The More Things There Are, The More Things Will Go Wrong.

by Dan Oshinsky on July 20, 2016

Downtown Pittsburgh, by David Lemonick

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.

  1. Did you know those chairs you see at every wedding have a name? And did you realize you have to pay more for those fancy chairs, even though they’re kind of uncomfortable? Weddings are weird like that.

How To Explain That Blip In Your Resume.

by Dan Oshinsky on July 15, 2016

the Golden Gate Bridge, photo by Denys Nevozhai

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 wrote this a few weeks ago about narratives in sports, but it’s also true for you, the recent grad:

“We’re all crafting these narratives, and every bit of work we put in is a chance to flip the script. You can always keep going, and always keep working to rewrite your story.”

Remember: A single job isn’t going to define you forever.

One last thing: Last night, I was watching an episode of “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” with J.B. Smoove, and Jerry Seinfeld told this story about one of his first jobs. It’s too good not to share:

“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.

— — —

That photo of 5oo-foot view from above the Golden Gate Bridge comes via photographer Denys Nevozhai and Unsplash.com. 

  1. Way back in 2009, I wrote those three words as, “Life? After college?” And that still seems to ring true for recent grads.

Stuff I Didn’t Know Was OK When I Started My First Job.

by Dan Oshinsky on July 7, 2016

feeling reflective

It’s okay to say, “No.”

It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

It’s okay to be wrong, too — sometimes your intuition points you one way, or the data points you one way, and you end up being wrong. Happens.

It’s okay to ask for what you want.

It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to ask uncomfortable questions.

It’s okay to try hard things. And if you’re trying hard things, you should ask for help! Working with smart people on something hard is how you get better.

It’s okay to reach out to smart people — even outside your company — to ask for advice. (Just remember to ask good questions and bring them coffee!)

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.

— — —

I picked that photo from Rosan Harmens and Unsplash.com because I was (sorry in advance, but you’ve been warned) … in a reflective mood.

Before You Take A Leap, Find Your Anchor.

by Dan Oshinsky on June 29, 2016

an actual anchor

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.

———

That photo of a boat dropping anchor comes via photographer Woodrow Walden and Unsplash.

  1. I’m not planning anything big! I’m just an example, I promise.
  2. Again, I’m not! It’s just a hypothetical!

Do It For The Story.

by Dan Oshinsky on June 20, 2016

take the leap

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.

Do it for the story.

———

That photo of skydivers taking the leap comes via a Creative Commons license and Flickr user Laura Hadden.

How I’d Revitalize Best Buy With One Simple Fix.

by Dan Oshinsky on June 18, 2016

Best Buy

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.

Easier said than done. But there is a way.

———

That photo of a Best Buy comes via Flickr, Creative Commons, and Mike Mozart.

  1. Read: CDs.
  2. Amazon even makes the cables themselves!

What’s The Problem?

by Dan Oshinsky on June 9, 2016

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?

To steal a phrase from Steve Martin: You need to “be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Are you that good?

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.

What Happens After The Rocket Ship Levels Off?

by Dan Oshinsky on June 2, 2016

The rocket ship levels off

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I completely agree with Simon Cowell on something.

You remember Simon, of course. He was the loud, controversial judge from “American Idol”, and the reason even I tuned in to see that show’s finales.(1)

Anyway, he said something in an interview with the New York Times last weekend that got me thinking about the way we define failure. He was asked about one of his other shows, “X Factor”, and he said:

“I read a book once about Coke and Pepsi and it was called ‘The Other Guy Blinked.’ And we blinked. We thought 12 million [viewers] was bad. Now, I’m thinking, ‘Christ, if I could launch a show with 12 million today, I’d be a hero.’ But we beat ourselves up so much about it and we changed so many things. The show became unrecognizable. I blame myself, but we made crazy decisions. We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”

That last sentence is the big one. What must it be like to launch a huge TV hit and still feel like a failure?

It makes sense if you think about where he’s coming from. Simon’s first U.S. hit, “American Idol” once drew 38 million viewers for a finale. But then the numbers dropped, and never fully recovered. Here’s what it looked like, according to Billboard:

American Idol ratings by year

Even into it’s thirteenth season, the show was still drawing big numbers for finales. But it wasn’t what it had been a decade earlier.

Keep that chart in mind for a second. Now look at this:

Upworthy before

That’s a chart that Upworthy, one of the fastest-growing publishers of the decade, showed off publicly in 2014 as they grew from zero to nearly 70 million unique visitors.(2)

Now let’s zoom out for a second:

Upworthy after

That’s what it looks like when you rely entirely on another entity for success — in this case, Facebook — and then that business changes they way they do business. Facebook changed their algorithm, and Upworthy went from 70 million uniques to 50 million uniques, and kept dropping. Afraid that they could go from 70 million to nothing just as fast as they’d gone from 0 to 70, Upworthy changed their publishing strategy, and then changed it again. Now they’re doing what a lot of media companies — including BuzzFeed, where I work — are doing: Following the lead of distribution channels and hoping that the Facebooks and Snapchats of the world take us all to profitability. We’ll see how that strategy plays out over the next 3-5 years.

But what I’m most interested in is what happens to the people on the inside when a rocket ship like Upworthy starts to level off. That’s where Simon’s quote comes to mind. Read it again:

“We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”

“American Idol” was a rocket ship, too. It grew from nothing into a national phenomenon. But it didn’t last forever. The numbers dropped, and “Idol” merely became a big and hugely profitable TV show — merely a big and hugely profitable TV show! — not a supernova.

It’s all about perspective, though. What “Idol” built — and “X Factor” did, too — was a huge success, but from the inside, it clearly didn’t feel like that. And when you’re on a rocket ship like “Idol” or Upworthy, or the one I’m still on at BuzzFeed, it’s all about perspective. They’re about understanding that the ride up doesn’t last forever, that leveling off can be a normal course correction, that from where you stand — 12 million viewers, 50 million unique visitors, whatever — you’ve still built something impressive. You might feel like you’re losing ground because you’re not meeting your own expectations, and then you look around and realize where you actually are.

Maybe it’s not the up-up-up ride you thought, but you’ve still reached rarified air.

One last anecdote, from one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Todd Snider. I saw him tell a story once about Hootie and the Blowfish, a band he opened for back in the ‘90s. He talked about how their first album sold 16 million copies. Their second sold 3 million. Their third sold a million. They were a rocket ship that burned out. People called them a failure.

And it’s at this point in the story that Snider said, “Their third album still sold a MILLION copies! Sign me up for that kind of failure!”

It’s worth saying again: After “Idol” started to fail as a show, it still ended up running for 15 years. Simon Cowell launched two more hit shows. Upworthy is one of the biggest publishers in the world. Hootie sold several million albums. Darius Rucker went on to win a Grammy.

Yeah, sign me up for that kind of failure.

———

That photo of a rocket comes via SpaceX and Unsplash.

  1. I still stand by my Ruben Studdard vote.
  2. I’m going to pick on them for a second not because I dislike them — I actually think they’re doing really good work! — but because their last 4 years have been so well documented.

Is It Baggage Or Experience?

by Dan Oshinsky on May 27, 2016

Joe Thornton

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the narratives that we construct around our lives, and how they influence the way we see the world.

Point in case: The Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The San Jose Sharks are going to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history — after years of coming up just short. Wrote the San Jose Mercury News this week:

…their 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals came with an air of the surreal. This was Sisyphus getting the boulder up the hill. This was Wile E. Coyote catching The Road Runner.

Two guys on the Sharks — Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — had played a combined 2,767 games, but never made a Finals. And the narrative around them had always been about one thing: Baggage. Any discussion of their playoff success required talking about their many previous playoff failures. This was their fourth trip to the conference finals since ’04 — but they’d never been able to get over the hump.

Then this year, they did.

And suddenly, the narrative’s changed. For a player like Thornton, the media’s now talking about his 150 career playoff games as a sign of experience, not futility. Suddenly, he’s a veteran player who’s made it! The failures that came before were a test of his mettle, not proof that he couldn’t get it done in the clutch!

We’ve been through this before with so many great athletes. LeBron was the superstar who couldn’t win the big one, until he did. (Twice!) Phil Mickelson was the golfer who couldn’t win the big one, until he did. (He’s since won five majors!) The Red Sox couldn’t do it, until they did. (Twice!) The San Francisco Giants didn’t have what it took, until they did. (Three titles in five years!) Alex Ovechkin couldn’t win it all, until… OK, I guess I’m still waiting on that one.(1)

Point is: We’re all crafting these narratives, and every bit of work we put in is a chance to flip the script. You can always keep going, and always keep working to rewrite your story. It’s never too late — not even for a 19-year veteran like Joe Thornton — to breakthrough and change the narrative forever.

———

That photo of Joe Thornton was taken by Flickr user pointnshoot and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

  1. ☹ ☹ ☹

Always Trust Your Cape.

by Dan Oshinsky on May 17, 2016

I don’t get worked up much when musicians die. But Guy Clark — a wonderful country singer/songwriter — died today, and I went digging for a great song of his, “The Cape.” Specifically, this lyric:

Well, he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith /
Spread your arms and hold your breath /
And always trust your cape

I love that so much — it’s so full of hope, isn’t it? I remember hearing that song for the first time years ago, driving somewhere in Texas, and absolutely hanging on to the idea. I wasn’t sure that what I wanted to do was the right thing, but I needed to hear from someone else that it was OK to take the leap anyway. And then that song came on the radio, and I clung to that fortune cookie of a chorus.

Thanks for that, Guy. We’ll miss you.