How to Walk Up a Mountain: Exposing the Myth of Willpower
“Whenever I feel the urge to exercise,
I just lie down and it goes away.”
– Mark Twain
What does it really take to be “great?”
In the movie “Rocky,” there’s that pivotal scene.
You know the one. It’s cold. It’s early. And the
Italian Stallion, Rocky Balboa, is bounding up the
steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Earlier in the story, he barely reached the top.
But today, this day, we have the swelling of the
trumpets… the rising ’70s soul-stirring chorus…
and he’s been working hard. He’s strong. He’s ready.
He’s… inspiring. Does he make it?
Here’s the thing.
I grew up in Philadelphia.
I know those steps.
In fact, the doors of my high school were a scant
1.3 miles from there. And I ran that distance almost
every day after school from October until April and
back again, with about 50 other guys all playing
back that same Rocky theme in our heads.
Of course, it didn’t end there.
See, this was for the crew team — our high school
had one of the best in the country — so one
triumphant run up the steps with a Sly Stallone
imitation at the top (and their were plenty of
those, believe me) wouldn’t have been enough.
On reaching the bottom of the steps, we would line
up. And when your turn came, a coxswain would jump
on your back.
(For those who don’t know, the coxswain is that
annoying little guy with the bullhorn whose job it
is to yell at you while rowing the boat.)
And then up you’d go. And down again. And up. And
down again. Over and over… and over. Until your
legs turned to rubber and you were desperately
sucking oxygen from each molecule of icy cold air.
It was grueling.
And let me tell you, there were no trumpets. There
was no time spared for feeling glorious.
There was only the coach’s whistle, the sound of
your own wheezing, and that little pint-sized guy on
your back, shouting orders. Oh, and the feeling of
snot turning to ice inside your nostrils.
So is this what I’m getting at?
Not yet. Wait for it, my friend. See, while my high
school went on to win the nationals and all kinds of
other races that year, I didn’t. Instead, I quit. I
simply opted out of the chance to continue.
Given a second chance, I would have stuck it out.
But not then. And when I saw the ice thawing on the
Schuylkill River — with 5 am daily rowing soon to
follow — I bailed.
Would I have stuck it out, given a chance?
Maybe. Meanwhile, there was another guy on that same
team named Rich G. Rich was different. He worked
harder. Not just harder than me, but harder than
just about anybody. Even as a sophomore, he already
had a captain’s slot on the senior varsity team.
And when he wasn’t rowing, he was an emerging star
on the football team too. No question, he was a
gifted athlete. But there was something else driving
Was it the will to succeed? A high tolerance for
pain? Trumpets and a chorus? I don’t think so, and
in a minute I’ll tell you why.
But first, you might know Rich. After high school,
he went on to college ball. And then turned pro. He
ended up with the Oakland Raiders, where he really
hit his stride.
In 2001, they voted him Most Valuable Player (MVP)
in the Pro Ball. They did it again in 2002. That
same year, he was also voted MVP for the entire NFL.
Nowadays, you can catch Rich — Gannon is his last
name — as a regular NFL analyst on CBS.
Okay, so now… what am I driving at. Simply that
you can’t be a quitter if you want to get ahead? In
part, sure. But that’s a given.
Or am I just saying that some people are born
talented and to hell with them? We’ve all felt the
envy. But no, that’s not really what I’m looking to
get across either.
THE MYTH OF WILLPOWER
Here’s what I’m really hoping to get across…
All the time, when we set out to accomplish
something, we’re told that you’ve got to grit your
teeth and suffer to get anywhere. No pain, no gain.
If it doesn’t taste good, it’s good for you.
That’s the powerful mantra of the “just do it”
culture. And I admit, in some ways I love it. It
feels solid. It feels honorable. It feels like…
well… self-punishment for all those times I
haven’t done the things I know I’m supposed to do.
But here’s the problem with that mindset: it doesn’t
work. At least, not the way it’s supposed to. Think
How many enviably successful people do you see
hating every minute of getting ahead?
How many fit runners grimace every time they strap
on their running shoes? How many ‘A’ students tear-
up as they crack open a textbook? How many
successful mom and pop shop owners complain for 50
years about getting up early to open up shop? How
many prolific writers can’t stand sitting down to
Not many. Maybe none.
More likely, they do it expressionless. As if
they’re brushing their teeth or pouring a cup of
coffee. Or worse, those smirking “success monkeys”
have the nerve to get ahead while wearing a smile.
And that’s the thing.
They don’t hate one bit of it. Even the tedious
parts. When they’re grunting their way up the
mountain, they’re loving it. Every step of the way.
How does that happen?
Maybe, more easily than you imagine. What is it you
do that you’d race to do more of, given half the
I had a writing teacher once who said to us, “you’re
not a real writer until you can’t wait to get home
to a blank page.” When I write, time evaporates. I
feel that way when I draw or play the guitar, too.
And willpower has zilch to do with it.
Then there’s exercise. Just like most people, I’ve
never really liked it. Except for twice in my life.
The first was when I was younger and single. I saw
getting in shape as part of the “game.” I worked at
it, got strong, and felt good about that.
And then there’s now. After years of doing nothing,
I ran into three perpetually “unfit” friends who had
each just decided to lose weight and get back in
shape. They looked and felt terrific. “It really
wasn’t that tough,” one told me. I want what they’ve
got, I thought. And if they can do it, so can I. So
now I’m out there running, every other day. And
The change was not some phenomenal transformation of
will. It was a simple but powerful shift in desire.
And nothing more than that.
THROWING SPARKS ACROSS THE “DESIRE GAP”
I see two lessons here.
The first one is for everybody:
If you’ve got a goal, forget toughing your way
toward it. You’ll need to work, sure. But you’ll
never make it if that’s all the juice you’ve got
powering your engine.
Instead, take a minute. You’ve already pegged the
part of the goal you’re targeting. Now take the time
to embrace the process that’s going to get you
Well, let’s take your copywriting skills.
Why do you really want to become a better
copywriter? The superficial reasons — to look like
a “writer,” to feel like you’re “doing something,”
to “get rich” while working at home — might get you
But eventually, they’ll wear thin.
Dig deeper. There in the deep and burbling
wellspring of your imagination, is there something
more? Maybe it’s the thrill of standing solo on the
proving ground of your laptop screen… or the
chance to validate your story-telling and persuasion
skills… or maybe it’s the little victories you get
to celebrate as the orders roll in.
I started running recently because I wanted to
finally shed some of the pounds I’d packed on from
years of sitting at the computer.
But now I love it for the details. The cool, crisp
mornings. The city scenery and the crunch of gravel
in the park. The time alone with music or a podcast
worth listening too. The feel of poisons burning out
of my system. The sense of accomplishment as I trot
back into my building.
Find those details, and the process becomes real —
and just as satisfying as the result — for you.
Now here’s that spot where I try to tie this all
back to what this e-letter pretends to be about,
which is marketing and copywriting.
And therein you’ll find the second big lesson, which
is really just a mirror image of the first. That is,
what are those details for your customer that are
going to help him actually want to go from sitting
still to standing where you want him to stand?
Much as you’ll try, your copy can never “trick” a
customer into doing something he doesn’t want to
do… or into buying something he doesn’t want to
This is the myth that dogs new marketers.
The truth is, a customer will only enjoy giving you
his money… if you’ve first found a way to connect
your offer to something he already desires.
It’s that simple.
In fact, it’s almost entirely what good salesmanship
is all about — finding that one spark that leaps
the gap, between a prospect’s most deeply held
desires and what your product can do.
The secret is to look beyond the clichés, beyond the
superficial assumptions. And into the specifics, the
details. Paint the picture of your prospect feeling
the way he wants to feel. Talk about it, develop it,
let him enjoy that feeling… as you walk him subtly
down the path that will lead him there.
That’s all there is to it.
A LAZY WAY TO GET MORE DONE
We’ve talked about Gene Schwartz’s 33-minute egg
timer. We’ve talked about the power of 10s (doing
your work in 10-minute blocks).
Now there’s another popular way, apparently, to
squeeze more productivity out of your day. And this
one is especially targeted for lazy people.
Ready? According to the folks over at the
“liferemix.net” blog, “just do three things.”
That is, forget the long to do list. Aim every day
to only accomplish three things. No more and no
less. The real trick: you have to make sure you
choose three things that count.
If it’s urgent, that’s enough to make it count.
Don’t move it to the top of your list if, in a week,
it won’t matter if you’ve done it or not.
Instead choose only high-impact tasks that will make
a big difference over time. The kind that grow and
pay dividends, that open doors and build skills, and
earn you the recognition you crave.
Mastering a new skill, making a big investment,
diving into that big project you’ve put off forever.
Also important: Don’t wait until morning to make
your list of three. Make your list before you go to
bed, so you’re not distracted by the little details
of the following morning. And so you can jump in and
get started right away.
When you get up, do NOT just get a few little things
out of the way first. Forget email. Forget dishes.
Get started on your “big three” list immediately.
You can do the urgent but unimportant stuff like
phone calls and emails in batches and bursts at the
end of your day.
If you’re really into celebrating your laziness
while still remaining productive, says
liferemix.net, you can take a 10 minute break
between tasks. You can even celebrate reaching the
end of your “big three” list with a nap if you so
Or, maybe better, you could just put some icing on
the day by knocking off some of those smaller things
that you’re now free to tackle.
The best part of all this? You’ll actually end up
being MORE productive doing just three big things
than most busy-bodies are who have chalked up seven
or ten or a dozen small, urgent, but ultimately
And you’ll feel a heck of a lot better and less
stressed about it too. Good advice, I think.
John Forde is a direct response copywriter with 15 years experience and several multi-million dollar controls. He’s also a sought after speaker and editor of a free e-letter for copywriters and marketers, The Copywriter’s Roundtable. To sign up, visit www.jackforde.com.