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 him too.

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.


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 about it.

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 write?

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 chance?

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 loving it.

The change was not some phenomenal transformation of will. It was a simple but powerful shift in desire. And nothing more than that.


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 there.


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 started.

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 buy.

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.


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 "" 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, 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 desire.

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 unimportant tasks.

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

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