-Gmail has a feature called the tabbed inbox. It’s designed to filter certain types of emails — like promotions from companies, or newsletters — into specific folders, making it easier to find the stuff you want.
-Within that inbox, Gmail rolled out an experimental feature — grid view — that made the promotional tab in the inbox more visually appealing. (There’s a screenshot of grid view at the top of this post.)
Naturally, every email marketer started trying to figure out how to hack that feature for best results.
At BuzzFeed, we did nothing.
Since I started building the BuzzFeed newsletter platform back in 2012, I’ve had a singular focus: Make our emails as great as possible every single time. We send dozens of different emails a week. I personally have sent 1,000+ emails for BuzzFeed — actually, I’ve probably sent far more, but I lost count somewhere along the way.
But the focus has always been the same: Make our emails great. That means that when you open one of our emails, the stuff you’re getting should be consistently delightful, useful, and fun.
And it’s with that focus that I’ve seen every facet of the newsletter program grow over the past 2+ years. Our open rates have improved. Our click rates are up. And our subscriber numbers are through the roof.
There’s a lot of stuff that can derail great work, and one is focusing on the wrong things. If we worried about stuff like Gmail’s grid view, we’d be wasting time thinking about the bells and whistles of the email world. I call features like grid view “the shiny stuff.” They catch your eye, and they’re fun to play with, but in the end, they’re not your core product. We had to focus on the things that were going to make our work great — and the results speak for themselves.
When you’re building something new, having that focus is so important. Without it, you’re going to spend a lot of time on things that don’t matter at all.
Here’s a piece of advice you’ve certainly heard before: Not where you want to be? That’s OK.
Just fake it ‘till you make it.
I really hate those words. I think it’s a very dangerous piece of advice — especially for young people who are still trying to find their way.
And here’s what I want to say instead:
Don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t. When you’re young, there are days when you feel like you know everything — but far more when you’re convinced you know absolutely nothing. And on those days, it’s easy to pretend to be the expert you aren’t just yet. Some people make a short-term (and shortsighted) choice to fake it.
But there’s never a need to fake your expertise. Never.
So don’t fake anything. And anytime you feel like you’re becoming a person you aren’t, here’s all you need to remember:
And when someone asks you for something and you don’t have the answer, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”
But there’s a catch: The minute you say it, you have to start working towards actually finding the answer. That means realizing that you’re smart enough to build the support system around you to get the right answers, and understanding that you’re going to have to work hard to keep learning.
That’s the harder way — but it’s also the one that’s going to earn you trust and pay dividends in the long run.
I spent the first six months of 2008 studying abroad in a little seaside town in Spain called Alicante, “studying” being a very loose term for what was actually going on. The last few weeks, some Americans came out to visit, and I kept asking them the same question: What did we miss while we were away?
For the most part, I’d stayed pretty current on what was happening in the States. I was reading the news every day, and I’d watched the Super Bowl, and I was even up-to-date on the latest episodes of “Lost.”
But there was other stuff I knew we’d missed: The ad campaign that everyone in America knew by heart, or the catchphrase everyone had heard, or the hit song that kept playing on the radio. I was so scared of coming back to the U.S. and feeling like I’d been on a different planet.
But everyone kept telling me: You really haven’t missed anything.
So fast-forward to the fall. I’m back at school, at I go to the piano bar on a Wednesday night. It’s acoustic guitar night, and it’s mostly the same old stuff: Garth Brooks, Journey, Elton John.
And then the musicians break into a song I’ve never heard before, and everyone — and I remember it being literally every person in the bar — starts screaming out the lyrics.
I looked at my friends and asked them what the hell was going on. What was this song, and how did everyone know it?
This song, Dan? This is that Jason Mraz song that blew up last spring. It’s called “I’m Yours.”
Everyone in the world had heard that song at that point…. unless, of course, you had been living in Alicante, Spain, where the radio was still mostly playing 2007’s hits (with a healthy bit of Tupac thrown in). Nobody had mentioned that Jason Mraz had a no. 1 hit. I was the only person at that bar who hadn’t heard that song 50 times.
If you’ve never been in that boat — if you’ve never had a moment where you realize that you’re the only person in the room who doesn’t know what the hell is going on — know this: It’s a terrifying experience. All you want is to be in the loop as quickly as possible.
I wish I could say that the Jason Mraz song was my one experience with that feeling, but it wasn’t.
It’s also how I felt for first three months of my job at BuzzFeed.
You have to understand: When BuzzFeed hired me to build out an email program, I didn’t really know much about email. I had launched two small newsletters, yes, but otherwise, I was in way over my head. BuzzFeed knew that, too — but neither of us realized how truly clueless I was about email and publishing and BuzzFeed and pretty much everything on the internet.
I was working with Dao, who is now our publisher, and Dao knows everything about everything. She’d throw out basic acronyms and I would jot them down in a notebook to Google later. She’d start talking about spreadsheets, and I’d run home at night to learn how to use Excel.
Everything was brand new. Everything. And it felt like I was the only one in the room who could say that.
There were days where I truly felt like a fool, and many more where I wondered when I would ever feel like I had a grasp on my job.
Luckily, I asked a lot of questions. Luckily, the team I was working with answered them, and taught me so much in the process. Luckily, I really did want to get good at this job, and worked like crazy until I got there. (These days, it’s entirely possible that I know too much about email! So it goes.) But that’s the only way to do it: Find people who can really help you, ask as many questions as you can, and work your ass off to get to where you need to be.
The only other option is feeling like a fool. And that’s not much of an option at all.
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.
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.
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.
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.