Stop Selling When You Are Ahead

“I saw the most amazing movie last night. You’ve got to see it,” Jane says. “Tell me more,” says Mary. “Well, Ryan Gosling stars in it. And also Jennifer Lawrence.” “My favorite actors,” says Mary. “They have a hot romance going on in the movie…” “Sounds great…” “And there’s this scene where Ryan has his shirt off and…” “Say no more,” says Mary. “I’m going!” “And he takes his shirt off and all of a sudden this horrible thing pops out of his chest and…” “What?” “This creature from another dimension pops out…” “What kind of movie is this?” “Sort of science fiction/horror…” “Ugh. Forget it. I hate horror movies.” What’s wrong with this conversation? In an attempt to persuade …

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A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned

Dr. Steve Sjuggerud has an amusing but also slightly terrifying article over at Stansberry Research. It turns out our U.S. Government manages to lose money even when it’s making money. I was just reading the Annual Report from the U.S. Mint. These are the guys who produce our coins. In short, you take a piece of paper, worth one cent… You print the words “Twenty Dollars” on it (at a cost of a couple pennies per bill)… And you make a profit of… well… about $20 (give or take a couple pennies). Right? Actually, in a few instances… our government manages to LOSE money from MAKING money. Wow. Losing money from making money… That’s got to be hard to do, …

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Unfinished Business

I have a library of at least a thousand books, a third of which I have never read. I’d like to. I also have twenty years’ worth of memos I’ve written that I’d like to re-read. I have always fancied that I’d spend the last five or ten years of my life seated comfortably in a chair across from the ocean, catching up on all that reading. I’m not sure I’ll actually do this since I am habituated to more active intellectual challenges, such as running businesses and writing. But the idea appeals to me. There could be worse ways to fade out of the picture.

How to Beat the Best

It’s always good to get a compliment.

When I rewrote the lead for a promotion that “GX”, a successful copywriter, had been paid to write for one of my clients a few years ago, I felt good about my revision. The sales copy GX had sent in was standard, run-of-the-mill professional palaver. My take on it felt fresh and strong. It was better.

But when I sent it back to my client, I was worried that GX might not like the fact that I had changed it so much. Perhaps he would feel slighted and reject it. We couldn’t force him to accept my changes. If he insisted on going with his original submission, my client would be in an awkward position: She could risk offending a potentially good source of future copy… or she could mail what we both believed was weaker copy and suffer the economic consequences.

Luckily, she didn’t have to make that choice. After reading my new lead (along with my suggestions on how to finish out the rest of the package), GX wrote:

I thought: “Why couldn’t I write it like that?”… but then I realized that’s why Mark is so successful. I’m honored that he took the time to do it… I appreciate the effort… my challenge now is to make the rest as strong as Mark’s contribution… make us all proud.

This story has two morals.

The first is about ego and its opposite – i.e., humility. The greatest challenges we face in life are obstacles that reside inside of us. When it comes to learning a complicated skill like writing (copywriting, editorial writing, writing for blogs, e-zines, books, etc.), the one thing that will keep you from learning it quickly is hubris.

Hubris is Aristotle’s term for excessive, blinding pride. It is the fatal flaw that foiled many tragic heroes in literature, from Oedipus to King Lear to Captain Ahab. When writers believe – or desperately want to believe (which is sometimes worse) – that their writing is above reproach, they cannot possibly get better.

And what is true for writers is equally true for musicians, tennis players, salsa dancers, sumo wrestlers, and skateboarders. Those who are willing to say “I can do better” do better. Those who say “I am the greatest” soon take a tumble.

What you want in your career is the confidence that follows accomplishment, not the pride that precedes a fall.

When I saw the note that GX wrote, I was mildly flattered by the compliment. But what really made me happy was his willingness to agree that my copy was better… and challenge himself to write better copy himself.

So that’s the first lesson: No matter how good you are at what you do, there’s someone out there who can teach you something.
Think about your strongest skill – the talent or capability that is most important to the achievement of your main goal. Now ask: “Am I willing to acknowledge that there are people in my universe who are better at this?”

If you can confidently accept the limitations of your strongest skill, there is no limit to how far you can develop it.

And now we come to the second moral of this story: The only good way to improve a skill is to practice it. Reading about it is certainly helpful. Talking about it with people who are experts may work too. But no amount of reading and talking will do nearly as much as regular, focused practice.

And that’s what GX should know about his future as a copywriter. If he continues to practice his craft – while taking advantage of everything he can learn from more experienced and skillful copywriters – the likelihood that he will be great one day is better than 99 percent.

I am certain of that. Why? Because I have seen it happen. I have worked with more than a dozen copywriters over the years who have moved from bad to pretty good (and GX is pretty good)… and then from pretty good to very good… and then from very good to better than the best. All it takes is practice.

With practice and a willingness to keep learning, GX will almost certainly surpass some of the best copywriters in the business.

It is just a matter of time.

Here’s something else to consider:

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Why Grant’s Final Victory Was His Greatest

Today’s recommended reading is another great history lesson by Alexander Green, at Spiritual Wealth. It is a companion piece to his Robert E. Lee essay of last year, and concerns Lee’s great rival, Ullysses S. Grant. While Grant won the war that would assure that the United States would remain united, he also made a significant contribution to the American literary tradition. After the war, Grant served two terms as President. Yet, in a world where speechmaking was popular entertainment and politicians routinely spoke for hours, Grant was largely silent. His Presidency was less than inspiring, as well. The government was saddled with an enormous war debt. Huge parts of the country remained broken, starving and mired in catastrophic defeat. The …

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Great Poets

If you read poetry, there are many great American poets to choose from. I recently read a list that recommended the following: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and Henry David Thoreau. Among modern and contemporary poets, the list included Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Louise Bogan, Robert Bly, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Jane Hirshfield, Langston Hughes, W. S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary Oliver, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. I don’t think Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Jane Hirshfield, or Louise Bogan belong on this list. They are successful writers among academics and, in Angelou’s case, among the popular crowd but they are not great writers. Missing from the list …

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The Unpleasant Truth About Asking for Favors

I recently intercepted a memo from a partner of mine. It appeared to be a nothing-much memo regarding a not-all-that-important request for a favor from a business associate – but I intervened because I thought it could ultimately be damaging.

Mutual back scratching, as I’ve often said, is a big part of good business. All the successful business relationships I know of – at least the ones that last – involve a lot of back and forth. I do such and such for John, and sometime in the future he will reciprocate. If he doesn’t, I cross him off my list. Unless I’ve done him a foolishly big favor in the first place, losing my good will costs him more than he gained from my initial service.

It’s all about give and take.

Smart businesspeople (those who think long-term) don’t demand an immediate quid pro quo. They are happy to let the credits add up by helping out where they can. But unless they are saint-like, they do keep a running tab in their heads. And when the time comes to ask for service in return, they expect it.

That’s the way it should be. And when businesspeople act that way, they prosper. Just as important, the products and services they offer tend to improve because of the exchange of information and technology. And this benefits their customers.
But not every businessperson is that smart. Many fall short when it comes to cooperation in general and favors in particular. If you randomly selected a dozen business owners and lined them up against a wall, you’d find a considerable range of enlightenment as far as cooperation is concerned.

And that’s why you have to be careful when you ask for favors. Because the person from whom you are requesting a service may not think of it the same way as you do. Such was the case with the favor my partner was about to ask in the memo I intercepted.
The favor was for the other company to do some printing and mailing for her – things she would have been happy to do for them. But what I think she failed to understand was the reaction her request was likely to cause. I happen to know the people who run that business. I’ve worked with them for years. And though they are good people, they have a tendency (in my view) to overvalue their work and undervalue that of others.

There was another factor, too, that she failed to take into consideration. My partner’s view of the favor she was asking was somewhat distorted. Because she runs a smaller business, it would have been fairly easy for her to personally manage the printing of a job for them. But since their operation is larger, a similar task would have involved several people … and required checks and double-checks… with no organized way to account for the work done.

Between my partner’s honest misunderstanding of what she was asking and the tendency of those she asked to overvalue their contribution, trouble was brewing. They would have done what she asked, but my partner would have incurred a big “You owe me.” A debt she wouldn’t recognize – which would have made matters worse.

My advice to her?

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Krugman Predicts Demise of Internet….in 1998

If you read Paul Krugman’s editorials for the NYTimes you’ll be familiar with the predictions and economic forecasting the nobel prize winning writer makes. This little blurb over at digital journal shines a light on an economic prediction Krugman made in the late 90s. Here is one of his crystal ball proclamations The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law”–which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants–becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s. Hmmmm…..