Four years ago this week, I wrote a post about something I didn’t quite understand: The idea that time was simultaneously moving really fast and really slow. I wrote:
Fast. It’s moving so damn fast. So many things to cross off the to-do list. So many things happening all at once. So many tasks. Knock one off, another one takes its place.
Slow. It’s moving so damn slow. So much time between now and May, and May just won’t come. Why can’t it all just come faster?
So fast, and so slow.
And yet I know: A thousand baby steps to get to where I need to go.
Two years ago also this week, I wrote again about time, saying:
A week ago today, I sat in a room and listened to Jerry Seinfeld speak. It was seven days ago.
It feels like months ago.
One of the things about working on the internet is that time moves in incredibly bizarre ways. News that blows up in the morning is forgotten by the afternoon. Things move fast.
In 2012, and again in 2014, I didn’t quite understand what was happening. But with — what else? — time, I think I’ve figured it out:
Time moves most slowly when your work becomes repetitive. You understand how to do the work — habits take over, and you get lost in the process of those habits and that work. Time moving slowly isn’t a bad thing. Those repetitive tasks are an anchor. They keep you grounded in the day-to-day. You work quickly, but the habits and processes you’ve created seem to handle the heavy lifting for you. You know what happens now, and what comes next.
Time moves most quickly when your work becomes unexpected. Instead of relying on habits, you find yourself making up the processes as you go. You’re figuring out how to do the work, and who you need to work with to do it. With nothing to anchor you down, and each milestone bringing a new set of challenges, time moves fast. You forget about down the road, and focus on now. You’re on deadline. You work fast because there is something next for you — whatever it is.
I’ll give you a personal example: In a normal week, I have a handful of meetings that anchor each day, and a handful of tasks. This is my fourth year working on newsletters. The work is repetitive — in a good way. Days can move slowly.
But then…. something happens. A breaking news event at the office. The new launch of a product. And suddenly, the new work jolts me out of the day-to-day. There’s an urgency to the work — it’s not the work that has to be done, it’s the work that NEEDS to be done. Days and weeks fly by. We accomplish a lot. Or maybe it just feels that way, because we’re accomplishing so many new goals.
And then we’ll come back the following Monday to our normal routines, with time seemingly moving half-speed.
Some work anchors you down, and some work unmoors you from those anchors and makes you move fast to do new, unexpected things. Time moves slow, then fast, then slow again. And they’re both OK! I understand now: To do the work, you need to understand how operate at both speeds.
That photo of an alarm clock comes via Unsplash and photographer Sonja Langford.
My youngest brother graduated in December (congrats, Sam!), and he’s out searching for his first real job. We had a nice talk about it last weekend. He wanted to know: What should I be looking for in a first job?
I think the list of things is pretty short:
1) A great boss
2) A great team to work with
3) The opportunity to take on real responsibility
Great bosses often turn into great mentors. Great teams provide you with the structure to learn how to do great work. And, of course, any opportunity to own a task/project is a wonderful thing for a new hire.
How do you know if you’re coming into a situation with a great boss or a great team? You can always look at their previous output of work. I also think it’s important to ask questions that can reveal how the boss/team will use you. Questions like:
-How does the team work together?
-What types of personalities do you work best with?
-What projects need help right now that I could work on?
-What kind of opportunities for growth do you see for me in this job?
Almost as important as the answers is this: Does your future boss seem invested in you? Do they make lots of time for you during the interview process? Do you get to meet 1-on-1 with the team? How do they describe the opportunities available there? You’re looking for interest, engagement, and positivity. An interview’s like a first date: If the chemistry isn’t there, or if something’s off, you’ll sense it.
It’s funny: Looking back, I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I took my first job. Instead, I was thinking about whether or not the money was any good. (It wasn’t, but I didn’t care — unless I took a job as an investment banker, the money was always going to be lousy.) I was thinking about whether or not it had great benefits. (My first job offered two weeks of vacation. Media companies don’t offer much in the way of vacation because… well, they don’t have to. It’s part of the deal.) I was thinking about whether or not it was the “perfect” job for me. (At the time, I was obsessed with the idea of Google’s 20% time when I really should have been obsessed with working hard and proving that I was capable of taking on bigger projects.)
By accident, I stumbled into a few really good bosses who gave me lots of opportunity. I got lucky. My first job was pretty much exactly what I needed it to be. But I didn’t realize that at the time.
Sam (and others!): Be smarter than I was. Don’t worry about finding the perfect job. Just find the best bosses and the best team you can. It’s the best decision you can make at this stage in your career.
That photo of a courtyard in Barcelona has nothing to do with this post, but it is pretty! And it was taken by Alexandre Perotto for Unsplash.
When I was in 9th grade and starting to focus in on journalism as a career, I interviewed a neighbor for a school project. He was a reporter for the Washington Post, and he’d written a few books. I asked him for career advice, and I remember his advice well:
Read a lot, and write a lot.
That’s stuck with me over the years. I try to write a lot — here on the blog, especially — even when the core of my job doesn’t involve writing. And I’m always pushing myself to read more. (It helps that I live in a city with an amazing library system!)
I read for pleasure, but I also like to read books about the way people work. And these tend to fall into two categories: Books that’ll make you think about work, and books that’ll show you how others work. These are a couple of my recent favorites from both:
Books That’ll Make You Think About Work
Do The Work by Steven Pressfield
Anything You Want by Derek Chivers
These are both remarkable little (and I mean little — like 100 pages each) manifestos about doing your best work. I read them both in late 2011 — and it’s not a coincidence that some of the best work from Stry.us happened in the months after.
The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg
This book made me totally rethink my day-to-day habits and the stuff I need to do in order to do great work.
Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro
This is technically about working as a designer — but it’s really about how to choose the right people to work with and how to ask for what you want. (Also: It features chapters like “Fuck You, Pay Me.” This book is nothing if not very direct.)
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
This is all about startups — how to build them, how to grow them, and how to survive them. (Especially that last part.)
Books That’ll Show You How Others Work
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
Still maybe the single best book about what it’s like for a smart, dedicated team to take on a huge mission and… then fail over and over again. (When work goes wrong, I love thinking about Wolfe’s famous line: “Our rockets always blow up!”)
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
An inspiring book about one man trying to take on impossible work in a foreign land — and somehow finding success.
Sous Chef by Michael Gibney
A fascinating look into a day in the life of a chef, going minute-by-minute into all the little routines that allow a kitchen to do the work it needs to do.
A Season On The Brink by John Feinstein
Hey, I had to sneak a sports book in here! I love this behind-the-scenes look at a single season for Indiana University’s men’s basketball team, and the way a team changes in the face of tough leadership.
Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman
How does a movie get written and made? Goldman goes deep (sometimes a little too much) into the process.
Sam Walton: Made In America by Sam Walton
The Everything Store by Brad Stone
I’m Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards
One’s about Wal-Mart. One’s about Amazon. One’s about Google. But all three dive deep into the beginnings of what would become three enormous brands. I loved reading about the early days of all three companies, and the decisions that helped shape their futures.
It’s January, and you’re two weeks into your New Year’s resolution, so let’s talk about goals for a second.
I love New Year’s resolutions. I think they’re a wonderful way to set ambitious goals for the year ahead. And if they’re matched with a change in habits, they can actually lead to some incredible changes in your life.
But most of all, I love when someone sets a New Year’s resolution that’s also a “reach goal.”
What’s a reach goal? It’s any type of goal that can’t be achieved without extraordinary effort. It’s a goal that you set knowing that you may try your hardest — and still come up short.
The difference between an ordinary goal and a reach goal is huge. An ordinary goal might be to say, “I want to write more this year.” But with a reach goal, you’d pledge something bigger: “I want to write 1,000 words a day this year!” The goal is both concrete and ambitious. With a reach goal, you set the bar well beyond your ordinary limits — and then find out how far you can actually go.
Sally and I set a few goals for ourselves this year. We want to bring our lunch to work more often, and we want to dedicate 30 minutes every Sunday to clean the house. Those are goals we can definitely achieve.
But we also set a reach goal for ourselves: Together, we want to run 1,000 combined miles this year.
I like running. But I’ve never run 500 miles in a year. I’m the kind of runner who might run 20 minutes on the treadmill every week, or run a 5k every now and again. In my best year, maybe I’ve run 250 miles. So to run 500 miles, I’m going to have to log some serious miles every single week.
It’s going to be a lot. I don’t know if I’m going to get there. But that’s besides the point: I’ve decided to push myself to do something that I don’t know if I can do, and I’m excited to see how far and how hard I can go.
That photo of an actual goal comes via Flickr user Al King and Creative Commons.
Last summer, I asked my team to start doing a very simple thing: Every Monday, I wanted them to send an email to a co-worker who’d done a particularly good job that week. And the work didn’t have to be related to our team. If a co-worker in LA made an awesome video, they could send an email to say, “I loved your video! Nice job!” If someone in the London office wrote a great post, they could say, “Great work on that post! Congrats!”
The mission was to be friendlier as a team. But the goal was bigger than that.
When I started at BuzzFeed, we had 175 employees and two offices. Now we’re over 1,250 employees (give or take a few) in more than a dozen offices worldwide. My team works with teams in New York, LA, London, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, and Sydney on newsletters. This year, we’ll work with even more.
And it’s hard working with new teams. They don’t always know us or know our work.
The one thing we can control is our relationships with these teams. If we’ve got an established relationship with a team, that often paves the way for us to work together on a project.
Hence these weekly “Congrats!” emails. They’re often 1-3 sentences long. They exist entirely for us to drop a line out to another team or another office and say hi, and let them know that we’d seen their work and loved it. It’s with little emails like those that we’ve been able to establish relationships across a big company. And this year is the year we try to build on those relationships — and build great work from them.
It takes more than a quick email to establish a relationship. But it’s a start. In the long run, it helps put us top-of-mind when other teams are deciding what teams to work with — which is huge — and it might open doors for us. The emails don’t take much time — literally, a minute or two every week. And the best part: Even if they don’t lead to work, they still make our workplace a little bit friendlier.
Which makes me wonder: Why doesn’t everyone send an email like that on a regular basis?
That super-generic thumbs up photo comes via Flickr and user hobvias sudoneighm.
These are two words that people often use interchangeably:
One is “opportunities.”
One is “possibilities.”
As you get older, you learn that there’s a big difference between the two.
Opportunities are the concrete choices you have to make. They come in the form of job offers or acceptance letters from a school. There’s nothing theoretical about them. When you’re presented with an opportunity, you have to make a choice.
Possibilities, on the other hand, are just dreams. Could I move to Bolivia one day and become a goat farmer? Could I quit my job, move to Thailand, and teach ex-pats how to surf? Could I become president of a big company? Sure, anything is possible!
To put it another way: Opportunities are the things that can happen, and possibilities are the things that could happen.
But here’s where it gets important: When you’re young, it’s all possibility. You’ve got dreams and ambition, but not a lot of hard choices that need to be made. As you get older, the scale starts to shift. You’re no longer thinking about what could happen because you have choices that you actually have to make. You’re setting down, you’re starting a family, and you’re thinking about the opportunities that actually exist for you at this moment.
If you’re lucky, when you’re young, you can turn a dream into real work. You’re not tied down by anything — a job, a significant other, a family, a mortgage. That freedom gives you the ability to try something crazy. That’s what Stry.us was for me — a crazy dream that I actually made happen. But as you get older, the windows of possibility start to close. You still try to stay ambitious and idealistic, but you also start to become more practical. You start to make hard choices because you have to, not because you want to.
There’s a difference between “What will you do?” and “What can you do?” So when you’re young, and everything’s still on the table, take advantage of it. Those doors might not stay open for long.
That photo of the open road was taken by Jon Ottosson, and published on Unsplash.
I just finished Jason Gay’s excellent book of advice, “Little Victories”, and in the chapter about work, he touches on something I’ve been thinking about a lot:
“The best bosses share a common characteristic: they are encouragers. It’s easy to be an ass-kicker, to find holes in someone’s professional ability, but good bosses see a flicker of something and just let it barge out the front door.”
Two parts of that quote really spoke to me. The first was the “flicker of something.” In my career, I’ve had a few dozen of those ideas. I’ve had some big, crazy ideas, and I’ve written my fair share of memos trying to prove that my ideas could become a piece of great work. Many of my ideas were outlandish and were justifiably ignored. A handful were too good to ignore. But then there’s this strange middle ground of ideas: ideas that with the right team and a bit of work could become something great, but that could also be dismissed outright.
Which is where the type of boss comes in — because they’ll be the ones that decide which types of work get done. Like Gay wrote, some bosses are “encouragers.” To that, I’ll add the (obvious) second category: “discouragers.”
Encouragers tend to react with support to your ideas. When you’ve got a great idea, they’ll get the resources, talent, and money to make those ideas into great work. But when they hear a half-baked idea, they’ll give you the space and time to turn it into a really good idea. They’ll ask questions to try to draw out the idea. They’ll suggest that you talk with co-workers who might be able to help the idea along, or they’ll pass along a good article or book that might get the idea moving. They’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Encouragers try to turn a decent idea into a great idea, and a great idea into great work. When you try something and fail, encouragers back you up, share the blame, and don’t let it affect future work.
Discouragers tend to react with skepticism to your ideas. They’ll generally get behind your great ideas, but when it comes to anything less, they’ll try to pick holes in your idea. They’re critics. They’ll ask questions that are intended to find the faults in your pitch. Whatever your idea, you’ll have to prove it and maybe even debate it. You will not get the benefit of the doubt. Every idea has to stand on its own. Discouragers hear a half-baked idea and work to keep it from becoming a fully-baked flop. When you try something and fail, you will take the blame.
I think every boss needs be a bit of an encourager and a discourager — the perfect mix is probably 80/20, with a heavy lean towards encouragement. There certainly are times when it’s important to set boundaries and to say “no.” And when an encourager says “no,” that comes with some credibility, because “no” isn’t their default setting.
In general, I prefer to work with encouragers. When you’ve got a “C+” idea, it’s nice to know that you have a boss and a team that’ll work to turn it into an “A” idea. Working with a discourager is harder. It can feel like you have to reestablish trust with your boss every single day. Sometimes, you shy away pitching anything but your absolute best because you’re afraid of the debate that might come.
With encouragers vs. discouragers, it’s not just about positivity vs. negativity. It’s about support vs. discouragement. It’s about knowing that you have a team behind you, and that you don’t need to prove and reprove yourself.
Jason Gay’s not wrong: The best bosses are encouragers.
That photo of horses traveling together comes via Unsplash and photographer Susan Yin. There’s a metaphor there somewhere about teams traveling together, maybe? (OK, that’s a stretch. But you get the idea.)
Today is my three-year anniversary at BuzzFeed. I remember my first day vividly. My then-boss, Dao Nguyen, was out sick. So Chris Johanesen, our head of product, welcomed me and showed me to my desk. “You know what you’re supposed to do, right?” he asked.
I most certainly did not.
I had built out Stry.us and launched Tools For Reporters. I had launched newsletters with both of those projects, and I had enough experience to know that newsletters could work at scale. But I didn’t know how to launch a project at this level. I didn’t know how to grow it, or even what I was looking for in a team. I wasn’t even sure if I would last long enough at BuzzFeed to hire a team!
And now on my three-year anniversary, I’m looking back with amazement at a few incredible facts:
-On Sunday, BuzzFeed newsletters drove its 100 millionth click to BuzzFeed.com. ONE HUNDRED MILLION CLICKS.
-In the chart at the top of this post, the giant blue hockey stick of a line is traffic to the site on a month-by-month basis. How did we even do that?
-To put everything in perspective: The week I started, our five automated newsletters were driving 14,000 clicks a week. We’ve grown from those five newsletters to a dozen core newsletters, plus another 10 automated newsletters (like this) and original newsletters in four other countries on four different continents. Pretty good!
-When I started, we had fewer than 20,000 subscriptions across our newsletters. Now, we’ve got more than 2 million subscriptions across our lists. (And we’ve got plenty of room to grow!)
-The team’s grown from me to a team of four in New York, plus another half dozen BuzzFeeders around the world who pitch in to write newsletters in three different languages every week.
-Our newsletters used to be automated, and almost unreadable on your phone. Now every newsletter is written by a human, and they’re all responsively designed.
How’d we achieve all this? By testing out lots of weird ideas (This Week In Cats, anyone?) and spending a lot of time looking at the data and trying to figure out where it was pointing us. By being super clear in our mission: to send newsletters that were always useful and delightful. And by seeking out great people who could bring the ideas, energy, and work to take newsletters to amazing places.
Thanks to everyone who’s been a part of growing newsletters into such an tremendous program at BuzzFeed. Here’s to what we’ve accomplished — and to everything we’ll learn between now and our billionth click. (Hey, we’re 10% of the way there already!)
Everything I learned about listening, I learned from Ken Beatrice.
I know that name probably doesn’t ring a bell for you. I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, and in my house, we didn’t listen to rock or pop or any kind of music on the radio — just sports talk. And that meant that I listened to a LOT of Ken Beatrice, a local sports talk legend, almost every night as I was finishing up my homework. He had this huge Boston accent, and before bringing on a caller, he’d always say, “You’re next!” In that accent of his, it came out more like “YAW NEXT!”
Beatrice died this week — he was 72 — and I’ve read some wonderful stories about him from colleagues and listeners. Many are about that distinctive voice, or his showmanship on the air. Those stories got me thinking about why I loved his show so much in the first place.
What I remember most — besides the accent, of course — was the way he carried himself on air. Things are different now on talk radio: There’s a lot of yelling, and a lot of big opinions. It wasn’t like that on Beatrice’s show. He did something different.
He actually listened.
Right after the YAW NEXT!, he’d tee up the next caller, and…. let the caller talk! If you had a big rant about the Redskins, he’d give you airtime to vent. If you had a few questions, he’d let you ask them. And if you were really crossing a line, he’d tell you — and sometimes talk over you — but rarely cut you off entirely. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard on the radio. Callers knew Beatrice would be (mostly) patient with them, and fair in his responses. I remember calls that made me uncomfortable — and I’m sure Beatrice felt the same way, sometimes — but as a listener, I knew he’d treat every caller with a certain respect. (FWIW, most of those uncomfortable calls came from Dallas Cowboys fans.) I think back now and remember his show as a space where you could hear opinions that wouldn’t get the time of day on any other show.
A few years ago, he did an interview about his old show, and here I’ll cite a transcription from Dan Steinberg at the Washington Post:
“You know, what gets me is, some shows are based on being nasty to callers,” he said a few moments later. “That’s like if I invite you to my house for dinner. You show up with a bottle of wine under your arm, and I slam the door in your face. Next time I invite you to dinner, are you going to come? You’re certainly not going to bring any wine. And that’s all. Everybody deserves dignity and respect.”
Dignity, respect, and a few minutes to give people a chance to share their voices. I’m glad I got the chance to listen in.
Three years ago, I wrote a thing about failure. Much to my surprise, it still holds up pretty well! I wrote:
There is a phrase I use a lot. I overuse it. A lot of my friends do, too.
The word is “fail.” ….
But sometimes, when we just wrap all that in into that one word — fail — we lose a sense of what we’re really trying to say. …
So if I’ve told you, “It’s okay to fail” or “Go fail fast,” I’m sorry. I can say it better.
This year, be willing to do difficult things. Be willing to go on adventures where you don’t know the outcome. Be willing to persevere.
Most of all: Be willing to do great work.
The idea of “failing fast and failing often” has spread even further since I wrote about it back in 2012. And looking back on that first post, I realized: I never got around to defining what failure is!
Here’s the thing: Anyone who tells you they like to “fail fast and fail often” has probably not truly failed in their life. Maybe they’ve goofed up on a project. Maybe they fucked up an assignment.
That isn’t failure.
When you take on work that really matters to you, and you truly fail, you feel like absolute shit. Failure gnaws at you. It keeps you up at night. It makes you question every decision you’ve made along the way.
When you fail while doing something meaningful, it sucks the life out of you. And that kind of failure takes weeks or months — or even years! — out of you.
The people who advocate “failing fast and failing often” are people who really mean to say: It’s OK to screw up! It’s OK to suck at your work! And they’re not wrong — it is OK to make little mistakes along the way.
But that’s not failure. Failure is the roadblock that keeps you from going one step further with your work. Failure sends you onto a detour from which you don’t completely return. And in the long run, that’s also OK — failure is something that can shift you onto a completely different track, and maybe that’s a path where you can do great work and succeed.
Anyone can screw up. But to fail, deal with that failure, and somehow pick yourself back up and start again? That’s a different thing altogether.
That photo at top comes via Flickr user Sister72.