let our stuff speak for itself.
But something in my gut was telling me that newbies were not getting good introductions to some of “the good stuff”… and might wander away never giving it the chance it deserves.
So here’s my post in that thread, below.
It’s a message that may bear repeating a few times, as “ancient history” online increasingly gets defined as anything older than last week…
Here’s my post:
I’ll have you know I’m not a jerk… I’m a curmudgeon.
Seriously, though, the posters here who mention the importance of “real world” knowledge about how biz gets done are right on. I know ALL the copywriters mentioned in this thread, on a personal level. And I’ll share a secret: Behind the scenes, it’s a locker room out there.
Top writers are nearly always wicked smart, and they devour life in large chunks.
They have no fear of any subject… and (key point here) they respect language in all forms. Especially slang and the way people actually speak to each other.
Still, I totally understand why some folks think many of us cross a line with our ribald writing and outrageous public attitudes.
However, none of us do it just for shock value. In fact, my SOP is to emphasize to fresh prospects that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, and I mean it. We never schedule consultations with anyone who isn’t hip to my teaching tactics (which are, admittedly, brutal and in-your-face). You gotta walk in with your eyes wide open. (You’re allowed to blush, but we’ll be merciless regardless.)
Halbert, in fact, has a very specific warning on the first page of his website. I won’t quote it here, cuz I don’t to give anyone a conniption fit. But it’s VERY specific.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with demanding a certain behavior code from the people you learn from.
There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with putting up an “adults only” sign, and getting on with things in an aggressive, , uncensored, no-holds-barred way.
Choose your poison.
And be happy in your work.
God bless the First Amendment.
PS: When I write for joints like Rodale, BTW, I am Mr. Nice Guy to a nauseating degree. That’s because my copy has to reach an almost ridiculously large audience… and you’re right to believe that, once you’re outside specific niches with identifiable language preferences, the Zeitgeist tends to skew socially conservative. (It’s like network TV versus cable.)
In the pieces I’ve done for Rodale in the “sex info” market, I believe I dance around the inherent voyeuristic and naughty details in a way that sneaks past people’s internal censors with the best of them.
Let me tell ya, that is tough to pull off, too. You must have total command of the language… combined with a street-level savvy of buyer psychology. (And yes, the majority of these “better sex” DVDs go to your neighbors, co-workers, and other people who are completely and boringly normal.)
Another interesting fact: Halbert’s most famous ads are also squeaky clean, language-wise. Do not confuse his newsletters — a teaching vehicle to hard-core business people — with his ads aimede at buying audiences. Very different animals.
Our first seminars together were also models of propiety and professionalism. Miss Manners would have been proud. (Later on, we got a little raunchy, of course. Attendees loved it, demanded more of it, and wore their experience like a badge of honor.)
The great revolution in teaching now playing out has centered around the idea of offering people (who self-select themselves, voluntarily) the opportunity to see behind the curtain… and experience how business actually gets done. For folks without access to real back rooms, this is a priceless glimpse into the world of movers and shakers. Putting up with a little bad-boy behavior seems, to me, to be a small price to pay for such a valuable resource.
Over my career, I’ve encountered countless business situations where we had to wait for the fussy folks to leave the room before we could get down to the “real” business at hand.
Yes, it can be shocking to move beyond surface-level observations of how people behave, especially in positions of authority and responsibility.
It’s also the only way to learn how things get done. (Listen to the Nixon tapes from the White House to get a taste of how people in power talk about you when they don’t think you’re in earshot.)
Final observation I’ll share here: Some of rowdiest and most obscene-joke-loving business people I’ve ever encountered… were self-identified as strictly religious, hard-core conservatives.
My first experiences with “back room” business kinda shocked me, too. Soon, though, I learned to love it. It’s not a place for idealists or party poopers. But for writers who crave action and adventure and fun, it’s the only game in town.
Anyway, just thought I’d pass on my insights from the front lines.
Again — everyone is COMPLETELY justified in setting limits and boundaries. And there are lots of markets where rough-and-tumble attitudes don’t cut it. You don’t have to hang out with anyone you consider a jerk, ever.
That’s what’s great about this brave new online world: There’s a place for everyone.
Okay, we’re back to the blog here, and I’m signing off.
P.S. By the way… we got our Yankee tickets for New York. I can’t wait.
Also: When I get back from this crazy trip that starts next week (Vegas with the Walkers, South Carolina for Ron LeGrand’s seminar — which is shaping up to be THE event of the summer — and then our Hot Seat “flash mob” in NYC) we’ll be scheduling consultations for the rest of the season.
We’ve been putting people on “hold”, because our schedule has been so nuts… but we’ve got a handle on it now, and if you want to explore getting private “hands on” consulting from me (or, even better, me and Stan in tandem), pop over to www.carltoncoaching.com and get busy.
There are VERY few spots open for the “Launching Pad” option. Get in touch with my assistant Diane if you’re finally ready to make your move…
“Nothing is impossible for a man who won’t listen to reason.” The Big Ugly Guy
Today would have been Gary Halbert’s 70th birthday.
Had he still been among us, I would have sent him (as I had for nearly 20 years) a hand-drawn, relatively obscene birthday card, which would leave him tickled for days. (You knew my first paying job was as a cartoonist, right? I was the only student on both my high school and college newspaper who was paid — a fat five bucks a strip, too, I’ll have you know — and while the aspiring journalists muttered about it, they mostly admitted that my modest weekly cartoon strip wasn’t half bad.)
Gary always made an appropriate fuss whenever anyone did anything for him. You felt appreciated, and eagerly anticipated the next time you could do it again.
It was not an obvious lesson in living well… but for those of us paying attention, it was a good one. He hadn’t grown up receiving much praise. Many another young man would’ve become bitter over that lack of encouragement… but not Gary.
Instead, he considered his options: Become a moody, sour asshole mad at a world that withheld pats on the back…
… or rise above the easy reactions, and choose the high road.
Dude took the less-traveled, more scenic route.
Gary had a lot of faults. No one disputes that.
But he also strove to do the right thing, whenever faced with forks in the road. He used as guideposts little sayings like “When faced with two choices, the harder one is probably the right one to make” (author John D. MacDonald, in his “Travis McGee” novels) (which Gary turned everyone he cared about onto) (I’ve read them all).
I was struck by how carefully Gary had assembled a personal “rule book” to live by. Many of these rules were simple sayings, or secular proverbs, or cliches. Their pedigree didn’t matter — what counted was how well they worked in the real world to help you be a good man and make better choices in difficult situations.
So there was seldom anything obviously profound in these rules. I’d heard most of them before.
The difference with Gary was…
… he actually got serious about trying to follow these rules.
Oh, he would screw up. I would not be surprised to hear from some biz associate or other, as a result of this post, claiming all sorts of shenanigans on Gary’s part. And I won’t get into it. I knew Gary well, and (way back when) was in the room during a few business transactions that later went sideways. And I’ve known a few businessmen who would abruptly shut up in mid-rant about Gary when they discovered who I was. Because I knew the truth, which was always much more complex than they would have you believe. (And guilt harder to assign.)
The denizens of the entrepreneurial world dearly love to trash-talk.
One of the first rules I picked up from Gary: Even the richest and most influential marketers are — at heart — still back in high school, nursing petty grudges, gossiping without shame, and overly concerned with an imaginary pecking order that serves no purpose other than bragging rights.
That insight has helped me tremendously over the years.
I am never surprised by the way rumors zoom around among my colleagues. I do not take things too personally, either… because (just like in high school) sometimes, it’s just your turn to be the grist for the rumor mill.
Get over it.
I keep my nose clean, go the extra mile, practice generosity generously, and never forget that I have to re-earn my reputation all over again every single day.
Keeps ya humble.
Few people who knew him would ever use the word “humble” to describe Halbert. And yet, as his long-time “road dog” who got to share thoughts at an intimate level, I would not hesitate to call him that.
Life humbled him. The demands of family, and meeting the nut for his payroll, and living up to his own legend were not simple tasks. Every day, he engaged life knowing that all manner of risk and danger and pitfall loomed — especially for a man bent on pushing the envelope and grabbing all the gusto available.
To many outsiders, he seemed like a super-confident “laugh at death” kinda silver-backed male. And he worked hard to earn his Top Dog title, and keep it.
But, when it was time to kick back, the humility returned. No one conquers life completely, not really. At best, you get one or two shots at achieving something great… or, if you have the fortitude to stay with it, you may get a chance to establish a legacy of good work. A legend, perhaps.
But you will never make life your bitch.
One of the ironies of leadership is that… if you don’t have doubts, you aren’t worthy of leading.
The great leaders just learn to navigate those doubts, and work through them until you can finally say “this is what we’re gonna do”… and be willing to stand behind that decision. Right or wrong.
And this ain’t Hollywood… so you aren’t guaranteed anything. Even good people fail spectacularly, and are ruined.
There’s no safety net out there.
Outsiders seldom see or acknowledge this wrestling match with doubt. They want their leaders to be principled, steadfast, and good at looking confident. They will also pillory any leader they perceive as “weak”.
Of course, outsiders have the luxury of being so hard on their leaders because they themselves will never have to face down a dilemna with no easy solution… or be responsible for all consequences of any action taken.
Naw. That crap is for leaders. Much better to sit back and let others figure things out. Besides, it’s fun to heckle and gripe and moan about leaders. If they can’t stand the heat, they should stay outa the kitchen, yadda yadda yadda.
I wanted no part of that game.
My lack of ambition both helped and hurt my relationship with Gary over the years. He was always pushing me to throw my hat into the guru ring, and I resisted because I knew from observing him that the job of “leader” mostly sucked.
I was more than content to be part of the power behind the throne. I didn’t need or want the lights at center-stage. I was much more interested in the “inner workings” of success… the stuff we dissected and discussed and cogitated on when no client could see or hear us.
When I was finally ready to become a teacher, I was REALLY ready. I’ve spent a long damn time digging deep into the functional details of success and the malfunctions of failure… and I’ve logged years worth of long, intimate chats with perhaps the most creative, brilliant and hard-core true advertising genius of our time.
I can tell who “gets” the really profound nature of this biz, because they love to hear the details of these discussions.
Most people find these stories boring. Or so opaque and vague as to be incomprehensible.
Most folks want the larger-than-life stories, with the easy punchlines. (Like the time Halbert dropped his pants in front of an all-Mormon business audience, just to see if he could shock them.) (Okay, and also to prove he wasn’t wearing women’s underwear, as I had insisted during the seminar.) (God, we were brutal with each other on stage.)
(Boxers, if you must know.)
(Oh, there are lots of stories about inappropriate dress with Halbert. Once, flying in late the night before for a seminar co-hosted with Michel Fortin, I found Michel in the bar and was shucking and jiving when Gary called my cell. He was up in his room, getting ready for his presentation, and insisted I come up to say hello. So Michel and I took the elevator up, knocked on Gary’s door… and he answered wearing jockey briefs and a Rolling Stone tee shirt. And maybe black socks. I was used to it — the guy never cared about clothes, and was impervious to embarrassment like that. He just liked to be comfy. You got in the habit of insisting he put on some friggin’ pants, and went on with the conversation. Poor Michel, though, looked stricken. It’s a good thing we were slightly hammered, so the shock could dissipate quickly… and we could get on with talking business and gossiping about other colleagues.)
(Gary also had an astonishing ability to trash a hotel room within minutes of checking in. It’s like his suitcase would explode or something. Piles of camera equipment, stacks of ads he’d ripped out of magazines on the plane, food trays, mysterious briefcases bursting with marketing reports and bottles of vitamins, a dozen pairs of glasses shrewn about, harmonicas, novels, cassette and VHS tapes and CDs, and impressive collections of the coolest toys from Sharper Image… either already broken or about to be, cuz Gary was rough with toys.)
The man embraced life, and USED everything he owned.
For a timid guy like me (who sometimes wouldn’t wear a “nice” shirt for years, because I didn’t want to “ruin” it) (and thus would give it away to Goodwill, never worn), this was another profound lesson… something missed or shrugged off by others.
The lesson: Don’t be terrified of your appetites.
Life respects and appreciates a person with a good appetite, well indulged.
A little moderation is nice, just to avoid excess. But dive in with gusto, dude.
A lesson like that is even more meaningful when you discover that Gary was essentially a shy guy, devoid of any natural confidence. His upbringing tried to put him into a box, where he would be a good little sheep.
And he squared his shoulders, refused the limitations ladled onto him… and got busy making his own damn place in the world.
You gotta respect that. Every day, he dug deeper into his reserves of guts, brains and strenght than most people even suspect a person can dig… and went about the never-ending tasks of attempting to wrestle the universe to its knees.
He wasn’t fearless. He faced down his fear.
And he wasn’t a “gifted” genius. He loaded up his mind, body and soul with the tools he needed to do battle and win. It was a lifelong process. Not easy. But he loved the action.
Another lesson: Enjoy the process.
Hell… LOVE it, if you dare.
Finally, here are two of the biggest, and most lasting lessons I got from The Big Ugly Guy:
Big Damn Lesson #1. Gary had a vicious temper. Most people don’t know this, because they never saw it. I never caught more than a glimpse of it myself in ten years of road-dogging.
It wasn’t because he was keeping a lid on his temper.
It was because, long before I met him, he realized he needed to dominate it. Not just lock it down… but obliterate it.
And he did. Using a unique pairing of innocent sounding rules that pack a lot of hidden power.
Thus: “All mistakes made from enthusiasm are forgiveable.”
Too many people secretly enjoy getting pissed off, or else have no control over it whatsoever. And they see every blunder that affects them as a personal insult.
I made several critical mistakes when I first started working with Gary. I expected to be at least berated and humiliated. One of those errors probably should have gotten me fired.
But no. Gary’s lusty use of humiliation was reserved for “fun” times. He dearly loved the give-and-take of manly insults and mockery, which you only delivered to friends you valued… and NEVER in anger. (Part of the reason we hit it off so quickly was my ability to nail his ass as good as he nailed mine.)
And those mistakes? Forgiveable. I was eager to prove myself in the job, and I moved too fast for detail work.
There was no sign that Gary was struggling to keep his cool. He was relaxed, figured out how to mitigate the damage and get back on track… made sure I realized the lesson… and we moved on.
Anger is a negative emotion. It will eat away at your lust for life, and poison your mind.
It is both a stupid reaction to anything (anything!)… and completely avoidable at all times. If you believe you have no control over your anger, you’re deluded. You do have control, and you can exert it immediately. It’s a learned habit. In our more animalistic past, back in the jungle, “rage” had a purpose in our survival toolkit. It’s long past useful, except in very rare cases.
Anger confuses most people. Their own is disorienting, and other’s is threatening. There is no power in anger.
But you can’t expect most folks to understand that.
Thus, the companion rule for this one is: “Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.” (From “The Godfather”, I think.) Power doesn’t rely on rage. You give up too much getting mad.
This is deep stuff, kids.
Most of the world may have heard these rules, but they ignore them.
Big Damn Lesson #2: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
This one often illicits a smile. It’s funny, in a twisted way.
But as a rule, it underscores another reason to nurture patience and Buddha-like good nature… even in the heat of business battle.
You do not offer help or favors with the idea that you win “points” by doing so. Human nature doesn’t work that way.
In fact, the person receiving the favor is put into an unsustainable state of discomfort — “owing” you because you did me a favor means I’m in debt. Unconsciously, or consciously, I will adjust this uncomfortable state until I’m feeling just dandy about myself and the way things are going.
This means — for many folks — that doing someone a favor means you will soon be a needle in their hide… and it’s YOUR fault this awkward situation exists. Cuz you helped.
Therefore, it will be okay to take further advantage of you. Punish you, in fact, for having the nerve to help me out.
But if you pay attention, you’ll see this rule is true more often than not.
Now, I could go on with details, but I’ll let you explore this rule for yourself.
The deeper significance isn’t in “knowing” that people are fucked up and will screw you for no good reason.
Naw. The real value of this rule is realizing that people are contrary creatures, often acting against their own best interest… and able to turn into ungrateful pissants while thinking themselves completely and utterly justified and righteous.
You don’t stop doing people favors, though.
You just don’t notch up a “favor owed” on them. You expect nothing in return.
If you do someone a good turn… you do it because it’s the right thing to do. Not because of any quid pro quo.
This isn’t “business as usual”. Working with Halbert, it was NEVER “business as usual.” Often, I would scratch my head for years figuring out how a lesson fit into my own life.
Very much worth it, though.
There is massive wisdom in small rules.
Knowing these rules is one thing.
Living them is quite another. It’s not easy, and it often goes against your “common wisdom” intuition.
Gary had no foundation to work up from when he created the man he became. He had to make it up as he went, struggling and failing and risking everything many, many times. No advantages…
… except a love of discovering “hints” about living well within little sayings and rules like this.
For me, his legacy had nothing to do with what others would call “success in business”.
For me, it was always about living life with more gusto. Chewing up the scenery, and forcing people to make room for you at the Feast.
Thanks, pal. Much appreciated.
And I’m doing my best to spread the real wealth around.
P.S. Gary’s sons (Bond and Kevin, who I’ve known for most of their lives) are finally able to rev up the old website again.
If you aren’t on their list, you are hearby informed that they are posting previously-unposted newsletters (from the early days, when Gary’s work was like an H-bomb going off in the business world).
Bookmark the site: http://www.thegaryhalbertletter.com
“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” Dirty Harry
Did luck have anything to do with how you got where you are today?
Do you consider yourself generally lucky, either in life or circumstance? Or cards, maybe?
I run into the concept of “luck” a lot in business. And since I’ve had such a stormy relationship with luck throughout my life, I perk up whenever I hear anyone talk about it.
I’ll come clean right off the top, though, before going further: I consider “luck” (at least the way people I grew up around think about it) as a form of superstition.
Which almost consumed me in my youth. The idea that unrelated things could influence the outcome of certain events, once it takes hold in your head, can dominate your life. Being in sports didn’t help.
Here’s my example (love to hear yours, too): I played hardball until I was 17, and while I couldn’t hit worth a damn — no peripheral vision — I was considered agile enough with the glove to start at shortshop with my Colt League team.
I still have nightmares about the anxiety. At that level of ball, the left side of the infield handles most of the action… and it’s brutal. (Some of those guys were only a few more years away from pro ball.)
I always considered third basemen as fortunate bastards — you’re so close to the batter, you have no time to think when a shot comes your way. You’re totally into reactive mode. Every play is bam-bam.
Fifteen feet farther back, at short, you’ve get enough time even with a hot grounder for your fevered brain to go through a dozen different ways you could screw this play up before the ball reaches you. The anxiety ate me up. (If I hadn’t gotten a handle on that nervousness, I surely would be crippled with ulcers today.)
Every pitch presented a new opportunity for physical pain (ever had a baseball going 4,000 mph take a wicked hop and careen into your face, groin, or neck?), and the humiliation of letting down your team with an error. The irony is, I had a good fielding percentage… yet, I felt no elation at making a play. That was my job, to make the play. No glory in just doing your job out there.
No glory. But an avalanche of shame and self-loathing if you didn’t perform absolutley perfectly.
Yeah, I was kinda hard on myself. I should have quit, and devoted myself to the band. (For whatever reason, I had zero fear of mounting a stage to play music. No anxiety, and no sense that I had to be perfect, either. It was fun.)
Anyway… isolated out there at short, with vast stretches of infield dirt in every direction, I somehow got the idea that if I smashed all the dirt clods around me before each pitch, I would be protected from errors.
I have no clue how that thought got into my head. The pitchers refused to step on the baseline going in and coming out each inning, and you weren’t supposed to talk to them while they had a no-no going… and other guys had their lucky socks (phew!) and their must-do routines to avoid jinxes… but I have never come across another jock who thought of dirt clods as holding any power over outcomes.
Once the thought took hold, though, it obsessed me. At first, I just had to stomp the clods next to me. But by mid-season, I would spot a clump six feet away, and NEED to scurry over there as the pitcher wound up, crush it, and get back into position before the ball reached the plate. I must have looked like a bugged-out meth addict out there, desperately looking for things to stomp, and dancing left and right when I should have been settling in and getting ready for action.
Finally, the coach grabbed me by the scruff between innings and asked me what the HELL I was doing out there, huh? Was I channeling Fred Astaire, maybe? Or Ginger Rogers?
So I gave it up. The little dirt clods would mock me, and the anxiety ran hot through my gut… but I quit. The horror of riding the bench trumped my fear of fate.
Here’s the Final Jeopardy question, of course: Did not killing the dirt clods affect the outcome of my play at shortshop, once I altered my behavior?
The answer is no, it did not.
However, in the grip of superstitious thinking, empirical evidence like that cannot make a dent. I did not come away from that forced experiment with any new sense of freedom.
Most of the people I knew back then “believed” in superstitions, sometimes to ridiculous extents. So I wasn’t gonna get any sensible advice from them about dealing with my own need to “protect” myself from bad things using unrelated behavior rituals, lucky charms, and magical thinking.
THey were, in fact, all for rituals, charms, and magic.
This paranoia went on for years… and then, one day, I just snapped.
It was soon after I’d discovered the power of setting goals. In a way, setting a goal, and going after it, is the opposite of superstition.
Instead of being at the mercy of “fate”, or mysterious forces that cause things to either go well or go badly for you…
… with goal setting, YOU are in control.
It’s like two opposing models of looking at the world.
When you feel mostly out of control… and you’re not being proactive about regaining control… it’s easy to believe that events are entirely out of your hands. You need luck.
On the other hand… when you’ve done your homework, and visualized outcomes, and put everything you possibly can in your favor… you exert actual control over how things will turn out.
When you’re prepared, you may welcome a lucky break here or there.
But you don’t NEED it. You will succeed or fail from your own exertions.
Anyway, one of my early and most fundamental goals was to become “comfortable in my own skin”. I sensed that most anxiety and low self-esteem came from not taking control.
And, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that superstition sucked.
It was a negative force. It came from weakness, and fear, and a refusal to face life square on. (I was studying Carl Jung at that time, too… and one thing he said about nightmares leaped out at me: “When you are chased by a monster, stop and confront it. You will see that the monster’s strength comes from your fear. He has no power when you face him down.” That hit me hard — I’d spent most of my life believing I had to run faster in my nightmares.) (I don’t have nightmares much anymore, and while I miss the adventure, I don’t miss the anxiety.)
So I made a simple vow: No more superstition.
No matter how much I felt I “needed” to obey the demands of the superstitious monsters deep inside… and no matter how much they threatened me with horror and humiliation and pain if I refused their burnt offerings… I just stopped engaging.
And years of pent-up fear fell away, instantly. I was no longer a prisoner to irrationality.
Even better… I started keeping track of results.
And guess what?
Things are going to happen, or not happen, or happen in odd ways, regardless of any superstitious thinking involved.
The ONLY thing that affects the outcome… is preparation. Being aware, awake, and alert to the odds. Hip and ready to rumble.
And, especially, hyper-alert to opportunity.
Hey — for all I know, “luck” actually exists. I know I’ve been a pretty lucky guy for most of my life… starting with having the good sense to be born to good parents in a good generation, in a good little town in a good country that offered all kinds of basic freedoms and opportunities.
However… the opportunities in life didn’t “change” around me when I got hip to going after them.
No. What changed was my attitude about opportunity. When you allow notions of luck and superstitious belief to dominate, you have little incentive to grab onto opportunity… because, hey, if I’m in a lucky streak, I can be picky.
But when you have a set of goals to measure any incoming opportunity against, you know exactly what to do. If the opportunity moves you closer to your goal, then you jump on it. If it doesn’t… well, you’re allowed to reconsider your fundamental goals, but when you’re dead set on something specific (like being an entrepreneur) then it’s easy to let even hot opportunities go (like taking another job with The Man, regardless of how attractive the salary is).
I’ve been very lucky with the way things have turned out in my life. And yet, despite the fortunate series of events that allowed me to grow up near the center of the cultural maelstrom on the west coast, soaking up the peak experiences of my generation (I was 13 — the perfect age — when the Beatles hit US shores, and went through college with what became “classic rock” as the soundtrack behind the sexual, social and consciousness revolutions we enjoyed) and somehow staying safe in spite of all the factors sending me toward danger (the draft ended my last year in college — I was set to go, too) (and all those car wrecks… jeez, I should’ve been diced, sliced and minced a dozen times over, and yet never broke a bone) — despite all that cool, fascinating action…
… I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.
In fact, I was miserable. I was having a damn good time… but the lack of having a “place” in the world left me feeling like an exile in the culture. I was bereft of any anchor, or purpose, or direction.
It may well have been lucky that a woman I was dating had just been fired from her job with the ad agency, and was reading the Want Ads when I stopped by one afternoon… and she pointed out this “weird” little ad by a guy named Jay Abraham talking about Claude Hopkins or some other such nonsense. Wasn’t that a funny ad? What freelancer in their right mind would answer such a goofy ad?
But it was focused goal-attainment that got me to jump on that opportunity, regardless of whether “luck” put it in my lap or not. (That woman lost all respect for me by going to see Jay, by the way… and Jay at first told me I didn’t have what it took to work with him, which would have crushed me a year earlier… but I suspected he hadn’t actually read my submitted pieces, which was true, and because I also suspected this was a guy on my path to where I wanted to go… I burst into his offices unannounced and nearly got in a fight. We made nice, though, and I ended up working with him for a couple of years — writing for free, in exchange for being able to sit in on meetings and have free run of his offices — which led to that “fateful” party where I was introduced to Gary Halbert, recently out of the clink and raring to go, and so on…)
Luck is for pussies.
Goals are what gets things done.
The point of all this: My youthful obsession with luck and superstition and the idea that I was essentially NOT in control of my life was aiming me in a direction where… at my current age… I would still be uncomfortable in my own skin.
I think about this all the time. Especially as I watch my colleagues and friends and neighbors go about their day. Many still believe that money will buy them happiness. Or a new car will do the trick, or a new spouse, or moving to a new city, or whatever.
I’d have to guess that 90% of the people I know are squirming in their own skin. Not comfy at all.
I never get jealous when I hear about some dude scoring big bucks in a launch, or a new biz venture, or even from an inheritance. I USED to, before I realized what my own main goal in life was.
Now, I have a simple test: Whenever I meet someone new, or meet up with someone who’s the toast of the town… I gauge their inner comfort.
And I wonder: Would I want to spend a single minute inside their skin? BE them for any length of time?
In my earlier days of angst and cluelessness, I quickly assigned massive levels of happiness and contentment to anyone with a better basic set-up than I had. My default position was that everyone else was having a better time than I was.
Now, though, I guess I’ve attained a sort of Zen ease.
I haven’t met anyone who isn’t riven with inner turmoil in a long time.
And I don’t know anyone I’d like to trade places with, even for a short time.
I worked hard to get comfy in this battle-scarred, weathered, grizzled body of mine.
I kinda like it in here, now. A lot.
And luck had nothing to do with me getting to this lovely point.
What do you think about luck, superstition, and envy?
Love to hear your thoughts…
PS: Don’t forget that I’m speaking at Ron LeGrand’s “Info and Internet Marketing Bootcamp” the last weekend of June. In South Carolina.
I consider Ron the most consumate salesman I’ve ever met, period. I have NEVER spent more than a minute with him, either on the phone or in person, without learning several killer Master’s Level lessons in classic salesmanship.
And my guess is, this event may be one of the last times you’ll get to see him live like this. He’s one of those guys who isn’t working because he needs the money — instead, he just loves teaching. Still, I know this is a rare event where he will BE there, speaking and interacting with the audience. We’re talking history here.
If you — like me — value the lessons of masters, you’ll want to check out the opportunity here:
I’m really looking forward to this event. Never been to SC…
“I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” Ratzo Rizzo (Midnight Cowboy)
If you don’t mind… I’d like to take a little informal poll here.
Here’s the question: What are your plans for the summer?
I’m serious. I wanna know.
In fact, I find myself obsessing on how people plan for seasons. I grew up quite happy to be told (in vague yet restrictive terms) what I could do each new season: Go to school. Go to school some more. Okay, now you can go to school, and play baseball in the evenings. Good. Now, school’s out, so you can do anything your vandalizing heart desires. Just be home in time for dinner.
That routine didn’t work out so well when I reached adulthood.
I still have trouble making too many plans. I have goals, and I’ve laid out “time maps” for reaching them… but as far as specific plans, I’m all about avoidance.
Part of it is superstition. That old saying “If you want to make God laugh, make plans” was tailor-made for guys like me.
It’s like taunting death and nightmare, pretending in June to believe the world will still be here in, say, August.
Nevertheless… I find myself on the precipise of yet another summer… with plans up the yin-yang.
How did this happen?
I’m not complaining. I used to complain about plans being made with me involved, because part of me feared that committing to anything months down the road might keep me from doing something more fun. You know, something else that might come up, last-minute-wise.
I don’t know what.
Back when I was a slacking hippie loser, there really WOULD be cool stuff that popped up enexpectedly. Especially during summertime.
A party, maybe. Or an adventure in Yosemite, or an invite to someone’s cabin near the beach, or…
My more organized friends, of course, were off traipsing around Europe, and apprenticing with mentors, and building thier resumes. That doesn’t happen by accident.
You gotta plan for it.
Anyway… I just made my four-way plane reservations for the first of several trips I’m taking this summer. A little business, a little pleasure, a little grey area mix of the two.
First up: Noo Yawk City.
Where — if you bothered to read the email I so thoughtfully sent you today — Stan and I will hold a rare one-day Hot Seat workshop with five fast-on-their-feet attendees.
If you’re on my list, you’ve been invited. But you gotta score one of those five seats — no one else will get in.
If you somehow missed seeing that email, go here to check out the opportunity:
New York City. What a concept.
We’ll do a full day of hot seats on Monday, June 30 (and then take you out to dinner in the city). We’re offering this because so many people have told us they wished we’d do a Hot Seat seminar on the East Coast, and have it during the week (because some folks just can’t make it for a weekend). So we’re doing this on a Monday.
This is gonna be so cool.
Now, I’m in New York that Monday, because I’m also scheduled to speak at Ron LeGrand’s “Information & Internet Marketing Bootcamp” in Myrtle Beach, SC, on Friday, June 27th. (To check this ultra-cool event out, go here:
I get to South Carolina via Las Vegas, a day before… where I’m meeting up with Jeff and Jon Walker and a whole mob of other top marketers for a big damn brainstorm.
I just booked the airline tix: Reno to Viva Vegas, Vegas to Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach to NYC, NYC to Atlanta, Atlanta to… Reno again.
I’m off on a circular adventure!
Meanwhile, my partner Stan (who hasn’t enjoyed a calm, home-bound summer in a decade) won’t set foot in their San Fran house for six or seven weeks… bouncing between New Joisey, Europe, meeting me during each leg of my trip, back to Europe, back to Joisey…
What do you got going?
I think we’ve scored a cool beach house for part of a week in July. In August, I’m going to eastern Washington to see family, then Portland (one of my favorite cities).
And there’s a nagging notion in the back of my head that I’m forgetting about some committment for a seminar or something in late August.
I’m afraid to bring up the calendar and look.
I’m speaking in Dubai (!) in December, I’m pretty sure (along with pals like Mike Filsaime and Joel Comm).
But that’s a looooooooooong way off.
Summer used to last a lifetime, when I was a kid. More things would happen to me in a day than happen to me in a month now. I could get sunburned in the morning swimming, heal by afternoon into a bronzed tan while climbing trees in the park, and get in thirty games of over-the-line before inventing another “monster in the back yard” game at dusk. Then watch sci-fi films until our eyes bled, and be forced into bed at the very latest hour possible, still pumped.
I miss that sense of endless fun.
I miss living life like I was in a Beach Boys song.
So many biz out there think summer is “too slow to consider serious business projects”… which may still be true, for some markets, in the brick-and-mortar world. (Most of Europe still abandons the joint for August, I hear.)
If you’re online, however, summer isn’t recognized by the Web. Some of the most profitable launches in history have been pulled off during the Dog Days of summer. (John Reese made a point of pulling off his breakthrough Traffic Secrets launch in August, cuz he enjoyed the story value.)
One man’s vacant parking lot is another man’s teeming virtual mob of cash-in-hand customers.
I’d love to take the summer off. Do nothing but read, lounge, noodle with music, play with the dogs, soak up some culture and sea air, and let my mind wander wherever it pleased.
I’ll have to plan ahead to make that happen, though, this season. Otherwise, the calendar will be filled by opportunities that despise a vacuum.
Man… I better get Golf Week pehciled into the schedule. (Stan and I haven’t missed Golf Week — where we leave the homestead and the ladies and trundle off somewhere shockingly-cool to do nothing but play successive golf games on bitchin’ courses — in 15 years now. It’s a tradition.) (The best part is explaining to the other guys on our impromptu foursome each day that, yeah, we’re doing this for a whole week. Eat, golf, drink, golf, sleep, golf, golf, golf, golf. The look in most guys’ eyes is priceless — every golfer wants to do something like this, and most just cannot make it happen. The power of goal-setting and planning, right there…)
You doing anything interesting?
My pal Dave Kekich (a close bud of the dearly-missed Big Ugly Guy, who I keep in touch with) has spent a lifetime pursuing specific strategies to live just a little bit deeper each year. One of the ways he motivates himself is to keep a little chart close by… which lists all the summers he has left.
If you figure you’ll live to be 75, you can simply subtract your current age from that number… and that’s how many summers are still on your dance card.
It’s kinda abstract.
Yet, when you see it in black-and-white, on a chart… that number looks so pitifully small that it can clench up your gut.
Summer’s are precious. Heck, every day is precious… and I love each season for the peculiarities they all have. I often consider autumn to be my favorite… except when summer is sliding up fast on the tail of spring, and the nights start getting warm and achingly pleasant…
A dying man would give up all his millions for just one more summer day. Never forget what’s irreplaceable in your life, and what’s just shallow bullshit.
Hell. I’m signing off, and going outside. The Milky Way is blazing tonight, and nothing on TV can come close to that kind of glory…
C’mon, let’s discuss summer plans. Business, pleasure, obligation, rare opportunity…
What d’ya got going?
“C’mere, I wanna talk to you…” A mugger in Ry Cooder’s “Down In Hollywood”
While down in San Diego for the Kern seminar, I managed to grab a couple of meals with Jeff Walker (of Launch Formula fame).
Always a treat to hang out with Jeff — smart cookie, funny, lives life according to his own damn rules.
Plus, he always says shit that makes me think.
This time, while everyone else was yammering at the table (one of the perks of going to these events is sharing meals with groups of fascinating folks)… Jeff leaned over and asked me something that has been gnawing at my brain for a month now.
“Do you think,” he whispered, “there’s a crisis in copywriting right now?”
For the few minutes we had to talk, he laid out a harrowing plot line: Increasingly, top marketers who are quite capable of writing their own stuff (like Jeff, and Rich Schefren, and Tellman Knudsen, and Mike Filsaime, and dozens of others) are hiring copywriters to handle the task.
Hey — even pro scribes like me are always on the lookout for hot talent to tackle some of the mounting writing chores that any successful online biz encounters.
And here’s the rub: Increasingly, freelance copywriters have learned to “talk” a good game… but can’t walk the walk.
They’re asking for — and getting — top fees.
And then either screwing up the project, or delivering inferior work.
This is not good, people.
I probably share some of the blame for this miserable state of affairs. Back when I started my freelance career (last century), freelancers were not treated well. You were more like a vendor, a guy merely supplying an unimportant service, and respect was hard to come by.
You often got paid last, almost as an afterthought. And you were expected to follow the whims of the client like a good slave, and not rock the boat.
I quickly decided this was bullshit. Most of the clients I had in the first couple of years — and this included veteran direct response agencies (who should have known better) — were so clueless about good selling strategies… that it would have been a CRIME to allow them to dictate what was written.
So I spoke up, argued, and insisted on following my “Gun To The Head” philosophy of writing what was NEEDED… not what would please the client.
This necessitated a chance in client-management, too. Rather than come in sheepishly, hat in hand, and act like a vendor… I realized I needed to blow the doors down and OWN the joint if I was gonna be a successful freelancer.
The strategy was simple, and based on experience: Most clients needed a freelance copywriter because they (or their staff) couldn’t write an ad that worked.
I knew how to do that.
Therefore… I was sort of like “the adult in the room”. The guy who could clearly see what was going on, what was needed, and how to do it.
In fact… whenever I delivered finished copy that the client “loved”… I knew I’d failed.
The best copy isn’t safe and nice and loveable.
I wanted my clients nervous as hell, and squirming as they read the ad. My job wasn’t to make them happy. It was to make the ad a success.
To do that — to get into the position where I could push “the right thing” through — required a very ballsy attitude. Take no prisoners. BE that guy who demands and deserves respect… and who proves his worth by ACTIONS.
You don’t earn that kind of respect by talking a good game.
Naw. You earn it by earning it. By doing your job, over and over, and producing results that prove you know what you’re doing.
Back in my bachelor days, I remember meeting many guys who lied about their circumstances in order to get the attention of women.
“But you don’t really own a Porsche,” I would say. “And you’ve never sold a screenplay to Hollywood.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Mr Suave And Debonair would reply. “It’s all about perception.”
These guys would actually “get” the initial attention they craved. And, I guess if you’re after the most shallow and fleeting relationship encounters possible, sometimes they were “successful”.
But it always seemed creepy to me. Bare-faced dishonesty should trigger shame in your heart, not elation at gaming the system.
On the other hand…
… when you actually possess “the goods”… the real crime is in hiding from your responsibility to do what you need to do to accomplish “the right thing.”
If, as a copywriter, you know from experience and talent what should be done in a project or ad… then pure professionalism demands that you stand up and make your case.
If that requires a little attitude, maybe a little bullying or bludgeoning of the client, then that is part of your job: You treat the gig as if the business was yours, and the consequences personal.
Top writers do that. They are, despite working for a fee, partners with you for the duration of the job. (The best of the best often work on a percentage of the deal, which makes them real partners… with a very real stake in the results.)
The lower rungs of the freelance world are still valuable, of course. There are mountains of writing jobs out there that do not require the attention of wise veterans who’ve been around the block a bunch of times.
I’m not going to dis any copywriter out there who is willing to accept “fulfillment” jobs, where no input from him is expected or wanted — you just need to write a coherent piece of copy that clearly communicates what the client needs communicated. I’ve done that in my career (even after I adopted the “hard-core pro attitude” for most jobs). Sometimes, you just need to apply your skills as a communicator of the written word, and leave your attitude and consulting and “making ’em squirm” tactics back at the office.
This “crisis” that Jeff was talking about almost entirely stems from this attitude thing.
Here’s what’s happened: A whole generation of freelancers have learned how to talk their way into getting big gigs.
And they simply do not have either the skills or the experience to pull off what’s required.
This sucks. Both for the freelancer — who gets tarred with a bad reputation — and for the client, who is out the hefty fee… and still doesn’t have copy he can use.
I wrote the notorious “Freelance Manual” five years ago, ironically, to try to nip this situation in the bud. I saw two things happening, as a result of the explosion of marketing online:
1. There was a growing need for good copy… and…
2. There was a dearth of good copywriters able to do any of it.
That Freelance Course is not available right now. This is not a pitch for it. You couldn’t get it even if you wanted it, for any price.
I’m trying to make a point here: In that course, I had exactly three sections.
“Get Good” was the first section.
“Get Connected” was the middle section.
And “Get Paid” was the last.
That course created a bit of a sensation among would-be freelancers. It was the first time a pro had let rookies and outsiders “in” on the tactics of managing clients, networking with the Big Boys, and negotiating huge fees.
That trilogy — get good, get connected, and get paid — is still the foundation for a fabulous (and fabulously wealthy) freelance career…
… you gotta embrace the entire model.
You can’t skip the “get good” part. That’s where you earn the right to “get paid”.
What Jeff Walker has noticed is the tip of the iceberg out there. Since hearing it from him, I’ve since heard complaints from a huge section of the marketers I hang with… all on the subject of freelance copywriters presenting themselves as something other than what they are.
They talk a great game. They get the big fees. They seem connected, they network well, and they know how to manage clients.
But they forgot to get good at what they are supposed to do to earn those big fees.
In that Freelance Course, I made what I thought was a clear warning: Do not attempt to break into the “A” list of clients until you are ready.
How do you know if you’re ready?
If you have to ask… then you’re not ready.
The best writers have all served some kind of long apprenceticeship, where they were free to make mistakes and learn from them… without hurting their reputations, or hurting any big client who took a shot with them.
The lucky ones found mentors, who personally took them under wing and taught them the ropes.
The Freelance Course was meant to fill in the blanks for those many writers who couldn’t find a mentor.
The writers who followed my advice in that course (the first one of its kind) have done rather well for themselves. They get the best jobs, for the biggest fees, and they enjoy sterling reputations among marketers who hire freelancers.
They are a minority, however, it seems.
Whether the mob of freelancers out there mucking up the joint ever saw my course or not (and there are now several other guides to freelancing out there that are just fine) I cannot say.
One thing is certain, though: Too many are not learning to walk the walk before they get up on the soapbox and start talking the talk.
In business, when you’re the bottom-line owner, you will find out quickly if you have what it takes to thrive. Reality will smack you down in a hurry if you skip the fundamentals, or try to game the system without paying your dues and learning the ropes.
Freelancers, however, can actually hover above the rules of consequence. For a time, anyway. They get paid to produce an ad, and they can walk away from the project afterward.
This is NOT an excuse to do shoddy work. Pro’s — the real heroes of copywriting, the guys who become legends and own reputations that read like novels — throw themselves into every project with full force. There is NEVER an excuse to give less than 100% — if you accept a job, you are a partner in the project until you’ve done what needs to be done.
So, I suppose this is a warning shot across the bow of freelancers out there.
The top marketers — the guys who WILL pay top dollar for copy — are aware of this crisis.
And they talk with each other.
The rewards of taking the time to get good, before you start negotiating the big buck fees, are staggering. (And you can still earn a handsome living while you’re honing your chops and putting your nose to the grindstone, learning and getting experience.)
The damage, however, that you do by presenting yourself as something you’re not… is permanent and will murder your career.
Freelancing is a wonderful profession. But you don’t just waltz into it fully formed. You gotta master the craft.
Clients can suck. That’s a primal lesson all freelancers learn early, especially when they mentor under me.
However, when you are able to confidently swim the choppy waters of writing for multiple markets (and multiple clients), it’s all just part of a day’s work.
The clients may suck, the job may require you to think overtime and sweat more than you’d prefer at the keyboard (doing draft after draft until it’s right)… and your gut may wince at the moments of severest anxiety (like just before results come in).
But it ain’t digging ditches, is it.
It’s earning a living (and a damn good one, too) doing something you SHOULD love: Writing.
Copy is the foundation of business. All business, and all marketing. No video, website, print ad, email, text message, direct mail letter, fax, infomercial, radio spot, or anything else with a sales message… is created without someone sitting down and knocking out the copy. (Even “spontaneous” video is “written” — though the “script” may be in your head, assembled a nano-second before coming out of your mouth. It’s still copy. It’s still gotta be created.)
Writing is, in fact, the foundation of civilization as we know it. Scribes have always held a special place in society, because they are masters of communication.
Respect the gig.
Actually get good before you tell clients you’re good.
Don’t be shy about honestly assessing what you can do for any given client, and neotiating a truly fair fee that is a win-win for both of you.
You’re worth a higher fee when what you produce can quickly bring measureable results that make your pay irrelevant, because your stuff works.
This current crisis will end, one way or another, as the freelancers who actually produce are identified. The marketers with deep pockets are wary, pissed off and getting increasingly hip to how they can get “taken” by not-yet-ready-for-prime-time writers.
I do not understand why so many rookie writers are in a breathless hurry to get the big fees.
The ride is half the fun, people. Earning your success is a thousand times more satisfying than gaming the system… and it’s worth more, too.
Warning shot fired, and canon put away.
What do you think about all this? I’d love to hear from both freelancers and marketers who hire freelancers…
P.S. If mentoring is something you feel you need, in order to get your own ride going at top speed… don’t forget the opportunities of my coaching club.
Just read the copy on this link, and see if it isn’t something that fits the bill for you.
Free trials, you know.
Just a thought — if you’re considering moving ahead in your career, especially online.
Here’s the link: