The Reason You Screwed Up

Thursday, 8:26pm
Reno, NV
“Na na… na na na na… hey, hey, hey… goodbye…” (Steam)


Hey, let me know if this post strikes a nerve for ya.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about: One of the reasons we old fuckers are so valuable in business…

… is that we’ve been around the block so many times, we’re on a first-name basis with many of the life situations that — when you first encounter them — are discombobulating disasters that cause ruin and despair.

However, by your third or fourth go-round…

… what was once a crisis is now pretty much a (yawn) simple and easy fix.

And you know what?

It’s a good thing to have people in your corner packing hard-core life experience to help you through the tough spots.

A good percentage of this life-experience stuff makes its way into my consulting and teaching.

Making money isn’t always about technique, you know.

A huge part of being successful is all about mastering the game of interpersonal relationships with people who are vying to control your Fate.

Some of these people are doing this consciously. This is where the high-end game of Alpha Males and Sociopath Success Freaks and Power-Hungry Sharks is played out.

And the old poker rule is in effect: If you sit down at the table… and you don’t who the sucker is…

… then YOU’RE the sucker.

It can take half a lifetime to learn even the rudimentary rules of how things get done in the smoky backrooms of elite power.

And no, you aren’t even a little bit hip to how it’s really played… no matter how many Hollywood movies about Wall Street you’ve devoured. Or how many times you’ve read Sun Tzu.

The only way to survive the Big Game… is with a little bit of guts, a dash of luck, and a whole big steaming pile of proven skill.

Consider what you’d have to do — actually do, over the next year — to be able to walk into a cage fight with a top UFC champ.

And not have your head torn off.

You better have your chops honed and tested, Bucko. A lucky punch ain’t gonna do it for you.

You better find someone with the necessary experience to help you learn, too, and hold on tight.

But I don’t wanna talk about that high-end game today.


Today, I want to dig into the OTHER group of people who are trying to control you.

The ones who are doing it unconsciously.

This should sound familiar to anyone with even a single employee.

Let’s call it the “Don’t Have A Cow” attitude problem. (Think of Bart shrugging off his destruction of someone’s life work.)

Here’s how it works: Several generations of Americans have now graduated from the education system…

… believing that a good excuse is a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Flunked a test? Forgot to finish your essay on time? Late for class?

No problem… IF you have a great excuse.

I knew a girl in college who killed off her grandmother three times in three semesters. Got her out of taking a final (didn’t study), out of being penalized for skipping a week of class (rock concert), out of not having a paper written on time (didn’t even try).

Granny never found out. And lived a good many more years.

And this girl went on to the Dean’s List, grad school, and a Ph.D.

The lesson learned: You can be instantly forgiven… and even felt sorry for… if you just deliver a good enough excuse for screwing up.

That’s a really, really, really bad lesson to absorb.

Because once you get out in the real world, you have a very rude discovery to make: No one gives a rat’s ass about WHY you screwed up.

The fact you DID screw up is all that matters.

Your excuse will comfort no one but you, as you lick your wounds and look for another job.

This is not a mild problem out there. (I know every biz owner with staff is nodding like crazy right now.)

The hardest thing, I’ve found, to teach budding freelancers…

… is the “Professional’s Code”.

It’s very simple: You show up where you’re supposed to be…

… when you said you’d be there…

… having done what you said you’d do.

That’s it. (This is the way I have translated it, for myself and anyone who’ll listen to me. You may have heard it in other forms. I’ve never come across a better way to say it than this, though.)

The phrase “show up” includes the physical act of appearing where you’re supposed to be… as well as the virtual act of meeting your deadlines.

I did NOT grow up with this Code.

I was a victim of the school system, where few consequences couldn’t be negotiated. (Hell — the cops back then even poured out your beer and sent you home after pulling you over. I knew dozens of guys who’d been nabbed while driving with a bottle of Schlitz in one hand, and not a one of them ever suffered a DUI. Right or wrong, that’s how my corner of the generation grew up.) (I remain unconvinced that too-harsh punishment is better… but SOME punishment is called for. I mean, good grief…)

As a low-level employee with no skills — my standard gig for the first decade or so of my adult life — half the job really was just showing up on time.

However, once the idea of going solo as a freelancer took hold, I started looking seriously at how the really successful dudes were conducting themselves in business.

I vowed, going in, that I would meet all deadlines, no matter what. And BE that guy who could be trusted with delivering the goods to anyone who paid me.

I saw what the alternative is, in gruesome detail, during my time in a catalog art department. There were multiple deadlines for photo separations, camera-ready art boards, and every word of copy… and anything that wasn’t done by the printing deadline…

… wasn’t gonna make it into the catalog.

The printing presses were in Nashville. They ran 365 days a year, and you booked your slot 6 months in advance. You missed your deadline, too bad. You paid anyway for the time and manpower.

And you didn’t get your catalog to mail.

This happened to another catalog in the area… and they simply vanished soon after.

Missing a hard deadline literally was a mortal wound to their ability to continue doing business. They had nothing to mail. No money came in. Clients wandered away. Banks were not nice about outstanding loans coming due.


That’ll sober you up.

In 25 years of writing for clients, I have never missed a hard deadline for copy.

Let me repeat that: 25 years, zero violations on my deadline record.

My dearly-missed pal, Gary Halbert, used to consider that criminal… cuz it made guys like him look bad. (He didn’t make a habit of it, but he did miss some very important deadlines on occasion. The chaos that ensued was often costly.)

This concept of never missing a deadline is the hardest thing to teach rookie freelancers.

It’s almost like you gotta experience disaster first… and it’s gotta make a deep impression on you… before your mind can shift into Professional Gear.

This is why surgeons endure such rigorous training. Saying “Sorry, I was distracted” after botching an operation doesn’t cut it.

Pilots, too. Accountants. Snipers. Astronauts. Film editors. Lead singers.

You screw up… you disembowel the entire gig.

And your fabulous excuse doesn’t fix anything.

No one wants to hear it.

Because of you, other people now have an emergency on their hands.

Entire kingdoms have crumbled from screw-ups by people who thought they had a great excuse. (“I had that 3-penny nail right here, sir… I dunno, it must have slipped from my hand back there. My arthritis has been really bad, you know, and…”)

In school, a well-crafted excuse will get you sympathy and a do-over.

In real life… not so much.

And yet… I am NEVER surprised when confronted with a fresh case of someone I’ve put massive trust in… screwing up.

And offering an excuse.

It’s the default brain setting of almost everyone out there.

And yet… it’s really not that tough to adopt the Pro Code. It takes a committment, and requires the skill to tell others “no” when faced with tough choices.

And to tell yourself “no”, when your very natural urge to flake out and bail on your responsibilities flares up.

Everyone would rather party, or even veg out… instead of buckling down and finishing the job you signed up for. That’s the easy path.

Being a true rebel, nowadays, means embracing responsibility with gusto and energy.

The last rebellious act in business, really, is to commit to success.

No matter what.

Your social life will suffer. The family will get mad at you. No one will understand, and you will toil without immediate gratification from outside sources. (Your rewards must come from your own heart and sense of self-respect.)

And it all rests on a simple foundation.

If you take on a job, you do it.

You kill the whiny beasts in your head, wrestle your ADD into submission, push through pain and grief and disaster to do what you promised you’d do.

That’s how that US Airways pilot saved all 150 passengers and crew in that emergency landing in the Hudson River today.

That’s how all professionals worthy of the title treat every responsibility they have.

It’s hard to do. It’s kinda lonely at times.

But committing to it will instantly change your life forever.

And remember: It’s no crime not to have this code already in your bag.

But once you’re made aware of it, you lose big by choosing to ignore it. (So, yeah, it’s a dirty trick on my part to throw it in front of you like this.)

Today — in business, and in conquering the mounting ills of the world — we need professionals more than ever.

The hardest and most rewarding jobs will not get done through excuses.

What do you think?

Love to hear your comments, below.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. I do not yet have a site to send you to…

… but I’m letting slip the news that, at the end of February, we’re hosting a small, super-intense Hot Seat event in San Francisco. I’ve packed the room with experts and know-it-all wizards.

If your business needs a “marketing intervention” because of falling sales, new competition, or any other problems interfering with your pursuit of fat profits and happiness…

… then you need to seriously consider this event.

The seats will go fast. We only have room for a handful of folks, because of the intense personal attention given to each attendee.

Details soon.

So seriously — stay frosty.

Just enter your name and primary email address below and we'll send you the new report right away.

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

  • Effrim says:




  • Yes! I agree John. There are so many people who do not take personal responsibility for anything.

    In grade school I had this coach, Coach Morrison, who would NOT take any bullshit from us at all. He burnt the extremes of the “no excuses” lesson into our brains with little mindfuck exercises like seeing who could follow his weird instructions down to a literal T.

    Anyone who messed up was publically “tarred and feathered” verbally. The only ‘acceptable’ answer was “coach, I screwed up”

    One of the things I remember is him having us jump in place, turning 90 degrees each time as he barked “RIGHT!” “LEFT!” “RIGHT!” “RIGHT!” “RIGHT!” “LEFT!”, getting progressively faster each time, eventually reaching a dizzy crescendo.

    At the end, he’d walk by everyone, like a drill-seargeant inspecting his misfit troops. One time he marched up to me and stared me straight in the face.

    I thought I was done for.

    He screamed, “Greg!….”

    “…YOU’RE RIGHT!!!!”

    Nearly pissed my pants.

    But I looked around the room and was the only one facing the “right” way.

    I guess everybody else just looked to see what the other guy was doing when they got confused.

  • Tia Dobi says:

    Thanks John.

    I’ve had a link on my resume and website since 2004 and not once has anyone asked me about it.

    It reads:

    “Hire right. Tia’s working attittude.”


    “Hire right. Tia’s working values.”

    It would seem to me prospective employers would want to know my behavioural promises in advance.

    Certainly, I would like to know theirs (and my new co-workers. Funny how what people say in interviews and what they actually do are very different).

    Is my list helpful? It would be nice to know…here’s the link:

    P.S. When is your next copywriting class? I’m in a competitor’s and heck, they don’t hold me accountable for homework or showing up..or, well anything.

    Absolutely nadda. I don’t have to do anything, participate or respond.

    I could’ve bought a small used car with the cash outlay and I suppose that’s enough respond-ability!

  • David Phillips says:

    You are so right on it should cause some people to feel like a brickbat hit them over the head. As a youngster I traveled a lot with my father being in the military. When he taught naval science at Duke Umiversity in the 60’s I was amazed at what some of the cadets had to put up with,

    One thing they learned which also filtered to me was when asked a question about anything from classwork to messy uniform they were only allowed to gvie one of three answers:
    Yes Sir
    No Sir or
    No Excuse Sir.
    This was a way of teaching them the personal responsibility involved in being in command of men, ships and planes.

    If our kids were taught this lesson today it would make them better prepared for real life.

  • Gene Stagg says:

    Thank you, John. This should be required reading in and memorization in order to graduate from high school, let alone college. It’s one of the main reasons so many high tech jobs are being outsourced — because some other countries actually require accountability.

  • John,

    once again you just wrote a totally kick ass post — the professional’s code — I like it.

    And that’s pretty awesome you’ve never missed a deadline with all the hairy stuff you’ve been through — congrats!

    — Caleb

  • Tim Gross says:

    “The last rebellious act in business, really, is to commit to success.”

    That’s a great line, John. I was a full-time musician for many years, and I was surprised to find that doing a copywriting or web development project gave me the same creative “high” that writing a song did…

    That was a revelation to me.

    However, being responsible and keeping all the balls in the air is really tiring over time (I’m more of a “fit of energy/short projects ESTP” guy, thanks a lot for commenting on my personality profile results I posted on my blog, by the way!), and after selling my last business a year ago, I essentially took last year off.

    I read something a couple years ago that you said, something like:

    “All copywriters burn out. All copywriters need to take breaks.”
    …Which was really helpful for me to hear, it sort of gave me permission to take time off to recharge.

    Anyway, I’m back in the saddle now, thanks for your philosophical rants. 🙂

  • Hells YEAH! Love this post. Love the butt-kick.

    What a great way to start a Friday morning.

  • Kip Lytle says:

    Hi John,

    Nice post, but I agree with David that it is directed at mostly the wrong audience (I can’t imagine ANY of those who follow you being excuse makers.)

    My 14 year old daughter knows it all and is unfortunately stuck in the excuse mentality … and I’m getting older by the day battling her on it.

    How do you/we get this message to the people that count – those who make and live by the excuse?


  • John Rogers says:

    The long and the short of it is people are flippin’ lazy.

    Lazy parents raise lazy kids.

    It ain’t genetics. It’s bad habits being passed from one generation to the next.

    My parents divorced before I started kindergarten. My mom busted her ass at minimum wage jobs to keep a roof over our heads. My dad worked a full-time job and raised livestock on the side.

    It stuck.

    I started delivering papers when I was in seventh grade and have worked steadily since.

    Over a 22+ year career in the military, I recall staying home sick twice.

    We raised our kids on a horse ranch.

    They had chores.

    Lots of ’em.

    They hated it then, but they love us for it now.

    They’ve never had problems finding work, because they’ve developed a rare character trait — a work ethic.

    Go figure.

    You don’t need to be brilliant to make it in the world.

    But damn it all — be reliable!

  • Wes Hopper says:

    Great inspiration, and there’s a whole lesson in the last line of Greg’s comment, too!
    I teach some moderately expensive classes via teleseminar and I’ve always been amazed that paying customers treat showing up and doing the work as optional. Especially since the people that do get amazing results. I thought that treating them like responsible adults was the right thing to do. No more. Next class showing up and homework email to me will be mandatory. I’ll let you know how that works.

  • Allan Austin says:

    You are so right, a lot of what I have been doing for the last 13 years is fixing screw-ups for companies. I also come from old school and the buck stops here. The company I am contracted to has the best products in our field and the worst marketing. I am just starting to learn more about marketing so I can do a career change for my retirement job. I have started with my wife’s book and am looking at marketing how to repair anything from a leaky faucet to a rudder stock on a container ship. With over 40 years of experience there is very little I cannot find a way to repair with some of my jobs saving customers over $1,000,000 in down time.

  • Matt Gallant says:

    Dude — WISEST BLOG POST OF 2009.

    Your wisdom is undeniable — we are all blessed to have you as a teacher.


  • One way kids learn these ethics is by reading fiction. I know I did it that way.

    I learned this “keep your word of honor” ethic from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover Series — novels about a world where the attitude you describe is the foundation of the entire culture.

    I write about societies where that very attitude is the foundation. Young people are still picking up my books and joining the fandom surrounding them and writing their own stories based on that very attitude of Honor.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

    ps: I just re-watched an old movie with Robert Wagner called WHITE FEATHER (a Western about the end of the Indian wars). It’s all about keeping your word of honor. I learned from Westerns too.

  • Anne Phyllis Pinzow says:

    There’s one other thing, you can’t be so greedy as to take every assignment that comes along when you know that you don’t have the ability to give it the time and energy to do it right. That’s a far cry from making excuses. If you have the confidence in yourself to say, no every once in a while because you’re already committed or you are ill, it will be known that when you say yes, that comes with a guarantee that you will have the work done on time and to the required standard.

  • John, this is one of your best posts ever. Keep em’ coming man.

    Also, I bought your “Simply Writing System”. It’s your best product yet.

  • John:

    I saw a news item on a Congressman seeking a DELAY in the transition to digital (again) — and remembered your essay here.

    So I dropped a link to this post of yours on that news story.

    You’ve nailed a source of decay in the USA culture.;_ylt=Ai94w7WmZjH7rLb6NqluJ.LZn414

    Our leaders have totally forgotten or perhaps never learned what “deadline” means.

  • Craig says:


    Sage wisdom delivered witth oomph.

    Very powerful.

    Having worked in television for 20 years where the deadline is non-negotiable, your product quality instantly judged and delivering even 5 seconds late revealed to millions with bone crushing immediacy – you learn the meaning of deadline pretty darn fast.

    I have often told people I have worked for in various places that their company has no feeling of urgency.

    Some time ago I did some work where even a casual suggestion that a colleague was not meeting their agreed, documented deadlines resulted in me getting a dressing down for colleague harassment – well – you can imagine the culture clash.

    I occassionally mentor people just starting out of school. Not in any particular business – but in how to think about situations and general survive in the world skills.

    This post just got added to the manual. (with due credit of course)



  • Craig:

    Well, there you go. We need a constitutional ammendment that says all government workers have to spend 5 years working in Television! That’ll do it.

    And I’m not being (entirely) facetious.

  • Rosie Peters says:

    Well this certainly rings a bell. I’ve developed a habit that when workers say “sorry, but…” expecting to be told automatically, “that’s OK”, I just say “I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to do the right thing.”
    Way too many people try to slime out of taking responsibility because they can get away with it. Here in Australia, we are supposed to be grateful if people turn up to work, eventually, and are upright and warm during work hours.
    I’m not convinced that it has ever been different, (ie old school) but it is more in your face now that the world is getting smaller.
    I think there has always been the people who whinge and complain and make excuses for themselves and then there’s the people who learn life’s lessons and profit from that, financially and/or morally.

  • Peter says:

    Excellent post John, having spent most of my life in Southern Africa where there was no social security, no unemployment benefits, and no free health service you either “showed up” or buggered off to Europe to live in a welfare state.

    Imagine my consternation on arriving in North America a few years ago and finding the land of excuses you so aptly describe.

    Your post and your followers comments give me hope for the future of the human race.

  • Peter Frank says:

    Hi John,
    My mum and dad bought me up to live by the rule. ‘let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.’

    Very few people do this. It even shows up in people excepting barbecue invitations and the like. “I’ll be there… (unless something better happens first)”.

    I’d rather be where I said I’d be 2 hours early than 1 minute late.

    Keep up the good work John. Hope that girl of yours continues to mend.


  • Arn Tillman says:

    After sixteen years as a printer, it’s sad to see how this modern world fails to comply with the term “deadline.” Long ago at Kubert’s Cartooning school, we were taught this non-acronym pair: “l.a.t.e. equals D.E.A.D.!” It’s an obvious ‘formula’ if YOU need CUSTOMERS to pay your own BILLS, aye?! Oh, the stories I can tell…

    John Carlton replies:

    Hey, Arn, you got a link for that cartooning school? Does it still exist?

    My first job was staff cartoonist for my high school newspaper. 2 years of it. Then, I had a strip in the college newspaper for 2 years. Both times, I was the only staff member getting paid ($5 a strip, but still). If I hadn’t been red-green color blind — and thus kept out of art classes (being color deficient was seen back then as a character flaw) — I would still be in the graphic biz, I’m thinking.

    Never knew there was a school, though. Do tell…


  • Stunning piece, John. Thank you for the reminder.

    There IS a flipside. A kinda, ‘I can learn from this’ flipside…

    If, for some reason, you start finding yourself NOT meeting your deadlines (or you find yourself yearning not to meet those deadlines), then you’ve got to delve inside for the reason.

    As someone with a hardcore work ethic, I found myself slipping a little while back with a client that didn’t have a clue.

    My wake-up-call gift to myself was to look hard at what was happening.

    I opted to change the relationship. To make certain client deliverables not-negotiable. Things like script signoffs. Things like written briefs.

    The client couldn’t/wouldn’t comply, and we parted.

    The work ethic caused uneasiness in me. And that uneasiness led to my clear appraisal of a murky situation.

    Thanks for a killer post. (And thanks to Marc for the link.)

    Blue skies

    John Carlton replies:

    Good point, Roy. I’ll probably get into “the other side” of this matter in a later post. Just laying it bare was the first step. Now, there are the practical matters of putting it in action to cover… which can mean, as you’ve shared here, getting into situations that require hard choices that aren’t necessary clear at first.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • You bastard!

    I can’t believe you unknowingly exposed me to this. Now if I don’t follow the rule I’m screwed….or maybe not…

    On a serious note, thanks for the post. I feel by reading your stuff I get some of your “gusto” by osmosis.



  • Jack says:

    Stellar post John. Any of us who have had employees I’m sure have been shaking their heads in knowing agreement.

    The best way to internalize this lesson is to become the boss, or at least go off on your own entrepreneurial adventure. I have done both, and while I’m not perfect, I am pretty damn good at honoring the code.

    If you just can’t do it, at best you are employee material. Out here in the wild, we have to kill our own food. “Sorry, but…” doesn’t cut it.

    Thanks for a good read. This was one of my favorites.

  • ken ca|houn says:

    And of course having this recent “bailout mentality” from politicians isn’t helping either, the message is “screw up and the taxpayers will pay for it”. I can hardly wait to see the lack of personal responsibility message that washington will be sending in future years, eg “tax the wealthy and spend on the poor” via socialist government. At least us hardworking entrepreneurs have a “buck stops here” approach which is right, in taking complete responsibility for our personal success.


    John Carlton replies:

    Good observation, Ken. We’re sliding down a nasty little rabbit hole here…


  • Lance says:

    Holy crap don’t get me started! Great piece John and right on the money.
    The real trick would be to carefully and independently track back to when, how and by whom the change in the education system occurred, because it did.
    Stuff like this didn’t just happen, it was planned and executed for a reason.

  • “It’s almost like you gotta experience disaster first… and it’s gotta make a deep impression on you… before your mind can shift into Professional Gear.”

    True words of wisdom. It’s funny how people undermine the great things they have until reality gives them a wake-up call. When life puts you in extraneous situations that force you to reassess your whole way of doing things, it’s amazing the level of reflection. innovation, and compromise that takes place internally.

    -Jack of All Trades

  • […] know if anyone captures its essence quite like copywriter John Carlton. In a blog post called The Reason You Screwed Up Carlton defines the attitude of self-discipline in one unambiguous sentence: “You show up […]

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