Hard Work + ________. (or: The Secret To Doing Better Work.)

About two weeks ago, I started swimming again. There’s a guy who’s been at the pool each time I’ve been there. He must weigh close to 300 lbs.

But every time I’ve looked up, he’s been lapping me. He’d be a lane or two over, and I’d start racing him, trying to beat him to the wall.

I’d get to the wall, and he’d already be on his next lap.

And this started to piss me off. I’m 6’5”, and I’m as skinny as I’ve been since college, and I’ve got big hands and big feet, and I’m just not fast in the water. I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ve got Michael Phelps’ size but absolutely none of his talent.

But to find out that I was way slower than this fat guy? It made me mad. What was his secret?

Yesterday, all the lanes were taken, so I shared with the fat guy. I hopped in the pool and looked down at his feet.

He was wearing flippers.

The secret was out. He was swimming with an outboard motor attached to his feet.

But it also reminded me of a common misconception. Many people will tell you that hard work alone guarantees success. It does not.

Lots of people work hard, but much of it is not the work that people are most passionate about. I know people who work long days, but their jobs are filled with conference calls and TPS reports, and they burn out. Hard work is a prerequisite for success, but it’s not the only prerequisite.

Hard work has to be paired with the right things — like passion, ideas, good people, the right tools and skills — in order to actually take you somewhere.

Here I am in the pool, kicking like crazy, and the 300-pounder in lane 2 has fins attached to his feet. Both of us are putting in the work in the pool, but when it comes to pure productivity, he’s far exceeding my output. With those flippers on, he can probably swim twice the distance I can flipper-less in an hour. He told me that he’s trying to swim a thousand meters each day. With the flippers, he can do that in about 45 minutes in the pool.

That’s fantastic. He’s pairing the right work with the right tools to meet his goals. He’s focused in how he goes about the work.

Then there’s me, flailing about in the water. Talking to the guy with the flippers yesterday, I realized that I hadn’t set any goals for the pool. I was showing up to do work, but I wasn’t sure what work I wanted to do.

As a result, I was doing empty work. I was sweating my ass off without any real purpose in mind.

I owe the guy with the flippers a thank you the next time I see him. Because the next time I go to the pool, it’ll be with specific goals in mind. I’ll be swimming with purpose.

When you’re trying to do good work, that can make all the difference.

Thanks to @hadleyvictoria for the excellent picture of flippers.

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The Night I Got My Mojo Back.

Photo of the D.C. Metro via @orettedaredaro

At this point in my life, I’m still learning how to produce good work. The quality of the work will change over time, but everything I do starts with a commitment to work.

That work ethic started about the 1st of this year, actually. That’s when the schedule I have today — the hours, the projects, the shipping — really began.

But the attitude behind this work ethic goes back a little further than that, actually.

It started with, of all things, a kiss.

I had gone out for dinner with a friend of a friend. This was about 18 months ago. She was working on a cool project, and we wanted to trade ideas about it. Dinner led to drinks. Drinks led to more drinks. Our dinner get-together moved into its fourth hour, than its fifth.

Sometime past midnight, we decided to call it a night. I wanted to ask her out. I needed to ask her out. I had only been in D.C. for a few months. Stry.us was losing momentum. I had just sent in an application for this fellowship I’d heard about at RJI. I was living in my childhood bedroom.

I really needed a win.

And then this amazing little night happened, and I was so giddy. I had to see her again.

I asked her out on the escalator down to the Metro. She said yes. Then she quickly said goodnight. She took another escalator down to her subway track. I walked towards my train.

The electronic signs said the Metro wouldn’t come for nine minutes.

Nine minutes.

Nine minutes to think about what had just happened. Nine minutes to work through the evening.

Nine minutes to beat myself up over the fact that I should’ve kissed her. I had really wanted to kiss her. You should’ve done it, Dan.

And then a part of me realized something that I’ve carried with me to this day: The fear of not taking action far outweighed the fear of taking action. The fear of having to sit on that platform for nine minutes and think about missing that opportunity was much more powerful than the fear of making a move (and maybe looking dumb in the process).

That feeling’s stuck with me. I know that I have amazing opportunities before me, as I try to build a better future for reporting and storytelling and community. I cannot let days just slide by. Motion matters. Action matters.

I got mad that night. I got mad at myself for being unwilling to do what I wanted. I got mad at myself for not chasing my curiosity.

I went down the escalator. I started looking for her. There were a few hundred people on that platform — some drunk, some tired, all unhappy to be waiting. She was down at the end of the platform.

I had something to say, and it kind of came out mumbled. But she smiled. I leaned in. We kissed.

Then I bolted. I was way too giddy to make small talk after that.

The relationship lasted a few months before it fizzled out. But I’ll always remember that first kiss. It reminds me not to idle, not to worry, not to regret.

It reminds me that amazing things happen in unexpected places, and that boldness and action matter.

We always complain about how little time we have. But I like to remind myself: Dan, do you remember how much time you wasted before you started?

There is no longer time to idle. There is only time for action.

Focus, Dan, Focus.

The brilliant Hayes Carll one sang these words, a sentiment that I find holding more and more true by the day:

There ain’t enough of me to go around.

Of course, Mr. Carll was singing about a different thing altogether. Hayes loves women.

I love work.

To each his own, I suppose?

But these days, there really isn’t enough of me to go around. There is so much to be done with Stry.us, and so little time. This project lasts four months. Two are almost over.

Two! Where the hell did all the time go?

I serve so many roles at Stry.us. I lead. I organize. I build. I teach. I report. I listen. I generally keep us from going bankrupt or ending up in a court of law.

This is a lot for a single human. To get everything done, I either need more time or more Dans.

Or the secret third option: I need to focus.

I need to focus when my reporters talk to me. I need to focus when I report a story. I need to focus when I’m filing expenses.

Focus means that I need to look people in the eye. Focus means that I need to stop trying to hold conference calls with a soccer game on in the background.

Focus means occasionally putting down the laptop.

Yes, I have to multi-task. But what that really means for me is that while I have to accomplish many different tasks — all those different Dans need to take on their own tasks within the course of a single day — in a single moment, I need to find the will to take every bit of me and throw it into a single thing.

And then I need to find a way to finish that task, find the next task and throw myself fully into that.

I cannot give all I want to give to this project until I learn to focus.

Give Absolutely Everything You Have To Something You Love.

To partially steal a line from the band Dawes: If you can gives yourself to something, then you should.

Stry.us is the closest I have come to realizing myself in another thing. It is everything I care about — stories, the web, people, building, design, sharing. It is impossible to separate myself from this project. There is already so much of me in it.

And I am all in on this. There is no backing down from it now. There is no going back to normal jobs in journalism. Not after this. Not after I’ve put in the work. Not after I’ve learned how hard I can work.

You know how many athletes will refuse to retire even after their playing career is clearly finished? Oftentimes, it’s because these athletes can’t imagine a future beyond sports. This is all they know.

And on a much smaller scale, I’m starting to understand that mentality. I don’t know just yet what the next thing is for me, but I do know that this part of the Stry.us journey ends Sept. 1. And I know that to go from Stry.us to anything less than an equally absurd challenge would be a letdown. I’d be bored at a desk job, and life is too short to be bored.

I’ve gone all in, and I cannot imagine life on a lower plane than this.

There is something so incredibly rewarding about giving myself fully to this business. On a daily basis, I’m asking myself to do things that I couldn’t do the day before. I’m asking myself to take on challenges that I didn’t know existed a month earlier.

I feel the pressure. This is my baby, and if it gets screwed up, it’s going to be my fault. This thing goes as far as I can take it, and that means making the right decisions and hiring the right team to keep it going. I think I’ve made several excellent decisions so far. I really like my team. I think we’re kicking ass.

But we’ve got less than 70 days to go on this Springfield project. There is more reporting to be done. There are more stories to be told. I love the journey, but I’m also so excited to see where we’ll all be when Sept. 1 arrives. I have no idea where this thing will take us, but I believe that it will be somewhere great. I believe that if I keep pushing all of myself into Stry.us, if I keep reaching deep for all the talent and enthusiasm that I can muster from my team, we’ll have something awesome when the Springfield project ends.

There is more to give — so much more. I will give myself to this project, I keep telling myself. I will give it everything I can give. All the time, all the energy, all the joy.

I must.

Fortune cookie at top via @c_richa20.

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Finding The Energy To Do The Work On Days When It Just Isn’t There.

Navin R. Johnson: The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here!

Harry Hartounian: Boy, I wish I could get that excited about nothing.

Navin R. Johnson: Nothing? Are you kidding? Page 73 — Johnson, Navin R.! I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book everyday! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity – your name in print – that makes people. I’m in print! Things are going to start happening to me now.

¶ ¶ ¶

I’m seeing that Navin R. Johnson kind of excitement from my team at Stry.us lately, and it’s a wonderful thing. I can’t remember where I read it first, but it’s true: You can teach skills, but you cannot teach attitude. Right now, we’re at the start of this project, and everyone is excited about everything.

The challenge is in keeping that excitement going. I have to know how my reporters are running — right now, I can see that two of them are slightly overworked, and one of them is a little bored, and the fourth is right about at her maximum output — and when I need to step in and intervene. Because it’s really easy to lose a good employee to burnout, and it’s equally easy to lose a reporter to boredom.

Like Navin, I know how excited my reporters are to see their names appear on the site. But that excitement is fleeting.

So much of building your own thing is about bringing that energy. Many days, you just wake up with it.

Other days, you have to fake it. You have to smile big and try to find energy in those moments when it just doesn’t want to come.

You cannot just show up on the days when you feel like showing up. The work has to be done every single day.

On those slow days, I like to think about the moments when the energy’s there, when the excitement is high, when I’m absolutely giddy about the work I’m doing. On a day when I’m down, I can always remember: Tomorrow could bring that excitement again. Today’s just a bad day.

Until then, I have to find a way to do the work I need to do with the passion I need to have. And I need to teach my team how to do the same.

Otherwise, we’ll wake up one day as that gas station owner, trying to figure when the days of getting excited about the phone book passed us by.

There are so many wonderful things about being young and stupid and excited. I will not let that go to waste.

To Be Or Not To Be? You’re Overthinking It. Just DO.

Two of my reporters came to me last week with an idea for Stry.us: We should use our Twitter feed to curate a bucket list of Springfield-related things, and then cross those things off as the summer goes on. It’d be a way to engage our audience and to learn more about our new city.

Great! I said. Let’s do it.

And wonderfully, my reporters didn’t freak out at this. They didn’t say, Hey, shouldn’t we talk about this some more? Shouldn’t we have another couple of meetings or something?

I hate meetings. And I hate overthinking, which is pretty much the in-your-head equivalent of a meeting. I hate any unproductive time spent thinking and debating instead of building or creating or doing.

There is certainly a time for contemplation, and there is a time for thought.

But I’d argue that the best time to think about action is after you’ve already started doing. Discussion about action that’s already happened/happening is so much more productive, because once the action begins, you start to learn what truly works.

Action leads to practical solutions. Discussion often merely leads to theory.

I’d take the former every single time.

I’ve wasted so much time talking about what I could do or should do or might do. But the only thing that matters is what I actually do.

So start. Start before you’re ready.

To be or not to be? Nah, that’s too much thinking. Just do.

Anything I’ve Ever Done Well, I Have Done Wrong First — Many, Many Times.

How about I just put this in the simplest way I can?

Everything I have ever done right in my life is something I’ve done wrong a half-dozen times first.

Every good idea, every well-executed plan, every romance — it’s all the result of complete, total, abject failure. I have never done anything right the first time.

The first time I tried to speak Spanish ended up with me locked in my closet, crying hysterically at the fact that I just didn’t understand the language.

The first time I interviewed a source using a tape recorder, I forgot to press record.

The first time I tried to play guitar, I sounded like an amateur.

The first time I wrote a blog post, the words came out all wrong.

The first time I tried to barbecue ribs, I nearly poisoned my friends.

Everything I have ever done right in my life — anything I have ever learned to do well, and to love — I have done wrong first, and I have done it wrong many, many times.

But what I have learned is that if it really matters to you — if it’s a thing, or a person, or a love, or a project, or a dream — then the first failure is no deterrent. And neither is the second, or the twenty-second.

Most of the people in our world see failure as an excuse to stop trying.

The builders in our world see failure as a chance to learn, and to try again.

I believe that the best things in this life cannot be had without failure — crushing, crippling, head-in-your-hands failure — and without the incredible bit of courage it takes to stand back up and fail again.

If you love something, then you must learn to love failure. It is the only road on which great dreams are made.

Good Teamwork Starts With Bad Adventures That Go Slightly Wrong.

The full Stry.us team has been down in Springfield for about two weeks. And we’ve been getting along really nicely — as well as I could’ve hoped, actually.

I was worried about this, actually. We’re putting six reporters into a confined space — we’re all living together — and asking them to work together for a summer. The chance of disaster(1) is high.

But I thought back to three personal experiences where a group of disparate individuals bonded in a strange way:

1. The trip I took with Mizzou to China
2. My Birthright Israel experience
3. My freshman year dorm

In all three, bonding was formed around a single thing: Minor disaster. In China, that meant all-day bus trips to really random places that the Chinese wanted us to see — most notably a sewage treatment plant. With Birthright, that meant the six-hour flight delay we sat through at Newark.

With the dorms, it meant dealing with our ancient, rusting dorm.

What I noticed is that when people are miserable, they come together to share that suffering. In all three experiences, I got much closer to people I’d hardly known days earlier. No matter what happens after that experience, I found, we’d always have that story about the the time we lived through (insert miserable experience here).

I wanted our team at Stry.us to get along, too. So here’s what I did: The day after the last member of the team arrived, we all drove 90 minutes north to Ha Ha Tonka, this beautiful state park in Missouri. It was about 90 degrees. There were lots of mosquitos. And the park is super hilly.

I hiked my team up and down that park for 2.5 hours — at the end of which everyone got a little grumpy and a lot sweaty.

And then they started talking.

Then we grabbed some beer and went to an epic bluegrass concert.

And by the end of the night, our team was exhausted, tired and maybe a little confused at what they’d seen. But they were also talking. They finally had something in common.(2)

There are a few things we’ve done right with this project. But making our team hike in excessive heat and then listen to two hours of bluegrass was maybe the single best thing. It brought us together in a very real way.

The beer also probably didn’t hurt.

Kudos to @dcallies68 for the awesome photo of Ha Ha Tonka.

  1. i.e. fighting, conflict, bickering, smashing of Apple laptops, etc.
  2. Besides the fact that they work for Stry.us and like stories.

There Is No Set Path From A->B. There Are Only Steps. Take The First One.

Run, Forrest, Run.

When I first started Stry.us, I had this notion that I was going to create a company that was going to disrupt the Associated Press. It was going to do a lot of things — most especially, it would tell great stories — but it would be funded by news organizations who would rip up their contracts with AP and give me their money instead. All I needed was 100 news organizations who’d give me $10,000 each.

This was the very definition of cluelessness.

I got excited, and I got ahead of myself. Way, WAY ahead of myself. It was going to take way more than three months of reporting from Biloxi for me to raise money for Stry.us.(1)

The road from here to there — and for the record, the road has since changed, and I’m on a totally different path with Stry.us (2) — takes time. It takes a thousand tiny steps. There are no big leaps.

Think of it this way: Forrest Gump didn’t wake up and say, I’m going to run across the country four times.

No! He said: Maybe I’ll run down to the end of the block. And then to the end of town. And then to the end of the county.

And then you know what happens next:

My goal of getting people on board with Stry.us was one that was going to take time. It was going to take a certain amount of crazy before I got to that first follower, that first client.

It was going to take many tiny steps.

People quit too soon. If there’s one thing that I’ve done right, it’s that I haven’t quit on Stry.us. I’ve kept it going, and just by inching it forward, I’ve gotten it to Springfield.

It takes a thousand small steps to get to where you want to go. The first steps are slow. They are painful.

But if you really want to get somewhere good, you have to take the first one.

  1. And a million dollars! I thought I could get a million dollars! Lordy lordy was I dreaming big.
  2. And that’s totally okay!