The Poet-Killer Mindset

Not long ago a reader emailed me with the following question:

I have a goal and I am working towards it. But, I am lacking something and I feel that is MIND-SET. Could you guide me to create a strong MIND-SET?

This is a difficult question to answer. The appropriate mindset depends on the situation. In competitive situations, an aggressive mindset is needed to defeat opponents. In cooperative situations the opposite is true — a passive-compliant mindset is necessary to put group needs first.

These opposing mindsets are the reason that strengths often double as weaknesses. A person’s competitive fire might lead to her best work, but it can also make her difficult to collaborate with.

The ideal mindset constantly adjusts to the present situation. It requires the agility to move across the entire spectrum of mindsets and the intelligence to adopt the correct one at exactly the right time.

For this reader’s situation, the desired mindset is one that will lead to the achievement of a goal. The successful mindset is difficult to define, but I discovered a quote in Ogilvy on Advertising that captures it:

‘Most good copywriters fall into 2 categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.’ If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.

This quote describes the ideal copywriter, but the mindset holds for any profession. To understand why, let’s consider both components individually.

A poet is a lover of words. Rather than trying to sell with his writing, the poet is motivated by passion. The creation of an excellent poem is the only desired result. This artistic integrity leads to writing that attracts readers with beauty alone.

The weakness of the poet is that, in pursuit of artistic ends, he can stray towards irrelevance. Writing can be beautiful, but if it doesn’t have a practical purpose, no one will bother to read it. This is why few people read pure poetry.

The weakness of the poet is the strength of the killer. The killer wants results — persuasion, sales, or an increase in readership. To the killer, writing is a means to an end. The killer’s weakness is that, in pursuit of an end, he can appear untrustworthy. Without discretion, a killer’s self-serving tactics turn readers away.

The poet-killer mindset combines the artistry of the poet with the practicality of the killer. When beautiful work is used for a strategic purpose, the result is irresistible.

To create the poet-killer mindset in yourself, it’s important to consider two things.

  1. Do work you love. You’ll never be a poet if you don’t have passion. If you secretly despise your work, you won’t stand a chance against people who eat, sleep, and breath it.
  2. Consider the user. What does the user want and how can you give it to them? It’s easy to get absorbed in personal interests, but that leads to irrelevance. To be a killer, you must deliver value to users at the expense of personal indulgence.

By choosing work that you love and using that passion to deliver value to others, you’ll put yourself in the ideal position to acquire wealth and personal satisfaction.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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