I Am 30 Years Old. This Is What I Believe.

Dan Oshinsky talking to the Digital Brisbane podcast

I am 30 years old, and I have so much more to learn. I’ve gotten the chance to work with amazing people at BuzzFeed and The New Yorker. I’ve led teams, launched products, and given talks at conferences. I’ve even been introduced on stage as an “expert” in my field.

But I am definitely not an expert. I’m only just starting to learn how to do this job, and learning how to build and lead teams that can do amazing work. I left my last job partially because I felt like I was no longer being challenged in my role, and I hated feeling like I wasn’t pushing myself to get better. There is a lot I can’t control in my work, but I can control the way I develop my skills and learn new things.

Complacency is the enemy of the work — and I’m determined to keep learning and keep growing.

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 30, is what I believe:

You don’t need to be able to predict the future — but it helps if you can see what’s coming around the corner.

Direction is more important than speed. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going if you’re headed the wrong way.

The smartest people I know ask a lot of great questions, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

If you’re in a job where everybody else is smarter than you, you’re challenged every day, and you feel like a complete impostor, congratulations! You’re in the right place.

There’s always a way.

Challenge the ideas you hear about. Don’t take other people’s successes or failures at face value. Test them for yourself and see what works for you.

I need to get better at so many things: Not offering unsolicited advice. Asking questions even when I think I know the answer already. Saying “no” when I don’t have the time.

I am not particularly good at anything by myself. Everything I do well, I do with people I love.

One the hardest parts of getting older is deciding what you really want to spend your money and time on, and actually sticking to it.

The best nights out are the most unexpected.

Everything is better shared.

Four magic words that will change the way you fly: “Can you help me?” People can be so rude when they travel. Just be kind, and ask for help. It’ll take you far.

Overcommunicate. Don’t assume that people around you are on the same page. Make sure they know what’s expected of them, and what they expect of you.

Your plan isn’t much of a plan if you can’t get your team to buy in.

When you’re making a big decision, lay out all the options, get all the information you can, and make the best choice with what you have. It won’t always lead to the right outcome, but you don’t have much control over the outcome. Worry about what you can control: the process, and the work.

And most of all: Every day, I try to be a little more: more enthusiastic, more helpful, more loving. I’m so lucky to have married a woman who is all of those things — and, yes, even more. I love you more than ever, Sally.

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That photo at top was taken by the @DigitalBrisbane team.

Something We Tried (And Loved) In 2017: Wishing More People Happy Birthday!

A few years ago, my friend Leslie’s dad died, and she wrote a wonderful piece about him. This one part of her story really stuck with me: Every year, Leslie’s dad would call family, friends, and co-workers on their birthdays and sing “Happy Birthday”:

“The dude had a goddamn calendar full of people he would call on their birthdays. From what I’ve learned in the past couple of months, it numbered in the hundreds. If he knew your birthday, he would call you on it and sing happy birthday. He had what I would call a church choir voice. Which is to say, not great, but he would belt it out nonetheless. If you picked up, he’d sing your ear off. If you screened, he’d sing it to your voicemail.”

And it wasn’t until after he died that Leslie realized how much of an impact those yearly birthday calls had made on everyone who was on the receiving end:

“In the past three months, I’ve had untold numbers of people approach me and tell me they had messages from my dad on their phones singing them happy birthday. Happy birthday to Mark! Happy birthday to Suzanne! Happy birthday to Margaret! Happy birthday to family and friends and to people I don’t know from Adam!”

I loved the idea that one little gesture could matter so much to so many people. I’m not much for singing loudly, so Sally and I made a resolution to try something new in 2017: Sending birthday cards.

We made a calendar of people we love, we got their addresses, and we started sending cards to them. This year, we’ve sent about 75 cards — next year, I hope, we’ll send more.(1)

This has been a strange, stressful year for all of us, but sitting down and writing a birthday note to friends and family reminded us how lucky we are to have such great people in our lives. No matter what’s happening in the world, we have these relationships, and we’re so grateful for them. And every birthday is a reminder that there are always great reasons to celebrate with the people we love.

Here’s to getting older — and many more years of happy birthdays (and birthday cards) to come.

———

That’s a birthday card from hellosmallworld on Etsy. They make great cards.

  1. Etsy, I’ve learned, is a great place to buy birthday cards. I love stores like HenPenPaperCo, YeaOhGreetings, hellosmallworld, and lafamiliagreen for original cards.

Talk To Your Fans.

Here’s something I’m trying to do more of: Talk to the people who use our products.

The easy way to do that is to survey them. We’ll send a survey to our subscribers, and promise them that it only takes 2-3 minutes to finish the survey.(1) Or we’ll ask readers to reply to a newsletter with their thoughts. It’s an effective way to get a lot of feedback all at once from readers.(2)

But there’s something even better than getting these online responses from our fans: Literally going out into the world and talking to them.

I can’t tell you how important these IRL conversations have been in shaping the way I think about the relationship between us and our readers. When I start to hear the same themes over and over again from very different people, it’s a clear indicator that we’re either doing something right — or very wrong.

When you’re in the business of creating new products and tools for your fans, it’s easy to lose sight of who we’re actually doing all this work for. But with each of these face-to-face conversations, I remember: These are our fans. These are the people we’re trying to build a better relationship with. These are readers I need to be listening to.

If you can, go out and talk to your fans. You might just be surprised by what they have to say.

———

That photo of a very excited crowd was taken by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash.

  1. And we actually time ourselves taking the survey to make sure it’s a 2-3 minute survey. This really matters! Don’t waste your readers’ time.
  2. One more suggestion: Try surveying using the Net Promoted Score method. I like to use it as a gateway to getting further responses. If readers give us a score less than 10, the next question on the survey that pops up is, “What could we do to get a 10 from you?” The responses are always interesting.

Pay Your Debts.

A few years ago at BuzzFeed, my co-workers on the Product side of the house — the folks that built our website and kept it running — started talking about this idea of “tech debt.”

Here’s a simple way to think about it:(1) At BuzzFeed, we’d built our website on systems that were a few years old. Over time, our team hacked together solutions to build new features and tools using these older systems. These weren’t supposed to be long-term fixes — a lot of these solutions were hacked together.

Almost a decade later, we’d ended up with was a website that — from a coder’s perspective — was like a Jenga tower. We stacked these hacks and workarounds one on top of the other, and eventually, we couldn’t go any further. The building blocks of our site could no longer support it.

By making all these short-term compromises, we’d put ourselves in a tricky position. We couldn’t really move forward with new projects until we’d gone in and fixed the basic infrastructure of our website.

We’d accumulated all of these debts, and we finally faced the realization that we had to pay those debts off. In order to move forward, we first had to tear down and build from the ground up.

So our tech team did. It was challenging, and it took an incredibly smart team the better part of a year to do it. But they did it — and moving forward, with the right systems and structures in place, that team at BuzzFeed is going to be able to do amazing things. They’ve got a strong foundation to build off of.

But there’s more than just tech debt out there. In the first few months at my new job, I’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out what debts we need to pay at The New Yorker. I’ll ask co-workers: What are we doing that drives you crazy? What are you spending too much time on? What could we fix that would change the way you work?

Slowly, we’ve started to identify our debts. We’ve been able to streamline old processes that were broken, and build new processes that will allow us to move quickly. We had process debts (teams using inefficient systems to do work), communication debts (teams struggling to work together towards common goals), and quite a bit of tech debt (teams using outdated or ineffective tools and apps).

It’s going to take us a while to pay off these debts. But by identifying them, and putting together the teams to fix them, we’re making the short-term changes to allow for long-term success.

———

That piggy bank photo was taken by Fabian Blank for Unsplash.

  1. And I’m going to really oversimpify here — I promise that my old colleagues were incredibly bright, thoughtful people, and this doesn’t at all reflect the amount of work, effort, thought, etc. they put into building some amazing products.

Do Something Small, Do Something Kind.

andre-benz-257878

I’ve written before about bad days — how to react to them, how to keep going when you’re having one. I even wrote a blog series back in 2011-12 called “Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong.”

I was thinking about those posts this morning on the way into work. The New York subway system has been having a rough year, and things went a little off the rails(1) this morning. It took three trains and an extra 45 minutes to get into work, and me and my fellow New Yorkers were understandably grumpy as we made our way into the office.

Here’s what I know: A bad commute can ruin the rest of your day. I’ve certainly been guilty of getting frustrated with co-workers after a bad ride into work — the chain of screaming is real:

So I’ve been trying to find new ones to break the chain — to take a bad day and turn it around. Here’s the simplest one: I try to find a few moments during the day when I can be especially kind to someone else. That might mean helping a tourist on the subway find the right stop after a train delay. It can mean sending a nice note to a friend. It can tipping the extra buck at the corner bodega, or stopping by a co-worker’s desk to thank them for something they did.(2)

I don’t know if it really helps — maybe it’s just an act of good karma — but it’s something. And on bad days, it’s something I can focus on besides a lousy start to the day. These aren’t big acts, but I’d like to think they help a little.

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That NYC subway photo comes via Andre Benz and Unsplash.

  1. Pun unintended, sorry.
  2. If there’s something you do to break the cycle of a bad day, I’d love to hear it. Shoot me a note.

Be Willing To Suck.

samuel-edwards-road

I talked to a journalism class this week, and they asked me about Silicon Valley mantras, like “Move fast and break things” and “Fail fast, fail often.”

How do you feel about them?, they wanted to know.

I’ve written a few times over the years about failure, and I’ve been thinking about it more at this new job. Here’s what I told them:

The first time you do something, you’re not going to do it very well. I look back on things I wrote a decade ago — sometimes even stuff I wrote a year ago — and I’m embarrassed at how bad it is. I look at old projects of mine, and I can’t believe how average the work is.

My earlier work sucked.

The only way to get better is to keep pushing yourself, and to surround yourself with people who push you just as hard. It takes time, and it takes work.

And yes, it will often suck.

The best people I know are a lot of things: Talented, creative, and lucky. And nearly all have something else in common: They’re willing to go through periods where their output isn’t very good, and they’re willing to work hard to improve.

Those Silicon Valley mottos miss one key point: The only way forward is being willing to suck. If you’re just starting out, remember this: It will be a long time before your work is any good, and that’s OK.

Doing great work isn’t about failure — it’s about perseverance. You’re not failing — your work just isn’t very good yet, and there’s a difference.

They won’t put this on a bumper sticker or a poster, but it’s the truth: Be willing to suck. Adversity and struggle is how you get better. Keep at it until you get to a place where you’re doing the work you really want to do.

———

Unfortunately, I still suck at picking images to run with posts, so here’s a very cool (but very generic) photo of the road less traveled. This photo’s by Samuel Edwards, and was posted on Unsplash.

The Montage Scene.

montage scene

I was having dinner recently with a few friends, all of whom have started new jobs in 2017. We were talking about the struggles with a new job: Building relationships with new co-workers, learning new workplace procedures and etiquette, and challenging yourself in a new role.

And then, in the way that dinner conversations tend to go to strange places, we got to talking about the movies. A friend noted that they don’t show people putting in the day-in and day-out work in movies. If movies were like real life, someone would show up at an office, pitch a big idea, and then spend the next eight months slowly getting the buy-in to make that idea happen. Nobody wants to watch a movie where someone spends two months writing memos or getting coffee to brainstorm new ideas. Wouldn’t make for much of a movie.

Then we thought about it some more, and realized that we were wrong. They actually do show people putting in the work in movies! But it’s always in a montage:

And all of us at that dinner table agreed: The early stages of a job are a lot like the montage scene of the movie. You put in a lot of work, you try to make stuff happen, but it’s not glamorous. It’s… work.

In the movies, the montage scene is always fun. When you see a montage in a “Rocky” movie, you know that a big fight is coming up. You know you’re going to get closure for a character soon.

The montage scene at a new job isn’t quite like that. It’s work, and more work, and building new routines, and learning new stuff. It doesn’t always lead somewhere right away. You start a new job with a lot of ambition, but it always takes more time than you think to start getting stuff done that you’re excited about and proud of.

At BuzzFeed, the montage scene lasted my entire first year. It took a long time to build something from nothing, and even when we made progress, I’d look back on what we’d built so far and realize: We hadn’t done that much. It was frustrating.

But eventually we got there. Eventually, all new jobs get out of the montage scene, and then you can move on to bigger things. But you’ve got to put in that work first — and unlike the movies, you can’t compress it all into a three-minute-long montage.

Keep your head down and keep doing the work. You’ll make it through.

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That photo of a film reel comes via Noom Peerapong and Unsplash.

Here, Read This.

One of my former BuzzFeed colleagues, Millie Tran, put together this fantastic presentation about how to visualize your career. It’s full of wonderful advice for people in their 20s and 30s — especially if you work in media. Take 5 minutes and give it a read here:

Make It Work.

oscar-nilsson-13605

If you don’t have all the money you need to build something, you can still make it work.

If you don’t have all the knowledge you need to build something, you can still make it work.

If you don’t have all the time you need to build something, you can still make it work.

It won’t be perfect. It might be far from perfect, to be honest. But find a way to get started. Find a way to make it work.

———

That generic desk photo comes via Oscar Nilsson on Unsplash.

A Good Test Starts With A Great Question.

science experiment

Perhaps you’ve run an A/B test before. You wanted to see which would result in more clicks: Headline A vs. Headline B. A red “Click Here!” button vs. a blue “Click Here!” button. A photo of a cat vs. a photo of a dog.

What you’ve done is an optimization test. It’s a simple form of testing — you’re tinkering with the variables to try to find the best possible combination of content.

But when I talk about testing, I’m talking about something different. A test is more than just tweaking stuff at the margins.

A good test starts with a great question.

Right now, I’m asking two really big questions at work:

1) How can we build a big, highly engaged audience through email?

2) How can we convert those readers into paying subscribers to our print or digital editions?

These are complicated questions. To get the answers, we’re going to run dozens of experiments over the coming months. We’ll test out new sign-up funnels to grow our audience; build new designs for our existing newsletters; create original content to live in our emails; launch entirely new newsletter products; and test all sorts of calls to action to see how, when, and why a newsletter subscriber might be willing to pay for access to our premium products.

But it all starts when you ask clear questions. Those questions help set the boundaries for your work, and make clear what you should be focusing on, and what you shouldn’t.

And a few months down the road, once we’ve used these tests to build out the framework to answer these questions, that’s when we’ll get into the nitty gritty of optimizing. We’ll run all sorts of little tests — button colors! subject lines! cats and dogs!(1)— to get to that optimal version.

But first, we have to answer these big questions.

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That photo, “Science experiment” by Zyada, is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  1. OK, maybe not this one.

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