Magic And Reality Walk Into A Bar. Only One Comes Out Alive…


Friday, 1:46pm
Reno, NV
You want it, you take it… you pay the price.” (Bruuuuuuce Springsteen, “Prove It All Night”)


One afternoon when I was around 9, I found a $2 bill laying in the parking lot of the local plunge (where we’d just spent the day trying to drown ourselves and trick each other into doing belly-flops off the high dive).

I was as ecstatic as Sinbad when he discovered the Cyclops’ treasure cave. The rarity of the bill just added to the sense of forbidden loot and mysterious swag. Bought us a lot of candy back then.

However, it also changed me.

I spent years looking under cars in parking lots after that, obsessed with the notion that vast caches of moolah were laying around, waiting to be found.

It was magical thinking at its finest.

I was half-convinced it might be a way to fund my childhood, just harvesting the cash laying around.

I mean, Santa had already been outed as “not real”. And Zorro, when I met him at a supermarket opening, was shorter than he looked on TV (and smelled like beer). I had these gaping holes in my belief system of “how things worked”, and since no one was offering better ideas, I just picked up on whatever silly notion entered my head and ran with it.

Later, when we realized The Monkees weren’t a real band, and that Nixon lied to us, and…etc…

No magic, no nonsense. Just a whole lot of real world, actionable advice that helps you grow your biz. Get my free report right over here.

It was HARD keeping a bullshit myth-laden belief system operating.

You had to really dig in and ignore facts, and even get burned a lot.

Finally, when I became a freelance copywriter and there was real money on the line (and not just opinions or hurt feelings)… I saw the light.

And it remains one of the Big Revelations I had, early in my career:  

The role of reality in becoming a world-class salesman.

In order to persuade large groups of people to buy, act now, or even just begin to see your side of things… you have to see the world as it is. 

Not as you wish it was. Not as you believe it should be. Not as you were told it was.

As it is.

The stark, cold reality of how things actually work, and how people actually behave.

This is often scary, at first.

It requires you:

  • To look behind your go-to belief systems (which you may have had since you were a kid)
  • To challenge authority’s version of what’s going on… and — most important…
  • You must willingly exit the shared delusion among the majority of your fellow humans that what they say they’ll do is more important than what they actually do.

This kind of critical thinking drags you away from the main party… and can seem lonely.

Folks will even get hostile at times, because you’re no longer playing along.

(I had multiple occasions, before I learned to just let it go, of ending a family argument by pulling out a dictionary or encyclopedia… and later, hoping onto Google. Thus ruining everyone’s mood, because no one enjoys having their bullshit beliefs challenged.)

This sense of becoming alienated from friends and family sometimes keeps copywriters from tossing their myth-based belief systems, and diving deep into the murky waters of reality. They’re afraid it will change them for the worst. Make them azzholes and doubters and unpleasant realists.

But that’s not how it needs to work.

Here are a few Starter Rules to help you get going:

Starter Rule #1: Observe how people act, versus what they say they’ll do.

This just gives you a tool to avoid being bamboozled.

In its simplest form, you’ll notice that the folks who are most emphatic in their promises (“I will absolutely be there on time. No excuses…”) are the ones who will chronically let you down.

In the advanced form, your Bullshit Detector will start buzzing whenever a client says “money isn’t a problem”… because, much of the time, that means money is very much a problem. (Resist the urge to automatically assume the opposite of everything anyone says… even when your experience shows you it will often be the case. Don’t get into the habit of making rash decisions, based on what you’ve seen before. But DO put your instincts and experience into the mix.)

Starter Rule #2: And for God’s sake, don’t let this make you cynical.

It’s not your job to call folks out on the inconsistency of their actions, versus what they insist is their intention. You can, however, quietly understand that the rare individuals who DO fulfill their promises are the ones you want around you professionally (and probably romantically, too).

Personally, I’ve found that you start to attract professionally-minded colleagues quickly, once your reality-based modus operandi kicks in.

When money, results and the success of a biz venture is on the line, promises count for nothing. The cold hard reality of how the market reacts to your ads is all that matters.. and you must react accordingly.

Starter Rule #3: Keep your ego out of it.

At first, you’ll need to monitor your own bad habits of not following up on your promises… and this will change you fundamentally as a person. Don’t announce that you’re suddenly a “new man”. Instead, just start acting as if your word really does mean something.

Early on, I developed my version of a “professional’s code”: You are where you said you’d be, when you said you’d be there, having done what you said you’d do.

This means you meet all deadlines, no matter what (even if it means staying up all night working, missing the big party, disappointing Susie Q, defying the insults and demands of your old pals who hate the idea of you becoming a pro and leaving their slacker butts in the dust). You honor your contracts, even if it’s just something you said (and could, if you weren’t such a pro, weasel out of).

You become “that guy” who can be trusted… not because you say you can be trusted, but because you really can be trusted.

Knowing how to spot a killer ad — even if you didn’t write it yourself–is an essential skill if you want to become that go-to dude or dudette in your field. You can get every single one of my secrets in the Simple Writing System.

Huge difference that requires behavioral changes at your cellular level. It’s hard to pull off, but you can do it.

Starter Rule #4: When you first start living in reality, there is a danger of becoming cynical and angry.

Just move past it — your goal is to become a world-class persuader and provider of actual results.

You may become a quieter person… because all that time you once spent trying to convince someone you were going to do something is no longer required. You simply agree to do it, and then do it. On time. With all the expertise you can muster.

You never, ever need to explain yourself.

You become a Dude Of Action. This becomes your reputation over time — not because you’ve announced it, but because this is who you’ve become. You’ve got to be patient, and hold yourself accountable for everything you do.

And yes, I’m serious when I say “everything”. Stop lying, pretending, wishing and cheating. It’s stunningly easy to do, but it requires a commitment.

Starter Rule #5: There is never a need to argue.

As a rookie copywriter, I realized (after meeting my twentieth VP of Marketing or CEO or entrepreneur) that incompetence is the RULE, not the exception, in business.

Most bosses — no matter how good-hearted they are, or how smart they are, or even how experienced they are — simply cannot know all there is to know about every part of running a biz. So they’ll insist on using certain (dumb) sales angles, demand that offers be presented in specific (dumb) ways, and — worst of all — have their niece with the degree in English Lit edit your work.

Early in your career, this is not a problem to worry about. Get your money up front, with any other royalties or payments in written form, and just keep moving. Most of your clients will suck, and not follow through, and botch the marketing up. That’s just the way it goes.

As you gain experience, and especially as your reputation allows you to have more of a voice in what goes down, you’ll eventually be in the position of forcing every client to do what you tell them to do. But that doesn’t happen right away.

(For more on these high-end freelance tactics, including details on how to get paid, check out The Freelance Manual, available here.)

When you work through reality, the mysteries of the world play less and less a part of how you proceed.

If you don’t know something, you don’t pretend that saying you know it makes it so. You go learn it. Or hire someone who’s proficient at it to do it for you. You research, you comparison shop, you do whatever is necessary to achieve your goal.

You say “I don’t know. I’ll find out,” a lot.

You are relieved from the task of keeping your lies and boasts and pretend-knowledge straight.

And suddenly, you’re spending your time honing your chops, filling in the gaps with actual skills and know-how, and getting shit done.

Most folks prefer the world to remain full of mystery. It’s that childhood thrill of simply deciding that something is so, and then never questioning it again, even as evidence mounts that it’s bullshit. (I never did find another $2 bill on the ground. And I missed a few rainbows along the way, because I was always looking down…)

Reality is unforgiving, and requires you to be responsible, take action, and stop pretending.

But it’s really the only way to go.

I found that, rather than making me more cynical about people, I actually loved them more. I instantly forgive them their bullshit promises, even while fulfilling all of my own. I also never allow someone to steal time from me, or ruin my day with a failed promise — I give them a reasonable window, and when they’ve failed, I go to Plan B.

You always have a Plan B (and Plan C, and Plan D) when you live in reality.

Sometimes you find yourself saying goodbye to unreliable friends and fun-but-sketchy colleagues… and you have to be okay with that. You’re going after long-term and short-term goals, and it takes commitment and sweat to reach them. If your old crowd still believes that success comes from luck (like finding a $2 bill on the ground), you may have to find a new crowd.

There will always be a little mystery in life. You encounter new stuff all the time, in business and in relationships and in everything you do.

But each mystery can be broken down into knowable parts, and figured out, and solved. Every time. Eventually, after you’ve worked with a lot of clients in a lot of markets, you realize you are never stumped by the obstacles that freeze most entrepreneurs up. There is always a reason why sales are down, or returns are up, or something that used to work ain’t working no more.

When the reality of business and life become second-nature to you… you become That Consultant Every Biz Owner Wants To Hire. And the top copywriting experts are all consultants first, solving the mysteries with reality-based solutions. The writing comes later.

Living in reality is a much better way to go, every time. And it really can make you a happier, more fun and pleasant person… who just happens to get a lot done.

Love to hear what you think, in the comment section below.

Stay frosty,



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  • Mohit says:

    Hello Sir,

    My name is Mohit Sharma, I am from India, struggling to make a career out of Online Marketing Business and I mostly work on as a freelancer.

    I came to know about you and work, form this Interview Blog –

    and I really thankful to you, for sharing your work and experience with all of us.

    I am really glad to reach your blog.

  • Chris Chia says:

    Thanks for delivering some serious wisdom again, John.

    Following your freelance manual, I’m somewhere in between the shameless whore and writing machine phase.

    And damnit, you hit the nail on the head when it comes to clients. There’s the rare few that actually implement the copy you’ve slaved nights over to generate some serious moolah, and the majority that somehow manage to screw it up along the way.

    Turning 18 this year makes me all the more glad that I’m lucky enough to have stumbled upon your materials and schooled myself in them. Indeed, life gets a lot more fun when you start viewing
    people as who they are, and getting to grips with the realities of this wacky world.

    I know this is best reserved for your evergreen “Congratulations… Now Stop Being A Wuss” redux post, but it just makes me wonder what the world would be like if we had your materials taught in high school instead of the dreary thick textbooks of academia…

    What you’re saying makes sense to me, on a deep subconscious/spiritual/emotional/logical level.

    Up to this day, you’re still one of the best teachers in the biz. Or in life. I’d say besides reading, writing and math, I’ve learnt tons more off your blog, book and freelance manual than all those years of schooling.

    Gonna take this post and give it a few more reads to really let the lessons sink in.

    Hope you’re doing fine in Reno,

  • Thank you for the reminder!

  • Jeremy says:

    There is a lot to be said for being stoic about life … keeps you on an even keel to tackle what needs to get done next!

    • John Carlton says:

      A lot of this attitude does come from the early Roman Stoics — slaves who became philosophers (with Seneca, the most well-remembered of them, rising to become the main advisor of Nero for a while). It’s not a simple philosophy, though it can be explained simply… you essentially shave off the high and low ends of your emotions (passion and depression), and stay rooted in an observational mode (even when being abused). In practice, I like some of the more American-oriented styles of Zen (summed up in multiple cartoons over the years, with monks caught drinking and gambling in a back room, with strippers on their laps)… where “moderation in all vices” is the way to go, versus the impossible “total abstinence”.

      So, you can still enjoy your highs (and lows, if that’s your bag)… but you do in controlled ways, and operate mostly within a narrower emotional gauntlet for the small stuff. This means you don’t sweat the small stuff, don’t get all freaked out over stuff you can’t change or effect (the essence of the AA philosophy, by the way), and understand the motives behind the people and things bugging you. (That guy who cut you off in traffic isn’t out to get you, and the coffee-maker isn’t trying to ruin your morning by clogging up.)

      If I ever got a tattoo, it would be “moderation in all vices”. That’s gotten me through life without being killed, yet still having too much fun…

  • Will says:

    Thanks for the post John! The world needs more real leaders like you.

    • John Carlton says:

      I don’t know about being a leader, Will. You guys are hardly followers — entrepreneurs are independent folk. It’s just nice to hear some good advice now and again.

      Thanks for the note, Will.

      • Will says:

        I knew you wouldn’t like being called a leader. What I mean is a thought leader… someone us entrepreneurs can look to as a trustworthy source, guide and mentor.

  • Ben Gin says:

    Hello John
    Thank you for the very clear and concise bar that this raises in my mind. I’m currently knee deep in planning and executing a pivotal event for my life, the organizing and showing of what will be the largest collection of my art works over the last ten years. This event is the culmination of a short life’s journey through these issues you confront… my small dream versus reality. I’m very excited and blessed for thinkers and doers like yourself who have been my source of support to see this goal through to the end. Oddly, my biggest realization over the last six months has been the market’s unapologetic and ruthless uncovering of my weakness in a lack of decisiveness, which comes from lack of a specific time-sensitive purpose, which requires I make a deal with myself and I alone am the one who must follow through. Thanks again, I’ll keep you in the loop on the show if you like (can add you to my email list), which is April 2nd in big Boise Idaho. I’m sure my brain will fight me kicking and screaming the whole way, but with your help and the help of others, I’m able to tell it to shut the f*** up and do what I tell it to do. Have a great night.
    Ben Gin

  • Alison M. says:

    John Carlton – do you have a daily routine that keeps you rooted in this wisdom? Sounds like you meditate!

    • John Carlton says:

      I’ve tried to get routines going all through my career, Alison. Different kinds of meditation (including TM and freeform breathing Zen styles), walking with purpose (taking notes along the way), all valiant efforts to get a real routine going. It lasts for a few months, at most. So, no, I don’t have a long-term routine. But I understand the power of routine, and use it like a tool when I feel I need help with productivity.

      This is why I don’t suggest strict rules for others — we all have different styles of getting to the same place. The main thing is to have a goal, and then some tools to reach it…

  • Nathan Segal says:

    Thanks, John. When I read what you wrote, I pulled up my LinkedIn profile and made a major change to what I do now. Writing is still a mainstay and will be for some time to come. In terms of my purpose and what I stand for, I finally tossed my hat into the ring and did my best to line up all my social media accounts so they are congruent with my purpose.

    Thanks again. It is much appreciated.


  • Hi John, Thought I’d share this quick summary.

    Part One: Goal. World class copywriter ++ (Define)

    Part Two: Step Up.

    Starter Rule 1 – Observe other people (world) and you will see yourself

    Starter Rule 2 – Start forming a mental picture of the character you wish to become (new self). Keep in forefront of mind. Change yourself.

    Starter Rule 3 – Observe the world – change yourself – observe the world.

    Starter Rule 4 – Keep your evolving desired image of self in mind. Observe the world – change yourself.

    Starter Rule 5 – Continue To observe world and change yourself.

    Tip: John is John. You are you. Be yourself.

    Carl 🙂

  • Interesting John 🙂

    This overview just came to me whilst scrambling eggs.

    I think what you have described is your journey
    outside of reality and learning to observe it,
    so that your can sell to people who are stuck
    in various aspects of reality.

    Essentially observing and selling to people’s
    “Societal Ego Programming”. Morality of which
    clients is dependent on your own belief structure.

    So, world class copy writing is mastering stepping
    outside of reality in order to observe people’s
    societal ego programming so that they can be
    effectively and repeatedly sold to.

    Optimization is based on testing of psychological
    responses to the correctness of the observation
    and the effectiveness of the copy and refining both.

    A world class copy writer is on the journey of
    mastering self.

    Gotta get on with my project now.

    Carl 🙂

  • Chad Madden says:

    Hey John.

    Your message is spot on.

    While it may not be as sexy as some of your other posts…the wisdom here often is the true magic that helps a business owner become an “overnight” success.

    My guess from limited experience is that nearly 100% of people think that they are accurate thinkers…but have limiting self beliefs rooted in mysticism…

    What’s your best way to snap them out of it?

    (Yes, I stole the “accurate thinking” from Napoleon hills Law of Success. The precursor to Think and Grow Rich)

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom,


  • Janet says:

    I loved your comments. Thank you. I’m launching, and nervous, and just this week decided to ‘take a deep breath, ditch the ego, and pay attention’, knowing that this would help keep me on track. This post has helped as well. I appreciate your wisdom and experience, and have for years. I look forward to facing life with your superior level of confidence and good judgement.

  • Keith Sims says:

    Great post John. I work in the health care field and am daily reminded what denial of reality can cost an individual. I can’t tell you many times I have treated someone in the midst of a health crisis who insists that nothing is wrong. Often, things don’t turn out well for these folks. I think wisdom is a part of living in reality; hence, for many it comes late in life if it comes at all.
    Thanks for the great blog.


    • John Carlton says:

      Yep — denial aint’ just a river in Egypt. The habit of denial can actually hurt you, especially when health or money is concerned. People double-down on beliefs over reality, keep smoking, keep dumping good money after bad, entertain absurd “magical thinking”, pray for a White Knight to rescue them.

      There are times in everyone’s life where the brief use of denial can help you get through a crisis. It’s a tool in our brain for emergencies. Most entrepreneurs have to use a form of it to get past the first stages of starting a biz — because there is precious little support from family, friends, or financial institutions. And failure is a very real outcome. So you admit your shortcomings, try to even it out with better tactics and understanding of the market, and do your best.

      And, of course, the BIG secret to success is to never allow failure to be the last word. All the Big Dogs I’ve met in my life — from Halbert to Sugarman to Abraham and on — failed hugely in their careers. And often. Very, very few people succeed right out of the blocks. But it’s a process, not an event. You reach success. It isn’t awarded to you.

      In health, you have to start with the hand you were dealt at birth. There may be flaws in your genetic makeup, or mistakes you made early (like smoking for 20 years, or refusing to leave a smog-filled city), or maybe you just got unlucky and caught something. Reality will help you adapt, heal if possible, and overcome obstacles.

      Meanwhile, denial as a habit just guarantees you a fast exit…

  • Bob says:

    Hello John,
    In your Kick-ass Copywriting Secrets you listed some books, one of which was the out-of-print Money-Love, but you did not identify the author. There are at least two books with that title. Were you referring to the book by Jerry Gillies?


    • John Carlton says:

      Yes, Gillies. Wow. Haven’t thought about that book in ages. It did have a profound affect on the way I thought about cash, in the early part of my career. I’m sure there are existing copies somewhere…

      Wait, I just checked Amazon. You can get the hardcover, used, for one penny right now. It’s like a penny stock now. But it is available, though seemingly out-of-print.

      Remember to read these books as tools. They’re not magical — they just contain info that connected with me. “Think And Grow Rich” is not a particularly riveting nor even enjoyable read… but the message is essential, if you crave an independent lifestyle. Books = tools. Don’t worship them. Use them.

      • Bob says:

        Years ago, just one tip from “Think and Grow Rich” dramatically improved my bottom line: set a goal and write down a plan.
        It seems trite now that everybody says that. 20 years ago, it was a revelation and real kick in the pants for me. And not just for big goals:
        I make plans for business meetings, important phone calls, even some purchases.

        Anyway, I ordered the paperback of Money-Love in “good” condition for $1.


        • John Carlton says:

          Let us know if the book stands the test of time, Bob. I remember it as an entertaining read, but there really was just one big Ka-plow idea I got from it. A very attitude-adjusting idea, well worth plowing through the book for. I remember the idea very clearly — I’ve written about it often, in many different ways. Other input from other sources have added to it, experience has expanded its boundaries, and I’ve put my own tweaks to it. And it wasn’t an original idea even with Gilles — he nicked it from the ancient Greeks. Still, I’d never encountered it at the time. Typical provincial American education would rather die than allow that kind of radical notion into the curriculum.

          Anyway, report back, if you don’t mind. Thanks.

          • Bob says:

            Short answer: yes, it’s still relevant.

            Longer answer: The book arrived and I wanted a distraction from studying copywriting, so I dove in. (There’s that word …) I’m on page 70, about a third of the way in and I think there’s a gem on every page. I’ve seen a lot of it before, but this is a decent presentation. I seriously started to wonder what ever happened to the author, were the rights available, etc. Google is my friend: He’s put some serious legal problems behind him, he’s got two blogs, one of which promotes his new book Moneylove 3.0 for $27 and the page selling the book looks like he’s learned a bit of copywriting himself. The blog is called “Moneyloveblog”. FWIW, The original Moneylove is also availble as an e-book for $27.

          • John Carlton says:

            Thanks, Bob. Glad to hear it’s still a good read…

  • Liam says:

    Dear John,

    Thank you for this article, it’s resonated with me and acts as a genuine encouragement to “keep going”! Having peered behind the curtain I definitely experience loneliness at times (or at least a lack of kindred spirits) but what you write encourages me to stick with it. It’s also a timely reminder to ‘let my yes be yes and my no be no’, as I’ve started to slip back into old habits!

    As a first time reader I’m going to dig into more of your work over the coming months having found myself here via one of Gary Halberts letters, who I first heard about via a copywriter called Nev Medora.

    Thanks again


  • ken ca|houn says:

    Good insights as always, John…I’ve found it’s helpful to always ask, with utter clarity, “what’s the truth of the situation?” and act accordingly. Your points are on-target; many people’s belief systems work against them, like ‘beer goggles’, and they wake up to harsh reality muttering ‘i took That home…really?” lol. Truth is always the crucible.


  • Andy says:

    Hey John,

    Awesome reality check. My very first SEO client is turning out to be the RULE you describe.

    Just took down a scathing review of their Twitter practices from the Basecamp before anyone saw it and I offended people who weren’t about to implement my brilliant ideas anyway.

    But they’re paying me, I’m learning to run an eCommerceback end (was strictly WordPress) and a lot about collaboration with rich biz owners and their bands of ruffians.

    The main boss lady is in Awe of the can-do attitude and action I bring. She frequently mentions I’m the “first one” or “only one” doing things that actually make a difference in their rankings.

    (Actually their rankings have not changed much since I’m still developing their blog and haven’t promotes anything yet. Will be soon.)

    Anyway, what I got from this post is: All that reality is still uber magical, if I look at it right. And I am happy to Be ‘that guy’ for my client.


    Thanks again!
    Andy Golay

    PS: I totally resonate with how the reality lenses make you more forgiving and loving. Hard to disillusion someone who already is.

  • […] examples of his work on his blog, which he uses to speak to aspiring copywriters. The post titled Magic And Reality Walk Into A Bar. Only One Comes Out Alive… tells an especially convincing story. He recalls the experience of realizing the disconnect […]

  • […] examples of his work on his blog, which he uses to speak to aspiring copywriters. The post titled Magic And Reality Walk Into A Bar. Only One Comes Out Alive… tells an especially convincing story. He recalls the experience of realizing the disconnect […]

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