The Wit And Wisdom Of My Old Buddy Halbert, Part 1

Thursday, 7:47pm
Reno, NV
“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.

You bastard.

Therefore, it will be okay to take further advantage of you. Punish you, in fact, for having the nerve to help me out.

You laugh.

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.

Happy birthday.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

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).

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  • Kim says:

    This crazy age…where else could I happen upon solid gold; this post was beyond everything you wanted for your friend.

    “There is no power in anger.” Six words, I have put them in my heart.

    Your friend is loving this post, as are we all. And you have definitely spread some real wealth around.

    Do not ever stop this big damn blog.

  • Mark Nolan says:

    John you are the best writer… period. I wish you would write a novel.

    Gary was very kind to me. He was asking for names to be listed in his Golden Rolodex of Who’s Worth Knowing. This was wayyyy back in the day, I guess 1990 maybe. I asked some friends like Carl Galletti and others to recommend me (I was a mailing list broker).

    About a week later I get a call. It is Halbert. He says “Nobody got so many recommendations as you and I was wondering if it might be… ENGINEERED?!” There was a long pause and then I started laughing because I was totally busted. Then he started laughing too and said “Admirable young man… admirable.”

    So we talked for a while and then he listed me in the golden rolodex and gave it to his lifetime subscribers who paid $7500 or something like that. It lead to a lot of new friends and income for me.

    He also did an enormous favor for Jerry Buchanan, that brought in a ton of money for him when he was past retirement age. Jerry would always say “God bless Halbert, that rascal.”

    So thank you and happy birthday Gary, we all miss you a lot.

    Mark Nolan

  • Thanks John,

    I always enjoy your stories about Gary Halbert, I would have loved to have met the man, but somethings are not meant to be.

    I loved the rules you told us about and can relate to them. Perhaps when you have time and feel like it you could pass on some more of these rules, I am sure that they would inspire others as well.

    Keep up the good work, yours are emails that I always read and have kept quite a few which I re-read from time to time

    Love and Light
    Colleen The Crystal Dragon

  • Thanks, John. That was a wonderful tribute.

    I think Gary was one of the most complex and misunderstood people I have ever known. He could be infuriating and ingratiating at the same time! He was, almost simultaneously, insulting and generous. He had strokes of genius as often as he exhibited dogged stupidity.

    Gary always spoke highly of you. I’m glad you two were such great friends.

    — Peter

  • Roy Furr says:

    Thanks John.

    Great post, as always — I can feel your deep reverence for the way Gary lived life large. Brings a sentimental tear to my eye… Connecting to him vicariously through you. Seeing who he was behind the scenes enlightens all the glitz and glam on the front end.

    Interesting — when I was getting my degree in psychology, I spent a lot of time chasing the higher reaches of human nature. Understanding the mystics of Christianity, Buddhism, and a whole host of other world religions. Most of their enduring teachings turned out to be pretty simple — and universal.

    And it’s interesting how Gary’s philosophy of living life large comes back to some of the highest teachings of mystics.

    Maybe he was the misfit marketing mystic, sent to bring light into the world of business. I can tell that he brought light into your life — and the lives of many others who he touched.

    I feel blessed to even have some of his light reflected my way, through your mirror.

    Thank you,

    Roy Furr

  • Kris Obertas says:

    Thanks John, for sharing again. Halbert was one of a kind and I’m grateful to be still learning from him through your recollections and commentary.

    My favorite line: “But you will never make life your bitch.”

    I’ve been on the reverse of that equation, oh, a few times and the choice is pretty black and white…get up, dust off, and keep pushing forward…or you’re taking a giant step back toward that final hole in the ground.

    John D. was a great storyteller and I grew up on the Travis McGee series. I’ve taken a few ‘early retirements’ and detours that cost me career momentum and set me back financially, but gained experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything.

    Even before I finished the Travis McGee novels, I was digging into JDM’s older stuff. He wrote some great standalone thrillers, but my favorite is more a (highly recommended) comic fantasy, “The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything”.

    The only downside of a post this good is that people who need to hear its message won’t see it. But I’ll do what I can by sending links around.

  • Cletus says:


    It’s a shame someone couldn’t resurrect to it’s former glory.

    I don’t have the old copy so it can’t be me.

    Some shitweasel has it as a parked page.

    Is nothing sacred?


  • Karen says:

    Yup, that was the Big Ugly Guy, imperfectly wonderful, illogically generous, brilliant, stupid, funny, frustrating, achingly flawed… very easy to love.

    You two were a great team… and sooooooo much fun to be around. (How lucky was I!). You were his best friend in every sense of the word. He loved you to bits.

    Only you could have written something so perfect. Thanks for that.

    John Carlton replies:

    Thanks, Karen.

  • Hi John,

    I disagree that anger is a negative emotion. Like all emotions, anger is neither negative nor positive; it just is. Anger is one of the few emotions that brings energy into the body, mobilizing us for action. I think you’ra talking about rage which is congealed anger turned inwards.

    I teach fitness classes and I see the consequences of repressed anger in people’s bodies, minds and spirits. Not pretty. Best to make friends with it and use it rather than letting it use you. Seems Gary learned this lesson well.


    John Carlton replies:

    Hi Marilena. I respectfully disagree with your disagreement here.

    Believing that anger is an uncontrollable emotion… is a made-up human invention. It simply ain’t so.

    I’ve been through tons of all kinds of physical therapy (part of being a migraine-prone hippie psych major in the early seventies) including Rolfing (back when it was painful), Gestalt, Reflexology, and every identified kind of deep-tissue massage there is. I know that many people have issues with anger, and there are countless ways to spend money with experts “dealing” with it.

    What I discovered, long ago, is that what we call anger is a behavioral choice. Someone says “She did that thing, and it made me angry.” Well, no it didn’t. You chose to get angry. (The proof is that another person, in the identical situation, doesn’t get angry in response.) Anger isn’t some alien beast inhabiting your body — it’s a chemical and mechanical response in your system triggered by your brain. You dump hormones, you clench up, you twist your face into a mask… and all these are learned responses.

    Angry people, you will find, were raised by angry parents. That doesn’t mean you’re fucked forever — it just means you have learned behaviors to overcome.

    I understand the notion of “repressing” emotions, and the damage this can do to your body. I used to carry a lot of emotional baggage in my left shoulder — it would, during stress, get scrunched up next to my ear. (Common male response, BTW — now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll notice many men with left shoulders so tense they seem shorter and higher than the right.)

    And I went through a lot of physical therapy trying to force that crap out. I’m a firm believer in massage (been getting 1-1/2 hours of it a week for twenty years) and chiropractic (on an as-needed basis) and working out (twice a week). I urge my freelance students to follow this regimen, too.

    But in my experience, the notion of “repressed” anger is an outdated Freudian invention. Trying to physically deal with it is like putting on dry clothes without getting out of the rain.

    What Halbert discovered was more sensible, and easier. He went to the source — his learned response of anger — and changed it. He COULD still get angry, but he chose not to. He didn’t “sit” on his anger — he chose other physical, biological paths instead.

    Repressing anger is like covering it up — literally clamping down a lid on boiling pot. Choosing not to get angry in the first place means choosing not to let the chemical and physical dumps happen, so there’s no boilding pot to cover up.

    You may have a prior default position of getting angry… but you’ve changed responses so that default switch doesn’t get clicked. Just like you may have used to wet yourself whenever you saw a snake — again, a learned response that can be changed behaviorally.

    You will not find a theory of meditation or self-awareness that doesn’t agree that anger is a negative emotional response.

    That said, I’ll bet you’re doing great things helping people recover from their angry bouts. Still, nipping it in the bud is faster, cheaper, and more effective.


    • Having spent a good part of my life struggling with and largely trying to rid myself of anger, and having won that war, I agree with John.

      I cannot count a single instance of expressing/venting my anger that accomplished a damned thing.

      My own breakthrough came in two steps: 1) I create my own anger; it does not come from without. 2)ALL of my anger is preceded by fear… of something.

      Now, when that ole rascal starts to rear up inside, I (mostly) see the bastard coming, and quick, like a fox, look and see what the hell it was that I was/am afeared of. Works nearly, practiclly, most every time.

      John, thanks, man.

  • […] Carlton (Gary’s long time business associate and buddy) has a post up titled “The Wit And Wisdom Of My Old Halbert, Part 1″.  A great read, and looks like it will be the first of several (hope […]

  • […] Carlton (Gary’s long time business associate and buddy) has a post up titled “The Wit And Wisdom Of My Old Halbert, Part 1″.  A great read, and looks like it will be the first of several (hope […]

  • […] Carlton (Gary’s long time business associate and buddy) has a post up titled “The Wit And Wisdom Of My Old Halbert, Part 1″.  A great read, and looks like it will be the first of several (hope […]

  • Yanik Silver says:

    Great post. I love the stuff about embracing life. Gary truly lived and I was fortunate enough to get just a hint of the Halbert you knew so well.


    PS – I’ll never forget the punchline to one of his many tales of 3 C’s.
    Cash…C…..and C…….. as the reason he took a copywriting job once.

    John Carlton replies:

    Ah, yes. Such eloquence. And yet another part of the Big Ugly Guy’s legend I still can’t share with the public yet.

    It’s funny — there’s a thread on Fortin’s Copywriter’s Board titled “Are all copywriters jerks?”, by some rookie who was shocked — shocked! — to discover that guys like Halbert (and me) indulge in so much “earthy” language.

    If he only knew how bad it could get. Outsiders would be stunned to learn how juvenile the humor sinks when top marketers assemble behind the scenes.

    Thanks for posting, Yanik. I hope we get a chance to hang out again soon, and trade more filthy stories…


  • Don Poirier says:

    Hi John Carlton, Ive heard so much about marketing from gary halbert and yourself over the years .im of the same age in so calif,temecula. I was in the car finance business for 25 years.Have you ever taken on a herbal product from ground zero to great success? Would you do so on a commission basis.Or are you strickly into teaching and selling your books tapes cds only? ive seen so many offers on marketting for online success, I run a door to door sales crew on one 20$product. millions could be sold nationwide. what you could do in a few days would take me weeks and months. would you do a piece of the action program? sincerly Don Poirier

  • Elizabeth says:

    “The stars, McGee, look down on a world where thousands of 4-H kids are raising prize cattle and sheep. The Green Bay packers, of their own volition, join in the Lord’s Prayer before a game. Many good and gentle people have fallen in love this night. At this moment, thousands of women are in labor from the fruit of good marriage.

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