Silver Linings

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like stories about successful people who became successful by overcoming
a handicap or career roadblock.

are not that many successful people. Of those who make the cut,
I imagine that they all have stories of obstacles overcome. But
I have in mind serious roadblocks that, for most people, would have
become crushing. Yet some people seem to get around these barriers
and become even more successful as a direct result. In other words,
the roadblock was an essential part of their success. They can look
back on it and say, "I am glad I went through that."

came across one of these stories recently. It impressed me enough
that I thought I should share it.

Keith Voiles is a copywriter. He writes advertising copy that sells
a lot of stuff. He is one of the best in this little-known, relatively
small industry. To hire him, you need $45,000 up-front money, plus
he gets 5% of the revenue from mailing his ad. He designs the entire
campaign. If you generate a million dollars, gross, he gets $50,000.

hate to admit this, but if I were that good a copywriter, and I
could crank out (say) half a dozen campaigns a year on his basis,
I would be tempted to write fewer newsletters.

Voiles is not worried about his next paycheck.

is a true rags-to-riches story. When he started out, he and his
wife lived in a mobile home. He worked as a day laborer stacking
newly fired bricks onto pallets. He was paid piece-rate, and he
earned minimum wages. He did that for four years.

got involved with Amway. He never made a dime with Amway, but he — like
those bricks — got fired up. He listened to the motivational tapes,
read the motivational materials, and got motivated.

and a buddy started a janitorial service. To get clients, he walked
up and down the streets of Salt Lake City. He handed out business
cards. It took him a month to knock on those doors and make his
sales pitch. He was hired, one by one, but only by small firms for
small jobs. The biggest client paid $120 a month. But when he had
finished marketing door to door, he had $3,200 a month worth of

still kept his brick job. So, he worked long hours. Four months
later, he got fired by the brick company. That was a blessing in
disguise. But it wasn’t the roadblock that caught my attention.

years, he had been an amateur magician. He began offering his services
to day care centers. He got jobs. Then he got jobs at local public
schools. He began getting calls from mothers about doing birthday

thing led to another. He built up his business. He got into direct
mail: postcards. Then he set up a fan club. He got referrals. Then
he paid for a seminar on building a magic business. He found out
that he knew more about this than most of the speakers. When he
told the group that he had a 20% to 35% response rate on his mailings,
one of the speakers told him to quit the magic business. There was
more money in writing ads. He took this advice, though not overnight.

job by ad job, he began to replace his magic business and the janitorial


noticed that he was having a problem with his vision. In his left
eye, there was a small dark spot.

went in for an eye exam. At the end, he told the optometrist about
the dark spot. The optometrist sent him to an ophthalmologist — a
physician specializing in eyes. Here, he tells his story.

I go over there and they do all these tests on my eyes, and they
blow air in them and they shoot lasers and they test my peripheral
vision; all these tests and stuff. They shoot this dye in my blood.
Anyway, it was really weird. Finally, I came back three days later
to meet with the doctor to see what his findings were. And he
goes, well there’s nothing wrong with your eye, nothing at all.
You have really good eyes, actually. I said well what’s going
on then? He goes; well we’re really not sure. We’re probably going
to have you take an MRI. I said, well what’s that? And he explained
it to me. I said okay. I didn’t ask why. So, he goes, we’ll let
you know. We’ll call you and let you know when that’s going to
be. So, as I’m walking out his door and I start walking down the
long hallway, he peeks his head of out the office and he said,
oh by the way, most of the time when we see this, it’s a brain
tumor. . . .

he jumps back in his office.

can imagine how well this went over. He was in denial. But not for

had an MRI done and they actually had me drive the pictures from
the MRI up to the brain surgeon and have him look at them. They
felt that it was that urgent. And as I was driving, I looked at
the picture and said I wonder what that big old white thing is.
And I could see it. It really didn’t occur to me that that was
the tumor. But sure enough, I had a brain tumor the size of a
softball in the middle of my head. And it had started to push
on the optic nerve. They just said I had to have surgery immediately.
And I did. That was rough, I tell you. I ended up canceling three
or four dozen shows just to get through all that. And that’s not
something you want to do when you’re self-employed, cancel business.

was just the beginning. His medical insurance company fought it
because he had been signed up for only four months. The company
paid 10%. The surgery took 18 hours. He was in the hospital for
three weeks. The bill was over $100,000.

did not get all of the tumor — merely 60%. The operation damaged his
pituitary gland. He gained 120 pounds.

a decade later, in an interview, here is his assessment of the result:

it did . . . to apply it to copywriting, it made me extremely
empathetic for others. Michael, if I had to sum in a nutshell
what’s unique about Brian and in my copywriting is this deep compassionate
empathy that’s truly heartfelt for other people. And I think that’s
what I took away from the brain tumor experience. I mean I had
on a certain level, a notoriety before the brain tumor, but I
just think I gained so much depth and breadth, virtually, from
going through that experience. At least that’s what I thought
at the time. And looking back on it, I see that it has taught
me a lot. It’s been a blessing to me spiritually and mentally;
that whole experience. Physically, it’s still somewhat of a challenge,
but I’m actively pursuing things to deal with that, as well.


person who sells anything by direct mail has to have the ability
of empathizing with his targeted readers. He has to understand their
hopes, dreams, and fears. It’s not enough to be able to know this
analytically, as if he were writing a college term paper in psychology.
He has to feel these emotions. The better he can do this, the more
likely his success in motivating them to buy.

would call this manipulation. But all motivation of others is inherently
manipulative. A drill instructor in the Marine Corps is a highly
motivational fellow. But the kind of motivation he imposes is very
different from the kind of motivation a copywriter possesses.

a man writes a love letter during a courtship, he is being motivational.
He is also emphasizing his good points and ignoring the bad points.
A wise recipient of such a letter is aware of this, for her written
replies take the same strategy. Of course, if one of them is an
axe murderer, then it’s bad manipulation. The point is, under most
circumstances, nobody blames a writer of a love letter for being
manipulative. That is what love letters are. Yet the consequences
are far greater and the stakes are far higher than switching to
a new credit card or buying a different brand of detergent, even
if it’s "new, new, new."

about if the product is no good? Isn’t it bad to write manipulative
ad copy? It’s not in the same league with producing the bad product.
The problem is the product, not the ad copy.

few exceptions, most of the people I have known in the copywriting
business will not knowingly take assignments to sell bad products.
The skill of empathy is such that they cannot write effective copy
for a bad product. Maybe if the bill collectors are closing in,
an ad man will do this, but the bill collectors rarely close in
on a successful ad copywriter. Good copywriters make too much money.

something else. I have watched the skills of a particular copywriter
deteriorate, along with his morals. He cannot save any money. He
has no self-discipline. He always seems to be in a jam. I have watched
from the sidelines as he has become ever less successful. I used
to be favorable, but since the mid-1990s, I have distanced myself
from him. I have done my best to warn him, but he has ignored me.

is something about the skill of direct-response ad copywriting that
polices itself. I can’t explain it. But Voiles’s testimony comes
close. It has something to do with empathy, with putting yourself
in the other guy’s shoes.


is selling something: his dream, his vision, his candidate, his
skills, his output. If we expect a customer to buy, we have to sell.
Some people do this better than others.

believe that a person becomes more empathetic when he goes through
the wringer at some point in his life. I also believe that, when
developed, the ability to empathize makes people better salesmen.

Carnegie’s book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People,"
is a book on manipulation. Like any tool, this skill can be misused.
But whenever you pay attention to someone else, even if you don’t
feel the emotional connection, you are improving the other person’s
life, assuming that you’re not selling junk.

are polite to people we don’t really like much. This is surely manipulative.
It is also called good manners. We do not say, "How’s your
wife? Did she ever shed those extra hundred pounds?" We say,
"How’s your wife?" If she did shed those hundred pounds,
the guy will probably say so and, if encouraged in the slightest,
will spend 20 minutes talking about the kumquats-and-rutabagas diet
that made it possible.

is something about being decent outwardly that tends to make most
people decent inwardly. This is why we tell small children to say
"Thank you." We don’t really expect them to feel thankful.
That comes later, with their maturity. It starts with an outward
conformity that is imitative of inward conviction.

never had anything like the disaster of Voiles, but I lost a job
once under difficult circumstances. My wife tells me I became more
sympathetic of other people’s difficulties. Sympathy is the first
step toward empathy.

two years, I had taught myself the basics of copywriting —
not reading even a book on this — and was able to write ads
that made me $2 for every dollar I spent within two months after
the ad ran. I had not been able to do this on paper before I was


we have life, we can compensate for disasters. Not everyone does.
Not every disaster, even with compensation, puts a person ahead
of where he was before the disaster. The classic case in literature
is Job. He wound up richer than he had been before the disasters
began, but he still had the graves of his children to remind him
of the pain and the loss. That loss was permanent. Only the merciful
fading of bad memories and the discipline of not remembering the
bad old days can get a person into positive territory after this
kind of disaster.

disaster is valueless. Every disaster can produce positive results.
This is not the power of positive thinking. This is the power of
positive doing, which can and should reshape negative thinking.

instance, I just tried to insert a hyphen into the word reshape.
No hyphen. I have just lost a crucial key on my 1983 PC/AT keyboard.
I have only one functional PC/AT keyboard in reserve, which I use
for emails. I cannot type without a PC/AT keyboard. Will my emails
survive without hyphens? What if that keyboard dies, too? Which
key will go next? My K key is gone on my third PC/AT keyboard. I
can’t recall which key died on my 4th keyboard. Entropy
is closing in on me. Will I, an inveterate user of hyphens, be able
to go on? Or must I learn how to type on one of those new fangled
keyboards with the function keys across the top? Will I forever
have to write "new fangled" without the obligatory hyphen?
A disaster has struck. Where is that silver lining?

2, 2005

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free multi-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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