“So if everybody is essentially doing the same thing, is anybody likely to get ahead?
That quote happens to be about — of all things — the surprisingly high-stakes world of convention center hotel construction. But it could just as easily be about the race to build the biggest car-sharing app (here in New York, I walk past ads for a half-dozen Uber competitors a day) or the biggest social network or the next big whatever. When one company launches a feature, their competitors follow right behind. When someone launches a new app, a thousand spin-offs are sure to come, too.
Everybody is doing the same things. So how do you get in ahead in a world like that?
We live in a world of copycats, but you don’t have to be one of them. Here’s my advice: Don’t follow the leaders.
When others zag, find another path and zig. It’s OK to ignore everyone else — there are thousands of niches out there, and there are opportunities for people who will do stuff that no one else is doing. Let everyone else compete on the same ideas while you compete on yours alone.
I’ve always tried to remind myself: It’s hard to run your own race, but it’s even harder to run someone else’s. So give yourself permission to be different. Your way may work, or it may not — but in the end, at least it’ll be your successes or your failures.
Stand in my shoes for a second. You’re standing on a hill above the Pacific, maybe an hour north of San Francisco. You kayaked here from a bay, across unexpectedly choppy water. Your arms are sore. You set up camp on the beach, and then you start hiking up this hill. You’re not sure how far away the Pacific is, but it’s there, you think, somewhere beyond the ridge. The hill rises straight up out of the bay. You go, up and up. At the top of the ridge is a fence, and you climb that. Beyond is what looks like miles and miles of nothing. Clouds, perhaps?
No, your friends tell you. The Pacific.
You walk closer, across the hill. It’s more clear from here. You look south. You’re so high up, the waves don’t seem to move. They’re frozen, rising but never breaking along the beach. The fog is moving in. You can see the path down the coastline, the hills breaking into cliffs, the cliffs diving into the Pacific. There is a narrow stretch of beach that rolls all the way south. The coast does not end; it fades into the fog. You can see a large, black mass in the distance. You cannot tell what it is, or see it clearly through the fog. But you know whatever it is, it’s there.
Imagine following that path, down the cliffs, down the beach, down to whatever lies beyond that fog. From this vantage point, you could look back, sure, and see the journey already traveled, and you can look forward just a little bit — just a few miles down the coast. Beyond that, the fog, and whatever happens next. There is a path, absolutely, but you don’t know where it leads, or how far it leads you.
Imagine yourself on that path: the Pacific on one side, the cliffs on another, the fog, and the road unknown ahead.
Ask yourself: If you were brave enough to go on that path, who would you bring with you?
I know what I would want: Someone to laugh with on the thousands of steps ahead; someone for support when the steps slowed; someone with the joy and the curiosity to push us onward. I’d bring Sally; I cannot imagine the path without her. She’s the best I know.
But who would you bring? Who would you want with you for the next thousand steps, and beyond? Who would you want for when the path gets strange, when the journey demands everything you can give?
Stand in my shoes for a second, and imagine the first of those steps, and the people you’ll need to get to whatever lies beyond the fog — and whatever lies beyond that. Imagine it. This is the path, and for whatever comes next, you’ll need the best people you have to travel it.
Every year, I write a post called “The Things I Believe.” I wrote the first one when I was 24. This year will mark the fifth installment of the post.
When I wrote the first one, I knew that I was in a period of transition, and I wanted to be able to look back and see what was in my head at the time. What I didn’t realize was that just a few years later, I would look back and wonder why exactly the advice of 24- or 25- or 26-year-old Dan was so different than the advice I’d give myself today.
Which brings me to that video at the top of this post, via the CBC. It’s a wonderful video with all sorts of advice from people to their younger selves: “Just let go already.” “Stay weird.” “It’s never too late to try something new.” And watching it, I can’t help but think of my “The Things I Believe” series. The advice you need at age 6 and 16 and 60 isn’t always the same.
And so here’s a caveat to everything I’ve ever written on this blog, and everything I may write one day: I really believe what I’ve written here. But in 5 years — and almost certainly in 10 or 15 or 25 years — I will look back and wonder: How could I have been so wrong?
For the first time in three years, I wrote an essay today for Stry.us about the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the way we in the media cover disasters.
Five years ago this summer, I was in Biloxi, Miss., talking to anyone who wanted to tell me their Katrina story. The people on the Gulf Coast were weary then of discussing the story; many felt forgotten. And how could you blame them? They had been forgotten. They had stories to tell, and even five years ago, we had stopped listening.
I’ll tell you a journalism secret: There is a particular disaster narrative that springs up after an enormous storm, and Katrina was no exception to the rule.
When someone asks me what I do, I usually tell them (with a wink, mind you): Oh, I’m the guy who’s been sending you all those emails lately!
But in many cases, that’s actually true! My team at BuzzFeed now sends tens of millions of emails out a month. I’ve personally written about 1,500 newsletters — it could be more, but I lost track somewhere along the way.
Over the past 3 years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about email.
And a lot of people aren’t using email the right way.
Email can be an amazing community tool — when used correctly. Just keep these six rules in mind before you send your next email:
1) Should you even send this email? — Oftentimes, the answer is no! If you need to pass along a lot of information via links or attachments; if you’re looking for the recipient to take specific action; or if you want to pass along a quick, personal note, email is great! Otherwise, have that conversation in person or over the phone. It can be really, really hard to convey tone over email, so having tough conversations IRL is a much better idea.
2) Make your subject line clear — I love to send emails that are super specific. I write a lot of subject lines with questions: “Can you send me _______ by the end of the day?” Or emails that convey the message right up front: “I loved your recent article!” Nobody should open an email and not know what they’re about to read.
3) Take advantage of that “preheader” space — That’s a term we use to refer to the snippet of preview text you’ll see on your phone or in Gmail. Your recipient can read the first 5-10 words of your email — so skip the greetings and the “Hope all is well!”-type messages and get right to the point!
4) Personal emails are the best kind of emails — A personal email is a great way to make people feel like their work is actually important. And when people feel appreciated, they’re more likely to write back, take action, or help! If possible, I try not to send mass emails. I’ve found that an email that goes out to a group of 10+ recipients gets far fewer responses than an email that goes out to only 1-3 people.
5) Use bullets or numbered lists — Remember: More and more people are reading emails on their phone, which means readability matters. If you’re writing emails in a giant block of text, your recipient might skip through the whole thing. Take advantage of bullets and lists that can make your email much easier to read.
6) Make your “ask” as clear as possible — One of the reasons I love email is because it allows you to ask a specific person to take a specific action. But the recipient should know exactly what action they should take, and also how you’ll hold them accountable. When I need to get a specific thing done, I usually ask over email.
If you make your ask very clear — and if you follow these other five rules — you’ll discover what email truly can be: An engine for helping you get a ton of stuff done.
I just finished “The Best Team Money Can Buy,” a really good new read on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ quest to win a World Series. It focuses in on Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ star left-handed pitcher, and one of the most dominant players in the game. (How dominant? He’s won the Cy Young award for pitching three of the last four years. The other year, he finished second.)
And when he’s pitching well, he’s basically unhittable:
What makes Kershaw so good? For one, the book details, Kershaw does an unusual series of things on days when he pitches. He leaves for the ballpark at the same time. He warms up at the same time. He throws the same number of warm-up pitches at the same time. He even eats at a same time. Everything is geared around keeping things exactly the same on game day.
Baseball writers like to use certain words for guys like Kershaw. They call him “superstitious” or “quirky.”
I’d put it another way: Kershaw’s a guy with a very, very specific routine.
Routines are a wonderful thing for people who do complex work. For Kershaw, a routine takes away a lot of the decisions he has to make before pitching. He doesn’t need to think about when he should eat or what kind of stretches to do beforehand. His routine is already fully built, and it allows him to keep his complete focus on the actual work — instead of the other decisions that could distract him during the day.
Here’s another way to think about it: Routines are processes for doing the work, and when your work is hard, it’s even more important that your routine be solid.
Totally unrelated example: I just finished a GQ cover story on Stephen Colbert, where he talks a lot about the process of creating his new late night show. Here’s my favorite part:
And then he talked about the Food Network show Chopped. The reason he loves Chopped is that it’s a show that is wholly about process, about creation within a limited range of possibilities. “This show,” he said, meaning The Late Show, “is Chopped. Late-night shows are Chopped. Who are your guests tonight? Your guests tonight are veal tongue, coffee grounds, and gummy bears. There, make a show.… Make an appetizer that appeals to millions of people. That’s what I like. How could you possibly do it? Oh, you bring in your own flavors. Your own house band is another flavor. You have your own flavor. The audience itself is a base dish, like a rice pilaf or something. And then together it’s ‘Oh shit, that’s an actual meal.’ And that’s what every day is like at one of these shows. Something is one thing in the morning, and then by the end of the day it’s a totally different thing. It’s all process.”
That’s the power of routines. They get you to a place where you can create the results expected of you — and then allow you to show up the next day and do the work all over again.
There’s a video going around the internet this week about Kmart. If you’re reading this, you probably haven’t thought about Kmart in a long time, and you probably haven’t shopped at a Kmart in even longer. (Confession: I actually have shopped at one in the past year. There was one in my old neighborhood here in New York. It was open late, and when you needed something random at 10 on a Tuesday, it was often the only place to go. I called it the Kmart Of Last Resort — nobody wanted to be there, but hey, you needed a new shower rod in the middle of the night, so there you were!)
Anyway, the video itself isn’t even 20 years old, but at first glance, it seems hopelessly outdated. Here was their big idea: You could shop online with Kmart, but to do that, you first had to physically be at a Kmart. Ads touted it as a “store within a store.”
Looking back at videos from the ‘90s, it’s easy to wonder how people could be so clueless about the internet. (Here’s looking at you, The Today Show!) Hindsight can be a cruel thing.
But this is what’s really interesting about Kmart: At the time, they didn’t seem clueless at all. In 2000, CNN wrote that Kmart had managed “to position its Web site among the gazelles of the Internet.” And they weren’t alone in their praise. Here’s my personal favorite quote: “Kmart probably has more influence over the way that people shop online than Amazon does.” Kmart wasn’t backwards or behind the times; to the contrary, they were an innovator in the space!
Looking back, Kmart’s strategy made a lot of sense:
1) They recognized the internet as part of the future of their business — In 1998, they started running those ads touting an internet-like store that you could shop from within a brick-and-mortar Kmart. (It even used touch-screen computers!) Their customers were just starting to use the internet, and online shopping was a brand new experience. So Kmart tried to get shoppers accustomed to the convenience and safety of online shopping by introducing it in stores.
2) But they realized that many customers still weren’t online — Their customers couldn’t shop online if they weren’t on the internet yet. So Kmart invested millions into BlueLight, a company that gave out free internet access via CDs handed out inside stores. BlueLight launched in 1999; by 2000, BusinessWeek reported that “more than 4.9 million people have signed up for the online service — placing it among the top three Net-access providers,” and that 40 percent of those new subscribers had never used the internet before. At least in the short term, BlueLight actually succeeded in getting Kmart shoppers online! But the last step was the hardest one.
3) They tried to make online shopping a habit — Bluelight users were automatically taken to Bluelight.com, a spinoff of Kmart.com. From there, Kmart offered exclusive deals for online shopping. The deals changed on a regular basis. If the idea worked, customers would get into the habit of coming online every day to check for new deals and shop. The early returns were promising: During the holiday season in 2000, BlueLight.com saw “a 1,000% jump in sales and 823% increase in traffic” from the previous year. During the holiday season in 2001, 9 million unique visitors shopped on the site. Customers were getting online thanks to Kmart, and turning that loyalty into dollars spent on Bluelight.com.
I think a lot about that part: The strategy made sense; the execution was lacking. We’re 15 years removed from Kmart’s BlueLight failures. 15 years from now, when we’re looking back at this age of the internet, how will we remember networks like Facebook or Twitter, or an organization like BuzzFeed, or even products like the iPhone or iWatch?
There is a line between smart, and not; visionary, and not — but it only gets revealed with time. Right now, there are a lot of bright leaders out there working out the strategies to keep their businesses growing. Some of those businesses will become an Amazon or a Walmart, and some will become a Kmart. The difference could be execution, or it could be mere luck.
Just remember, though: In 2000, Kmart was an innovator on the internet. They were ahead of the curve. Now look at them. Hindsight reveals all.
I haven’t always been good at saying that word. I really like saying “yes.” I like being helpful to other teams at work, I like offering my time when I can, and I like working on new projects. I try to say “yes” to things as much as possible.
But I’ve also learned that “yes” can lead to trouble — if you say it one time too many.
There are three resources at my disposal that other people want: My time, my skills, and my team. As a manager, my job is manage those resources and make sure my team doesn’t overextend itself. So that means that more and more, I’m saying “no” to projects.
Don’t get me wrong: I want to be able to say “yes” to everything. I love helping people, and I’m lucky to be a position where I can help others do better work. But I’ve learned that there are times when you have to say “no.”
I’m still not great at saying that word, but I’ve learned a few things that have helped me say it better:
1) Be direct — I wrote it in that earlier post, and I’ll say it again: Being direct will save you time in the long run. Most co-workers initially request help via email, and that’s a place where you can be straight with people. I send a lot of these types of emails: “No, I can’t help right now. Sorry!” You’re not a jerk for saying that — you’re just being up front with people.
2) Saying “yes” when you don’t have the resources is even worse than a “no” — If you can’t actually help the person but say “yes” anyway, you’re making things worse for everyone. You’ll end up holding up their work, and on top that, it’s just plain rude. Don’t say “yes” if you can’t commit.
3) Try to find another way to help — If I can’t say “yes,” I’ll often meet with the person anyway just to listen and see if I can offer some advice. At the very least, maybe I can point them towards someone who can help.
I still don’t like saying “no,” but I’m learning how important it is to prioritize my three big resources: Time, skills, and team. Sometimes, you have to say “no” to keep those a priority.
When I first started working, there were really only two types of days: good days, and bad days.
But over time, those two categories spawned a whole new set of days. There were good days that were slow, and good days that were fast; good days where a dozen great things all seemed to happen at once; good days where it felt like months of work paid off on the same day.
But there were plenty more good days where nothing obviously good happened — where no big work seemed to get done, but that still definitely qualified as a good day.
Those are actually some of my favorite days, but they’re hard to recognize in the moment. They’re the days where you’re doing lots of work to set up another day. For me, that might mean working with someone on my team to brainstorm a big new idea, or building out the tech back-end for a project. It could even be a day where I’m working on spreadsheets or other monotonous work that just has to get done.
It’s that kind of work that frees you up to do the exciting stuff another day, like launching a project or hiring a new member of the team. Those are the days when you lay out the framework. The next day, or the day after that, you’ll start building something big on top of it.
So when I get to those exciting days down the road, I try to remind myself to make those yesterdays count. I’ll tell myself: You’ve already put in the hard work. Now make something awesome with all of it.
Great work is built on a whole lot of yesterdays. When a big work day arrives, take a moment to appreciate how many good days you’ve already put in to get to a day like this. And then go out and do the work to make those yesterdays count.
There’s probably a symbolic meaning to that photo, but I mostly picked it for this post because it looks cool. (Hey, not everything has to have a deeper meaning!) It’s by Thomas Brault for Unsplash.
I’m taking the week off, and spending it up in Nantucket. I love it up here: the days are simple, and there isn’t internet or TV at the house. (I’m making a quick exception to log online for this post.)
The island is an interesting case in reinvention. A few hundred years ago, this was the whaling capital of the world. Today, the big industry is tourism. Aside from the Whaling Museum downtown, and a few extra copies of “Moby Dick” at local bookstores, you wouldn’t have any idea that life on Nantucket was so radically different in the 1700s and 1800s.
But something caught my eye this week in the local paper, the Inky Mirror. (Back in the day, I used to write for the Inky’s rival, the Indy. They like their newspaper abbreviations up here.) Every week, they publish an excerpt from the paper back in the day. The full excerpt is at the top of this post, but I wanted to highlight a snippet. It’s from the Inky 150 years ago, and it depicts an island on the verge of a huge transition:
“But the whale fishery is gone; gone beyond hope of revival. And if we truly love our island home, and would retain its already reduced population, we must introduce new branches of industry.”
The general theme of it seems familiar to me: Good news to report on the new industry in town, followed by a warning that said industry might not actually work, followed by a reminder that the old industry is long gone, and total reinvention could be necessary.
Why so familiar? Because… that’s the formula for nearly every report on the state of the news industry over the past 10 years! There’s always the good news (“We’re making more money via digital advertising than last year”), following by the big warning (“But this pales in comparison to ad revenues from 20 years ago”), followed by the requisite announcement (“We still need to make much more money to be sustainable in the long run.”).
I know how things turned out on Nantucket, even though I’m not sure islanders would’ve believed it 150 years ago. (“You’re telling me that this postage-sized stamp of scrub brush 30 miles off Cape Cod is going to be a tourist destination? And everyone’s going to wear cranberry-red pants? Really???”) How things turn out for the news industry, I’m not sure. But it’s not hard to alter that Inky warning for the news media of 2015:
“But print advertising is gone; gone beyond hope of revival. And if we truly love journalism, and would retain its already reduced influence, we must introduce new branches of revenue and distribution.”
Anyway, check back to this blog in 2165, and I’ll probably have an update then on how things turn out. (Hopefully sooner.)
I'm Dan Oshinsky. I’m the Director of Newsletters at BuzzFeed, and I lead a team that’s building cool new stuff for email. On this blog, I'm here to share what I know about creating awesome things. Come on in. Let's build stuff people love.