December is here, and it’s the time of year when I always ask myself one question: What’s left that my team can accomplish before Dec. 31?
I know it’s hard to think about work this time of year. The holidays are almost here, and every week brings more and more people on vacation. You’re shopping. You’re going to holiday parties. I get it, I get it. It’s hard to get big projects done at the end of the year.
But that doesn’t mean your work should stop just because the new year is approaching. The first week of December is a week when I start going through plans from mid-year — or even back at the start of the year! — to find projects that we never quite finished for one reason or another. There are always a handful of them, work half-done, just waiting for someone to finish the job.
When I look through that list of potential December projects, I’m looking for projects that might help my team finish the year strong. I ask myself: What work could we finish this month that would top off a great year of work? Sure, we didn’t do everything we wanted to. But we can always end the year on a high note.
It helps to think of December as a sprint month. It’s that last mile of the marathon, when you find a little more juice in your legs to get to the finish line. It’s an opportunity to get as many things done as possible before that Dec. 31 deadline. And the more you can finish now, the more space you’ll free up to take on bigger, more exciting projects in the new year.
I am 29 years old, and I’m learning how to be grateful for the life I have. The truth is, I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next year, or where I’ll be working. I don’t know if the big decisions that are just ahead for me and my wife are ones we’ll be making sooner or later. All I know is that this year, the changes kept coming, and there’s still more to come. A year ago, I wrote: “By the time I write the 2016 version of this post, things could be very, very different.” If only I’d known how right I’d be!
But with all the uncertainty, I keep coming back to one thought: I’m a truly lucky guy. I get to come home every day to my wife and share a home with her. I am so grateful to have married someone so kind and big-hearted and silly and wonderful — and have married into a family equally warm and generous.
I know I’m grateful to have siblings I can count on, and parents who have always supported me — even when others lost faith. My wife and I are especially lucky to have such incredible friends, a group that keeps us anchored even when everything around us seems to change. We have good-paying, stable jobs. We have our health.
We really do have a lot to be thankful for.
And the older I get, the more I understand how important it is to find a few moments every day for gratitude. There is a lot we can’t control about our world. Best not to worry about all that, and instead be grateful for the lives we have and the company we keep.
Over the past year, there are certain things I’ve come to believe hold true. I know that my beliefs will continue to change. I know that I will change.
But here, at 29, is what I believe:
What you say matters. What you do matters more. How you treat people matters most.
If you wait until you’re 100% ready to try something, you’re already too late.
Read more. The smartest people I know are always reading, and especially reading things that challenge them.
Travel more. Travel to places that inspire you, and travel to places that make you uncomfortable. Travel isn’t just for vacation — it’s also an opportunity to learn.
A great wedding has three things: Enough food, enough drink, and enough dancing. That’s it. Everything else is just for show.
Be someone who gives wedding gifts months before the wedding. As soon as you find a couple’s registry, buy them something, and make it something they’ll use. They won’t remember most of the things they got, but they’ll remember your gift, and they’ll love you for it..
Thanksgiving leftovers > Thanksgiving dinner (and it’s not even close).
Some things are worth spending a little extra money on: A direct flight. A comfortable bed. Nice shoes. Pay a little extra now, or pay for it in time or pain later.
Ever been in a room where you look around and realize, “I have something to learn from everyone in here”? That’s a great feeling.
We’re dogsitting this week for a neighbor’s dog. Her name is Lexi. She is — and I have told her this about 10,000 times already — a very, very good girl.
This happens to be a particularly good week for us to be taking care of a 10-pound ball of fluff who basically only wants to chase a tiny Chewbacca toy around the house. She does not care what happened last week with the election. She does not care about any sort of stress in my life. She wants to play fetch, and she wants to have her belly rubbed, and she wants to nap.
Just having her around the house these past few days has made me feel so much better. I love having routines and sticking to routines — but in a week like this, it’s been nice to break my routine so I can adjust to Lexi’s schedule. She wants to be walked early in the morning and late at night, and getting out at odd hours has given me lots of time to think. It’s been really wonderful.
Most weeks, I write about work and productivity on this blog. I don’t usually write about self-care. But self-care does matter. If you’re going to do great work, you need to find ways to take care of yourself.
I’m far from an expert on self-care — but luckily, my co-workers on the BuzzFeed News team can help. I wanted to share a few things they’ve written in the last 10 days that might help you, too:
My wife and I sat down on Wednesday night to watch TV. We just wanted some quiet. We flipped through on-demand to find something to watch, some bad TV to take our minds off everything.
Except that during the first commercial break, this ad appeared on our TV. It was an ad the Hillary team aired across the country on the night the show originally aired — the night before the election:
The day after the election, it was a very hard ad to watch.
But we watched anyway. And then we paused our show and talked for a long time about this one thing she said (italics mine):
“First, it’s not just my name and my opponent’s name on the ballot. It’s the kind of country we want for our children and grandchildren.”
And then this one, from Hillary’s concession speech on Wednesday morning:
“We have spent a year and a half bringing together millions of people from every corner of our country to say with one voice that we believe that the American dream is big enough for everyone, for people of all races and religions, for men and women, for immigrants, for LGBT people and for people with disabilities. For everyone. So now, our responsibility as citizens is to keep doing our part to build that better, stronger, fairer America we seek, and I know you will.”
I want to remember this week, and all of the confusion and the anger and the sadness I feel. But I also want to remember Hillary’s words: We have to fight for the America we want to live in — a more just, a more equal, a more loving America. We have to work for it.
That photo at top is one that I took eight years ago on the quad at the University of Missouri. It was four days before the election, and then-Senator Barack Obama came to campus to campaign. We had more work to do then — and we have even more work to do now.
When I was younger, I was a bit of a know-it-all. In any situation, I almost always thought I had the right answers.
But as I get older, I’m learning to quiet that voice that jumps to a conclusion right away.
There’s a concept they teach at my office, called the Ladder of Inference. It says that any time we get a new piece of data about a situation, we start thinking. From that piece of data, we make assumptions. From those assumptions, we draw conclusions. And from there, we take action. All of us are sometimes guilty of moving up that ladder — from data to action — before we truly understand the big picture of what’s happening.
But there’s a way to keep yourself from moving up the ladder too fast, and it’s simple:
Ask more questions.
Before you start drawing conclusions and moving into action, ask lots of questions. Be curious! Talk to your team, and see if you can learn as much as possible about a situation before you move. Often, you’ll uncover something new that will change the way you approach a problem.
I’m trying to get better at this every day. I’m still not there yet. I have my biases and my beliefs, and when I’m facing a familiar-sounding problem, they can be tough to shake. But when I ask good questions and seek to learn first and act later, I find that I make far better decisions for myself and my team.
I love sports. I love my Washington Capitals and Washington Nationals. I love my Missouri Tigers. I love my Maryland Terrapins.
The only thing is: I happen to root for teams that almost never win the big one.
In my lifetime, my teams have combined for one championship: Maryland’s 2002 national title in basketball.
The rest have a history of coming up a little short. The Caps have been to the Stanley Cup finals only once — but never won a title. The Nats have never won a playoff series in their short history. Missouri basketball is one of the winningest teams to never reach a Final Four. Missouri football has made four conference championships games in the last decade, but lost all four.
For some, watching so many teams come up short might make them pessimists. I’m just the opposite. I’m optimistic because my teams still have yet to raise that big trophy.
Watching those teams has given me such wonderful reminders about the things that make great work happen. To have success, you need great, experienced leaders for your team. You need great team members. And you need to be a little lucky — being in the right place at the right time makes the difference, sometimes.
And I’ve been fascinated by the way my teams handle themselves despite pressure from fans and media. When everyone’s telling them, “No, you can’t,” it’s amazing to watch teams show resilience and unity.
There’s a fantastic story on Deadspin this week titled, “I Covered The Braves For A Newspaper That Didn’t Exist.” It’s the story of how a real estate broker from Atlanta realized that he could get a press pass to cover his favorite baseball team by inventing a fake newspaper and becoming its one and only “employee.”
What I love most is this realization the author has about getting onto the field during the game. He writes:
“I was a Braves fan, and so I wanted to be in the Braves’ dugout, on the first-base side. Emboldened, I walked around behind the home-plate umpire while the pitcher threw warm-up tosses and simply walked into the home dugout and to the other camera well. As far as strategies go, ‘walk until someone stops you’ remains undefeated.”
And he’s not wrong. From my years covering sports, I can tell you that you can get away with just about anything at a sporting event as long as you:
A) Look like you know what you’re doing, and
B) Nobody stops you.
I’ve watched rain delays from the dugout, and snuck into stadiums when I wasn’t allowed. If no one else is going to stop you, why should you?
And it turns out that the same philosophy applies to pretty much anything you do. Here’s a lesson from work: A few years ago, we started aggressively promoting newsletters at the bottom of most posts on BuzzFeed.com. There wasn’t a meeting where a bunch of higher-ups agreed that this was the right strategy. My team decided that we should try it. We told our boss on the editorial side, and one on the product side, and then… just started doing it. We figured we’d do it until someone stopped us.
That lasted almost two years.
We had so much success with those boxes that other teams at BuzzFeed decided they wanted access to that space at the bottom of the page. Eventually, we made some rules governing that promo space, and my team is happy to play by the new guidelines.
But the minute we see the next opening — a space where we can try something without a lot of restrictions, an opportunity where another team says, “Sure, that’s OK with us!” — we’re going to take advantage. The rule remains the same: Just start moving until somebody says you have to stop.
That’s a photo I took at Atlanta’s Turner Field back in 2010.
Last month, on a road trip back from New England, I had the best pizza of my entire life.
It was at a place called Sally Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut, a restaurant that’s been there since 1938. The pizza was incredible. Everything they did — the crust, the toppings, the sauce — was perfect. Right now, even just thinking about that pizza, I’m trying to figure out if there’s time for me to get on a train and make it to New Haven before Sally’s closes tonight.
Like I said: Their pizza was unbelievably good.
Here’s my favorite part of the Sally’s experience, though: The menu. This is what their entire menu looks like:
You’ll notice something about that menu: Sally’s does not sell the usual Italian fare. They don’t sell salads, or mozzarella sticks, or calzones, or pasta, or any sort of side dishes. They sell pizza, and drinks to go alongside pizza, and nothing else. That’s the way they’ve done it since 1938.
Turns out you can stay in business for 78 years selling only one thing if that one thing is thatgood.
There’s something to be learned from a place like Sally’s. When I was coming out of college, my skill set was like the menu at a New York diner: I did a little of everything, but nothing particularly well. I had written for print, blogged, edited video and audio, and even gotten into photography. I was OK at everything.
When I tried to figure out the first step in my career, I found myself stuck. I could do a lot of things, but I wasn’t sure what one thing to focus on. I didn’t seem fully qualified for anything.
So for that first job, I applied to everything — and I mean everything.
I applied to jobs as a reporter and editor. I applied to jobs on the radio. I even applied to a job as one of CNN’s new backpack journalists, despite the fact that I’d never been on air.(1) I didn’t hear back from anyone, because hiring managers could tell that my experience was a mile wide and an inch deep.
If I could go back, I’d tell myself to focus a little more in college. Yes, it’s good to be well-rounded, but it’s even better to have one killer skill that people can’t ignore.(2)
I’d tell myself: You can always improve your skill set later, and you can always move from one field to another. But especially for that first job, having a specialty sets you apart.
When it comes to careers, we could all be more like Sally’s Apizza: Do one thing, and it really well.
That is a photo of me about to eat all the pizza at Sally’s. (Two of us ate enough pizza for about 6 people, and I’m not embarrassed by that at all.)
A fun fact: I applied to that CNN job in every single bureau they had, which meant I applied for the same job about six different times in six different cities. I didn’t realize one HR department handled everything, and they grew increasingly more annoyed with me as my applications kept rolling in. Whoops! ↩
A week before I started my job at BuzzFeed, I started to get the sense that this new job was going to be a little… different. I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw everyone at BuzzFeed — literally, hundreds of my soon-to-be co-workers — retweeting an account called @SeinfeldToday, which imagined if Seinfeld took place in the present day:
Jerry gets paranoid about his girlfriend’s past when her iPhone automatically connects to the wi-fi at Newman’s apartment.
It’s not a coincidence that so many BuzzFeeders have a side project or gig. I work with an office full of people who love to make stuff — and are lucky enough to have a job that allows them to do even more of that during their 9-to-5. The common denominator at BuzzFeed is that we’re an office full of makers and creators. When you put people with a track record of making great stuff in a building together, you’re going to get some pretty impressive results.
It’s why I always tell people who visit BuzzFeed and want a job there someday: Do something weird with your spare time. You have the same tools that we do — Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. You have the same opportunities to make something amazing on the internet that we do.
So go ahead and make something. It’s the best way for you to learn — and it might be the best way for you to get noticed by a place like BuzzFeed.
I’m Dan Oshinsky, and I’m the Director of Newsletters at BuzzFeed. I lead a team that’s trying to build great stuff for the internet and your inbox. On this blog, I'm here to share what I know about creating amazing products and building great teams.