How To Stop Being Taken For A Ride (which, if you’re honest, right now you are)…

Sunday, 2:22pm
Reno, NV
“Let’s make the most of every second we can borrow…” (“Let It Ride”, BTO)

Almost everything you encounter today is conspiring to waste your time. Lots of it. Most of it, in fact.

For eons, the distractions of life were put on hold by the sheer requirements of subsistence living. The party animals starved when winter hit.

So we gathered in villages in order to share the burdens of eating every day. There was a time to sow, a time to reap, and so on. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker started specializing, so the rancher, the farmer and the night owls could get on with their end of the game.

Complications were instantaneous, of course. Humans are hard-wired to screw things up, especially once we get into a good groove. (The Primary Rule Of Entrepreneurship, which should never be forgotten, is: The first thing most entrepreneurs do, once they’re successful with a simple idea they’ve turned into a biz, is try to complicate the shit out of it. And ruin it. It’s unconscious, because our lizard brain can’t stand the drudgery of management, and craves the excitement of new ventures. I’ve seen this rule demolish more success arcs than divorce, embezzlement and incompetence combined.)

So, over the long arc of history, the smart alecks started figuring ways to have others do the hard work for them… allowing them (the smart alecks) more leisure time. Becoming royalty was a good way to get out of the unpleasantly-sweaty parts of life. Concocting empires and war (from afar) was an excellent way to amass wealth and power… which translated to lots of servants, soldiers and lackeys scurrying around doing your bidding. It’s the ultimate con game. You spend your days in leisurely pursuits.

And, voila! Boredom was invented.

Too much time, too little to do.

It’s pretty much a given that most folks, stripped of fulfilling duty, will find a way to wile away the time. Prisoners dig tunnels, trophy spouses shop and have affairs, bosses gamble away the payroll, students hack into Pentagon computers, and so on. We’re just busy little beavers when we latch onto something to do.

In the modern world (and I hope you’ve noticed) the “what to do with your free time” trends have been heavy on entertainment, though, and a little weak on substance.

And, from this old codger’s perspective (after many, many trips around the block)… most folks are squandering a truly great life, by going after what they’ve been sold as a “good” life.

And I say this as one of the guys who has helped feed this travesty, though excellent advertising.

Thus, it may be time for a little Reality Check here. On how not to waste your life chasing bullshit.

Let’s begin:

Reality Check #1: You only get one ticket for a life. There is no “do over” button, no replays, and no options on more game time.

Sure, I know you know this. Like, duh, right?

So why are you living as if you had unlimited time to waste? You’re treating your life the same way you treat your lack of exercise, your refusal to quit bad habits, your putting off of all that critical stuff you need to get after.

Oh, I know. Eventually, you’ll get around to it. Yeah, life’s short, whatever. You’re not gonna die in the next couple of months, at least, so why freak out over missing opportunities and all that crap?

Here’s where your own bullshit blinds you: Your “real” life doesn’t start down the line, after you’ve accomplished that thing you’re putting off. The college degree, the marriage to a hot mate, the new car, the new haircut, the signing of your band… none of that “starts” your life.

No, your life is going on RIGHT FREAKING NOW. Who you are today is pretty much the foundation of who’ll you be tomorrow, even if you win the lottery and can tell your boss to shove it.

And if winning the lottery is your entire plan for a better life, then you’re deep in the dreaded Delusional Swamp. Time to start wading back to dry land, and re-establish a relationship with the reality of your situation.

Reality Check #2: If you don’t change anything, then the next 5 years are probably going to look pretty much like the last 5 years.

And if that makes your skin crawl, then you must face up to a brutal fact of life: If anything is going to change, you’re gonna have to take responsibility for it.

Hey, I’ve known people who were wrenched from their life, drafted into the Army, and shoved into foreign cultures and terrifying situations rife with challenges to their belief systems.

And they came back pretty much the same person. They were so set in “who they were”, that new experiences just bounced off without much effect. They returned to the same job, same neighborhood, same desires.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. If that’s what you want.

However, as a consultant and coach, I don’t usually encounter folks who are ecstatic with the way their lives are going.

No. The folks I deal with have made the fateful decision to CHANGE. They’re open to it, they crave it, they’re willing (they hope) to suffer to attain their goals.

They just need a little help doing it right.

To change, you have to actually draw a line in the sand. Up to this second, I was this person. From now forward, I am going to change the way I do things.

You can’t just promise to do this, by the way. Nope. You gotta form some goals to aim for, and implement your plan to go after them. You gotta make a (probably long) list of the attributes you need to nurture or create… like discipline, dedication, firm resolve, follow-through, and a professional’s code of behavior (“You show up where you said you’d be, when you said you’d be there, having done what you said you’d do… every time, with no excuses allowed.”).

If you need help, you find it and start implementing what you learn. Mentors, coaching, courses, whatever it takes to get you past your sticking points.

If you need to get the biz working, you start today. Not tomorrow. Today. You set up a schedule and a plan, and you follow it. Even when you’re tired, even when there’s SO MUCH ELSE you’d rather do, even when you have to say “nope” to fun.

In fact, “fun” becomes a reward, not a primary pursuit. The old adage “business before pleasure” is the precursor to “work hard, play hard”. We’ve lost that sense of proportion, as a culture. Too many folks just want to play hard… and maybe squeeze in a little duty on the side.

And success doesn’t function like that. Fucking around is the way you eventually fuck up. (And I say this as a primo fuck up, for much of my pre-career life. I know how fuck-ups operate, the ways they spin excuses and avoid responsibility for mucking things over. I was a master at it. And I had to murder that part of me in order to move forward.)

Today, I have as much fun in my life as I do hard work. But the work is fulfilling, and the fun feeds my soul. And vice versa.

I got to this point by sacrificing long-held beliefs about what I was capable of, what the world would “allow” me to do, and how far I could push into unchartered territory when I set my mind to it.

Turns out…

Reality Check #3: … most of your limitations in life are self-inflicted.

And a lot of it has to do with time. As in, how you spend it.

My line in the sand was drawn one evening while I was sleeping on a friend’s couch, homeless after losing my job, girlfriend and place to live all in a short span. I had driven around the west coast for several months, aimless, clueless and directionless, hoping for some kind of sign on what my next move was going to be.

No sign arrived. What did arrive was a rather abrupt realization that I was standing in my own way. My entire life to that point was full of scattershot, ill-thought-out decisions that happened only when I was forced to choose or suffer another catastrophe. It occurred to me, that fateful evening, that maybe I should start considering my decisions more carefully. And add some actual data and info.

It was a start. I knew that just deciding to be decisive was worthless without good reasons to follow up on a decision. Being decisive, in and of itself, isn’t a good thing. It just means you act quickly. Thinking through the consequences, and including a little research, suddenly meant my decisions had some teeth.

No longer was it “what the hell, let’s do this and see what happens”. Suddenly (literally overnight) it was “let’s examine the options here, and make the call based on something more than just a hunch.”

That meant changing a lot of my habits. I love science fiction, and always had a novel with me. However, during this period of decision-making, I needed to put the sci-fi on the back burner for a while, and read up on stuff like biz, advertising, marketing, salesmanship, and all the other skills and tactics I might need to explore in a freelance career. (Remember: I’d never met a freelancer before I became one, and had only a vague idea of what they did. There were no books on freelancing at the time, no mentors, no seminars, no nothing. I’d have to wing it… but I was still going to put as much info on my side as possible before wandering out there in the cruel advertising world.)

In a very short time — because I was obsessed with this “remake my bad self into something productive” project — I read nearly everything in the library on these subjects. Raced through an Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, figured out I had just enough money to keep me from starving for a few weeks, and dove in. No distractions. Business before pleasure became my mantra, and because I’d drawn that line in the sand, there was not gonna be much pleasure while I loaded up my brain with relevant stuff.

No TV. No visits to the pub. (They wondered where I was.) No long romantic calls with old girlfriends, trying to stir up a little action. No nothing. For a few weeks, I was a monk.

And holy shit, did I ever get stuff done.

The punch line to this story is that, on my very first interview with an ad agency for some freelance work, I walked in thinking my weeks of research had maybe prepared me to not sound like an idiot. However, what I discovered is that I knew much, much more about the history, application and use of advertising and marketing than any of the full-time professionals at the agency. My research made me a freakin’ Ph.D. in the subject, better-read than even the creative director.

They were impressed, and I got the job. I was stunned, and took their fee in a daze. How the hell do you work at an agency, and NOT know about John Caples’ groundbreaking ads from the sixties, Claude Hopkins’ revolutionary work in the 1920s, and all the current heroes of direct response in the print and broadcast games?

So, yes, you cynical jerks out there. The library is your friend, just like Miss Adams told you in the third grade. Knowledge is king. Accessing resources, like libraries or Google or experts (especially experts), gives you an edge… and no matter how “naturally” gifted the next writer you go against may be, you’ll still scorch him with better research every time. Every. Time.

Which, of course, brings us back to time.

How are you spending your time?

If you’re not where you want to be in life… and you’re watching ANY TV at all during the week… then you’re a fucking moron. Sorry, but that’s the truth.

If you’re still partying like a college boy (or girl), you’re the reason you’re not succeeding yet.

And if you aren’t topping off your brain-tank with info, knowledge, skill sets, and insights… relentlessly and with clear goals on how to use all this stuff… then maybe it’s time to just admit you’re not cut out for a successful life.

No shame in that. The world needs ditch diggers, too, just as Judge Smails said. (Caddy Shack. No need to Google it.)


if you DO crave success, then start with your own bad self. Do a reality-based checkup on how serious you are about moving up a level or two. Are there good biz books on your shelf, sitting there all lonely and forgotten, that you should be reading? Are you still following 3 different sports every season, spending more time on the sports pages than the financial section? Do you have people in your world you haven’t bothered to bond with, cuz it’s “too hard”, and thus you aren’t reaping the benefits of networking? Are you ignoring the opportunities spread out before you?

Are you, in short, still kinda believing that someday, maybe soon, magic will happen and your “real life” will begin in earnest?

You know, like when you were 8 years old and still believed in Santa? (Spoiler Alert: He ain’t real.)

There is plenty of time in your future for binge-watching Ray Donovan… drinking yourself into misadventures with your wayward pals… obsessing on your fantasy leagues… and chasing Susie Q around. No career requires total immersion for the rest of your life.

Still, until you get up to speed, and kickstart your new life as a knowledgeable, decisive, skilled and effective professional…

time is your main resource. You hold yourself back by squandering it. You want someone to blame for the shitstorms swirling around your head? It’s you.

There. Settled that.

Now, it’s time for assessing your current state — what skills you lack, what attributes you need to adopt, what vacuums exist between your ears that need to be filled with good stuff.

You’ll be astonished what you can put together in just a few weeks. Yes, your buddies at the pub and everyone in your fantasy league will hate you for abandoning them (not to mention Susie Q, wondering why you aren’t harassing her anymore). Don’t look to them for support — they want you to fail, so your “old self” will come back and stop making them feel bad about being unsuccessful themselves. (And, in truth, they’ll get over it when you finally break through your limitations, and start proudly calling you “the guy who got it done”.) (Though, they’ll still try to force Jello-shots on you every time you visit.)


You think you got oodles of it.

You don’t.

Growing up and putting aside the time-wasting pleasures of your youth is just another stage. Doesn’t mean the next stage won’t be even more exciting, entertaining and full of adventures. It’ll just be different.

Okay, scolding over.

What time is it, anyway?

Stay frosty,


P.S. And when you’re ready to start finding and exploiting the expert-level resources around you…

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It’s a one-stop resource where you can get fast expert feedback on any biz, marketing or advertising question you have…

… including the opportunity for ad critiques from me, personally (in the Marketing Brain Cleanse show I host on the site with my longtime biz partner Stan Dahl).

And, I maintain an active online “office” there, where I interact with folks regularly. With specific advice on sales funnels, career moves, and the problems holding you up. It’s like having a direct line to me and the support staff.

Plus, I’ve stashed my entire “swipe file” of ads there (they’re on constant rotation) – which include my commentary and side notes on why they worked (and how to use them as a template for your own ads). Along with the notorious interview series I did with my colleagues like Gary Halbert and Dan Kennedy, and my breakthrough email marketing course…

and a ton more. It’s a huge payload of courses, coaching and shortcuts I’ve created to boost the bottom line for entrepreneurs and freelancers. Augmented with a full-time team of experts in the tech, strategies, tools and advice that’s working now in the fast-changing biz world out there.

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

  • João Campos says:

    Hello there, John!

    I’m a 22 years old, mechanical engineering student, brazilian guy.

    I’d like to say to you that you are becoming one hell of an influence in me. I really appreciate that you give value to us with this posts, and you can bet your ass that I read every single word in it. This post really made sense to me. I’ll read it once a week to remind me to follow my goals.

    Thanks again, you are doing a great job here,

    -João Campos

  • Fred says:

    “If you’re not where you want to be in life… and you’re watching ANY TV at all during the week… then you’re a fucking moron.”

    What if want to be a TV producer?

    • John Carlton says:

      I actually hung out with some TV folks back in the late 80s, when I lived in Hermosa Beach.

      They rarely watched TV, except to critique the work of colleagues or themselves. Otherwise, nope. They were too busy working.

  • ken c says:

    Another outstanding post; thanks…and you write with such ‘color’ and impact as always. I used to gig at Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach in the 80s, fun beachside bar, in those ‘Corona beer & lime’ days. Good point about no do-overs in life; that was 30 f’in years ago, how did the years go by so fast.

    You’re spot-on about reading/no tv, I’m crushing my competitors thanks to your training and also I read 20-30 minutes daily, from the copy classics to new small-biz strategy books. Research, well applied, is like a lever to move the world. I’m glad my competitors are mostly lazy hacks; makes it easy to stand out. Thanks for keeping it real –

    “The only place success comes before work is the dictionary” – Vince Lombardi

    To massive profits,


    • John Carlton says:

      I hung out at the Lighthouse in the late 80s — I lived just a few blocks away, on Palm Drive (actually an alley, but that’s common in Hermosa). Played at the Hennesey’s open mic nights. The town has changed a lot. We have one mastermind meeting a year down in Redondo, just to go visit the old haunts. I’ll always have fond memories of beach life back then…

  • Larry says:

    “If you’re not where you want to be in life… and you’re watching ANY TV at all during the week… then you’re a fucking moron. Sorry, but that’s the truth.” This got me. Bad.

    I need more of this. Thank you.

  • Tom Neuman says:

    Made this post my home page, so I’m reminded of it whenever I start up my computer and browser.

  • Anonymous says:

    “If you’re not where you want to be in life… and you’re watching ANY TV at all during the week… then you’re a fucking moron. Sorry, but that’s the truth.”

    I needed that kick.

  • John, good read. I love that someone even mentions Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Class…that was all the rage what seems like a long time ago. God, that makes me feel old…
    Seems like the gadget-time-sucking devices are most of our problem, whether it be the boob tube, the tablets, or our mobile phones, there is little conversation these days.

    -Lynn McKernan
    Owner, Rightside Design, LLC

  • BOB long says:

    Off and on I’ve read many of your pieces…this one might be your best. I KNOW ALL THIS STUFF but this time it really resonated. This is what I can the real John Carlton. Experience should teach all of us. We’re just too darn busy… doing what?

    • John Carlton says:

      As I’ve aged, time has become my most valued resource. I squandered it, like everyone else, when I was young and dumb. Now, I respect it more. I still binge-watch Netflix, still log time with pals drinking and reminiscing, still stare at the wall in deep thought. I choose to do these things, and I’ve found ways to make them fit with my lifestyle of constantly moving forward, constantly looking to cushion my future with moolah. But mostly, I am drawn to what makes me happy.

      We almost all know all this stuff intellectually. Putting it into practice is the bugaboo. Good luck.

  • mark grove says:

    Not sure how to comment on this one. The thing the majority of us have done including me,is wasted too much figuring things out,or say “I gotta get organized before I take the risk on getting in business, or applying for that dream job.

    But I’m here now in business,still floundering at times,but pretty happy about the state of it all and doing the Randy Bachman thing and lettin’ it ride.

    You tell us to get off our friggin’ asses and just get started doing something we want,even if we have to go without that lovely social safety net of a job,or dare I say government check. Not many could.

    And don’t get a loan to do it. Do it yourself.

    Thanks John.

    • John Carlton says:

      You’re welcome, Mark. Of course, never go off half-cocked on a bad plan. Movement is better than not moving at all, but you gotta be alert (frosty) and responsive to reality. The biggest problem I see is folks just freezing up and never taking action. The next biggest problem is someone having taken action, but then refusing to change course when reality is screaming at them to do so. Stay nimble, don’t give up, and be smart about your decisions (as much as you can, with the info you have)… that’s the big key.

      Good luck.

  • Larry Elkan says:

    That was fantastic! Truly brilliant…THANKYOU!
    That old saying “Life is what happens as we are busy preparing for the future” is all too true.
    All My Very Best,
    Larry E

  • Matt says:

    Distractions? What distractions? Let me look and see what I have lined up in my Netflix, Amazon, etc. queue:

    Breaking Bad
    Sons of Anarchy
    Game of Thrones
    House of Cards
    Boardwalk Empire
    American Horror Story
    The Office
    Law and Order- Original; SVU; Criminal Intent
    True Detective
    Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Burn Notice
    Royal Pains
    White Collar
    Person of Interest
    Hawaii Five-O

    I could go on and on- Counting the barrage of episodes for just one series, we’re talking hundreds and hundreds, even THOUSANDS of hours of TV-

    Am I saying I’ve actually WATCHED all of these shows- No way- Impossible for me at least- But these are shows I’ve had in my queue for at least the past 2 years-

    And yet people I know will talk about all of these series they have watched, HOURS UPON HOURS, and I KNOW their lives aren’t where they want them to be-

    Distractions? What distractions?

  • Joe says:

    Hey John,
    Have you seen broke guys from flyover country (where there are no Susie Qs but Helga Zs) become millionaires relatively fast with copywriting so they can leave Zanesville for good?

    What’s the more effective path- writing copy or selling a product?

    Thanks for the wake up call.

  • “Hey, I’ve known people who were wrenched from their life, drafted into the Army, and shoved into foreign cultures and terrifying situations rife with challenges to their belief systems.”

    “And they came back pretty much the same person. They were so set in “who they were”, that new experiences just bounced off without much effect. They returned to the same job, same neighborhood, same desires.”

    John, I received the dreaded 3 words in February of 2014: “You’ve got cancer.” And I’ve been waiting since then for the lightning bolt from God to strike me and make my life productive and meaningful. But like those brave soldiers you described, the impact of this potentially devastating diagnosis (yeah, it’s incurable) left me…pretty much the same as I’ve always been.

    Great piece of work, John, and as others have said; thanks for the wake-up call.

  • andy says:

    Thanks John. Uncomfortable but perfectly-timed reminder. Reading through this invoked a gut/shitstorm-level transformation. Appreciate the words on here and in your books / etc.

  • Nick smith says:

    Gday John,

    Great post mate and thank you.

    Your story is on-point with my life about four years ago John, except I was in the army at the time when I had my realisation and myself and my room mates didn’t actually own a couch believe it or not. (We only had table-chairs in front of our T.V., that was elegantly placed on top of one of our army trunks hah)

    To top it off, everything was going wrong in my life at the time and without sounding like a new age nut job, it was if, like magic, a book made its way into my life and since reading it, it has lite a fire under my ass and completely changed my life. (First book I even read from cover to cover I might add)

    Like you and Kevin spoke about in your pod cast, I’m a MASSIVE introvert, so when I started on a path of reading books and trying to find an idea on what I was going to do with my life, copywriting caught my interest and I was just fascinated with the thought of being able to persuade people to take action on things just by writing them a simple letter.
    I guess, at the time, it gave me hope in a way.

    Anyway, it’s been about four years since then. I studied my ass off for two years and became a walking book of knowledge on copywriting strategies, but a stumbling idiot on real world experience.
    I literally spent two years in a cave studying copywriting, but didn’t take any action on it.

    For the next two years I took action and started two businesses . One failed miserably, the second worked and it’s still going really well today.

    I’ve been neglecting writing and studying because I’ve been so focussed on trying to build a successful business. So I’ve decided to blow the dust off a lot of my books and get studying again, but now more than ever, a question continually enters my mind…

    How relevant is direct response copywriting these days with the way everything is going with technology and social media?

    It seems everyone is going down the video marketing road and focussing on the “side ways” sales letter strategy, marketed to their prospects over a number of days or even weeks before asking for a sale, as apposed to the direct response method that is taught in most of these great copywriting books.

    Can someone still write a sales letter and get people to take action these days, or is a fancy website with videos, and never ending sales funnels required to get the sale?

    Have you ever written on this subject before John?

    Thanks for reading mate.


  • Rezbi says:

    Hi John,

    It’s been a while since I read your blog. And what a post to kick it off with. Almost ( I read a couple of others before this one).

    Tell the truth, I haven’t really wasted my time – haven’t had time to waste. I teach and look after kids. I’m sure you know that takes time. Right?

    However, I have missed business. And copywriting in particular.

    Actually not doing this makes me feel like I’ve wasted my time. Do you know what I mean?

    I need to get back in the game. My copywriting chops are blunt. I’ve lost my mojo. So I need to do something to find it again.

    I feel like a beginner again and am wondering if I should do a copywriting course or join the Marketing Rebel Insider’s Club. What do you think?


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