It’s my last week at BuzzFeed, and I’ve been cleaning out my desk drawers. It’s amazing what I’ve found in there: Gadgets I haven’t used in years; random articles of clothing I never wear; and folders and folders of ideas, going back to my very first week of work in 2012.
I’ve written about this before: Coming up with ideas is never the problem. You will always have more ideas, as Ze Frank put it so brilliantly in this video from 2006:
What actually matters is getting those ideas into the world. Finding the right team to build on those ideas with. Testing those ideas. Launching those ideas. Making sure you’re getting the right data to learn more about how your fans are engaging with those ideas. Being willing to kill those ideas when they’re not as good as you thought. Being willing to build on those ideas when they’re better than you could have expected.
The only truly dangerous thing you can do is hang onto an idea too long. The longer you hold onto it, the more precious it becomes. The more you think that one day, when conditions are just perfect, you can release that idea into the world and let it bloom into something great.
That never happens.
You have to make something of your ideas, or you have to move on.
That’s why I’m leaving that 2012 folder — and thousands of other ideas I’ve generated over the past four years — at BuzzFeed. Maybe someone will turn those unused ideas into something real. Maybe they’ll end up in the trash. But I don’t need to cling to them.
It’s time to move on to whatever big idea is next.
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I’ll keep this part brief: I’m starting a new job in August. I’m headed to the New Yorker, where I’ll be overseeing some new digital projects, starting with newsletters. I’m absolutely thrilled about the opportunity — getting the chance to work with their team of reporters, artists, and editors is a dream, and I can’t wait to get started.
But it also means I’ll be leaving BuzzFeed after nearly five years leading the email team. I’m so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had at BuzzFeed — they gave me a chance to be a part of building something great. Doree, Scott, Dao, and Ben let me pitch this job, and I’ll always be thankful for that. A handful of folks got us off to the right start: Jack, Summer, Elaine, Ben R. (both of them, actually), Jon, and Erica. There were people who got our newsletters into the hands of readers around the world — Bibi, Caitlin, Claire, Ellie (literally all the Ellies), Flora, Mariana, and Millie — and writers who believed in Courses — Sally and Augusta, especially. There are so many more editors, writers, designers, developers, strategists, analysts, and marketers who helped us along the way — I simply can’t name them all here, but: Thank you! (And a big thanks to the Campaign Monitor team for all their help over the years.)
And above all, thanks to the team in NYC that built these newsletters and made them great: Adam, Ray, Kaelin, Lincoln, and now Ciera. Thanks for coming on board to do such amazing work.
If that seems like a lot of people to thank — and it is! — it’s because here’s the big secret of BuzzFeed: The company hires exceptional people. I’ve had the chance to work with a truly generous, kind, enthusiastic, and talented team. When you hire exceptional people and give them the tools and the freedom to do their best work, you get a place like BuzzFeed.
So one last time, to everyone who made the last five years at BuzzFeed so incredible: Thanks for an amazing ride.
My first job turned me into a morning person. I worked from 6:30 am to 3:30 pm, but to actually do my job, I needed to wake up around 5:30 in the morning to start updating the KENS5.com homepage. Then I’d eat breakfast and leave home around 7. By the time I showed up at the office, I’d already gotten an hour of work in for the day.
The routine worked for me, and I’ve mostly stuck with it over the years. I’ve found mornings to be a productive time for me. It’s when I get some of my best work done.
Lately, I’ve been tinkering with my morning routine, trying to make sure I’m getting even more out of my mornings. I’ve been testing out a new rule: Every day, I need to get five things done before breakfast.
Those five things could include:
-Writing a new blog post
-Outlining a new project
-Setting up key meetings for the week
-Going for a run
-Making time to read
-Analyzing data for a report
-Handling small tasks (paying bills, cleaning around the house, etc)
I find that if I show up at the office and I’ve already knocked a few things off my to-do list, I’m more likely to be motivated to keep the momentum of the day going. I’ve already gotten a lot done, and it’s easier to tackle big projects at the office once I know I’ve already accomplished a few things that day.
The five things don’t have to be big things, but that’s OK. The important thing is that by breakfast, I’ve already accomplished something, and gotten the day off to the right start. It sets the right intention for the day: Today’s going to be a work day, and it’s already begun.
My breakfasts aren’t usually as hectic as the one at the top. That painting is “The Breakfast” by Thomas Rowlandson (British, London 1757–1827 London), Samuel William Fores (British, 1761–1838) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is licensed under CC0 1.0.
My bad idea happened on December 18, 2012. It was my second day at BuzzFeed. I didn’t know anyone yet, and I didn’t have any idea what I was supposed to be doing. I’d met with one of our designers to build the templates for our brand new newsletters, and it was pretty clear that it was going to be a few days — if not weeks — until we had something that we could actually test out.
I didn’t want to wait that long.
So I decided that I’d create a project for myself: I’d send out an email to our lists wishing them a happy holiday season. The goal was twofold:
1) I’d learn a little more about how to use the email system at BuzzFeed, which was brand new to me.
2) I’d meet some of the people that I’d be working with over the coming months.
This wasn’t the bad idea.
The bad idea was that I wanted to spoof a famous Christmas poem, title the email, “The Night Before GIFmas”, and write the entire thing using GIFs we’d created throughout the year.
It was a very bad, very quarter-baked idea.
I wrote the poem, but never sent it out to our subscribers. An editor stepped in to politely tell me that I might want to re-think the idea of a parody poem in my first week. I scrapped the email.
But as bad as the idea was, the rest went exactly as I’d hoped. I did learn more about our email service provider. I did meet a half-dozen co-workers, figuring out who did what at BuzzFeed and they all fit together within the org. And I even learned how crazy talented the BuzzFeed team was. They could turn a weird request — “Can you add a dancing Santa hat to the BuzzFeed logo?” — and turn it into something neat.
I’ve had a lot of bad ideas over the years — most of my ideas are pretty terrible! But I’ve discovered that what matters most is learning how to do the work and who you can do the work with. Figure those things out, and eventually the good ideas (and good work) will follow.
— — —
The amazing John Gara designed that BuzzFeed logo with the Santa hat, and I really wish we’d had the chance to use it on BuzzFeed.com.
Take a second and watch this video. It’s of guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, from the band Dawes, debuting a new song for listeners. And before he starts, he mentions this:
“I’m going to do another new one, and this one I’ve never done before for anybody, so it makes me a little bit nervous. But if it’s no good, make sure to be honest with me, because I need to know how it is.”
If you listen to the song, “A Little Bit Of Everything”, you can understand why he’d be nervous about the new material. The song opens with a verse about a man contemplating suicide — not exactly the material that fans of an indie band like Dawes might expect.
So in this moment, Goldsmith isn’t just playing a song for fans — he’s focus group testing new material. He’s trying to figure out if there’s enough lightness in this song to make it work. And by asking fans to give him feedback, he’s giving the audience permission to react to the material — and readying himself to listen.
This is the thing about making stuff: Making it is only part of the job. You have to be willing to listen to your audience, your readers, or your fans once you put the work out into the world. You have to be willing to pay attention to what they’re saying, and adjust to what they’re telling you.
It’s not always easy to hear what they have to say. Comments can be harsh; surveys can be unkind. But if you’re serious about getting better at your work, you need to listen. If you ask them, you’ll find that your audience has something it wants to tell you.
You know enough to start. You don’t have to know everything — in fact, it’s probably a good thing that you don’t. If you knew everything that was coming your way, you might convince yourself that the obstacles ahead were too great. You might decide that what you’re doing is too big, too ambitious, too crazy. Don’t talk yourself out of this. You know what you know, and that’s enough.
You have enough to start. You have good people alongside you. You have good ideas. You have enough resources — not everything you want, but enough. You have enough to do the work you need to do.
You’re good to enough to start. You have the work ethic. You have the right skills. Those will get even better over time — but right now, you’re more than good enough to start.
If you had passion for what you did, the ability to hustle and ramp up your work rate, the right skills for the job, enough time, and an awesome team behind you, then you could make great work happen.
But great work does not always lead to great success.
If you want that, you need to follow another formula, and this one’s even simpler:
Success = Work + Luck
The output of all your work — your teamwork, your talent, your hustle — doesn’t fully determine success. You can work unbelievably hard on an amazing thing with great people and still fail.
No matter what you’re working on, you also need to be lucky.
Luck can be a combination of things: It can mean a chance encounter or introduction that leads to a breakthrough. It can mean getting the timing right: Working on the right project at a time when your industry is growing, when the tools you need to do your work are readily available, or when your audience/customers are ready for your work. It can mean taking a big risk that pays off. It can even mean making a small decision that accidentally saves you from disaster, like picking the wrong vendor for a piece of software you need.
You still have to put in the work. But to be successful, you’ve got to get a little bit lucky, too.
I stumbled across this quick video featuring career advice from Carla Harris, a vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, and I had to share it. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, take two minutes and listen to her advice.
Her three big points:
1) “You will have the opportunity to have four to five careers — not jobs — over the course of your professional journey.” Which means that every few years, you should be evaluating where you are in your career, and whether or not it’s time to switch fields — or merely switch roles.
2) “There is no substitute for the power of relationships.” About this, she’s 100% right — building relationships is the key to helping you move up in your field.
3) “The way you differentiate yourself in any environment is to show that you’re comfortable taking risks, because it says to the marketplace that you’re comfortable with change.” Everyone is going to experience change in their jobs — so prove now to your bosses that you’re willing to lead your team into and through those changes.
Watch the whole video — it’ll be the best two minutes of your day.
Ladies and gentlemen, faculty and staff, distinguished guests, graduating students from the class of 2017: I’d like to tell you a story about a simpler, more honest time in American history.
The year was 2005.
I remember it like it was… well, about 12 years ago. Was it really only 12 years ago? It feels like longer.
I want you to imagine a young Dan Oshinsky. He’s a senior at a suburban high school outside Washington, D.C. He’s heading soon to journalism school — one day, he’ll write for newspapers! He’s yet to discover hair product. He’s driving his maroon Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight down the highway.
When a song comes on the radio. (Again, it’s 2005.) It’s a song that he knows, and loves.
He can’t remember the name of the song.
But he loves the riff. It goes: Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh.
The song ends, but the radio DJ does not say the same of the song.
So young Dan drives down the highway in his Oldsmobile, singing the riff over and over again, trying to remember the name of the song. He sings: Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh.
But he cannot, for the life of him, remember the name of the song.
He gets home, and he finds his mother, who grew up loving rock music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Surely, he hopes, she’ll know the name of the song.
Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh, he sings.
And she recognizes the riff immediately… but fails remember the name of the song.
So they call their neighbor, Matt. Matt grew up in rock bands. Still plays in one, in fact. Plays guitar, knows everything there is to know about rock music.
They get Matt on the phone — on his house line, naturally. (Again, the year was 2005.)
Matt, they say, we heard this riff on the radio but can’t remember the name of the song. Do you know it?
And loudly, on speakerphone, they begin to shout: Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh.
And Matt says: Yeah, I know that song! That’s “La Grange”, by ZZ Top.
Matt was right:
I tell you this story tonight, Class of 2017, for a simple reason: That story, from 12 years ago, makes 2005 feel as far away as the the 1980s. It feels like a story from an entirely different era.
In 2005, I was driving around in an Oldsmobile — a car company that no longer exists — with a tape deck — a technology that barely exists — with a flip phone — a product I haven’t used in years. The iPhone wouldn’t exist for another two years, and I wouldn’t discover a music discovery app called Shazam for another five. At that point in my life, I’d never owned an iPod, and the idea of high-speed data being transmitted to cell phones was years away.
So if you would have told me in 2005 that one day, there would be a magical, mobile device that could listen to and identify songs on the radio, I would have been amazed. That was something that could only happen… in the future!
The future, it turns out, is happening right now. In the dozen years since I couldn’t remember the name of a ZZ Top song, nearly everything that exists in our day-to-day lives has changed. The technology, the tools, the resources — it’s all changed.
In just a dozen years.
And I cannot imagine what we’ll have at our fingertips in the year 2029. The changes, I’m sure, will astound all of us.
But there’s the flip side to all this change: Just thinking about the unknown ahead of us can be frightening. How do you prepare yourself for a future you don’t recognize? What are the right careers for such a future? What are the right choices?
I wish I had the answer for you — but I don’t.
Instead, Class of 2017, I have a challenge: No matter what happens in the years ahead, invest in yourselves. College may be over, but push yourself to keep learning. Read a lot. Try new products. Learn new skills. If you work at an office that has a Learning & Development team, take their classes. Don’t be afraid to keep growing your skill set.
In the dozen years ahead, everything in our lives will change again. So don’t be afraid to keep learning — it’s the only way to change with whatever the world throws at us next.
Congrats, Class of 2017, and in the words of ZZ Top: Have mercy.
When I was in high school, my journalism teacher made us end every news report with “-30-“. Why -30-? Nobody really seemed to know. But if you saw it, that meant you’d reached the end of the story.
So I suppose that for most of my life, I’ve been thinking of 30 as the end.
Which is why it’s funny that today — my 30th birthday — doesn’t feel like much of an ending. My 20s were great to me: Studying abroad in Spain, covering an Olympics in China, graduating college, San Antonio, Biloxi, Columbia again, Springfield, the Stry.us team, the BuzzFeed team, New York, and Sally.
(Most of all, Sally. Seriously, how lucky am I?)
I’ve had an amazing life. Now my 30s are here, and I’m so excited about the decade ahead. This one core belief is as true as ever: We’re all trying to find things we love and people we love, and make time for both. Everything will change — but not that.