Several generations of Americans have now graduated from the education system believing that a good excuse is a Get Out of Jail Free card. Flunked a test? Forgot to finish your essay on time? Late for class? No problem… IF you have a great excuse.

I knew a girl in college who killed off her grandmother three times in three semesters. Got her out of taking a final (didn’t study), out of being penalized for skipping a week of class (rock concert), out of not having a paper written on time (didn’t even try). Granny never found out. And lived a good many more years. And this girl went on to the Dean’s List, grad school, and a PhD.

The lesson learned: You can be instantly forgiven… even felt sorry for… if you just deliver a good enough excuse for screwing up.

That’s a really, really, really bad lesson to absorb. Because once you get out of school and into the real world, you have a very rude discovery to make: No one gives a rat’s ass about WHY you screwed up. The fact you DID screw up is all that matters. Your excuse will comfort no one but you, as you lick your wounds and look for another job.

The hardest thing to teach budding freelancers is the “Professional’s Code.” It’s very simple: You show up where you’re supposed to be… when you said you’d be there… having done what you said you’d do.

That’s it.

The phrase “show up” includes the physical act of appearing where you’re supposed to be… as well as the virtual act of meeting your deadlines.

I did NOT grow up with this code.

I was a victim of the school system, where few consequences couldn’t be negotiated. (Hell – the cops back then even poured out your beer and sent you home after pulling you over. I knew dozens of guys who’d been nabbed while driving with a bottle of Schlitz in one hand, and not a one of them ever suffered a DUI. Right or wrong, that’s how my corner of the generation grew up.)

As a low-level employee with no skills – my standard gig for the first decade or so of my adult life – half the job really was just showing up on time. However, once the idea of going solo as a freelancer copywriter took hold, I started looking seriously at how the really successful dudes were conducting themselves in business.

I vowed, going in, that I would meet all deadlines, no matter what. And BE that guy who could be trusted with delivering the goods to anyone who paid me.

I saw the alternative, in gruesome detail, during my time in a catalog art department.

There were multiple deadlines for photo separations, camera-ready art boards, and every word of copy. And anything that wasn’t done by the printing deadline… didn’t make it into the catalog.

The printing presses were in Nashville. They ran 365 days a year, and you booked your slot six months in advance. You missed your deadline, too bad. You paid anyway for the time and manpower. And your catalog didn’t mail.

Missing a hard deadline was a mortal wound to your ability to continue doing business. You had nothing to mail. No money came in. Clients wandered away. Banks were not nice about outstanding loans coming due.

Wow. That’ll sober you up.

In 25 years of writing copy for clients, I have never missed a hard deadline.

Let me repeat that: 25 years, zero violations on my deadline record.

This concept of never missing a deadline is the hardest thing to teach rookie freelancers. It’s almost like you gotta experience disaster first… and it’s gotta make a deep impression on you… before your mind can shift into Professional Gear.

This is why surgeons endure such rigorous training. Saying “Sorry, I was distracted” after botching an operation doesn’t cut it.

Pilots, too. Accountants. Snipers. Astronauts. Film editors. Lead singers.

You screw up… you disembowel the entire gig. And your fabulous excuse doesn’t fix anything. No one wants to hear it. Because of you, other people now have an emergency on their hands.

Entire kingdoms have crumbled from screw-ups by people who thought they had a great excuse. (“I had that 3-penny nail right here, sir. I dunno, it must have slipped from my hand back there. My arthritis has been really bad, you know, and…”)

In school, a well-crafted excuse will get you sympathy and a do-over. In real life… not so much.

And yet… I am NEVER surprised when confronted with a fresh case of someone I’ve put massive trust in… screwing up. And offering an excuse. It’s the default brain setting of almost everyone out there.

It’s really not that tough to adopt the Pro Code. It takes a commitment, and requires the skill to tell others “no” when faced with a tough choice. And to tell yourself “no” when your very natural urge to flake out and bail on your responsibilities flares up.

Everyone would rather party, or even veg out… instead of buckling down and finishing the job they signed up for. That’s the easy path. Being a true rebel nowadays means embracing responsibility with gusto and energy. The last rebellious act in business, really, is to commit to success. No matter what.

Your social life will suffer. The family will get mad at you. No one will understand, and you will toil without immediate gratification from outside sources. (Your rewards must come from your own heart and sense of self-respect.)

And it all rests on a simple foundation. If you take on a job, you do it. You kill the whiny beasts in your head, wrestle your attention deficit disorder into submission, push through pain and grief and disaster to do what you promised you’d do.

That’s how that US Airways pilot saved all 150 passengers and crew in an emergency landing in the Hudson River. That’s how all professionals worthy of the title treat every responsibility they have.

It’s hard to do. It’s kinda lonely at times. But committing to it will instantly change your life forever.

And remember: It’s no crime not to have this code already in your bag. But once you’re made aware of it, you lose big by choosing to ignore it. (So, yeah, it’s a dirty trick on my part to throw it in front of you like this.)

Today – in business and in conquering the mounting ills of the world – we need professionals more than ever. The hardest and most rewarding jobs will not get done through excuses.

[Ed. Note: John Carlton is an expert copywriter, a pioneer in online marketing, and a teacher of killer sales copy. He knows marketing inside and out. Discover how to get your hands on the kick-ass secrets of the world’s smartest, happiest, and wealthiest marketers.]

Comment on this article

John Carlton slyly refers to himself as “the most ripped-off copywriter on the Web”, and almost no one on the inside of the online entrepreneurial world disagrees. His sales copy has been stalked for decades by many of the best marketers both online and offline… and they freely admit using John’s ads as templates for their own breakthrough pitches.

John Carlton

John Carlton slyly refers to himself as “the most ripped-off copywriter on the Web”, and almost no one on the inside of the online entrepreneurial world disagrees. His sales copy has been stalked for decades by many of the best marketers both online and offline… and they freely admit using John’s ads as templates for their own breakthrough pitches.