All posts by Dan Oshinsky

A Thought For The Graduating Class Of 2017.

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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.

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That photo of ZZ top is called, “ZZ Top – Poble Espanyol, Barcelona”, by Alterna2 http://www.alterna2.com, and is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

So This Is 30.

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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.

Onto the next.

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That photo’s by the photographer Johannes, and was first published on Unsplash.

Let’s Get Uncomfortable.

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I hate feeling comfortable.

Why?

When I’m comfortable, I’m not challenging myself.

When I’m comfortable, I’m not learning new things.

When I’m comfortable, I’m not trying to reach really big goals.

So what do you do when you start feeling comfortable?

You can start a new routine. You can set a new goal. You can launch a side project. You can learn a new skill.

But you have to do something — nothing isn’t an option. If you’re comfortable, you’re not growing.

So push yourself to do something new. Get uncomfortable.

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That photo of a literal crossroads comes via photographer Peter Nguyen and Unsplash.

Set Learning Goals For Yourself.

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There are a lot of things you can’t control at your job. In fact, the longer you stay at a job, the more you realize that many — if not most! — of the things that happen at work are outside your control. Successes are a group effort, and so are failures. I’m not here today to talk much about that.

What I do want to discuss are the things you can control. They’re smaller things, but they really matter:

You can control your work ethic: how hard you work, how smart you work, and with whom you work.

You can control your attitude: the energy and enthusiasm you bring to your work.

You can control the way you communicate: the way you talk to your co-workers, follow up on projects, and collaborate on your work.

There’s one more thing that you can definitely control: The amount you learn every year.

I just finished J. Keith Murnighan’s “Do Nothing!”, a book about learning how to adjust to a new leadership role. And in it, he makes a powerful case for setting learning goals for yourself and your team.

The idea is simple: As you advance in a job, you need to keep improving your skill set, your habits, and your knowledge, too. If you’re not learning more, you’re going to eventually hit the upper limits of your abilities — and peter out at your company.

So what’s the way to fight that? Keep learning. If your company has a learning & development team, take advantage of their classes! If not, talk to your manager about having the company pay for outside classes — something online, something at a local university, or something hosted by a professional organization in your field.

And if that’s not a possibility: You can always commit to two things that don’t cost a dime: 1) Reading more books, blogs, and articles, and 2) Networking with people in your field and asking great questions. Learning doesn’t have to come through classes.

This is the first year my team has set specific learning goals. We’re committing to learning new skills — how to get more out of Google Sheets, how to grow in managerial positions, how to communicate more effectively. And by making learning a bigger part of each job, I hope we’ll be able to grow that much stronger as a team.

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I love that ad at the top. It’s called “Vintage Ad #950: You’ll Have to Move Fast to Get Smart” by Jamie, and it’s licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Own The Moment.

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My wife and I spent last weekend at a wedding on the Jersey shore, and like every other outdoor wedding we’ve ever been to — and I believe this was our sixth outdoor wedding together — there was the threat of rain.

This is how it works with weddings. You plan for the perfect day, and then… you don’t always get what you planned for.

But like the other five outdoor weddings we’d been to before, the couple found a way. They moved the venue to a beach-adjacent gazebo, and got married as a light drizzle fell outside.

And impressively, the change of plans didn’t seem to bother the couple — in fact, I’m not sure I’ve been to a wedding where the couple had such a good time!

What made these two such an exception? How’d they deal with the last-minute change of plans? Simply, they owned the moment.

They photos in the rain, big umbrellas billowing behind them on the boardwalk. They laughed when strangers in yellow raincoats accidentally photobombed their ceremony. They did something that most would struggle with: They embraced the changes, and in doing so, made their wedding day uniquely theirs.

Things get in the way of your big plans — that big day, that big project, that big goal. All you can do is work hard to prepare; hope for the best, and expect the worst; and on the day of, own whatever comes your way.

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That ‘30s postcard is called “Sea gulls dip over breaking waves, Ocean Grove, New Jersey” (the lovely town where our friends got married) by Boston Public Library, and it’s licensed under CC BY 2.0

Keep On The Sunny Side.

It’s that time of the year when I’m spending a lot of my time watching playoff hockey. I write about it pretty much every year. Last year, I wrote about how every new opportunity gives us an opportunity to rewrite our story. The year before, I wrote about chasing the action, and learning when to find space for yourself to work. The year before that, I talked about learning how to go 100% in everything you do.

And while the hockey post changes every year, one thing never seems to change: The results for my favorite team, the Washington Capitals.

To put it simply: We’ve lost in more painful ways than I care to recount.

And yet, as I wrote last fall: I’m a sports optimist. Even tonight, with my Caps in a make-or-break game on the road, I believe.

It’s just what I do. I’m the kind of guy who looks at a bad situation and tries to see the opportunity, not the let down. Even in rough times, I try to find the upside.

I’ve found it to be a powerful way to live. From optimism springs joy — and nothing in life is quite as wonderful as those brief moments of joy. I’m not sure I’d be able to recognize those moments if I didn’t stay so positive.

That’s not to say I don’t get frustrated or upset — I do. But I’m always looking for the sunny side. Experts say there’s even a health benefit to positivity: Positive people may actually live longer.

The New York Times has a few good ideas for turning from a negative thinker into a positive one, including:

  • Do good things for other people.
  • Develop and bolster relationships.
  • Learn something new.
  • Practice resilience.
  • Practice mindfulness.

I’d add to that: Learn from the past, but leave it there. Failure gives you experience; letdowns breed humility. But you can’t let the past burden you forever. If you can stay positive, you might just find a way to move on and seize the next opportunity.

Which, as far as my hockey team is concerned, means one thing: Tonight, and always, I’ll believe.

Just Tell Me What’s Going On.

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Here’s something I’ve discovered about managing a team that I learned at — of all places — the airport:

We’ve all been on a flight that gets delayed. Maybe you’re at the gate, still waiting to board. Or you’re on the plane already, and there’s going to be a delay. I’ve discovered there are two types of airline crews in that situation:

1) The Crew That’s Vague About What’s Happening — They tell you, “It’ll just be a minute” or “We’re just waiting on one thing, it shouldn’t be that long” — even if that’s not really the case.

2) The Crew That’s Overly Transparent — They tell you exactly what’s happening (sometimes in great detail, even if most of the passengers don’t understand the airport-speak) and how long it’s going to take before you get moving.

And 100 times out of 100, I’d prefer the second crew.

Why?

At an airport, transparency means one thing: Knowing what shit is about to hit the fan before it hits.

It means that if there’s going to be a delay due to weather or mechanical failure, you want to know what’s happening and how it’s going to affect your plans. With the second type of crew, you’re informed: You know that you’re going to be stuck on the tarmac for an extra 20 minutes because the pilot said, “We’ve gotten moved to 15th for departure, so it’s going to be a 20-minute wait,” and then he checked back 15 minutes later to say, “We’re 5 minutes away, sorry for the delay!” I’ve been on that flight before — even though they’re upset about the delay, passengers usually seem pretty calm when they know everything that’s going on.

I’ve also been on a flight where the crew is way too vague — and I’ve seen how panicked and frustrated passengers can get when they feel like they’re not being told the whole story.

Here’s what it means for a leadership role: In most cases, if you can be overly transparent, you should be. Just by saying, “This is something that might be hard to hear, but I’m going to share it with you anyway because you should hear it from me first”, you’re accomplishing two goals: You’re building trust with your team, you’re making sure your team isn’t surprised by bad news.

Don’t let shit hit the fan first. Get out in front of it — even if it’s an uncomfortable conversation. When everyone has all the information they need, it’s much easier for all parties to talk about what happens next.

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That photo,“#sunrise #tampa #airport”, by Mighty Travels is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Don’t Forget To Enjoy The Ride.

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There are days at BuzzFeed when I have to stop to remind myself: Can you believe you’ve been a part of this thing?

We’ve grown so much and we’ve grown so fast — from 30 million unique visitors to more than 200 million, and more than a billion page views per month. I’d argue that we’re one of the most successful media startups ever. And somehow, I ended up with a seat on this insane ride.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to work at a place like BuzzFeed again. How many times can you step onto a rocket ship just before it takes off? I’ve been lucky to work with smart, curious, and talented people. I’ve gotten to work with leaders who’ve been able to see what’s around the corner in media just a bit faster than everyone else. I can’t even believe how much I’ve grown in my 4+ years here.

Which is why I have to remind myself to enjoy it. There are days when I get bogged down in work or politics. There are days when I don’t feel the joy of coming to the office. There are days when it’s just another job.

And those are the days when I have to remind myself: Dan, you’re working at one of the most remarkable places in media. You’ve been a part of growing this thing into the company it is today. And who knows if you’ll ever get to be a part of something like this ever again?

So: Enjoy it. Pitch big ideas. Work with people you may never get to work with again. Ask for what you want.

Enjoy it, because the ride will end one day — and you don’t want to look back and wonder if you left something undone.

Five People You Meet In Every Office.

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Baseball season begins next week, and there’s buzz around the league about one player and his potential impact on the game.

The player is Andrew Miller, a relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Miller is one of the best in baseball: He’s unhittable on the mound, and teams rarely eke out runs against him. For decades, a pitcher like Miller would have been moved into the closer role. With the Indians winning a tight game in the 9th inning, Miller would have been the one to get the final three outs.

Except that in Cleveland’s run to the World Series last fall, Indians manager Terry Francona didn’t use Miller as a closer. Francona realized what statisticians had been saying for years: that you want to use your best pitcher at the moment when the game is most in doubt. It’s what’s known as a high-leverage situation. If it’s the 5th inning, your team’s up by 1, but the opponent has runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out, the next few pitches might decide the game. Instead of holding your best pitcher for the 9th inning, use him right then, when the game’s on the line.

Baseball has a term for pitchers who enter games in those middle-inning pressure situations: The fireman. If you desperately need to get outs, and there’s no room for error, bring in the fireman, and let him put out the fire.

And it’s not just baseball that has that sort of job. Every office has a firefighter — and one of these four other roles, too:

The Politician — They’re the ones building coalitions at your office, trying to use their networking skills to launch big projects. They’re in every meeting, talking, listening, and trying to broker deals. They’re the ones who get the credit when their teams bring something to launch, and they’re the ones who might get the axe if things go south. Great politicians can inspire teams to take on huge challenges; bad ones leave turmoil and confusion in their wake.

The Firefighter — They’re the ones who get called in to put out the biggest fires at an office. If a deal goes horribly wrong; if a team goes off the rails; or if turf wars sprout up, they’re the ones who come in to handle the problem. They’re fixers. They can keep a bad situation from escalating even further, and they’re the ones who can put an end to something when you need it most.

The Garbageman — There’s always grunt work to be done at an office, those unglamorous tasks that just need to get finished for a team to complete a project. It’s nobody’s favorite work to do, but if it doesn’t get taken care of, the work piles up and nothing big gets done. The garbageman is always there to make sure those tiny-but-important tasks get done.

The Construction Worker — Taking an idea and turning it into something real takes a lot of labor. The construction workers are the ones who build the systems and processes to make those visions a reality. They put in a lot of work and are often most responsible for making things happen — even if the politicians get most of the credit.

The Teacher — Every office needs someone who can help teams get better at their jobs. For employees to improve their skill sets, or for managers to grow into leaderships role, you need teachers to develop those skills. Teachers come in all shapes — mentors, coaches, managers, leaders — but no office can grow without teachers to aid in that development.

If you look around your office, you’ll notice these roles in action. Think for a second: Who’s the woman at your office who always knows how to handle the diciest situations? Who’s the guy who takes care of the little tasks on a project? Who’s the one who’s always there to offer coaching and support?

Now think: Which one are you?

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Those Lego firefighters are from the photo “Fire brigade” by mac_filko, and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Everyone Has Ideas.

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I have a lot of ideas. They’re not always good ideas — but I always have ideas.

I wrote about my approach to ideas back in 2012:

“The challenge, it turns out, isn’t coming up with good ideas. It’s deciding which of them is worth pursuing and working on.”

In that same post, I laid out 25 ideas I had. A few were pretty good. Some were ideas that I never actually expected to try out, like this one:

TV Dinners That Were On TV — A website featuring recipes that you saw your favorite characters make on TV. Kevin’s mom on ‘The Wonder Years’ and Betty on ‘The Flintstones’ always seemed to be cooking up awesome dishes, and here, we’d try to figure out how to make them.”

Fast forward five years, and I’m scrolling through my feed when this headline pops up:

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This guy on YouTube had the same idea — but executed on it so much better than I ever could have. His videos are simple in concept, but produced in a way that’s almost hypnotic. They’re really fun to watch.

I’ll confess: The first few times I saw someone launch an idea that I’d also had, it was maddening. Why didn’t I make that? I’d ask myself. Why wasn’t I first?

But as I get older, I realize that what I wrote back in 2012 is still true: The challenge with ideas is deciding which ones to build or produce. As I wrote back then: “Ideas are only worth so much. Execution’s really what matters.”

You can’t make everything. But it is fun to see someone else turn a weird idea into something so fantastic. I’m adding “Binging with Babish” to my YouTube subscriptions — I hope he’ll be cooking up one of those “Flintstones” brontosaurus ribs soon.

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The day after I published this post, Animal Planet announced that another one of the ideas from that 2012 blog post — a weight loss show for pets — was becoming a reality, too. (These things come in threes, so if someone launches the I’m On Dayquil Gmail plugin next week, please let me know.)