Brain Tempest (Downgraded From A Storm)

Saturday, 2:23pm
Reno, NV
Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” (Travis Bickle, “Taxi Driver”)

Howdy. Sorry about being such a potty mouth right off the bat there… but that Taxi Driver quote is just too perfect for setting the stage.

Here’s what’s up: I’ve been involved in high-end, professional-level brainstorming and masterminding for, oh, around 30 years now. I think I’m starting to get a handle on it, too.

Okay, I’m joking. After spending half my career butting heads, arguing and mentally-wrasslin’ with legendary thinkers like Gary Halbert… with a LOT of money, reputation and consequences on the line…

… I actually DO know a little something about working over an idea, ripping away the bullshit, and uncovering the overlooked, ignored, and spot-on nuggets of truth and success-potential most people miss.

The process is very much like sausage-making: Not pretty, and not for the weak-kneed.

However, if you truly desire to run an idea, project or plan through the gauntlet of REAL brainstorming…

… it’s still the fastest way to load up your war-chest with tactics, strategies and solid creative mojo. So you can get moving on conquering the world (or your niche, whichever).

But here’s the kicker: Hardly any veteran marketers have a clue how to brainstorm effectively.

Folks just naturally suck at it. And recoil in horror when confronted with the real thing in action. (“No!“, they cry. “It just CAN’T be that brutal!“)

At least… they recoil until they’ve had time to test-drive the ideas that come from real brainstorming… and see some results. Then it’s all smiles and glad-handing and “Let’s do that AGAIN!

Still, I catch a lot of heat from uninitiated colleagues over the way I host brainstorm (or a mastermind) sessions. We call ’em “Hot Seats” for a reason — I’ve seen grown men cry, and steel-eyed entrepreneurs crumble like stale cupcakes while getting the full treatment. (Of course, again, they’re often back for more, with fatter wallets, after the shock wears off and they get a chance to put things to a real-world test.)

Now, I understand why so many people take offense to having their ideas run through a merciless gauntlet — where you get zero points for “nice try” — and sometimes see them savagely destroyed (when it’s a sucky idea). I feel the same way — that’s your baby there, your darling little idea, fresh in the world and hoping for a little encouragement. We all want our ideas to be brilliant, fabulous breakthroughs that change the world.

And it’s hard not to take it personally when hard-core veteran brainstormers cruelly crush it to death.

But it’s just part of the process. Immediately after the cruel crushing, the Ideas That Actually Stand A Chance Of Working start exploding out of people’s heads.

Seriously — I’m not trying to be the Bad Guy here. I’m out to save you heartache and bankruptcy if you’re on the wrong track, and get you to see past the stars in your eyes how your idea’s gonna fare in the cold, nasty world out there….

… so we can concentrate on how a few well-debated better ideas (based on experience and pro-level judgement) might just blow open the floodgates of moolah and happiness.

Because that’s the way I’ve learned real-world brainstorming works best.

I don’t enjoy disemboweling dreams. But I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t tell someone the truth about their plans, when I knew from experience they were on a suicide mission. And getting the bad stuff out of the way is how you allow savvier, better-positioned stuff to make it into your plans.

So, I’m always happy to see validation of my sharply-honed style from the guys in lab coats who test everything within an inch of its life.

Today, while perusing past issues of the New Yorker (still the best damn Thinking Man’s mag around), I came across an article titled “Groupthink” by the excellent reporter/writer Jonah Lehrer. (Read it here online.) In it, Jonah dives into the current, still smoldering research on brainstorming…

… and it backs me up.

“Nice” isn’t the right attitude for successfully brainstorming anything.

But using viciously confrontational debate-style exploration of an idea… yep, that’s the way to go. Not pretty. But super-freaking effective.

I’ll let you discover the details of his reporting yourself. However, here are a couple of sausage-making points:

Sausage-Making Point #1: The way most business folks are taught to brainstorm is just plain wrong. It was championed back in 1948 by a partner in BBDO (still a hot ad agency on Madison Avenue)… and his notion was that a good brainstorm session should have zero negativity in it. Members are not allowed to disagree with anything anyone says, or to be a dissenter.

And, it was first disproven in 1958 at Yale… but by then, the public had gotten this “be nice” notion too welded in its collective mind to dislodge.

Heck, I remember Halbert repeating those very instructions before hosting an early brainstorm I attended with him. (He then proceeded to violate his own rules, but only because of the sheer idiocy of the incoming ideas from the group. Still… point taken. He believed the no-negativity/no-debating rule had been proven.)

I’ll bet you’ve heard it, too: The best way to get good ideas from a group of people is to set strict ground-rules, so no one feels dissed, embarrassed, or confronted with criticism. No Negative Nellies. No Devil’s Advocate. No Contrarians.

There, there, that’s a nice group — nice way to stay positive. All ideas are equal here, while we brainstorm.

But that doesn’t work nearly as well as rolling up your sleeves and getting into an intellectual bar brawl.

Sausage-Making Point #2: Couple of quick quotes from the article: “Imagination can thrive on conflict.

“… dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.

And… “Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.

Hear, hear.

I’m not saying that “niceness” can kill an idea… but it sure comes up short as a tactic for sculpting a gnarly creative plan that has a shot at working in the real world.

Sausage-Making Point #3: People confuse the concept of “creativity” all the time. And it can burn you.

Outside of the biz world, it can be anything you want it to be. Because the consequences of being wrong are minimal.

But inside the maelstrom of entrepreneurial endeavors… the concept of creativity takes on an entirely new meaning. Prospects won’t buy your cute little product, idea or plan just because it’s “nice”, or even refreshingly clever… or if you really like it, and you really, really, really want them to like it, too.

Nope. They’ll buy it only if it’s the snarling beast they require to accomplish what they need done, out there in the real world of heartbreaking, illogical and unfair buying trends. Solve a problem, create new opportunity, foster happiness, help them achieve desperately needed results.

This confusion is RAMPANT among even veteran business owners.

You don’t suddenly get hip to the insider-tactics of success just because you launched a business, you know. There is no moment of divine intervention, where savvy, experience, and a deft ruthlessness is suddenly downloaded into your prefrontal cortex.

Good grief — some of the dumbest and least creative individuals I’ve met in my career held the fanciest Vice Prez positions in the marketing department.

Best cautionary story: One early client was an agency in LA that snuck me in the back door to do jobs, because their own staff writers just weren’t getting results.

One day, I decided to go meet these ink-stained wretches in their native habitat, to see what the problem really was.

I still shudder, thinking back on the horror behind that door.

Way down one of the back halls of the building, in a windowless room, two sad-eyed copywriters faced each other over the cleanest desks I’d ever seen. (My rule: If the desk doesn’t look like a bomb went off, I’m slacking.) They each had one typewriter (this was a year or two before PCs arrived) with a fresh sheet of paper rolled in… one sheet of notes or marked-up copy… one standard issue lamp… and a pencil.

That was it. Nothing on the walls. No bookshelves. No phone.

I’ve seen prison cells on MSNBC’s “Lock-Up” with more personality to them.

Turns out, all the austerity was a direct order from the marketing VP… who believed shit like “writers write, they don’t think“, and “distraction is the enemy of creativity“. (And, probably, “the best writing always comes from slave labor toiling without hope.“)

Seriously. Nothing on the wall. No books. No radio. Just the life-sapped shallow breathing of their co-worker five feet away (and, I guessed, the occasional mournful sigh or choked sob of despair).

Geez. No wonder they couldn’t write good copy.

I met that VP. Smug, sadistic, self-assured nincompoop. Happily murdering his agency’s ability to create good advertising.

Thank God he despised me for my cavalier attitude, my lack of a tie, my unkempt slovenliness, and my cocksure reputation as the agency’s “go to” freelancer. I loved getting results with my copy, because I knew he lost sleep at night praying for me to fail. Silly bastard.

I have lived, breathed and immersed myself in the process of creating good advertising for decades now. Effective brainstorming is essential.

It’s not a nice thing to have, if you can get it.

It’s ESSENTIAL to success. Nobody kicks ass in the biz world alone. There’s too much going on, and even the most creative guy alive can get in his own way.

I don’t mind taking heat for the way I host my Hot Seat seminars and masterminds. I know I can turn around the serious entrepreneurs in the group, because egos die quickly and the bullshit gets tossed immediately in a good brainstorm…

… and then we get down to the business of solving problems and force-feeding success into plans. (When I’ve been a guest at other people’s brainstorming sessions, I try to tone it down… but often, I just can’t stand it anymore when people are glossing over the truth while trying to be “nice”, and suddenly I’m knocking the air out of the room with some brutally-honest biz advice. Which often runs entirely counter to what was being heralded as a “nice” idea by everyone else, and I gotta weather being the azzhole until other savvy folks in the room grudgingly back me up.)

(But screw it — there’s money, lifestyles and other people’s future at stake when you’re talking about business plans… and I refuse to sit by while someone pleasantly describes the latest suicide mission they’re embarking on, with the apparent thumbs-up of the room, cuz no one wants to tarnish the atmosphere with negativity. If I know something that needs to be shared, I’ll share it regardless of the group conflict it may ignite. And I’ll continue to match up my 30 years of experience against whatever you got, Bucko, when it comes to creating a plan that will work in the real world to bring in results.)

I love P.J. O’Rourke’s book title: “Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut“. Kinda sums up what happens when sheltered folks run smack into experienced veterans. (If you’ve never read P.J.’s non-fiction, you’re in for a treat. Go buy all of his books now. Killer writer, thinker, and super-smart observer of life.)

Basically, it’s almost impossible for a true pro to be “nice” when the bullshit is flying, and somebody’s walking into a trap covered with it.

The Take-Away of all this: Toss any long-held nonsense you may be harboring about how to best use brainstorming, and get hip to what veterans know works (and what the current research continues to back-up, despite the lingering urban myths about the process).

Understanding “creativity” doesn’t seem to be the human default brain setting. Some guys seem to know how to coax great ideas out of groups, but in most cases people need help making a brainstorm session work well.

And you do NOT need to be a creative genius to get maximum benefit, either. You just need to understand how to brainstorm effectively.

This is a game for anyone in business (regardless of how creative or non-creative you think you are). All you need to do… is get wise to the insider tactics that get results.

Make sense?

Stay frosty,


P.S. All right…

this is too good to not share: If you’d like to learn — firsthand, in real time — how a great mastermind works…

… and start uncorking great hyper-successful ideas and sculpting them to work like crazy in the real world…

… with the help of the best gathering of fellow brainstormers you’ll ever meet in your lifetime…

… then you need to check out our Platinum Mastermind group.

I’m not gonna pitch you on it. Either you understand the power of masterminds, and you’re finally ready to goose your own success through the roof with fresher, better, more powerful ideas and bullshit-stripped projects… or, I dunno, maybe you enjoy struggling alone in business.

This is a way to, instead, have a dedicated group of colleagues watching your back (and giving you full, uncensored benefit of their experience and skills).

Go here, and see if this kind of gathering is for you: Platinum Mastermind.

P.P.S. You don’t agree with me, do you. I can sense the hostility brewing behind your fevered brow. Nobody likes having long-held myths knocked down and violated like this. Kinda kick-starts the argument gene in your DNA, no?

So, the comment section is open, below. Let’s hear what you got…





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

  • Louise says:

    Love your work John,

    I’ve been on the receiving end of you ruthlessly ripping apart a bunch of Australian’s pathetic, dripping-with-meaningless-platitudes business offers.

    It was fiery. It was fun.

    I thought hard before I put my hand up & offered mine up for crucifixtion. Then I called mine out & you savaged it. Luckily I listened to what you said & it turned my business around.

    Thanks for the savaging.

    (You even gave me a Carlton beer bottle signed by you so I could remember the humiliation. I’ve still got it. I treasure it.)

    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Louise. Did you keep that signed beer bottle? Was it Carlton Draught, or VC? Might be worth something in… oh, maybe 50 years.

      Glad the Hot Seat worked out for you. The ONLY job any self-respecting guru should care about is helping turn around people’s business… and I appreciate you taking the time to tell us you got results. This kind of comment makes my day…

  • Jimmy says:

    John, you get better with age sir. Love it.

  • Phil Lomboy says:

    Back when I was actively practicing karate, I had the honor of participating in a few “10 man” promotions for soon-to-be black belts.

    My particular style was full-contact, and the candidate’s test was basically a 30-minute sparring session with 10 brown or black belts in the dojo.

    Before the first one in which I was part of the ass-kicking lineup, my teacher pulled me aside and said, “Look, this is going to be pretty brutal. By the time he gets to you, he’s gonna be barely standing.”

    At that point I was expecting him to tell me to take it easy on the poor guy.

    Instead he said, “Don’t let up. He’s doing this for a reason and it’s not about you being nice. You’re not doing him any favors by pulling your punches.”

    Another mentor’s voice also rings in my head with “It’s better to be respected than to be liked.”

    Good stuff, JC.

    • John Carlton says:

      The similarities between an actual bar brawl, and an intellectual bar brawl are actually pretty close… metaphorically speaking. Biz is tough, and life is merciless. Bad things happen to good people, etc. So the thing to do is — as you point out — be prepared, and never let up when real growth is on the line.

      Nobody ever succeeded in biz because they were nice. They have been simultaneously nice AND viciously-effective entrepreneurs, but don’t get confused about who wins in the real world.

      Thanks for the post, Phil.

  • Jeff W says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for making my Monday morning. Sunshine (and accompanying above-seasonal temperatures) just got usurped by your marketing mastery. But this isn’t your regular plain ol’ vanilla brand praise. Nope.

    So why am I especially grateful for this post in particular? Well actually, I’m glad you asked. So let me quickly show you what I mean…

    See, inside of a few short moments, I’ll be hitting up my own brainstorming session. But unlike meeting past…this time… it’s going to be VASTLY DIFFERENT! Because…

    I now (finally) realize… there’s a colleague to whom I’m a little bit too… NICE!

    Eek! What a disaster. This just won’t do!

    I mean, if we were talking small potatoes, it might not matter. But the stakes have never been higher. This is big business I’m involved in! So…

    Like Obi-Wan, I activate my TRUTH-SABER. Instinctively, I tighten my grip and steady my gaze, – ready to slash through the dark and dangerous veil of niceties my colleagues artfully drape around the boardroom table. And while their subterfuge has worked well in the past, NOT TODAY.

    You see John…

    I’m finally ready with another well-guarded secret of a kick-ass marketing rebel. The Empire doesn’t stand a chance.

    Thank you,


  • Tom Royce says:

    I was involved in a discussion on a Facebook group for Real Estate agents and it went from a nice atta boy conversation to a bar brawl where real world, powerful, and game changing discussions started exploding. The value difference was amazing.

    But what broke my heart was the immediate influx of “Dudley Do-Rights” who insisted that we stop being so judgemental and be nicer to the other people.

    Needless to say the conversation stopped providing any value and I left.

    Great post, I am insisting everyone in my Mastermind group read it and agree with it. Otherwise, it may be time for a new group.

    • John Carlton says:

      It’s amazing how long that BBDO advice has stuck to the business world’s psyche. And it’s been disproven over and over, but it just won’t go away.

      Brainstorming works, when done right. You don’t have to be a total dick, but you gotta be honest, and be able to debate with seriousness… cuz in biz, there are consequences to being silly about the way the real world works. It’s not nice out there. It’s a jungle… but a FUN jungle when you finally figure out the insider secrets of dominating it.

  • Whitney says:

    I believe it.

    In fact, I read that New Yorker article you linked to and it also mentioned a study about how when researchers write a paper together, but they work at a distance from each other, they’re less innovative and influential…

    Reminds me of how when I get a critique via email, it never makes any sense to me. Doesn’t matter if I ask them to explain either…the spark is missing. But when I yell at my bosses and tell them to do the critique in person (after all, I do work exactly 10 feet away from their office), all of a sudden I “get” their critique and my writing improves.


    • John Carlton says:

      All hail…

      But don’t confuse being hard-core about the truth with actual “negativity” — you don’t need to be Mr Negative in a brainstorm to get things done, you just need to embrace the truth, prepared to gouge and maim to battle off naysayers and fearless about encroaching on others egos. Everything, including social niceties, take a back seat to the truth…

      I myself still manage to keep things light during brainstorms — lots of laughing, and serious bonding comes with the “get down to it” brawls.

  • Fidelis says:

    Hi John,
    Thanks for the post. I once worked for a boss who didnt appreciate my honest feedback during meetings. One day he called me aside, and after downgrading my status asked me why I was always negative. He did not seem to get it when I answered him that I was being paid to think. Needless to say, that only made me want to strike out on my own.

    • John Carlton says:

      All thinkers — free-, creative-, biz- and otherwise — will continually find themselves in the minority in any group they’re in. This skill doesn’t often help with Peter Principle type promotions up the ladder, so bosses tend to be authoritative types who fear and resent deep thinking. That’s why entrepreneurism is such a great gig… you get to be your own asshole boss…

      • Jane Lewis says:

        Yep, I know that feeling of revealing the absence of clothes on the Emperor, and getting shot down for it. That was from people who also felt that creativity was instantaneous:great ideas could be plucked from the ether, perfectly formed.

        And the creative juices really do flow better when there are two of you (or more)and you get the gloves off. Give me honesty over niceness any day.

  • Kip Lytle says:

    Hi John,

    just got the February issue of the “No B.S. Marketing Letter”, and was happily suprised to see you providing BIG LESSON content there.

    As a subscriber to paper version of THE MARKETING REBEL RANT for years, I always looked forward to receiving it in the mail – and always dropped everything to immediately read it.

    While I almost always drop everything the day NO B.S. arrives, your addition will make that even more certain to happen.

    Kip Lytle
    QLaser – Tomorrow’s Healthcare Today.
    22nd Century Pain Relief Without Dangerous Drugs!

    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Kip. Yeah, I’ll have a couple more submissions for that Big Idea page this year. Also working on some books here, both for biz and a goofy autobiography… be sure to watch this space for future alerts. Hope all is well…

  • custom items says:

    Hi John,

    You do have a point brainstorming is one way to get creative ideas. I would be great to gather in more people to really get more ideas. It’s like corporate brainstorming.

  • rob says:

    From: RJ
    250 meters from the beach
    Muggy & overcast 27 degrees C
    Glenelg SA

    Dear Big dog-JC

    Howz the rotator cuff comin long?

    I learnt a lot from this new post…like what brainstorming really is and how to do it…

    …there is question I have about brainstormin…

    If you are not able to brainstorm with anyone for whatever reason do you think the method of ‘Mind-mapping’ …has its place with brainstorming ideas?

    Second thing…

    What are your thoughts on clean or messy desk of copywriter/entrepreneur? which i know is off topic of this post…

    Do you think those with messy desk are better at what they do or those with squeaky clean desk hit the mark I’m interested in your thoughts.

    My desk sometimes resembles war zone from the middle east…with so much dust on the computer screen that when the screen is not blinking at me that the dust can be clearly seen across other side of the room…

    In fact. I hate to clean my desk. I like it better when it looks like the Tasmanian devil off looney tunes cartoon has been threw…I have to hunt for notes, ideas, stuff its what I called ‘organised’ neat mess.

    Again learnt a lot from this post as always…wish ya speedy recovery my man!

    Gotta jam…



    • John Carlton says:

      Different strokes for different folks, RJ. Some writers play music, I need total quiet. Some write early, I write late. Some slam out a draft, then edit… others write carefully from the first word.

      Find your own groove, and go for it.

  • Lisa says:

    One of the biggest dangers for entrepreneurs is getting isolated.

    Makes sense that it happens, because how many people around any of us think like us? Most usually glaze over as we talk about our “evil plans” for marketing domination… they just don’t get it. So I know at least for me, this meant I was masterminding with my own inner voice on my business plans.

    Masterminds like yours, and others, have at least for me allowed me to feel part of a tribe – and even though with yours John that means an ass-kicking tribe, it really has opened up my thinking and has motivated me to more action than I ever would have had on my own.

    Thank you for this post – and for your group. It’s great to be growing an empire through it… and having a helluva lot of fun in the process. =)


  • Ken Ca|houn says:

    Another excellent article. Agree w/groupthink vs brainstorming and need for truth & clarity; saw that for years firsthand as a TQM/quality team improvement facilitator in my prior corporate life. Company politics and “let’s all play nice” trumped the real “how to actually get things improved around this company” every single time. Emperors had no clothes and elephants were in every room, and the groupthink mentality kills big companies’ innovation and breakthroughs. Thank goodness I left the corporate world 15+ years ago, never looked back. It was more fun as a consultant vs internal employee, best yet to be an entrepreneur.

    Hotseats are a solid idea, I’ve done similar approaches in my seminars; they work to help validate and fix problems, quickly; thanks for the insights.

    I like your point about clean desks; I haven’t seen the top of mine in over 6 years (I use two 6-foot conference tables in an “L shape” in the corner of a top-floor bedroom, btw, for my office, along with two whiteboards; works great). My office has a mystical adventure-path type narrow 1-foot wide passageway to the desk area, the floor is stacked with books and projects, my office looks like a tornado swept through it…yet it’s hyper-effective for helping produce info-products in my niche. My wife knows to never enter, and to not even Think about “cleaning it up”. I know precisely where everything’s at, amongst the stacks of mayhem.

    I’m sure your mastermind group is a winner; I especially liked your writing, eg “You don’t agree with me, do you. I can sense the hostility brewing behind your fevered brow.” .. is classic Carlton, outstanding copy there — directly grabbed attention, for the turn. Best wishes for success with it, your training works (and is a lifesaver in this economy; I use what I learned from you every week in my business, thanks).

    to the mayhem,


  • Bill Jeffels says:

    John,being brutally honest saves everyone a lot of time and money… don’t you think?

    I know some people treat their copy or product like it’s their first BORN or a brand new PUPPY.

    And when dissecting it, it feels like you said their kid was ugly and you just kicked their puppy, Cuddles, right in the ASS.

    People need thicker skin.

    Bill Jeffels

  • Megan Heaney says:

    Too true John. It’s the mark of a great teacher to tear down bad ideas!

    I’ve been at so many seminars where someone voices a doomed business idea, that they’ve already sunk a load of money into, and the host’s only objective is to shut them up and move on rather than actually setting them straight.

    It’s great to see you mention Jonah Lehrer, his work is really interesting. I just wrote about an interview Derek Halpern did with him – he’s everywhere at the minute!

    As always, thanks for the insights,


    • John Carlton says:

      One of the hardest jobs I have is to tell someone who just paid a small fortune to be in an event with me… that their idea (or, worse, their existing biz) needs to be murdered, with not another cent sunk into it. The smart ones recover fast, and thank me for saving them even more grief. The less-smart get pissed off, and spend years and another fortune trying to prove me wrong. Sad consequences.

      Much of business is unpredictable. But much of it is also VERY predictable, when you bring decades of experience and knowledge to it. I’m not talking about theory, but about actual front-line, real-world, hands-on stuff. Exceptions abound, but when money and the life of a biz is on the line, I’m going with experience.

  • Dave Bross says:

    My first positive experience with “whack a mole” was as an obnoxiuos 20 something doing an apprenticeship with a tough old German mechanic. Talk about speed up your learning curve…with lifetime attitude adjustment as a bonus.

    Second one was with my older sisters’ management consulting business. She very cleverly built this sort of review into the management process. Boy, did it ever weed out the dead wood, both human and idea wise.

    Third is an art forum I participate in where I have a high level of tech knowledge. The “whack a mole” phrase came from there. People learn way faster if you call “BS” on them right off when needed.

    This works, and it works well in a whole lot of other areas too.

  • John, I LOVE your approach to brainstorming!!

    The only approach worth the name, actually – the all “positive” one should be called Brain Breeze or Brain Zephyr or Brain Stinky Wind, not STORM .

    There are so many people going into business now because they can’t get a job any other way, and these people, if they don’t get this kind of brainstorming treatment from the outset, are most likely to be in the 80% statistic of being out of business within a year or two.

    Makes me realize I’ve gotta do this on a regular basis.

  • Tony Policci says:

    I’m constantly having to check my nice monster when discussing projects with clients. Especially in a group setting.

    All the minions, sitting around the rainmaker, thumbs warmed up, ready to spring into the “up” position – and the little hero in my head is screaming “THIS is stupid, say something!!!” As the “be nice” monster tries to squelch him, I pry loose from his death grip and utter the first word of criticism. It’s always a terrifying but liberating moment. 😉

    • John Carlton says:

      It’s like encouraging someone who has never been in a fight before and has no skills… to go challenge a known expert in killing. You can get as pumped up and enthusiastic as you like, but in the end the guy gets slaughtered. That’s a metaphor for business — experience and skill beats passion every time.

      The stakes are high in biz brainstorming. Entire projects can die quickly, or go off in the wrong direction, because of a single unchallenged assumption or idea in a brainstorm. Top pro’s won’t let that happen.

  • Bill says:

    John, with all due respect, I think I disagee, but not with the need to bring ‘brutal honesty’ into the process. I think brainstorming means getting as many ideas out there as possible within a given timeframe WITHOUT evaluating them (YET). Then, the next step is to start evaluating and doing the ‘brutal honesty’ to get the best results from the creative process. When you start evaluating before you finish brainstorming, you can kill the creative process and potentially miss some good ideas.

    • John Carlton says:

      Read the New Yorker article, Bill. It clearly nails the errors in what seems like “common sense” brainstorming styles. You’re not alone in your thinking… which is why I wrote this post. The entire brainstorm can go off the rails and into tangents that (a) inhibit the flow of ideas and (b) get people excited about BAD ideas… if anyone with specific information or experience about an idea stays mute when a disproven or rotten idea pops up and isn’t killed on the spot.

      Debating an idea brings up other, better ideas. You don’t shoot down ideas cuz you don’t “like” them, but only if your experience and skills prove they’re bullshit. You get loud, Alpha-male but uncreative types in there, and they’ll dominate the session… with bad ideas.

      Again: Debate ENCOURAGES creativity, it doesn’t kill it. This goes against common wisdom, but then common wisdom is bullshit most of the time anyway.

  • Walt Disney used to hold his creativity sessions in a cramped darkened cupboard under the stairs where the temperature was unbearably hot.

    Walt claimed that this was essential to getting the best out of his creative team.
    Every idea was then mercilessly ripped apart in phase 2 of the process.

  • Krisztian says:

    Great post John,
    I’ve always brain stormed a lot with my team and fellow entrepreneurs … turned out mostly got it wrong though. I always held back critiques (or softened them) wanting to be the nice guy … and was kind of pissed of the dudes who throw me heavy critiques. This is an eye opener for me indeed 🙂

  • Paul Cormier says:

    Ha! Love it! There’s a fine line between being an asshole and being blunt. Unfortunately, not everyone defines “asshole” the same way. Two issues I frequently run into are:

    1 – “Do you want to pay me to explain to you why this WILL work or do you trust me to implement what WILL work?” Geez! They really expect to understand my 20+ years of experience and accumulated knowledge in one afternoon?!? If you hire an expert, use the expertise!

    2 – “Do you want something you LIKE or something that WORKS?” ’nuff said.

    If the client/organization can’t stand the heat, then long-term viability is often questionable. Sometimes, it just time to pull up the stakes and move on.

    Keep up the frosty work!


  • Aviva says:

    The best criticism I ever got was in the form of questions. Not just one, but small little ticking questions that sat and sizzled with me to the point when they exploded the slick 007 mentor was far far away no where to thank. It was exquisite and masterful. It felt like magic. Further, the questions seemed to fast forwarded the “self loathing, deer-in-the-headlights, what was I thinking…boy am I stupid! place” to “well if that is true, then this is true…” and lightbulb + freedom.Poof… I not only owned the fish, I had learned how to fish and found the best place where fish congregate, and few friends to lie to about the size. So, I am a big proponent of the socratic method when criticizing, even though all you really want to say is, “Hey, heads up. You’ve got toilet paper dragging off your shoe. and P.S. you smell fishy.”

  • Robert Schwarztrauber says:

    How about a reality TV show John, where you and a couple copywriting colleagues help entrepreneurs drill down for the big idea to launch their products or abandon hope? “Shark Tank” style.

    • John Carlton says:

      This is actually what we do in live events — we pluck people from the audience and do Hot Seats on them, cold, right there in front of God and everybody. However, you gotta remember that entrepreneurs are different than the rest of the population — most folks operate on a very zombie-like, surface-level consciousness, and run around thinking that Superbowl ads are what advertising’s all about, and that starting and running a biz is “easy” (but just not something they care to try right now). I warn budding entrepreneurs that life may get very lonely in the first stages, as their old set of friends shy away — because, once you take control of your life and start working toward achieving goals, you destroy all the excuses other people rely on for why they haven’t accomplished anything in their lives. And they resent it, too. They will root for your failure. You can still be friends with them, but you can’t talk biz with them — they are irrational about it, and more removed from the real-world applications that seems possible. So, a reality show about the details of a biz probably wouldn’t work. Shark Tank (and The Apprentice) are artificial constructs that touch on biz life, but avoid the nasty details.

      Shark Tank is interesting, in that it’s lasted so long. Making a game out of finding investors was a stroke of genius… but then, most of the entrepreneurs I know never went for outside investing. They built their biz from scratch, and reinvested profits — that eliminates all the problems of having angel investors (control issues, legal complications, etc). It also feeds into the myth that all entrepreneurs are, are “inventors” who build a better mousetrap, and the world beats a path to their door. Utter nonsense.

      I stopped watching Shark Tank when I started yelling at the TV during it. (Same thing happened with The Apprentice — there are multiple posts here in the blog archives about Trump during the first year or two of that show, cuz it was good. Then they fucked it up, of course, because “too much actual business” turned viewers off — they wanted to gloss over the biz lessons, and focus on the game-show and personality clash part.)

      Especially today, with the Web — any entrepreneur who can’t show a profit first has little biz going after investors. And, once he’s proven he can bring home the bacon with his nascent little product/service/idea, why would a sane entrepreneur WANT investors? Build the biz, then sell it. And start another. Or ride it all the way to fame and fortune. Don’t be dumb about real-world biz, and don’t pretend that magic happens when investors arrive…

  • Orestes says:

    Hi! John,

    Thanks for another great post and the reason
    why I can´t miss this Blog.I love your comments very much for being so real and brutal honest.

    I am somebody who love to get the truth in my face when it comes from somebody upright like you as you know so many false prophets are gone into the world.I always gonna be of
    the smart ones who will save a lot grief as
    I always gonna listen to the real profits
    like you.

    Got a lot respect for you and always be the
    way you are.It will be very much appreciate it.

    Can´t wait for your next post but till then
    wish you all the best buddy.


  • Hombre,

    It’s funny, you always seem to post these things in such a timely manner. I’ve been thinking about my writing habits a lot lately, and my mind kept wandering back to the story you told me about those poor bastards writing for that agency back in the day. Shudder.

    Serves as a reminder that we don’t got it so bad, do we?

    The brainstorming advice is golden too – I’ve burned through a ton of ideas lately trying to decide how I want the rest of the year to pan out. Letting the shitty ones die a natural death instead of inviting them to waste your time is a tough lesson to learn, but boy is it worth it.

    Nice post dude, hope all is well.


    • John Carlton says:

      Thanks, Flashie. The graveyards of “good” ideas are vast around any successful entrepreneur. The common refrain is “I don’t need another good idea… I need to make the good one I’m already implementing work.”

      I’m reading the Steve Jobs biography, and every page I have to stop and write down some notes. The business he created is complex, but the ideas behind them are simple — he saw opportunity, and stayed focused on how he believed it should be conquered. Despite all the upheavals (including getting ousted from Apple, by the guy he hired) he kept his nose to the grindstone, aiming for that main goal. The dude was known as a passionate debater, and welcomed battle in brainstorms — if his ideas couldn’t withstand debate, he knew they were no good.

      The writer’s life can be a little too comfy, at times. We lose that hunger that fueled the early career… but it doesn’t have to be that way. You learn to harness that hunger, and keep it burning through a dedication to a larger goal. At first, it’s just to craft a career, to get over the hump of becoming a solid pro. Then, you need something bigger. Writers serve a function in biz, yes… but we also are needed in the larger scheme, too. To push good ideas, to punish bad ideas, to do all the persuading necessary to keep this ship afloat.

      One of our main jobs, as writers, is to never let the bastards win. It’s an endless struggle, but one we were built for fighting.

  • mark says:

    Yeah John, I know my on line music biz idea
    needs a kick in the head to get it moving.
    You always know what we need in that grizzled old timer way.

    I’m 50 now and know if I don’t run my own ship totally, I’ll be like everyone else.

    Thanks man

    Mark in Cold Ass Canada

  • Abrundige says:


    To one of my most respected and esteemed mentors,no bullshit. Your rant on specific positive ground rules, in a forum structured to fine tune rational potential profit creating ideas. Is as usual both informative and enlightening.Thanks for sharing your invaluable old school keeping’ it real advertising and marketing expertise. To “Taxi Driver” obviously you’re highly frustrated. Responding to your question out of context could not possible present an acceptable reply. maybe this universal generic response will be of some stress relief……Thanks for asking,talk at you soon.Many blessings be to you and yours.Live righteously and cherish the journey.=>Stay Frosty!

  • Abrundige says:

    My Bad, =>Stay Frosty!

  • Chaibia says:

    Great stuff John, I was forwarded your article by a very good friend, he exactly wrote: “Brillance from John Carlton…(Jesus – why can’t I write like that?). I had to check your article out (I don’t normally hear those words from him about someone)

    I have just signed up to receive your updates!! Looking forward to your next article 🙂


  • Sheri says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I have participated in many brainstorming sessions where ideas floated about on clouds of euphemistic politically correct safety nets. Occasionally, I would interject a dose of reality to the discussion, and the name calling would start. “You are always so negative.” “Let’s not use the word stealing,” to which I replied, “How ’bout permanently borrowed?” which was ironically taken as offensive. Unfortunately, our society has learned how not to accept criticism as a positive thing. And this is a problem for all organizations.

    I have been an educator for 27 years, but now I plan to start a business. Of course, I, too, have the romantic ideas that float in my head about how cool it will be to have my own business, but I am also realistic enough to know that even though my ideas start with a dream, the dream needs to float the cloud back down to earth and get real. Thank you for validating what I have always thought about fantasy vs. reality. Those of us who believe this way are often made to feel like outsiders, are ostracized, are underappreciated, or just fired. I say let the truth begin.

  • effective brain storming is the key to a better planning strategy. Since gathering facts and information’s are quite essential when it comes to planning. And this is quite true and all boils down to hard work and dedication.

  • Dana Houser says:

    Thank you sir! May I have another?

  • I guess you kind made me excited with this group. I just accessed the site of John Carlton. I’m a beginner in online marketing and would like to learn and get new ideas so I can succeed in this business. Probably when I already earned a lot I would join them as I can’t afford the 15K per year membership. But I think as early as now it will all be worth it.

  • Thanks for sharing this! Like what they’ve always said, two heads are better than one. This post has been very helpful.

  • Bernie says:


    Always love your posts. Today just reminded me of something. Gary Halbert has been gone 5 years today. Where was that post picture of you, Gary, and that unknown person sitting on the dock taken? I would have to say Florida…The Keys! Thank you.

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