Do One Thing Really Well.

that is a photo of me about to eat all the pizza

Last month, on a road trip back from New England, I had the best pizza of my entire life.

It was at a place called Sally Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut, a restaurant that’s been there since 1938. The pizza was incredible. Everything they did — the crust, the toppings, the sauce — was perfect. Right now, even just thinking about that pizza, I’m trying to figure out if there’s time for me to get on a train and make it to New Haven before Sally’s closes tonight.

Like I said: Their pizza was unbelievably good.

Here’s my favorite part of the Sally’s experience, though: The menu. This is what their entire menu looks like:

the Sally's meu

You’ll notice something about that menu: Sally’s does not sell the usual Italian fare. They don’t sell salads, or mozzarella sticks, or calzones, or pasta, or any sort of side dishes. They sell pizza, and drinks to go alongside pizza, and nothing else. That’s the way they’ve done it since 1938.

Turns out you can stay in business for 78 years selling only one thing if that one thing is that good.

There’s something to be learned from a place like Sally’s. When I was coming out of college, my skill set was like the menu at a New York diner: I did a little of everything, but nothing particularly well. I had written for print, blogged, edited video and audio, and even gotten into photography. I was OK at everything.

When I tried to figure out the first step in my career, I found myself stuck. I could do a lot of things, but I wasn’t sure what one thing to focus on. I didn’t seem fully qualified for anything.

So for that first job, I applied to everything — and I mean everything.

I applied to jobs as a reporter and editor. I applied to jobs on the radio. I even applied to a job as one of CNN’s new backpack journalists, despite the fact that I’d never been on air.(1) I didn’t hear back from anyone, because hiring managers could tell that my experience was a mile wide and an inch deep.

If I could go back, I’d tell myself to focus a little more in college. Yes, it’s good to be well-rounded, but it’s even better to have one killer skill that people can’t ignore.(2)

I’d tell myself: You can always improve your skill set later, and you can always move from one field to another. But especially for that first job, having a specialty sets you apart.

When it comes to careers, we could all be more like Sally’s Apizza: Do one thing, and it really well.

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That is a photo of me about to eat all the pizza at Sally’s. (Two of us ate enough pizza for about 6 people, and I’m not embarrassed by that at all.)

  1. A fun fact: I applied to that CNN job in every single bureau they had, which meant I applied for the same job about six different times in six different cities. I didn’t realize one HR department handled everything, and they grew increasingly more annoyed with me as my applications kept rolling in. Whoops!
  2. Maybe it’s even connected to whatever weird/fun thing you make on the side!

Everybody Does Something Else.

Jonah

A week before I started my job at BuzzFeed, I started to get the sense that this new job was going to be a little… different. I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw everyone at BuzzFeed — literally, hundreds of my soon-to-be co-workers — retweeting an account called @SeinfeldToday, which imagined if Seinfeld took place in the present day:

That account was co-created by a BuzzFeed editor. And he wasn’t alone. Everyone at BuzzFeed, I’d discover, had something odd that they did on the side.

My co-workers were responsible for weird Tumblrs like Texts From Hillary, Onion-like Headlines In Real Life, and Daily Odd Compliment. They launched absurd internet projects like @Horse_ebooks. They had their own podcasts, newsletters, and comedy shows.

Even Jonah Peretti, the company’s founder, was responsible for hugely viral email chains and insane websites like blackpeopleloveus.com.

It’s not a coincidence that so many BuzzFeeders have a side project or gig. I work with an office full of people who love to make stuff — and are lucky enough to have a job that allows them to do even more of that during their 9-to-5. The common denominator at BuzzFeed is that we’re an office full of makers and creators. When you put people with a track record of making great stuff in a building together, you’re going to get some pretty impressive results.

It’s why I always tell people who visit BuzzFeed and want a job there someday: Do something weird with your spare time. You have the same tools that we do — Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. You have the same opportunities to make something amazing on the internet that we do.

So go ahead and make something. It’s the best way for you to learn — and it might be the best way for you to get noticed by a place like BuzzFeed.

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That photo of Jonah Peretti was taken by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch, and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

Your Fuckup Probably Isn’t A Big Deal.

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In 2012, I wrote a blog post on this very site that asked a rather uplifting question: “How long are you willing to suck?” In it, I suggested that if you were going to get really good at anything, you were going to suck at it for a very long time first. It really does take a long time to master a skill. The people who do eventually get good at something are the ones who keep working to get better.

And today, I’d like to add on a corollary to that theory: As you work to get better at something, you’re going to make a tiny thousand fuckups. They’ll probably feel like a big deal at the time, but here’s the thing: They really aren’t.

Here’s a story:

I was 15 years old, and I was covering my first Washington Redskins game as a credentialed reporter. I got to sit in the press box with the other reporters, and I got to interview players after the game. I was very nervous and very excited to be there.

My first game was a meaningless preseason game. My job was pretty simple: At the start of every quarter and at the end of every half, I called this company’s central office and told a guy what the score of the game was. After every scoring play, I called that guy with an updated score. After the game, I called that guy and gave him a few quotes from the locker room. Then they’d send out game updates based on my updates.

That was it. It was a very, very easy job. It required me to watch football for money(1), but without actually doing any real work. I didn’t have to write a game story when the game was over, and I didn’t have to go on air. I just had to watch football, talk to a football player or two afterwards, and make a dozen phone calls.

I remember my first locker room experience. I’d gone to RadioShack to buy a brand new tape recorder — literally, it recorded audio on tiny 1-inch tapes.(2) I remember walking into the locker room and noticing the way the room was laid out, each group of players in their particular corner. I remember walking over to Champ Bailey and Chris Samuels, both Pro Bowlers, to ask questions.

And I remember this most of all: Getting back to my car after the game, pressing play to listen to the interviews I’d done, and hearing…. silence. I remember looking at my tape recorder, and realizing that I’d accidentally pressed the play button, not the “REC” button to record. I hadn’t recorded a single second of my interviews.

I felt like the biggest fuckup in the world. My first time in the locker room, and I didn’t do my job correctly.

And since, I’ve said and done the wrong thing so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve reported on big stories and then spelled a key source’s name wrong — in the print edition. I’ve sent the wrong email to huge lists of people.

I’ve stumbled, blundered, and fucked up over and over again.

And in each new skill I learn, I’ll keep fucking up! That’s part of the process of learning. You try stuff, you fuck up, you learn, you get better. Those fuckups are always little things that can be corrected and learned from. As long as you keep learning and working to get better, you’ll come to realize that your fuckups aren’t a big deal. They’re teachable moments, that’s all.

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That photo of an old-school tape recorder comes via Orin Zebest of Flickr and a Creative Commons issue.

  1. They paid me $35 per game. $35! To watch football! It was a dream job for a 15-year-old.
  2. The more I look back, 2002 feels surprisingly like something out of “The Wonder Years.”

Ring That Bell.

that's Mel Brooks at Radio City

Last Monday, my wife emails me an interview with Mel Brooks. The interview has a bit of news: He’s going to do a showing of “Blazing Saddles” at Radio City Music Hall later in the week, and then a Q&A after the movie. We both love Mel and his movies, so I go looking for tickets. They’re a little pricey, and we’re debating whether or not to go. I’m leaning towards going — Mel is 90, he’s a living legend, and you never know if he’ll be back again.

Halfway through our email thread, the news breaks that Gene Wilder has died.

We buy the tickets.

Of course, it was worth the price of admission, and then some. The crowd could not have been more excited — you should have heard the ovation when Wilder’s Waco Kid first showed up on screen. And then Mel Brooks came out on stage and started telling stories, and we all went absolutely crazy.

He told this one that really landed for me. He’s told this story before, so I’ll quote it for accuracy:

At one point in the movie, an old lady in a bonnet says, “Up yours, n—-r.” Brooks recalled asking John Calley, then head of production at Warner Bros., “‘Can we beat the s— out of a little old lady? Can we punch a horse?’ He said to me, ‘If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it.'”

If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it. I absolutely LOVE that.

And it explains so much about Mel Brooks. This is a guy who did musical numbers about both the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi Germany. This is a guy who made Frankenstein dance. This is a guy who put a fart scene into a Western.

Yeah, Mel Brooks rang that bell.

If you’re going to go halfway, you might as well go all the way. Mel Brooks taught me that last week, and I’m going to try not to forget it.

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That’s a (not very good) photo of Mel at Radio City that I took on Thursday. Look closely: There’s a little Jewish guy at the front of the stage. That’s Mel.