Choose to be outstanding (or choose to continue to suck)

Earlier this year, I interviewed Copyblogger associate editor Jon Morrow for Question the Rules. At the closing of what became the best interview I have ever heard with anyone, anywhere, ever, Jon gave his parting advice for anyone looking to accomplish something with their lives.

He said:

When you decide what you want to do, don’t just figure out what it is and how to get there. Find out what the price of that thing is, and go ahead and commit to paying that price.

That’s pretty profound.

That single piece of advice holds the secret to getting almost anything you could ever want — provided you understand what it really means, and how it conveniently removes the word “can’t” from your vocabulary.

The story of my six pack

I hate to blame “getting a little older” for anything because it implies that we’re all victims of time, irreversibly destined to slide into frailty with nothing but loose skin where the best parts of our bodies used to be. But dammit if I couldn’t eat Oreos and college cafeteria food 24/7 ten years ago and have a ripped midsection, and dammit if broccoli doesn’t do me in nowadays. It was frustrating for a while that I couldn’t get my six pack back, but that was before I understood what Jon was saying.

I used to be pretty active in a weightlifting forum, full of guys who mainly wanted to get bigger and stronger. Then, one day, one of my online friends added some new photos to his profile. The guy looked like he was ready for a magazine cover, and he hadn’t leaned out at the expense of his muscle. He remained one of the strongest guys I knew, able to deadlift almost 600 pounds. AND he was my age, with two kids and a set of obligations similar to mine. Everyone wanted to know how he did it, and he gave us the answer.

He told us that he lifted weights 4-5 times a week using a long and meticulously laid-out workout (he had a spreadsheet with progressively increasing weights according to percentage of his max lift) and ran five miles on most of those days too. He did rope-jumping intervals a few times a week, and tons of pushups and situps every evening. He ate only lean protein, fruits, and vegetables and posted a spreadsheet he’d created to break down the macronutrient content of those meals. He recorded shit like “three macadamia nuts” and broke down what was in them. It went on and on; I’m forgetting plenty about his ridiculous routine.

Here’s the important point: After reading through what my buddy had posted, I knew how to get that six pack back. We all did. There was nothing genetically special about this guy. Any one of us could be big and ripped and strong.

But I read it once, read it twice. And then I said, “You know, I don’t think I want it badly enough.”

See, I like to spend a lot of time with my family. I like to work, to play Rock Band, to read. And I like chocolate. And bread. Not to excess, but I like it fine.

I decided that now that I knew the price of that six pack, I wasn’t interested in paying that price.

But note: It was a choice. It was a conscious decision to value some ways of spending my time, my food intake, and my mental and physical energy over others. And because it was a choice, I could no longer say I couldn’t do it. I was choosing not to do it.

I could have realigned my priorities to put that physique above food and activities I currently enjoyed, but I decided to leave those priorities where they were. With that choice, I was accepting a certain outcome — one I decided I was at least 80% of my ideal, and was something I was totally cool with.

Feel like a victim? Knock it off, asshole.

I can’t stand it when people whine that they can’t do this or that because of some arbitrary attribute or circumstance when there are people in the world like Jon, who can’t move from the neck down but would honestly probably find a way to play racquetball with me if I asked, and would probably win. Are there cases where a thing legitimately can’t be done? Sure. But is that the case most of the time? Absolutely not. The vast, vast majority of the time, it comes down to priorities. You’re choosing one thing over what you say you “can’t” have or do.

Jon said in that interview, about a price he decided to pay:

I’m living beside the ocean, but I work twelve hours a day on the computer. I’m practically a recluse. But the reason why I live this life is that I accepted that if I want to move as fast as I do online, then working that hard on the computer is the price. If I want to be successful, then I’m going to have to give up sleep; I’m going to have to give up friends; I’m going to have to give up loving relationships. The more of myself I pour into what I’m doing, the faster it’ll go. I’ve traded everything for what I do.

I know that a few of you are rebelling right now after reading that. Some of you are denying that that’s what it takes to be successful. Some of you are agreeing, but saying defensively, “That’s right, that’s the price. And I don’t want to give up everything.” Some of you agree with parts of both but the entirety of neither.

But ask yourself: If, given your circumstances, you had to “give up everything” to be successful, would you do it?

Yes? No?

The answer doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve made a choice.

Jon also paraphrased billionaire Felix Dennis, from his book How to Get Rich:

He said, “You have to be insane to want to be a billionaire, because you have to give up everything. Give up having kids that love you. Give up having spouses that love you. Give up having friends that love you. Give up having anyone that cares about you. Go ahead and commit to be alone and fighting your entire life. You want to be a billionaire? That’s how you do it.”

Jon wouldn’t pay that price. I wouldn’t pay that price. Maybe you wouldn’t pay that price, and maybe you wouldn’t even pay Jon’s price. That’s cool.

Just remember that what you have right now is a result of the price you have decided you’re willing to pay. If you want something more, you might be able to get it by sleeping a few hours less, eliminating your lunch break, or spending less time with your family. Some of those things, you might be willing to do. Some you may not.

It’s up to you. It’s all up to you.

Priorities: They’re not just for your Outlook calendar anymore

I think a lot of people fail to understand that most of what they say they can’t do is due to a choice. In some cases, it’s a big, obvious choice, and sometimes it’s more subtle. Consider this:

Perception: I can’t lose weight.

Reality: Certain foods are more important to you than losing that weight, and an extra hour of sleep is a higher priority than exercise.

Whatever choice you make is cool. If you don’t want to lose sleep and eat health food, nobody’s judging you. But for the love of God, stop saying that you can’t lose weight. You are choosing not to lose it.

I just read Chris Guillebeau’s new book The Art of Nonconformity, and Chris talks about a friend who “wished” she could travel like Chris does, but said she couldn’t afford the expense and time away from work. So here was her situation:

Perception: I can’t afford it.

Reality: Your current financial obligations, rent, mortgage, “stuff,” and whatever is a higher priority than travel.

Most “can’t” myths are easy to debunk. Ask yourself: If someone put a gun to your head and said, “Give me X amount of money or you die,” or “lose X amount of weight in a month or you die,” could you find a way to do it if it meant saving your life? You could make more money or find the time to exercise. You could borrow. You could steal. You could get liposuction. You could refuse to eat. Not all of those are great options, but they are options. Stop lying to yourself. If you could do it with a gun to your head, then you could do it now, too.

Sometimes I wonder if I could double my income. And so I consider the price.

If the price is better leverage and better systems and better effectiveness, then that’s a price I’m quite willing to pay. But if the price is to spend a lot more time working and to do so for an indefinite period of time, I don’t think I’d pay it. Freedom, family, and happiness are my highest values, and spending a bunch more time working conflicts with all of them. So if that’s the price, then I won’t be paying it. A doubled income isn’t important enough to me to pay that price.

If working long hours is the only way, I will choose not to make more money. I will choose to stay where I am.

People tell me lies all the time.

They tell me, I can’t quit my job, even if it’s killing me. I can’t take that trip, even if it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I can’t buy that course, even if I know it’ll improve my business. I can’t. I can’t.

Bullshit. If you think you can’t do something, you either haven’t truly figured out the price of what you want, or you do know it and are unwilling to pay it. Your priorities are stacked such that what you think you want is a lower priority than what you actually want most day-to-day.

And again, this is all totally cool. If you want to be fat, be fat. If you want to be poor, be poor. If you want to be bored, be bored. Just make sure you actually look at those priorities and decide if things are stacked the way you really want them to be. If you truly, honestly, want donuts to be at a higher priority in your life than heart health, then knock yourself out. But don’t let it happen by default.

The next time something comes along that you want or desire or know it can help you, I’m here to say: Feel free to choose to not be or do or have that thing.

But please don’t fucking tell me you can’t do it.


  1. Amy Harrison says:

    People use the words “I can’t” to replace “I’m afraid that if I do X, Y, Z will happen.”

    The “I can’t” stops us looking at those fears,which is a shame because sometimes when you pin them down and have a little face to face chat with those big obstacles, it’s a bit like seeing the Wizard of Oz – they’re not that big or scary.

    I’ve met so many people who say they hate their jobs but they “can’t” leave when what they mean is “I’m afraid i won’t make my rent, I’m worrried I’ll be lonely, I’m nervous that I’ll make mistakes.”

    Being afraid is okay, admitting that you have concerns brings you closer to pinning down what’s REALLY stopping you have the things you “think” you want.

    ButSaying “I can’t,” well that just stops you.

    Enjoyed this Johnny, thanks. 🙂

  2. Johnny… awesome! That is all.

  3. As an English major, I encountered scores of people who said, “I want to be a writer!”, but who insisted that they weren’t the kind of person who could revise or rewrite their short stories or novels. None of them went on to make a living writing.

    Of course, I was among the people claiming to want to be a writer, but the first time I sat down to revise a novel and realized it had to be completely rewritten, I decided it wasn’t worth it. It’s fun to write short stories for kicks, but the time required for me to be successful novelist is time I’d rather spend elsewhere.

    People don’t like to hear that they have to give up TV or sleep or cake to achieve their goals. I get it. Just don’t act surprised that you’re not getting published for not writing.

  4. Look, I have said this a Million times..”Life Is about choices” and if you choose to be lazy then your money will be lazy..No question have to apply yourself.

    “TrafficColeman “Signing Off”

  5. So true, and so empowering.

    Maybe it feels temporarily better to say, “I can’t lose weight” (or “I can’t______”). Give up responsibility, lay the blame elsewhere, I get it. But then you never give yourself permission to be satisfied with what you have. You walk around feeling bad about your weight (or situation) but claiming helplessness.

    Admitting to ourselves that we’re choosing one thing over another gives us the ability to choose differently (or to be happy with what we’ve chosen). It’s a far more powerful way to live.

    Great post, Johnny.

  6. Adam says:

    Good stuff mate, I too enjoyed that interview and it’s nice to see some it reiterated and expanded….
    While chasing my dreams I work as a teacher and constantly come up against students that tell me they want to learn this or that but they cant; I am happy to say I have been giving similar advice, as you have given here today but in a slightly different tone to yours… hehe
    Another one that goes along the “I cant” line is the “I’m too busy” or “I don’t have time to…”
    Again this comes down to priorities and choices…

    By making things seem out of our own control we diminish the feeling of responsibility… The really interesting thing here though, is that for the most part we all know this deep down, but what most people don’t seem to realise is the paradox of this mindset, we suffer in our own attempts to make our selves feel better by lying to ourselves with “I cant”
    So Johnny the advice you give here is really great, because by being conscience of our decisions and accepting the price/consequences, we remove any inner resistance and negate the suffering it causes…. Cool stuff man!!

    Sorry for the long reply and hippy woo woo stuff, but I just can’t help myself… hehe

    Your writing really gets my brain moving.

    Look forward to the next post dude!

  7. Andy Fogarty says:


    Hell Yeah!


  8. David says:

    Never commented here before, but I had to after reading this article. While I would like to “have it all,” I am really realizing that I have limited resources at my disposal, so I really need to choose carefully when deciding where to focus my energy. Your post sort of tide a bunch of thoughts I’ve been having recently together. Great job.

    That “How To Get Rich” book is also a great read. Surprisingly insightful given the somewhat scammy sounding title.

  9. Kenneth says:

    A GREAT post Johnny! One of the best I’ve read in a long time. Just gets down to the essence, doesn’t it? Thanks!

  10. Mars Dorian says:

    Hey Johnny,

    brilliant slice of life – and I’m guilty as charged. A lot of times I tell myself I can’t do this because this or that, but in fact, it’s just my inner condition that doesn’t want to take the plunge.

    It’s only possible to change that if you are truly honest with yourself – what do you really want, and what price will you pay for it ?

    Thanx for that awesome magic, man !

  11. Daniel Edlen says:

    Every moment is a choice between heaven and hell (whatever your internal concept of these is). Your choice. Where do you choose to live?

    This is a great post. Clean, good stuff man.


  12. Kari Wolfe says:

    Every time I read a post of yours, I’m dumbfounded that someone’s actually saying the things I want to scream from the rooftops myself.

    I’m going to go read everything you’ve ever written on this blog.

  13. Josh says:

    Johnny, I have a saying that I use. “If your life sucks, it’s because you suck.” Everything is a choice. I mean everything. You are responsible for 100% of your results in life.

    Some people respond with, well, people don’t choose to get cancer. While that is largely true (save for 90% of cancer being lifestyle related), we still choose our reactions to those situations, and our choices going forward.

    Thanks for the post.

  14. Amazing story. Actually, several amazing stories. Wish I could add something but mostly… “I agree.” Thanks man.

  15. Rod Watkins says:

    So, so true. It seems that “can’t” is all too often a convenient excuse for “won’t,” or simply “I don’t want to.” It’s closely related to the way people use want and need interchangeably. It’s become something of a game for people to come up with creative ways to relabel their wants as needs.

  16. pj says:

    “If you could do it with a gun to your head, then you could do it now, too.”

    Best line I’ve read in a hell of a long time.

  17. Karen Hyde says:

    I used to be one of those people who would say “I can’t” or “It’s not fair”. I whined, and I cried poor me. I had a severe lack of self-esteem and I thought all my problems were someone else’s fault. They weren’t. Sure, I went through some bad stuff, but who doesn’t. I finally stepped up to the plate and took control.

    Now, my life is mine and it is what I make of it. It’s actually far more powerful to take control than to give it up. Even when it’s not great stuff. At least I own my own life!

    Great post! Lots of very good, honest, relevant stuff!

  18. Johnny, it’s hard to remember you were a philosophy major until you write a post like this one. Brilliant stuff.

    Favorite line: Jon, who can’t move from the neck down but would honestly probably find a way to play racquetball with me if I asked, and would probably win.

    You tell Jon’s story, your 6 pack story, and the story of the whole human race–making purposeful choices.

  19. bruce says:

    Sadly to say, your words are words of wisdom, harsh, but true… I wonder though, if it is easy to get caught up ”in the moment” and claim to want to do this or achieve that, especially if we are in the company of someone who shines, and whom we might feel inadequate around. But of course we are the architects of our own lives. And as you say, if we want to sit around and eat a pack of donuts every evening- that is OK too. There needs to be less shamed attached to choosing the less glamorous/shiny/exciting options- they all have their place.

  20. Mark says:

    I concur with the other esteemed individuals here – truly fantastic stuff, Johnny.

    Now if anyone has any thoughts about how to beam this post directly into your brain the minute your hand reaches for the remote and/or cupcake, I’m all ears…

  21. You do such an awesome job of putting into words things that I experience but haven’t perhaps articulated.

    I am currently changing how I work from being more corporate to being more me. The cost of this is a year or so of less income till I push through. But I want to do this so badly that’s the price I’m paying. It’s not easy when friends look at me blankly when I say I’m having no holiday this year; or think there’s something wrong with me when I decline social invitations for months on end. Still, I’ve never been happier, or felt more free. That’s definitely worth the price!

  22. Rob Ward says:

    Actions speak louder than words…and that includes our own actions, whether we admit it or not.

  23. Bhaskar says:

    Powerful stuff.

    I didn’t read the Copyblogger post where Jon talked about himself but rather came to know it from his newsletter that I subscribed. While I know of stories where people have overcome severe physical limitations to succeed (all those legless pilots in WW2) Jon feels somehow more real then those guys.

    So I was gobsmacked. It was like somebody punched me in the solar plexus, grabbed me by my feet, hung me upside down and kicked my nose for good measure. And I was actually pissed off at myself for slacking. So pissed that I wanted to punch myself in the solar plexus, grab my feel…you get the drift.

    Since that day whenever I wanted to slack off and think, naah this is too hard to do I think ,”Can Jon do this?” I tell myself “He sure damn well is going to try his best”. That shames me into doing it.

  24. Oh my god.
    Thank you. Thank you for saying this. Can I forward this to my upstairs neighbour who likes to tell me how he’s been a victim his entire life and he couldn’t possibly ever succeed?

    Apparently, since I have a disabling chronic illness, that gives me the “luxury” to create the life that I want. Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!

    I don’t know why I haven’t told him to fuck off and grow up yet.

    I chose to do what I love. I “paid the price” of not owning a car, or a cell phone or getting cable TV. I don’t give a shit about those things, so I didn’t really care.

    I hate it when people tell me that they “can’t” do something. Jesus.

  25. Simon Bunker says:

    This and Naomi’s recent post on Problogger has given the giant kick up the arse that I needed. Thanks for this post Johnny

  26. Jered says:


    You are seriously one of the most talented writers I’ve read in a long time. I read your post over at CopyBlogger talking about how you make money from not making money with guest posts, and I’ve been reading your content ever since.

    I really like your take on perception vs. reality. Sometimes it’s so hard to see that false or misleading perceptions are limiting us. Many times it takes someone “from the outside” to step in and give us a dose of reality.

    Thank you for this post. It made my day.

  27. What an amazing kick in the butt for us all! I focus on balanced living and I am familiar with what I choose not to pursue in order to focus on what I have decided matters. Wish I would have read this article two years ago. It does explain things in a simple no bs kind of way. Thanks for that. 🙂

  28. Johnny says:

    @Matt – I’ve been down that road. I have a novel in the closet, and right now, I could go get it and start revising it for publication. I mean, I’d like to have a novel published… but there are things right here and now that are far more important to me.

    @David – Ah, to pull someone out of lurkerdom. The idea of wanting to have it all RIGHT NOW is something I’ve written about before, too. You don’t have to have it all. What’s important is to be making progress, and to be making it on the things that matter most to you.

    @Kari – Be careful in the archives. There’s some stuff back there that would probably embarrass me.

    @Josh – YES, glad you made that point. I’ve seen people with “terrible” things happen to them, yet they respond like, “Okay, that happened. Now what’s next”… whereas I’ve seen plenty of totally healthy people be shorted 25 cents in change at Burger King and act like it’s the end of the world.

    @Chris – It’s because you’re a runner and runners don’t really get six-packs. I mean, I DO have a one… under here somewhere.

    @Karen – Welcome to redemption! Way to kick ass out there.

    @Mary – If you think my philosophy major is showing, just go over to Productive Flourishing. Charlie’s is hanging out all over the place.

    @Bruce – I think most choices are neutral. It’s up to us to decide if they’re “good” or “bad.” So the real point is that if you’re choosing things and getting what you call “bad,” knock it off.

    @Mark – Tim Brownson at is developing a device for that.

    @Bhaskar – I know, right? Makes me think I’m missing a lot of people with big disadvantages doing amazing things because I don’t know about their ailments.

    @Sarah – Really? You have a luxury? That’s some fucked up logic.

    @Jered – Thanks so much, dude!

  29. Thank you for saying what has been in my head for so long! I chose to give up a materialistic lifestyle to spend more time volunteering and studying to be a better internet writer (and I chose not to work 12 hour days.)

    (I would still be following you on Twitter, but in my tribe homosexual riffs just aren’t cool. You remain one awesome blogger though.)

  30. These tips are really practical i have to say and i never thought of some of the points you mentioned here. This post has got me really thinking very deep.

  31. Karilee says:

    Wow. Thanks – SO well written! And looking from the other direction, even if it hurts:

    “What you have become is the price you paid to get what you used to want.” – author unknown

    So maybe if you don’t like where you are, it’s time to make some choices?

    Pete Michaud had an interesting take on the choices one makes a while back, in Life as a Geoboard.

  32. Steven H says:

    The victimization bit really resonates with me. A lot of people refuse to take any responsibility for the outcomes of their lives. They don’t realize that they are simultaneously relinquishing their personal power to make any difference in their world.

    Good piece

  33. Laura Roeder says:

    I would take this a step further and add that you can set your own price. I’m not buying that you have to give up friends and family to be a billionaire. Some people choose at as their price, but some don’t. We have plenty of proof of this – you can inherit money and be a billionaire without working a day in your life. So I agree that you must make the commitment to pay the price, BUT recognize that if you’re viewing the price as a negative, or as too difficult, or as 12 hour workdays then that is exactly the price you’ll pay. I personally choose the higher-leverage price, not the harder-work price.

  34. kaarib says:

    Yeah. I plan to forward a link to this to everyone who tells me how much they envy my life these days. I gave up a *lot* to be where I am. There are rewards and compensations, but still. I gave up a lot.

  35. Johnny says:

    @Laura – I totally agree. I’d also say that you can “live like a billionaire” (literally or figuratively) for less actual cash money than you may assume at first. Defining “billionaire” as a goal strictly in terms of money in the bank is meaningless to me. What the hell does money do for you day to day if it’s sitting in the bank? It’s how you spend and what you end up with (tangible and intangible) that makes the difference. I care about lifestyle, not the bottom line in my checkbook.

  36. I needed to hear this today. In fact, I should probably read this every single morning.

    I probably don’t fit the profile of your “typical” reader. I’m not a marketer; I’m a journalist. I have nothing to sell – or do I? The truth is, writing well isn’t enough anymore. Independent journalists are called upon to sell themselves every single day. Most of us aren’t very good at it. Many (me included) rebel against it. Then, after the seventeenth day of eating ramen noodles, I look around and have to admit: My method isn’t working.

    Days like that are hard. They’re easier though when seen through the lens of “I chose this, which means I can change it,” as opposed to “I miss the old days! We’re all going to die!”

    Thank you. I’m glad you’ve made helping other people a priority, because I am one of the faceless thousands you’re helping.

  37. Johnny says:

    Wow. I love reading stuff like that, Carmen. Thanks so much for letting me know!

  38. Steve Roy says:

    This post says what it’s all about…choice. Anything is achievable when you have made that commitment to make it happen, period. We are all full of excuses and shit and when it comes down to truly getting what you want in life, you have to go all-in.

  39. Johnny says:

    I’m obnoxious about this now. When people tell me they can’t do something, I always correct them. Which probably makes them love having me around.

  40. Hell Yeah Johnny!

    Reading this post has made me tired of my own excuses. Fuck that, I’m going jogging – I want my six pack back.



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