Does Anyone Really Know You?

Wednesday, 11:22am
Rome, Italy (yeah, I’m on vacation)
Wither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car at night?” (Jack Kerouac)


I’ve been asking people, lately, what I consider a great question: “Is there anyone in your life who could write your biography?

Most folks never think about their legacy.

The writers I know all do, of course, though few take the time to work up an autobiography (beyond the blurbs we use for promotion). You gotta be really full of yourself to think you’re worthy of a book.

Still, it’s a question to ponder. Who in your life knows you well enough to tell the tale?

I have no one. Because I’ve moved around a lot, and had radically different sub-plots in my life many times that brought in new batches of friends and cohorts, leaving prior ones in the dust.

There are folks who could tell you intimate things about me, within a limited “chapter” of time… but never the whole story, as an overview. Childhood, youth, the middle years, geezerdom. Each of these eras are like separate John’s, completely different people.

Guys like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have been close their entire lives, from late childhood on, because of the band. They may not know all the details of each other’s tale, but they could hold forth with pretty decent accuracy on the main themes.

I have a cousin who married his high school sweetheart, and they have that kind of relationship — total lifetime knowledge of each other. Maybe, at one time, that wasn’t so rare. Now, it seems almost quaint (at least among the circles I run in).

I guess you can count yourself lucky if you have someone who could pen a relatively factual obituary for you, today.

The flip side: On the other hand, I could write the biography of MANY friends…

… because I’ve practiced the simple tactics from Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends And Influence People” for most of my life.

I ask questions, and then follow up with more questions. I’m interested in how people live, how they make decisions and how they handle the consequences. What their happiest memories are, what their darkest days were like, how they got here from there.

It’s not magic. It’s empathy, combined with a genuine interest in other people. It’s easy to get someone to tell their life story, when you simply ask them.

It’s not done all at one shot, either. You need to spend some time together, share some history, earn the trust required to divulge the juicy secrets.

And, because you don’t betray confidence, you never share what you hear capriciously. You simply know more about certain folks than even their other trusted pals do. But your reputation as a person capable of keeping secrets is solid. It has to be.

As a writer who needs to understand how people operate, this is a main tool. Empathy, plus interviewing.

And here’s the Big Secret: So few people know my entire story… because they never ask.

They’ll wax prolific on their own tales, when asked. But they never ask bac. Most are just too overwhelmed with living their own lives to care about anyone else’s, and it’s understandable. Others are genuinely uninterested in how others live.

But most just don’t know how to ask. They confuse respect for privacy with refusing to go deep.

Back in college, I had a great prof who forced us to go into the community and get an old person to tell their tale. It was an anthropology class, and we would have flunked without doing it.

It was freaking great. These oldsters — ignored, forgotten, in the way — lit up when asked about their lives.

No one had ever asked before.

And the tales told were fascinating, like the best novels you’ve ever encountered. War, loss, love, discovery, travel, horror, insight…

… all the rough and tumble intricacies of a long life were there.

It opened my eyes, tell you what. I was young, full of myself, obsessed with the now-relics of a Boomer existence (sex, drugs and rock and roll, mostly).

Yet, these folks who came before me went through similar periods (swing, prohibited booze, flappers, illicit sex)…

… and then entered new chapters, usually family, job and generational upheaval. It all made sense.

It was like glimpsing my own future, told from the past.

Just saying. We get so deep into ourselves, we forget to pop our heads out of our ass ever so often to see what’s going on with everyone else.

Life is a gorgeous, horror-filled wonderland, relentlessly bombarding us with incoming drama, tragedy and comedy.

Those who get to enjoy/endure it for many years are the lucky ones.

And the tales told are never boring, when you know how to translate them.

For a marketer looking to succeed, this is the key to the kingdom.

Stay frosty,


P.S. If you’ve followed me for any length of time (here on the blog, in my books, or on social media) you know I frame my advice on being successful within stories.

I do it, because that’s how ideas stick. We’re hard-wired to listen to stories, and remember the good ones.

If you’re interested in the lessons I’ve learned about success and living large (from a very long career at the roiling edge of life and biz)…

… then you’ll be interested in this.

You can thank me later.

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  • Jesus Miguel says:

    I was that self absorbed kid, that didn’t care about others. Thank god, just like you. I read that Dale Carnegie book some years ago.

    It has helped tremendously to understand people.

    Does Anyone Know Me?
    I don’t think so.

    Just like you, during my life I have been so many things… In my case, my family and friends, always lagged behind to what I’m doing.

    It’s funny when you receive the random call, to ask you:

    how is it going with your …?

    I think like, “Geez, that was a long time ago…I’m into something else now…”

    BTW John.

    The Entrepreneur’s Guide book you are recommending, plus your Success book…

    Are Diamond Mines.

    In the past week, I read and reread them while taking notes furiously.
    The Breakthroughs kept coming and coming.

    This is a MUST HAVE book, for anyone starting as a freelance copywriter. I put it, along with the classics that Gary Halbert recommends.

    I know, of course…

    That even with your wisdom in my mind. I’m going to screw up, once in a while anyways.

    But I hope, that before I’m about to make a huge mistake…I’m going to hear your voice, telling me diamonds such as, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”… just in time.

    If not…

    For sure, I’m going to remember it, in my post reflexion, healing-the-wounds time…

    “Damn, John Carlton told me that”

    So the next time, it would be much easier to remember.

    Thank you very much, John.

    Enjoy the trip around Italy.

    P.S: Is a 3rd book, coming in the pipeline John?

  • Rob says:

    Good stuff!!

  • Wow John, thanks for the reminder. This is really valuable advice. Enjoy your Italy trip!

  • Holly Lisle says:

    Thanks. I’ve made a profession of getting the story, but your take on this was a well-written reminder that listening pays about a hundred times better than talking.

    It’s way too easy to fall into talk mode. And way too important not to.

  • Bailey says:


    Thank you for all of the advice you so generously offer.

    No, I don’t think anyone knows me, but I’m working on it. Posts like this remind me that I have to keep working on my life because I’m worth it.

    That being said, your book has a line about John MacDonald writing ten books his first year because he heard authors didn’t get good until their tenth book. Is there an equivalent idea for copywriters? 10 sales letters in 3 months or something to that effect?

    Thanks again for the gentle kick in the cajones, and a perspective rarely acknowledged in today’s hyperbolic, adrenal fatiguing, shout louder to be heard less world.


    • John Carlton says:

      No hard and fast rule for copywriters, but there will be a period of time where you need to throw yourself in the mud of the biz world. I call it the “Shameless Whore” stage in The Freelance Manual — you take all jobs, regardless of pay, and work hard to build the start of your reputation. It could take a year, or six months, or six weeks — it just depends on your level of experience, commitment, and network.

      Don’t begrudge yourself extra time. I’d say it took me a good six months to feel at all confident about taking on new jobs for higher rates. And that was a solid six months of hard work — I just needed that long to encounter the experiences required to help me round out the rough edges and figure out the game. Gary Halbert took years to do it.

      We’re all different, with different assets and skills. Figure out what you bring to the game. But mostly, it’s the commitment that matters the most.

      Good luck.

  • Tim says:

    Would you ever consider writing an autobiography? The things you’ve seen and done seem fascinating! And as the world’s top copywriter, you already have a hook.

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