Walk a Mile in a Jerk’s Shoes

Without the insights of good pop psychology, I cannot fathom how my neighbor isn’t wracked with shame every second of his miserable life. Because he truly is a Grade A a-hole.

It’s not just me. Six other neighbors, on all sides, hate this guy’s guts with varying degrees of passion (because he harshes everyone’s mellow and disrupts the groove of the cul-de-sac). The Homeowner’s Association regularly slams him with fines (because he thinks he’s above the rules). And I’m never surprised to see cop cars parked in his driveway.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The dude’s obviously a low-life scum, living among people who just want peace and quiet. If I was him, I’d immediately sign up for industrial-strength therapy, and maybe start a brisk program of frequent self-flagellation as punishment.

But I’m not him. I’m someone else, looking at him with utter bafflement, because I cannot understand how he can live with himself, being such an a-hole. Yet, using the simplest basics of psychology… I “get” it. And “getting” it makes me both a better storyteller and a better marketer.

It’s really very straightforward: In Mr. A-hole’s mind, he’s a great guy. Misunderstood. Prone to accidents that could happen to anyone. A smidgen too quick to get angry about stuff that anyone would get pissed off about.

He has a whole menu of excellent reasons that – in his mind – explain everything he does in a way that makes him either totally forgiven and excused… or the victim of unpreventable circumstances. He has rationalized his behavior so that he’s the good guy at the center of his world. And no amount of incoming data that challenges that rationalization will change anything. The dude is bottled up tight. Certain of his own righteousness.

Serial killers think like this. Politicians, too. Also thieves, social outcasts, actors, perverts, and scamsters.

And you, too. And me. And everyone you market to.

It’s part of being human.

Now you and I may also have some redeeming traits, like a code of behavior that prevents us from hurting other people or avoiding doing the right thing (or parking half on a neighbor’s lawn). We are, in fact, a roiling pot of conflicting and battling emotions, urges, habits, learned behaviors, and unconscious drives.

Every day, if we’re lucky, the mixture remains mostly balanced and doesn’t explode or morph into something toxic. But it’s all in there. And it’s all fighting for supremacy.

Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People is called the salesman’s bible because of a simple tactic that works like crazy. That tactic: Learn to walk a mile in another man’s shoes before judging him. Or sizing him up.

This tactic does NOT come with our default settings as humans. You gotta learn it.

Once you’ve been around very small children, you realize how deeply ingrained our selfish desires are. We excuse them in kids, but strive to civilize the little terrors by corraling those desires into submission.

Takes a while.

People who grow up without that kind of mentoring can be hard to deal with. Some special cases – those blessed with an endless supply of sociopathic charm – can still make it work and live lives of selfish abandon. Good for them. But most of us realize that we gotta share the sandbox. And that means sublimating our greedy ape-urges most of the time.

Still, if you’re gonna be a great salesperson, you gotta become a great student of human nature… and notice, catalog, understand, and USE insights like this.

So when you tell a story, it’s easy to figure out what the listener needs to hear to stay interested. When you sell something, it’s easy to know how to incite desire, because you know what people want (which is almost always NOT what you want them to want). And when you’re approaching prospective customers cold – because they don’t know who you are – you are able to quickly discern who THEY are, and adjust your tactics accordingly.

But you cannot attain this state of understanding human behavior… without experiencing all the different parts of human behavior out there.

Okay, you don’t want to experience everything. People do some truly disgusting and repulsive stuff that is beyond the boundaries of acceptable experience for the rest of us. But within reason, you at least need to learn how to walk in another person’s shoes for a mile. (That’s supposed to be an old American-Indian saying, a take on the Judeo-Christian “golden rule” to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.)

It helps to understand basic psychology. It’s probably out of print, but the former best-seller I’m Okay, You’re Okay (which is about transactional psychology, but never mind that) lays out a pretty good start for rookies. Once you see a few examples of how your thinking on a matter may not jibe with the other guy’s thinking… you’ll have the seeds of understanding how to delineate what those differences are and how they affect your relationship.

It’s really not that tough, once you get wet.

Basically, the bottom line of understanding human behavior is all about accepting the reality of the situation. Yes, he’s an a-hole, according to your rules. But in his rule book, you’re probably the a-hole. If you insist on not allowing his viewpoint to exist, there will be blood.

In marketing, if you don’t learn to understand how other people see you and your efforts to sell, there will be no sale.

It’s tough to walk in another dude’s shoes even if you like him. Think of your best friend. His taste in clothes is abysmal. He insists on wearing his hair in a stupid style. He watches bad television shows, and eats horrible crap.Yet, somehow you overlook these things and get along.

The challenge, as a marketer, is to suck up your distaste for people who don’t share your worldview… and be a chameleon. That’s the lizard that blends in with any background – except plaid. (When I was a kid, we used to try to make the little critters explode by placing psychedelic prints on the bottom of their cage. Doesn’t work, in case you’re wondering.)

As a kid, I also remember trying LSD and magic mushrooms to try to get some better ideas for my marketing campaigns. These drugs provided a beneficial effect insofar they resulted in ego death and made me reconsider my whole life, and as a proxy, the copy of the sales letter I was writing. The drugs I credit this profound personal growth to can be found on Tripsitter, an educational website about harm reduction that advocates for the safe and responsible use of psychedelic drugs for the purpose of self growth and healing. They even have a guide on how to grow your own shrooms, if you’re into the grassroots approach and don’t want to waste your hard earned money on shrooms to get the same experience… they are expensive, after all.

You don’t have to compromise your cherished beliefs or alter your own worldview. (Unless you discover you should.) Just understand that there are more complex personality tweaks in the people around you than there are stars in the sky. And your job, as a marketer, is to understand that the person you’re selling stuff to may need all sorts of weird, twisted info or soothing advice or whatever to make a buying decision.

It’s not hard, once you learn how to walk a mile in other people’s shoes… and then do it, on a regular basis. And you gotta do it even with the a-holes.

I still loathe my neighbor, but I can’t really hate him. He’s infuriating, but the real reason he pisses everyone off… is that he’s just not good at social interaction. He cannot walk three feet in someone else’s shoes, has no clue what that would accomplish anyway, and lives in such a tight little box that he’s just a walking prison of discomfort and existential anguish.

I still wish he’d move, though.

Anyway… Here’s a little task for you: Identify a trait in someone around you… that irks you no end. (Maybe humming off key, or always being late, or telling boring stories.) And spend a few minutes seeing that behavior from the inside.

Become, for a moment, that guy. Walk a mile in his shoes, and rationalize how you feel.

You don’t need to adopt the trait or learn to like it. Just understand it. Get hip to the way the other guy has come to terms with himself.

This is powerful knowledge. This is how top marketers move through the world, with deep personal insight into how other humans get through their day.

[Ed. Note: The principles behind top-notch marketing can be simple – just like John’s suggestion that you walk a mile in your customer’s shoes. But they are super-powerful.

John Carlton is an expert copywriter, a pioneer in online marketing, and a teacher of killer sales copy – and 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.

And be sure to read John’s insights, tactics, and advice on copy writing and marketing at his blog.]

“We don’t devote enough scientific research to finding a cure for jerks.” Bill Watterson