I didn’t recognize the face of the man in the fighter plane, but down the page, there was a second photo of a man — the same face, but older, well into his 80s. I recognized that one.
I’d met him before.
I met Jeremiah O’Keefe — Jerry, to everyone around town — during my summer in Biloxi, Miss., in 2010. I interviewed him once at his home that July, just as I was getting started on Stry.us. I didn’t have a working website yet. I hadn’t published a single story. But he was gracious and gave me an hour of his day. We talked about his time in the Navy and his work running the town’s funeral home; about how he came to politics; about the time he tried to stop the Klan; about the projects he built in Biloxi, and the ones he didn’t. I wrote a story about his time as mayor, and gave it the headline, “The Man Who Tried to Save Biloxi.” Below that headline, I wrote:
“Four years after Hurricane Camille, in a town the storm left for dead, the man running the local funeral home decided to give his city new life.”
I wrote a lot of stories that summer about death and rebirth in Biloxi, but none quite as literal as Jerry’s.
And it’s really something that today, of all days, is the day Jerry’s obituary appeared in the New York Times. You might not realize this, but today is the 11th anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, and changed that part of the South forever. It would be easy not to know about the anniversary — after all, if you’re living pretty much anywhere outside the Gulf, you won’t be reading about the storm today. Those of us in the media simply don’t cover the 11th anniversaries of disasters — even those as life-changing as Katrina.
There is a particular disaster narrative that springs up after an enormous storm, and Katrina was no exception to the rule. The storyline is simple:
In the days after the storm, the story is one of loss.
A year after the storm, the story is one of recovery.
Five years after the storm, the story is one of remembrance.
10 years after the storm, the story is one of rebirth.
That’s the disaster narrative, and Katrina’s story has followed it to the letter: Loss. Recovery. Remembrance. Rebirth. Joplin is four years in to the disaster narrative; the Jersey Shore is two. But the stories of tornado recovery in Joplin will be everywhere next summer; in two years, we’ll read recovery stories from Sandy. On the 10-year anniversary, we’ll read of rebirth, same as it always was.
But this is the last Katrina anniversary you will ever read about.
After 10 years, an interesting thing happens: The disaster ceases to be a part of the present, and becomes something of the past. After 10 years, reporters stop writing about how the storm is affecting people’s lives today. Remember: This is a story that began with loss, and ends with rebirth. The story doesn’t go on forever; there is no epilogue.
So for Katrina’s story, this ends here. You will not read a front page story in the New York Times about the 11th anniversary of Katrina. You will not see a site like BuzzFeed put together a package on the 15th anniversary of the storm. And by the time the 20th anniversary rolls around, or the 25th, Katrina will simply be something of the past.
Of course, I opened the paper today, and there was no front page story about Katrina.(1) But on page B6 of the New York Times, there is a story about Jerry O’Keefe. And his story is the coast’s story, too.
So on this day, 11 years after Katrina hit the coast, I wanted to say:
Jerry, I’m grateful for the time you gave me back in 2010, and the conversation we had. You didn’t need to give a young reporter a chance, but you did. Thank you for sharing your story with me.
And Jerry, I wanted you to know: Whenever I think of you, I think about this stretch of beach out in front of your Mississippi home. Dating back to the 1950s, you told me that you’d planted palm trees out front. When a big hurricane came through and knocked the trees down — like with Hurricane Camille, and later Katrina — you’d go back and replant new ones in the sand. It was one of my favorite symbols of Katrina, those trees down by Highway 90. What the storms would take away, you’d find away to bring back. In Biloxi, there was death and rebirth — always.
I know, Jerry, that you’re gone, but there will be another storm. On the Gulf Coast, there’s always another.
And when that storm comes, and when it knocks down your palm trees, I wonder: Will someone come now to replace them?
I love the Olympics, and I think there’s a lot to learn from watching them. I’ve written before about the Yellow Line Theory. I’ve written about the importance of keeping youreyes on the road ahead. And with the Olympics just a few days away, here’s this year’s big Olympics idea.
— — —
I’ve talked to a few groups of journalism students this summer. They’re graduating next year, and they’re starting to ask: How do I get the first job after college? How do I successfully make the transition from college to the real world?
Here’s the way I think about it: College moves fast. Ever since you first got accepted to a university, your family’s been telling you: Enjoy it, because it goes by fast. And it really does. Three years blow by, and the last year moves even faster. The transition between the end of school and the start of your career is a blur.
In a way, it’s a lot like the baton toss in the 4×100 relay at the Olympics.
You’ve seen that race on TV. Each race has four legs, with the tiniest of transition areas for one runner to hand the baton off to the next. If you’re one of the last three legs, you go from a standstill to a sprint in a matter of yards.
Nail all four handoffs and you’ll save precious seconds, and maybe win the race. Botch even one — or, worse, drop the baton entirely — and you’re out of the medals.
Whenever I watch that race, I always keep an eye on the men and women who have to run the final legs. Being a later leg of that race is fascinating to me. Those runners know what’s coming, but they still can’t move until the previous leg finishes. And then suddenly, there’s a moment when they go from a standstill to a full-on sprint.
That anticipation is a lot like what you feel as you approach the end of senior year. You start getting the big question: What are you going to do after college? You start applying to jobs. You realize that once you graduate, you’re going to have bills to pay, and you won’t have the crutch of college to hold you up anymore.
Except that you can’t full start the next phase of your life until that first one ends. You have to pass the baton from College You to Real World You.
So you sit there, full of anticipation, just waiting for the next leg of your life to arrive.
Some of your classmates will nail the handoff, and good for them! You’ll look at them a year or two after college and think: They’ve made it already. They’re so far ahead of me.
Some will botch the handoff. A few years after college, they’ll still be trying to figure out what career paths to take and what happens next. Sometimes, the next phase of your life shows up, and you’re just not ready to hit the ground running.
The important thing to remember is: No matter how well or how poorly that transition goes, just keep running. Your career isn’t a race, and you’re not competing against your classmates. Once you get that baton, you get to forge your own path ahead at your own pace.
It doesn’t matter where you go, or how fast you go. The only thing that matter is: Are you bold enough to grab that baton and start running?
Get ready, class of 2017. You’ll be off and running before you know it.
I’m getting married in three weeks. And: I’m excited! I can’t wait to see so many people I care about in one place, and I cannot wait to finally say “I do” to the woman I love.
Of course, there is this one thing that’s been nagging at me for a little while, and I want to say something about it out loud:
There is a typo on the welcome note that’s going in everyone’s gift bags. And I can’t do anything about it.
Let me explain.
When you plan a wedding, you end up making a thousand tiny decisions about stuff you never knew you needed to care about. From one big decision — Will you marry me? — comes a thousand tiny ones: Is this the right font for us? Should we upgrade the napkins? Are we making the best possible choice about chairs?(1)
You end up making a lot of decisions, and you end up with a shocking number of moving parts for a single event.
Which is why, eventually, you end up realizing something: The more things there are, the more things will go wrong.
If you make a thousand tiny choices, a handful aren’t going to go the way you wanted them to. It happens! The caterer is going to forget about that cheese you specifically requested. The DJ is going to play a song you didn’t want them to play. The bouquet will include a flower you didn’t ask for.
Or, yes: You’ll make a tiny typo on a note going in the gift bags at the hotel. (I forgot a comma! I should proofread more closely next time! I’m sorry!)
Say it with me: The more things there are, the more things will go wrong.
That’s how it goes with weddings, or with any big project you work on. It’s inevitable. The more complicated a project gets, or the more people who get involved, the more likely it is that things are going to go wrong. Mistakes always get made. The hardest thing is accepting the mistakes, and being willing to keep your focus on the big picture and not the little details.
They only notice the big picture anyway.
I’ll tell you a quick story. It’s about my bar mitzvah. 48 hours before the big day, I stood in an empty synagogue with my rabbi and my parents, practicing my Torah portion. I’d spent months preparing for the day, and this was the final rehearsal before it actually happened.
But during that rehearsal, I flubbed a line in Hebrew — a language, it’s worth noting, that I don’t speak! — and got completely flustered, ran to the bathroom, and locked myself inside for 20 minutes.
And I cried.
When I finally came out of the bathroom, my rabbi gave me some advice: If you screw up a line, it’s OK! Just go back to the beginning of the line, and read it all over again. Nobody will ever notice.
And on the day of: I did screw up a line. But I went back to the beginning, and read it all over again.
My rabbi was right, of course: Nobody noticed. If anything, the family members who could read Hebrew just assumed that I was supposed to chant that one line in Leviticus twice.
Again: The hardest part of mistakes is learning to let them go.
So as for that missed comma on the note in the gift bags: We’ve got enough time to fix it, but… we aren’t going to. It’s just a missed comma, and this is the first of many, many little details that we’re going to mess up.
The big picture matters far more. Yes, we’ll remember the tiny flubs. But we’re trying to stay focused on giving the rest of our guests a whole night they’ll never forget.
— — —
That drawing is by my soon-to-be father-in-law, Dave. (He’s quite talented!) It’s of downtown Pittsburgh, where we’re having the wedding.
I’ve been talking to a lot of recent grads lately, young people who’ve moved to New York and are trying to figure life after college.(1) The market seems to be improving for grads, but it’s still not easy. The best way to get a job is by accumulating a lot of work experience and a big network of friends who can open doors for you — and both of those are things that recent grads usually don’t have yet.
Which is why a lot of these grads have been asking me: Is it OK if I take a job I don’t love because I need the money?
The answer is: Yes, of course!
It’s OK to take the job that isn’t quite what you want — that content marketing job at the law firm; that graphic design job at the big marketing agency; even that job behind the counter at Starbucks — because you need the money. You do have to pay the bills somehow! And know this: Hiring managers were once in your shoes, too. They’ve all taken jobs because they needed to, not because they wanted to.
Here’s the important thing to remember: When you’re writing your résumé, that’s the perfect opportunity to craft your story and to shape all of your experiences into a personal narrative. Same goes for an interview. You can always use it to explain the “big picture” reason why you took a job, like:
– “I loved my boss, and wanted to have her as a mentor.”
– “I wanted to learn more about how to work effectively as part of a big team.”
– “I was trying to launch a new project, and needed a side gig to keep me afloat while I launched.”
Just make sure you’re the one putting your story out there first. With your résumé and your interviews, you can explain why you’ve done the work you’ve done and where all of it is taking you.
“I used to be a waiter. I was doing stand-up for free at night, and I would work as a waiter from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. I did the lunch rush, and a couple of times, J.B., I walked up to a table, and they looked up at me and said, ‘I saw you on stage last night! I thought those were professional comedians!’”
“And I would just have to go: ‘Well, not yet.’”
Like I said: Everyone has to pay the bills sometimes. Even Jerry Seinfeld.
But what I love most about that story: It’s a reminder that even then, Jerry Seinfeld had a career arc in mind. He wasn’t a waiter. He was always working towards becoming a comedian.
So it’s OK! Take that job that isn’t perfect — just as long as you know where you’re going and how the work you’re doing today helps get you there.
It’s okay to be the quiet one at work. And it’s okay to be loud, too. Either way, as long as you have a boss who supports you and your team, you’ll be okay. You don’t need to pretend to be someone you’re not to do great work and get noticed. You have a team behind you to support you and your work.
It’s okay to hate meetings. (Everyone hates meetings.)
It’s okay to take your vacation days. (That’s why we gave them to you!)
It’s okay not to respond to that unexpected late-night email from your boss until the next morning. (7-to-7 is fine! But be someone who responds to emails within 24 hours, OK?)
It’s okay do something different, and it’s definitely okay to make mistakes.
It’s okay to feel completely lost.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed.
It’s okay to be the one who asks a few extra questions to make sure you understand.
It’s okay to pitch big ideas, and it’s okay to be the one who tries to turn those big ideas into big work.
To be honest: As long as you work hard; listen well; respect your team and your co-workers; and show up every day ready to do the work, then it’s okay to be whoever you are. We hired you for a reason. It’s okay to do your thing.
It can be scary when you make a big life change, like starting a new job or moving to a new city. When you change something so central to your life, sometimes you struggle to find stable ground to stand on. The changes can feel overwhelming.
But I think there are ways to make a big life change without getting overwhelmed. The secret is having an anchor.
An anchor is any source of stability in your life — a constant that stays with you even as you undergo a big life event. It’s a bridge from one stage of your life to another. An anchor could be something like:
A stable relationship with a S.O.
A job you really like.
Strong personal friendships.
Strong relationships with your family.
It could even be a hobby or activity. If you’ve go to regular yoga classes or volunteer on a weekly basis, that could be a strong anchor for you.
The more anchors you have in your life, the less intimidating a big life change will be. The anchors are there to keep you grounded and make sure you feel connected to your true self, even as you make these life changes.
I’ll use myself as an example here.(1) I have a few anchors in my life:
I’m in a wonderful relationship with my S.O.
I have great friends here in New York.
I have several close family members in the city.
I have a really good job.
So let’s say I decided to make a huge life change and move tomorrow to work at BuzzFeed’s Los Angeles office.(2) I’d still have two strong anchors: The relationship with my S.O., and my job. A lot would be changing: I’d be leaving New York, and the relationships with family and friends I have here. But I’d still have two huge constants to help me throughout the move.
Making huge life changes without those anchors is so hard. I did it when I moved to San Antonio. I was single, I was starting a new job in a new field, and I didn’t have friends or family in the city. And looking back, I was so overwhelmed by the move. It was too much to take on all at once. There wasn’t anything that felt familiar to me, and it affected my day-to-day life.
The next time, a big life change will be easier for me. And it can be less stressful for you, too! If you can find an anchor to keep you grounded throughout the change, it makes a world of difference. It might be the difference between you surviving and thriving through the change, or not.
A buddy of mine from college got married last weekend. We went to Chicago to celebrate him and his new bride, and to toast good times. We told all of our favorite stories for the thousandth time, and we laughed until the wee hours.
And one phrase of ours from college kept coming up again and again:
“Do it for the story.”
Do it for the story was something we said when we needed a push to try something we knew was going to be hard.
Do it for the story was the motivation to be courageous, even when the odds were long.
Do it for the story was a reason to go for it, just because.
We were a pretty grounded group of guys back in college. 95 percent of the time, we did the reasonable thing.
But there was the 5 percent of us that was a little bit crazy, that was willing to try something maybe that shouldn’t be tried. It was the wild card in each of us, and you never knew when it might come out and make one of us try something unexpected. That 5 percent is the reason I ended up in China covering the Olympics, and the reason I ended up in Biloxi in 2012. It’s the 5 percent that — to quote the immortal words of “Risky Business” — made you say, “What the fuck.”
It’s good to be unreasonable. It’s good to push yourself to do crazy things. When you grow up, you learn that it’s so easy to get caught behind walls of your own design. Sometimes, you need to force yourself outside of your day-to-day and do something big, even if you’re not quite sure why you’re doing it in the first place.
So try something crazy. Do something you’re not supposed to do.
This is a little outside my normal sphere of expertise. OK, a LOT outside that sphere of expertise. But still: I was inspired on a trip to the store to write about a way an entire business could do better work. Here’s what I think.
A few weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in years:
I went shopping at Best Buy.
I’m guessing that a lot of readers of this blog haven’t been to Best Buy in years, either. I used to go often. It’s where I bought my first laptop, and where my family used to go to buy music(1) and cables to connect TVs and other electronics. But now I buy my laptops at the Apple Store, my music is all digital, and those cables can be bought cheaply on Amazon(2).
So what’s left to buy at Best Buy?
The one I went to was — to be perfectly blunt — a gigantic, sad husk of the store I remember. This Best Buy sold everything: Computers, phones, DVDs, music, stereo systems, couches, TVs, and even washing machines and dryers. It was as if the Best Buy staff had realized that they weren’t sure what to sell, so they decided to sell it all.
Last week, I wrote about a question we should be asking more often in our work: What’s the problem? What I saw at Best Buy were a series of solutions in search of a problem. Back in the ‘90s, there used to be a huge problem: It was hard to find trustworthy places that sold expensive or complicated electronics. And Best Buy filled that need well! In any city, you knew Best Buy was a good place to buy a big screen TV or the sound system to go with it.
In 2016, that’s not a problem. Anything you used to buy at Best Buy, you probably buy at a higher end store (like an Apple Store) or online.
So what’s the problem in 2016?
Here was my problem, the thing that brought me to that Best Buy a few weeks ago: My car has an ancient sound system, and it was time to install a new stereo that allowed me to plug in an iPod and connect a phone via Bluetooth. Best Buy, it turns out, is still a trustworthy place to handle such a complicated installation.
Here was my Dad’s problem, the thing that brought him to Best Buy last year: He needed a new, cheap laptop, and he trusted Best Buy to sell him one and give him the customer support to install the software he needs on it.
In both cases, Best Buy has a team devoted to helping customers install and use their new electronics: Geek Squad. And for an older generation that uses electronics every day but doesn’t always understand it, Geek Squad — much like their Apple counterparts at the Genius Bar — can actually solve a problem for consumers. They’re a trusted source of knowledge when it comes to professional installation and help on complicated electronics.
Here’s my fix: Rebuild the entire business based on Geek Squad, and the help they can give customers when making an expensive purchase.
At the Best Buy I stepped into, the Geek Squad was hidden in a corner of a huge store. I couldn’t understand why. The Geek Squad is why you’d step into a Best Buy in the first place! Their desk should be front and center in the store, and everything sold at Best Buy should come with the option for Geek Squad help. They should be holding computer classes on programs like Excel or TurboTax in their stores. You should be able to go to BestBuy.com, buy a product, and have it waiting for you 36 hours in store for pickup, with a Geek Squad employee ready to help you set it up. Or you should be able to have a Geek Squad employee personally deliver it to your house for installation.
There’s an opportunity there for Best Buy in 2016. They’d just have to be willing to recognize the problem their customers actually face, and change their business in service of their problem.
Major League Baseball’s draft is tonight, which has me thinking about “Moneyball,” the best book ever about the way baseball teams are built. I love this one scene from the movie adaptation of “Moneyball,” where the scouts are sitting around the room, trying to figure out how to replace three key stars from the previous year’s team, and the team’s GM — played by Brad Pitt — has his mind on something entirely different:
Grady: We’re trying to solve the problem here, Billy.
Billy Beane: Not like this you’re not. You’re not even looking at the problem.
Grady: We’re very aware of the problem. I mean…
Billy Beane: Okay, good. What’s the problem?
Grady: Look, Billy. We all understand what the problem is. We have to replace…
Billy Beane: Okay, good. What’s the problem?
Grady: The problem is we have to replace three key players in our lineup.
Billy Beane: No. What’s the problem?
Pittaro: Same as it’s ever been. We’ve gotta replace these guys with what we have existing.
Billy Beane: No. What’s the problem, Barry?
Barry: We need 38 home runs, 120 RBI’s and 47 doubles to replace.
Billy Beane: [Billy groans, loudly] The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty layers of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game.
Let me bring this around to email for a second. Every time I get to talk with other email marketers about their programs, I keep coming back to that quote: What’s the problem? When you’re on the inside, it’s hard to see what the problem is. You think the issue is that your open rates are too low, or you’re not growing your list fast enough, or your click throughs aren’t where they need to be, or you’re not getting the results you wanted on that A/B test, or whatever. Doesn’t matter.
You’re lost in the weeds. You’re solving the wrong problem.
And what I usually end up asking is: Are your emails any good? Are you delivering something of real value to your subscribers?
Don’t worry about the rest of the metrics. First you’ve got solve a simple problem: The work you’re producing probably isn’t good enough, and until you make it really, REALLY good, fixing it is the only problem that matters.
It’s not the wake-up call people want to hear, but sometimes it’s the one you need.
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.