Opportunities vs. Possibilities.

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These are two words that people often use interchangeably:

One is “opportunities.”

One is “possibilities.”

As you get older, you learn that there’s a big difference between the two.

Opportunities are the concrete choices you have to make. They come in the form of job offers or acceptance letters from a school. There’s nothing theoretical about them. When you’re presented with an opportunity, you have to make a choice.

Possibilities, on the other hand, are just dreams. Could I move to Bolivia one day and become a goat farmer? Could I quit my job, move to Thailand, and teach ex-pats how to surf? Could I become president of a big company? Sure, anything is possible!

To put it another way: Opportunities are the things that can happen, and possibilities are the things that could happen.

But here’s where it gets important: When you’re young, it’s all possibility. You’ve got dreams and ambition, but not a lot of hard choices that need to be made. As you get older, the scale starts to shift. You’re no longer thinking about what could happen because you have choices that you actually have to make. You’re setting down, you’re starting a family, and you’re thinking about the opportunities that actually exist for you at this moment.

If you’re lucky, when you’re young, you can turn a dream into real work. You’re not tied down by anything — a job, a significant other, a family, a mortgage. That freedom gives you the ability to try something crazy. That’s what Stry.us was for me — a crazy dream that I actually made happen. But as you get older, the windows of possibility start to close. You still try to stay ambitious and idealistic, but you also start to become more practical. You start to make hard choices because you have to, not because you want to.

There’s a difference between “What will you do?” and “What can you do?” So when you’re young, and everything’s still on the table, take advantage of it. Those doors might not stay open for long.

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That photo of the open road was taken by Jon Ottosson, and published on Unsplash.

Encouragers Make The Best Bosses.

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I just finished Jason Gay’s excellent book of advice, “Little Victories”, and in the chapter about work, he touches on something I’ve been thinking about a lot:

“The best bosses share a common characteristic: they are encouragers. It’s easy to be an ass-kicker, to find holes in someone’s professional ability, but good bosses see a flicker of something and just let it barge out the front door.”

Two parts of that quote really spoke to me. The first was the “flicker of something.” In my career, I’ve had a few dozen of those ideas. I’ve had some big, crazy ideas, and I’ve written my fair share of memos trying to prove that my ideas could become a piece of great work. Many of my ideas were outlandish and were justifiably ignored. A handful were too good to ignore. But then there’s this strange middle ground of ideas: ideas that with the right team and a bit of work could become something great, but that could also be dismissed outright.

Which is where the type of boss comes in — because they’ll be the ones that decide which types of work get done. Like Gay wrote, some bosses are “encouragers.” To that, I’ll add the (obvious) second category: “discouragers.”

Encouragers tend to react with support to your ideas. When you’ve got a great idea, they’ll get the resources, talent, and money to make those ideas into great work. But when they hear a half-baked idea, they’ll give you the space and time to turn it into a really good idea. They’ll ask questions to try to draw out the idea. They’ll suggest that you talk with co-workers who might be able to help the idea along, or they’ll pass along a good article or book that might get the idea moving. They’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Encouragers try to turn a decent idea into a great idea, and a great idea into great work. When you try something and fail, encouragers back you up, share the blame, and don’t let it affect future work.

Discouragers tend to react with skepticism to your ideas. They’ll generally get behind your great ideas, but when it comes to anything less, they’ll try to pick holes in your idea. They’re critics. They’ll ask questions that are intended to find the faults in your pitch. Whatever your idea, you’ll have to prove it and maybe even debate it. You will not get the benefit of the doubt. Every idea has to stand on its own. Discouragers hear a half-baked idea and work to keep it from becoming a fully-baked flop. When you try something and fail, you will take the blame.

I think every boss needs be a bit of an encourager and a discourager — the perfect mix is probably 80/20, with a heavy lean towards encouragement. There certainly are times when it’s important to set boundaries and to say “no.” And when an encourager says “no,” that comes with some credibility, because “no” isn’t their default setting.

In general, I prefer to work with encouragers. When you’ve got a “C+” idea, it’s nice to know that you have a boss and a team that’ll work to turn it into an “A” idea. Working with a discourager is harder. It can feel like you have to reestablish trust with your boss every single day. Sometimes, you shy away pitching anything but your absolute best because you’re afraid of the debate that might come.

With encouragers vs. discouragers, it’s not just about positivity vs. negativity. It’s about support vs. discouragement. It’s about knowing that you have a team behind you, and that you don’t need to prove and reprove yourself.

Jason Gay’s not wrong: The best bosses are encouragers.

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That photo of horses traveling together comes via Unsplash and photographer Susan Yin. There’s a metaphor there somewhere about teams traveling together, maybe? (OK, that’s a stretch. But you get the idea.)

I Started At BuzzFeed Three Years Ago Today, And This Is What Happened.

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Today is my three-year anniversary at BuzzFeed. I remember my first day vividly. My then-boss, Dao Nguyen, was out sick. So Chris Johanesen, our head of product, welcomed me and showed me to my desk. “You know what you’re supposed to do, right?” he asked.

I most certainly did not.

I had built out Stry.us and launched Tools For Reporters. I had launched newsletters with both of those projects, and I had enough experience to know that newsletters could work at scale. But I didn’t know how to launch a project at this level. I didn’t know how to grow it, or even what I was looking for in a team. I wasn’t even sure if I would last long enough at BuzzFeed to hire a team!

And now on my three-year anniversary, I’m looking back with amazement at a few incredible facts:

-On Sunday, BuzzFeed newsletters drove its 100 millionth click to BuzzFeed.com. ONE HUNDRED MILLION CLICKS.

-In the chart at the top of this post, the giant blue hockey stick of a line is traffic to the site on a month-by-month basis. How did we even do that?

-To put everything in perspective: The week I started, our five automated newsletters were driving 14,000 clicks a week. We’ve grown from those five newsletters to a dozen core newsletters, plus another 10 automated newsletters (like this) and original newsletters in four other countries on four different continents. Pretty good!

-When I started, we had fewer than 20,000 subscriptions across our newsletters. Now, we’ve got more than 2 million subscriptions across our lists. (And we’ve got plenty of room to grow!)

-The team’s grown from me to a team of four in New York, plus another half dozen BuzzFeeders around the world who pitch in to write newsletters in three different languages every week.

-Our newsletters used to be automated, and almost unreadable on your phone. Now every newsletter is written by a human, and they’re all responsively designed.

How’d we achieve all this? By testing out lots of weird ideas (This Week In Cats, anyone?) and spending a lot of time looking at the data and trying to figure out where it was pointing us. By being super clear in our mission: to send newsletters that were always useful and delightful. And by seeking out great people who could bring the ideas, energy, and work to take newsletters to amazing places.

Thanks to everyone who’s been a part of growing newsletters into such an tremendous program at BuzzFeed. Here’s to what we’ve accomplished — and to everything we’ll learn between now and our billionth click. (Hey, we’re 10% of the way there already!)

Thanks, Ken.

Everything I learned about listening, I learned from Ken Beatrice.

I know that name probably doesn’t ring a bell for you. I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, and in my house, we didn’t listen to rock or pop or any kind of music on the radio — just sports talk. And that meant that I listened to a LOT of Ken Beatrice, a local sports talk legend, almost every night as I was finishing up my homework. He had this huge Boston accent, and before bringing on a caller, he’d always say, “You’re next!” In that accent of his, it came out more like “YAW NEXT!”

Beatrice died this week — he was 72 — and I’ve read some wonderful stories about him from colleagues and listeners. Many are about that distinctive voice, or his showmanship on the air. Those stories got me thinking about why I loved his show so much in the first place.

What I remember most — besides the accent, of course — was the way he carried himself on air. Things are different now on talk radio: There’s a lot of yelling, and a lot of big opinions. It wasn’t like that on Beatrice’s show. He did something different.

He actually listened.

Right after the YAW NEXT!, he’d tee up the next caller, and…. let the caller talk! If you had a big rant about the Redskins, he’d give you airtime to vent. If you had a few questions, he’d let you ask them. And if you were really crossing a line, he’d tell you — and sometimes talk over you — but rarely cut you off entirely. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard on the radio. Callers knew Beatrice would be (mostly) patient with them, and fair in his responses. I remember calls that made me uncomfortable — and I’m sure Beatrice felt the same way, sometimes — but as a listener, I knew he’d treat every caller with a certain respect. (FWIW, most of those uncomfortable calls came from Dallas Cowboys fans.) I think back now and remember his show as a space where you could hear opinions that wouldn’t get the time of day on any other show.

A few years ago, he did an interview about his old show, and here I’ll cite a transcription from Dan Steinberg at the Washington Post:

“You know, what gets me is, some shows are based on being nasty to callers,” he said a few moments later. “That’s like if I invite you to my house for dinner. You show up with a bottle of wine under your arm, and I slam the door in your face. Next time I invite you to dinner, are you going to come? You’re certainly not going to bring any wine. And that’s all. Everybody deserves dignity and respect.”

Dignity, respect, and a few minutes to give people a chance to share their voices. I’m glad I got the chance to listen in.