I sat down today to write a thing about Mel Brooks. Now, up front you should know:
1. I love Mel Brooks.
2. There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t quote one of his movies. When will then be now? Light speed’s too slow! Who dares give me the raspberry? (And those are just the Spaceballs quotes!)
So when a new Mel Brooks special came on HBO, I made some time for it. It’s fantastic, and it closes with Mel singing the title song from “The 12 Chairs.” (You can/should watch it here.) The opening verse goes:
Hope for the best
Expect the worst
Some drink champagne
Some die of thirst
No way of knowing
Which way it’s going
Hope for the best
Expect the worst
It’s just a perfect Mel Brooks thought, and anyone who’s ever worked on something big knows the feeling. Before you go in on anything big — a project, a book, a company — sometimes it works out, and sometimes, shit happens!
That’s just how it goes. You do what you can, and you surround yourself with great people — and then you hope for the best.
Anyway, I sat down to write something longer about this — about how perfectly it captures what doing the work is all about, and what it means to go through this life — and then the chair I was sitting in broke. The back of it just snapped in half.
I sit down to write something about how life is funny, and then life goes and almost knocks me literally onto my ass.
You’re right, Mel. Life really is funny like that.
I had a moment today where I had to ask myself: What the hell am I doing today?
This sort of question isn’t all that strange. I do this every once in a while: I wonder about what it is I do, and whether or not I’m doing the right thing right now — normal stuff most people in their 20s worry about.
But this time, I wasn’t thinking about what I’m doing with my life. This morning, I was literally thinking: What the hell am I doing today?
See, when I started at BuzzFeed, I was the only person working on newsletters. I was the guy designing the newsletters, creating the templates for the newsletters, launching the newsletters, doing promotion for the newsletters — oh, and writing the newsletters. By the end of 2013, I was writing 30+ newsletters a week.
It was a lot.
To get it all done, I created a laundry list of day-to-day tasks for myself. I had routines for every day of the week. When I got those tasks done, I had a good day. When I didn’t, well…. that never happened. The newsletters always got out. The work always got done.
In 2014, the newsletter team grew to three people, and the tasks changed. But I still had my Monday routine, and my Tuesday routine, and my Wednesday, and my Thursday, and my Friday. Every day, I had to get it done.
But now this year, the team’s grown to 5, and I gave away my tasks to other members of the team — all of them. And suddenly, I started waking up trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do with my work days.
I’ve done the same things pretty much every day of the week for the past two years. So now that I’ve got a brand new role that’s still being defined… now what?
After a week or two of quietly floundering at work, I realized I had to get some structure back into place. So I sketched out my days in a pretty simple way:
Mornings are my time. They’re for going to the gym, writing, and working through big ideas. If I’m going to do something for me, it’s happening in the morning.
Once I get to the office, that’s my team’s time. That’s when I need to support my team, brainstorm with them, help them work on projects and launch stuff, take meetings, and make things happen to get the team to the next level. When I’m at work, I’m there for them.
What I hope is that in the long run, this’ll help me figure out when I should take on certain tasks. The structure is so important for me — it defines my day and makes it clear what roles I need to play during the day. There’s still a lot of freedom for me, and I like that, but for now, I need that structure to help me get the work done every day.
Here’s to that structure — and to getting back to doing the work.
That photo at top comes via Flickr.
There was a story that blew up on BuzzFeed this week about people who’ve quit their jobs in spectacular fashion. It makes sense why that story was so popular: A lot of people hate their jobs, and a lot of people dream of one day quitting their jobs in a way that lets everyone know just how much they hate it. It’s easy to see yourself as one of the people in that post.
I get it. I thought about it once, too.
It was my first job out of college, and I felt stuck. I started to have this fantasy of quitting in huge fashion. I’d bring in a marching band to the office, and they’d play as I walked right out the door forever. Maybe I’d hide a secret camera in the office and put the footage on YouTube.
But I didn’t do that. Instead, I started to listen to the voice inside me. I wanted to figure out what it was actually trying to tell me.
When I look back now, I remember a lot about that first job. I remember that I worked with some really talented people. I remember that I really liked and respected my bosses, which I knew was important.
I also remember realizing that what I was doing wasn’t enough for me. Not even close.
And I remember being afraid that if I didn’t quit, I was going to end up doing that job — or something like it — forever. That’s what my inner voice was telling me: I needed to go out and do something bold for myself. Even if it was the reckless move, I knew I couldn’t wait for the right chance to just come along. I was going to have to make it happen, and at that stage of my life — single and young — I was mobile enough to give it a try.
Was I scared to quit and do something on my own? Absolutely. But the idea of being stuck at a desk job I didn’t love was even scarier. It was the fear that motivated me — just not the type of fear you’d expect.
That photo at top comes via Flickr’s Kate Haskell.
I am 27 years old, and I think I’m on the cusp of something very big. This year, I see amazing things on on the horizon. This can be the year my team at BuzzFeed turns our little newsletter project into something huge. The groundwork has been laid. Now it’s about putting in the work and finding new people to help take us to the next level.
And then there’s everything that’s happening at home — all of it big and wonderful and scary and amazing. 27 has already brought such great things, and I know there is more still to come.
This isn’t quite like the versions of this post I’ve written before. Those posts were different: at 24, feeling young and still learning to do the work; at 25, just days before I got a job offer in New York that would change everything; and at 26, as I started to truly find my place. Those years were about the slow, often awkward transition that happens as your college years fade away and your 20s really hit — with all of the responsibility that comes with it.
And so at 27, I’m embracing a brand new sort of shift. I’m not trying to prove that I belong here anymore. I do belong here. I feel grounded in who I am, I feel confident, and I believe that I have the right people behind me. So I want to use 27 to set big, ambitious goals and then blow right past them.
27 feels like the year I make the choice to say, Fuck it, why not me?
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 27, is what I believe:
You should ask for more.
Nothing good comes from setting the bar low. Aim big.
The best shit is hard to do, but we should try to do it anyway.
Anyone can have a good idea. Anyone can find the money to back it. But the only thing that really matters is the leadership behind it.
We need more people who want to learn how to lead.
People can always learn new skills, but not if they don’t already know how to do the work. Find people to stand beside who value the work the way you do.
It’s OK to cut things out that you don’t believe in anymore.
It’s OK to say “no.”
Great work starts with setting great habits. A lot of the work is about doing the same stuff over and over again. Even on the days where you don’t feel like it.
People get tired of success. Don’t believe it? Go ask any college football fan who just saw their coach fired for “only” winning 75% of his games.
Don’t mess with happy.
Enthusiasm is a wonderful, contagious thing.
Good things come from messy situations — if you know where to look..
You learn the most about people when you go on big adventures with them.
We’d all be happier if we found five or 10 days a year to celebrate with people we love. There are plenty of good opportunities — college football tailgates, Friendsgivings, long weekends — but we could all find more reasons to get together with friends and family.
You don’t have to be serious to be successful. Some of the best people I know are the silliest. That’s not an accident. They’ve figured something out.
A lot of life is just making choices and learning to live with them.
And most of all: The things that make you feel the best are the easiest to do: Saying thank you, offering someone a compliment, writing a friend a kind note. This is the easiest stuff to do. We can always do more of it.
Here’s another hard truth about doing the work: It’s largely about setting goals and accomplishing goals. And accomplishing goals is really freaking hard.
The work usually goes like this:
1. You set your goals.
2. You start accomplishing some of your goals.
3. You feel great about how much you’ve accomplished already.
4. You feel like you’re accomplishing so much so fast!
4. You look at the calendar and realize that it’s almost the end of the year and you’ve still got a million things left to do.
5. You flail wildly and struggle to the end of the year.
And this is in a good year.
As soon as you set your goals, you basically become Missy Franklin, the swimmer in this GIF:
The yellow line represents the world record pace. In order to beat it, she has to stay ahead of that line. And no matter how fast she goes, she can’t seem to get ahead of the yellow line.
This is the nasty secret: You won’t ever really get ahead of the yellow line. You rarely get to feel like you’re way ahead your goals, because — and this is really, insanely annoying — as soon as you do beat your goals, you’re going to set new, more outrageous goals. And then you’ll flail again in hopes of catching up to those.
You set the bar, hit that new height, and reset everything. But you never really get ahead.
Mentally, it’s a massive adjustment — there are no true end goals, just carrots that you’re forever chasing down the road. But over time, you learn to adjust. You learn to celebrate your smaller victories, and to cherish the really big accomplishments.
And then you go and chase the next big goal. That’s just how it is.
That GIF of Missy Franklin breaking the world record in the backstroke at the 2012 London Games comes via this YouTube video.
My new favorite thing comes from — of all places — an ESPN article about the Kansas City Royals. Writes Jonah Keri:
“‘Once you display a skill, you own it.’ Fantasy baseball guru Ron Shandler coined that expression, which essentially means that once a player shows the ability to do something in baseball (hit home runs, strike guys out, etc.), he maintains the potential to show that skill again in the future. That applies to displaying a particular skill in the minor leagues. While phenoms like Mike Trout can spoil us with their ability to dominate almost from day one in the big leagues, the reality is that even minor league superstars can take several years to truly blossom in the majors. Still, those dormant skills often resurface over time.”
I freaking LOVE this idea. I’m obsessed with it.
“Once you display a skill, you own it” means that if you can write, if you can dance, if you can play the piccolo while juggling, the expectation is that you’ll be able to show off those skills in the future — and can even get better at it. Maybe you won’t be incredible at it right away, but with work, you could be.
And “Once you display a skill, you own it” also means that the sooner you show off those skills, the sooner the people you want to work with are going to invest their time and money and energy into helping you develop — and eventually own — those skills.
But it’s not enough to say you have the skills. There’s a difference between telling me you’re a photographer and showing me. I’ll put the time into working with (and maybe even coaching) the latter, but the former won’t get much more than a courtesy glance.
Show me what you can do. Even if it’s just a glimpse at what you can do. The sooner, the better.
That photo of former Kansas City Royals pitcher David Riske comes via Flickr’s @flyfshrmn98.
Seven years ago, The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten conducted an interesting experiment. He took one of the world’s best violinists, Joshua Bell, and had him perform on a Friday morning during rush hour at a subway station in Washington, D.C. He didn’t tell anyone who Bell was. As Weingarten explained in his article:
“His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”
The simple, shocking answer: No.
As Weingarten went on to point out, maybe the end result wasn’t all the surprising. If he’d told passerbys that Bell was a famous violinist, would they have stopped? Probably! But they had no context for Bell, other than that he was playing a subway station. And playing a violin at a subway station isn’t exactly a indicator of fine musical talent.
Which leads to another big question: How do you recognize what is great if you don’t have the proper frame for it?
That’s the challenge for anyone who wants to product amazing work. It’s not enough to merely create the work. You also have to include the context to show everyone why it’s so amazing. You have to answer certain questions: What’s it an improvement on? How does it help me? And showing that can be a real challenge.
But it’s an essential challenge. Without it, there’s no context — and without it, your work might just go unnoticed.
That photo of a picture frame comes via Flickr’s LUH 3417.
I’m not going to write a long thing about Twitter here. It’s been written before, and from Twitter users far more insightful than me (including here and here and here and here, and that’s just a small sample).
But what I will say is: Especially in the last year, I’ve realized that Twitter frequently makes me sad. Or angry. Or frustrated.
I log into Twitter, and I leave mad about the world.
What I loved about Twitter early on was that it helped me discover interesting things to read or watch, and interesting people to talk to. But I don’t feel that way anymore. Right now, when it comes to discovery on the internet, I’m more excited about apps or email newsletters.
So here’s a very quiet goodbye to you, Twitter. Maybe I’ll be back one day. Maybe not.
Anyway, bye for now. Six years is a long time since that first tweet:
That original artwork at top comes via Flickr’s Pete Simon.
Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of a big project that’s still got more work to do, I just want to hit fast-forward and get right to the end — to the “good” part.
I never feel this way at the start. At the start of something, I’m excited! I’ve got ideas, and ambition, and lots of momentum. I have a concept in my head of how things will pan out, and I can’t wait to get there.
But something happens once I get into the work: I get a little antsy. I want to skip ahead to the part where everything’s working. This happens all the time: I’m bogged down in the work of all of it, and I want to skip ahead to the reward and see how it all pans out. Did I succeed? Did my predictions come true? And once I’ve hit that finish line, what’s the next series of steps and goals I’ll be shooting for?
This is natural, especially when there’s a lot of amazing stuff in the works. You remember the “Harry Met Sally” quote: “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” Take Meg Ryan out of that sentence and insert your own big project or ideas, and the same is true.
But that’s not how it works, of course, and I always eventually realize that. You have to go through the tedious, hard stuff. Great companies get founded because of the tedious, hard stuff learned along the way. Great writers and thinkers and people get to that level of greatness because of the stuff learned along the way.
There is no fast-forward button, because to fast-forward to the results is to miss everything valuable that’s learned between points A->B.
So I always get back in there and keep doing the work, even if it feels like I’m miles away from where I want to be. Maybe I’m really closer to a major breakthrough than I think — maybe you are, too.
That photo of a VCR comes via Flickr’s Rob Ketcherside.
This is something I’ve written about before — waiting for permission, as opposed to just going out and doing stuff — but I had a funny moment last week that made me think of it again:
I went to a show at Lincoln Center here in NYC. It was a free show, and one of my favorite New York bands, the Lone Bellow, was playing.
And everyone there — EVERYONE — was seated.
No matter what the band did, they couldn’t get the crowd to stand up. They asked, and they implored, and they stomped around and played. They never got mad about it, but having been to a Lone Bellow show before, I’m pretty sure they would have been happier had everyone stood up and danced.
And then with three songs left, a few people walked up to the front of the stage and started to dance. Ushers let them stay. And then more people walked up. And then from the back, I could see people pointing and gesturing: “Hey, let’s go up there, too!”
By the end of the show, there were a few hundred people in front of the stage, dancing.
I’m not sure why people didn’t go up earlier. I’m not sure what they were waiting for.
But beyond the matter of permission, there was another thing: When these fans were all seated and spread out, it was tough to tell how many true fans there were at the show. But when they all got together in front, it was obvious: The band had a big following.
Just the act of bringing those people together — a few groups of friends here and there joining to make a pretty big crowd — made a huge difference in the way the rest of the audience reacted to the show. Others started dancing. And when the show ended, the band got a standing ovation.
All those people coming together to enjoy the show made a huge, huge difference.
When you’re putting fans behind a piece of work, I think there’s a lot to learn here. Get those fans organized. Give them something to get excited about. And let them be visible — together is always better than alone.