Moving & Shaking vs. Dodging & Ducking

Photograph (380)

Friday, 1:41 pm
San Francisco, CA
Please, please, please…” (James Brown, of course)


Quick little diatribe today, on the main stark difference between folks who get stuff done in life…

… and their buddies who never seem to get any traction on reaching goals. (If they even have any goals in the first place.)

This is one of those “duh!” lessons you think is obvious… until you realize just how many of your fellow humans are completely oblivious of it.

O. Blivious. No clue whatsoever what’s up, or how it’s affecting their life.

For me, this lesson literally rolled me out of bed.

Or off the couch I was sleeping on at a buddy’s house in San Diego, which was the closest thing to a “home” I had at that point. I was living out of my car, having lost my job, girlfriend and place to live all in one hellacious month-long period of chaos… and I hit the road, with zero clue where I’d end up when I ran out of gas.

The thing was, I had one of those blinding epiphanies that abruptly change your future forever.

I’d lived my entire life, up to that point, basically as a slacker — knocked about by forces that seemed beyond my control, taking jobs that landed in my lap, bouncing around the coast hoping something — anything at all — would trick, convince or force me to settle down “and start my life for realz”.

I was like flotsam on the surface of the ocean, buffeted about by tide, wind and waves… rudderless, aimless, clueless.

At some point in my adult years, I just assumed you settled down and began living in earnest. Nobody teaches this shit in school, which isn’t surprising.

But the startling fact that nobody teaches this in real life, either, is disturbing.

I’m sure you, or people around you, have labored under similar burdens of dumb-ass beliefs. I’ve been to many of my high school reunions (it’s kind of an ongoing science experiment), and the most common refrain I hear (now that we’re bumping up against number 45) is: “What the hell was that all about?” Folks have little or no idea how they got married, held the same job for decades, and never got around to knocking off any of their Bucket List items.

Which is fine for most people. Life is confusing, wonderful, terrifying and glorious in most instances, if you make it to geezerhood without dying or landing in the hoosegow for an extended stay. Raising some decent kids, enjoying the fruits of modern civilization, and adapting to the shocks and bad news inherent in life is often enough.

For some folks, anyway. Maybe most.

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If you lust for more… however you define “more”… you won’t be happy letting life shuffle you around like that.

You can tell you’re part of the “need something more” minority if you have a real goal. Not a vague, hazy goal… but one or more well-defined, easy to visualize goals that make your heart beat faster.

What happened to me, on that lumpy couch (with my twenties in the rear view mirror, and no idea what lay ahead), was the realization that there would be no outside intervention in my life. Nothing would “happen” that delivered me into “real life”, or that would help me easily decide on where to live and what to do and how to do it well.

Nope. If anything was going to change in my life… it was totally up to me. Nobody else. No goals would arrive in the mail, stapled to plans on achieving them. The rest of my life could either be more of the same slacker-city clueless wandering…

… or, I could start considering what I actually wanted. And go get it.

That alone was enough of a realization to change me forever. I’d never understood what a real goal was. The concept that I could actually want something… just go ahead and lust for it, desire it and admit I needed it…

… and then make a plan to go GET it…

… and then — ta-DA! — put that plan into action, so the goal would soon become real…

… just blew my little slacker mind.

Part of my plan included becoming a highly successful freelancer and consultant. It wasn’t an easy path and I made every mistake in the book, but you don’t have to. Not when you have all the secrets and shortcuts I reveal in the Freelance Course.

It’s fundamentally the difference between being “reactive” and “proactive”.

Look those words up, if you’re at all unclear on the meanings. Here’s the way I’m using them:

Decision-making style #1: Being reactive means you act only in response to an action taken toward, against or around you. A job offer appears. Do you want to be an office worker in that biz? Is the salary something you can use to make your life better? Are you gonna take that job regardless, because you don’t know if another offer is coming from somewhere else? Are you gonna marry the first person you kiss, because you don’t know if anyone else might come along? Did you buy your last car because your old one died and had to be hauled off? Are you eating at MacDonald’s again because you’re hungry and there it is, all full of greasy, fatty burgers and fries?

Reactive people essentially are standing on the path of life, waiting for something to jostle them off their spot. They dodge opportunity, and duck when decisions need to be made. Others make decisions for them. They go where they’re told to go.

Decision-making style #2: Being proactive means you look at the options you have… all of them… and keep your ear actively attuned to more opportunities, all the time. A job offer appears, and so what? There are lots of careers out there, including creating your own biz and being the boss. Or defining your “job” however you like, and demanding staggering compensation your client (or boss) never considered before. You figure out what you bring to the table, keep adjusting and filling in the gaps (of info, skills and experience) so you become more valuable in the world every single day.

And you buy the car you want, when you want it, at deals you easily negotiate because you’ve learned the inside game. You eat well, respecting your body and knowing how your appetite works (so you’re never surprised by being famished, forced to eat crap in a panic).

And you marry or don’t marry based on deep understanding of the consequences, joys and commitment requirements of doing it right, with the “right” person.

You don’t settle. You don’t operate out of fear, because you know the world is a place of abundance.

If one option vanishes, others will appear pretty damned quick.

IF you’re proactive about it.

Proactive people are moving rapidly along their chosen path in life, always monitoring progress and satisfaction. They want something, they make a plan to get it, and then put that plan into action. If they later change their minds (common experience of veteran goal-seekers), no problem — you really can change horses in the middle of a stream, IF you know how to do it.

The choice is pretty stark:

You either allow others to decide how you’re going to live your life…

… or you take over the responsibility for it.

That scares the living bejesus out of most folks. Being told what to do absolves you of responsibility for consequences. Hey, shit happens, right? Not my fault, I’m just following orders.

And that’s fine, if it’s the way you wanna roll. The world needs grunts.

But if you want to forge your own path, and go after loftier things in life… then you need to get your ass in motion.

Movement solves problems. Disinfect that wound, sew it up, and rip off the bandage when it’s healed. That right there is a good metaphor for breaking free of the half-asleep mob around you — learn the next step, and the next, and the next of any decision… and get it done. No matter how painful it may seem or be. When you’ve finished, move along to the next goal.

Achieved goals pile up quickly when you take control.

I still fondly remember the first goal I met, back when I started my career as a freelance copywriter. It was a mild hope that I could get 3 months ahead in the rent. I’d never had that kind of cash in a bank account before. When I realized one day (around 6 months into my adventure) that I’d done it, something shifted deep inside me. I’d done it all by my lonesome, figuring it out, putting my ass on the line, finding clients, fulfilling the jobs, making the gig happen.

All subsequent goals were much, much easier to nail. Because I’d broken the code on the process.

It was all vastly simpler than I’d ever dreamed. All I’d lacked was a clue — the concept that I could desire something, make a plan to get it, and then put that plan into action.

Proactive vs. reactive remains the biggest dividing line between the movers ‘n shakers in life, and the “go along to get along” dodgers and duckers.

I still have loads of both types in my life, as friends and colleagues and family. Love ’em all, regardless of their primary mode of operating. I don’t judge, and don’t care to try changing anyone.

But I will lay out the lesson, whenever it’s relevant.

When you’re ready, you’ll figure it out.

Stay frosty,


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  • Marcin says:

    Creepy, just did a lecture on this yesterday. And was just looking up a domain connected with this right now. Then I saw you FB post. 🙂

    “Proactive vs. reactive remains the biggest dividing line between the movers ‘n shakers in life, and the “go along to get along” dodgers and duckers.

    I still have loads of both types in my life, as friends and colleagues and family. Love ‘em all, regardless of their primary mode of operating. I don’t judge, and don’t care to try changing anyone.

    But I will lay out the lesson, whenever it’s relevant.”

    I feel you. 🙂

    I’ve noticed that trusting yourself, carrying out a choice (a decision), and taking responsibility for it, is like a dieing art…

  • Bob says:

    “If they even have any goals in the first place.”

    Some people think I’m rude when I repeat the advice that I gave my kids:
    There is a special word in the English language for people who don’t set goals and make plans. We call them “losers”. That would be 95% of the people you meet, based on the observation that only about 5% of people are successful.

    I have learned that goals can seem out of reach, and the initial plan to get there can be really thin, and if it’s something I really want, I’ll get there.

  • mark grove says:

    Some good advice sir.Time to keep moving forward.

  • Chris Chia says:

    Hey John, thanks for the incredibly valuable advice once again.

    Did I mention I’m getting close to getting paid a sweet sum of cash for a product launch I’m going to be helming soon?

    Wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in my life without your grizzled veteran advice.

    Thanks once again, though I’ve said it way too many times…


  • Randy Berg says:

    Several posts here that say “what a coincidence.”
    No, there are no coincidences… things happen for a reason. Not always easy to figure out…but in my case, I know exactly why I read your email.

    Thanks, J.C.

    • John Carlton says:

      I’m in the process of writing a book with Dean Jackson on this very topic — how even the most complex-seeming stuff can really be melted down to just a few recognizable elements… so coincidences are just noticing what’s already there.

      Good luck on whatever you’re off to do…

  • Rnold Smith says:

    That is comforting and timely advice. I was just saying to myself this morning to stick to the plan and have faith. It is a good plan and will create the life i have always wanted as long as I don’t quit.

  • Excellent post, JC.

    I attribute it to fear.

    Mostly, fear of

    … making a mistake

    … or looking foolish, or

    … (God forbid)… failing..

    Being proactive involves one major risk:

    No matter what you do, you just don’t know
    for sure what’s going to happen.

    Once you get over that, and realize, hey, no
    matter what happens, you can always do something
    next, and eventually get (at least) where you want
    to go… it gets easier…

    • John Carlton says:

      True, Garf.

      However, with guys like me (and I’m pretty sure most of our colleagues), you never actually “get over” the fear…

      … you just learn to deal with it. Like how boxers deal with broken noses. They might have a higher “pain tolerance”, but it’s still pain. And while it IS easier to confront our fears the second time, we’re still terrified. Just less so.

      People who avoid things from fear are different than people who engage anyway only in their “relationship” with fear (as you’ve noted). It’s all about learning to gird thy loins…

  • Alexey says:

    Your email arrived just in time. I’m on the road, and that’s the time for me to think about my life. But it looks more like acting now.

  • Steafen says:

    Dear John, thank you & blessings from San Diego.

    Boots, made for walkin’, but feet do the work.
    With each step, doors open on this chosen path.
    Thanks for your inspiration & help.

  • Alan Steacy says:

    To be proactive most definitely requires, as Mr. Garfinkel suggests, a willingness to be the fool or at least be considered as one.

    As I just finished reading “Mastery” by George Leonard, your post John for me was perfectly timed.

  • Karen says:

    Totally agree, John. “You either allow others to decide how you’re going to live your life… or you take over the responsibility for it.”

    Unless you live in some war zone or undemocratic country, no one is holding a gun to your head to make you do things you don’t want to do or stop you from doing what you love.

    And, IMO, today there are even fewer excuses NOT to be proactive than ever. There was a time when it was a lot harder to access information. Because of the internet, we can find out how to do things and there are answers to every question.

    So listen to Papa John, folks. You can either walk around in a state of unconsciousness all your life and spend a lot of time in fear and resentment (or oblivion – yawn), or you can get a real life.

  • Jay says:

    “No goals would arrive in the mail, stapled to plans on achieving them.”

    Jeez Louise, that right there is the kicker.

    Choosing your goals is hard, but once you’ve chosen them it’s far easier to figure out how to get there. Reminds me of Peter Griffin rolling up to his high school reunion as a cowboy/astronaut/millionaire.

    Wicked post John

    • John Carlton says:

      Yeah, it’s a process you have to go through many times to get good at. Your first goals will often be bullshit you don’t actually enjoy once you achieve it. Like a new car, or a bigger house, or a boat (shudder). But it’s good to go through the process anyway, refining all the time. It’s like learning to drive — until you do, the car and the stories you hear about being on the road are just concepts. Get behind the wheel, learn the gig, and suddenly a whole new adventure opens up for you…

  • Blake says:

    As usual, great post John. I started out in the world of business pretty young and I remember setting goals and writing things down on paper for embarrassingly enough about 3 years and achieving nearly NONE of those things.

    As time went on I got better and more disciplined about not only writing them down, but making the plans, and then more importantly EXECUTING. What changed?

    I’m not a highly disciplined person at all and was never organized by any means. For me, it was about FOCUSING on the goal that day… Then getting into the habit of sitting back at the end of the week and evaluating my progress. If I Fu*ked up that week I would adjust course and improve. Did this week after week, then started doing monthly evaluations etc.

    It took me a long time to get into the habit of this, but I believe this made the difference. The habit done over nd over again becomes automatic and suddenly you are operating like a “disciplined” person.

    I guess my point is, FOCUS on nailing your daily goals for say 30 to 60 days without fail. Most people’s view towards getting important things DONE will change over that short period of time.

    Another thing I screwed up on (looking back now) was I was always fixated on the BIG GOALS. My HUGE annual goals always occupied my mind so I was basically always in this day dream imagining my life having achieved the BIG goals. What I should have been doing instead back then is FOCUSING on the here and now goals and spending MOST of my time thinking about and executing on those small weekly goals. If I had laser focused on those and occupied my mind on those I would have achieved things a lot faster.

    When I focus on and NAIL the small goals effectively, the BIG ones seem to take care of themselves. I have no idea why it took me so long to realize that, but hey I am still a tad over 30 so I have some time to go out and take down those lofty ambitious goals. 🙂

    • Michael T says:


      Your point about focusing on the daily goals – the little things that build up over time to create the big stuff – coupled with John’s excellent post have really hit the nail on the head.

      Thank you for sharing John and thank’s Blake for your added insight. Possibly the most powerful thing I have (re)-learnt in a long time.


  • Gabe says:

    Great article — and I second your comment to Randy Berg above. It often happens that we set goals for ourselves and then a version of we\’re looking for appears to us and we take it…this slightly resembles being \’reactive\’ and taking what comes to us, though I think the fundamental difference between the two is being proactive involves taking a risk and going out of your comfort zone. Thoughts?

  • Tudor says:

    I needed to read this right now. It kind of goes against the “forget setting goals, focus on habits instead” school of thought, so it does make me wonder sometimes: should I set goals or not?
    Some folks swear by goals, while others prefer to focus on habits and incremental progress. Both camps make sense, and there are intelligent and successful people in both.
    Personally, I achieved my biggest “goals” without having set any. (if that makes sense)

    And I failed to achieve a bunch of goals that I had set for myself. Does it mean that I lost faith in goals? Not really. It means I need to focus on shorter term goals that are more closely connected to daily routines, discipline, and measurable results. Maybe goals are like fitness and nutrition – one needs to find out what works best for himself and work with that. And realize that we don’t have a lot of time left to figure all that out. No pressure.
    Anyway, thanks for the valuable lesson John.

    • John Carlton says:

      Sounds like you’re doing it right, Tudor — just in your own way. I know a lot of very successful people who took similar paths to the same place I get with more formal goal-setting.

      Thanks for reminding us there are multiple ways to skin a cat…

  • Lopaze says:

    Great article! I was thinking about how many older people in my family are so passive and NEVER take the bulls by the horn and make things happen. Sometimes I wonder, however I don’t judge, still LOVE them. I just don’t like when they complain about stuff that I know and they know they could easily change very quickly.

    Thanks John.

  • Daniel Dou says:

    My first goal right now is…

    … to become as good a copywriter as you. 🙂

    My second goal after that is…

    … to become an even better copywriter than you. :O

    I think I should start with goals that are actually achievable first. LOL.

    But putting that aside, what if someone’s goal is to be super reactive all their life. And be content and filled with awe at whatever random thing life throws their way?

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