How to Walk Up a Mountain

“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 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 from October until March, I ran that distance – and back again – almost every day after school. With about 50 other guys on our crew team. And with all of us playing that same Rocky theme in our heads. Only it wasn’t the same for us as it was on the big screen.

Our high school crew team was one of the best in the country – and one triumphant run up the steps wasn’t enough for us. On reaching the bottom of the steps, you would line up with the other guys and wait for a coxswain to 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 you’re rowing the boat.) And then up the steps 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 the icy air.

It was grueling. And let me tell you, there were no trumpets.

So this is my message?

No, not yet. See, while my high school went on to win the nationals and all kinds of other races that year, I didn’t. I quit.

Given a second chance, would I have stuck it out? 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 crew team. And when he wasn’t rowing, he was an emerging star on the football field too. No question, he was a born athlete. But he had a secret beyond that. One that eluded the rest of us.

Conventional wisdom would say that Rich had the willpower to be great. But I don’t think that was it. Not at all.

You might know Rich, by the way. 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 Bowl. They did it again in 2002. That same year, Rich was voted MVP for the entire NFL. Nowadays, you can catch him – Rich Gannon is his full name – as a regular NFL analyst on CBS.

It plays like the American dream. Kid works hard, excels, and the rest of us are left to learn – yet again – that you can’t be a quitter if you want to get ahead. But like I said… I’ve come to realize that achieving something great, in sports or career or relationships or anything, is not just a question of willpower.

Let me explain…

The Myth of Willpower

No pain, no gain. Just do it. If it doesn’t taste good, it’s good for you. And I love that logic. It feels solid. It feels honorable. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t add up.

Think about it. How many enviably successful people hate every minute of doing what it takes to get ahead? How many runners grimace every time they strap on their running shoes? How many “A” students tear up when they crack open a textbook? How many entrepreneurs still complain about getting up early after years of growing a moneymaking business?

Not many at all.

Pick someone, anyone, in that position. They didn’t succeed because they’re masters at suppressing their displeasure. They don’t hate their lives or their choices. When they’re grunting their way up the mountain, they’re loving it. Every step of the way.

How often have you had to will yourself to do the things you love? Not often, I’m guessing. Maybe never.

So the next question is how they got there from here. And how we can get there ourselves, given what we want out of life.

I had a writing teacher who said, “You’re not a real writer until you can’t wait to get home to a blank page.” I understand that now… because while I’m writing, time evaporates. And willpower has zilch to do with it. What makes it happen? I’m not sure myself. But if I had to guess, I can only pin it down to a simple but powerful shift in desire.

Throwing Sparks Across the “Desire Gap”

I see two lessons here.

First, if you’ve got a goal, forget about 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 the time to embrace the process that’s going to get you there. How? By going past the superficial reasons you want to achieve that goal. (“To get rich.”) By digging deeper to connect that goal to what it really means to you. (“My family will be so proud of me!”)

In the abstract, lots of challenges don’t look worth the trouble. But in the details, the process becomes real… and rewarding in itself.

Now here’s the second lesson, and this one is more specific to us as marketers and business owners: What’s true for us is true for our customers too.

That is, much as you’ll try, your advertising can never “trick” a customer into doing something he doesn’t want to do… or into buying something he doesn’t want to buy. But somewhere in the details of what you’re offering, you might find those things that connect your product or service to something he deeply desires. So much that, simply by making that connection, he’s going to enjoy giving you his money.

It’s that simple.

This is almost entirely what good salesmanship is all about – finding the spark that bridges the gap between a prospect’s most deeply held desires and what your product can do.

How to get there?

The secret is nearly as accessible. All you need to do is look beyond the cliches and beyond the superficial assumptions other lesser marketers will almost certainly leap to. And, instead, venture into the specifics, the details.

In his classic book Breakthrough Advertising, Gene Schwartz called this “picking out the vital fact from a maze of information.”

“What you are looking for in this product and in this market,” he wrote, “is the one element that makes them unique. The idea you want – the headline you want – the breakthrough you want – are all wrapped up inside that product and that market. Nowhere else.”

In your advertising, 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.

Sounds easy, don’t you think?

[Ed Note: John Forde, a published writer and a direct-mail copywriter since 1992, is a featured expert in The Magic Button, ETR’s step-by-step guide to starting a profitable Internet business. Applying John’s proven techniques for writing promotional copy will make every customer contact an opportunity for a sale, whether it’s your company’s homepage, sales letters, emails, ads, and even editorial content.

Sign up for John’s free weekly e-zine, The Copywriter’s Roundtable.]