Here’s something I’ve noticed about people who read a lot of business books that promise big ideas about the future of our industries:(1)(2)
Those people tend to put a lot of faith in systems. On a Sunday, they’ll finish a book about the latest trend coming out of Silicon Valley, and on Monday, it’ll be the future of everything. Those books often promise the secrets to unlock great work. They’ll say: “They do it this way at Company X, so we need to switch everything to do it that way, too! This is the future!”
But to me, they’re not gospel.
I like business books, don’t get me wrong! And I’m a fan of great routines that can help teams work faster/better/smarter, and of big ideas that can crystalize a team’s mission.
But systems or big ideas aren’t everything.
I believe that great people, working together with the right tools and a clear mission, are unstoppable. Ask me about my team sometime — I’ll gush about them. I think they have the potential to do great work that can have impact on millions of lives. (In fact, they’re doing that already!) I believe in them, and I believe they are smart, hard-working, and flexible enough to take on ambitious work.
If I had to start with only one thing — the right systems, the right ideas, or the right people — I’d always choose people. A good system or idea is only as good as the people working to make it happen.
I was thinking of that today while reading an oral history of Prince’s famous guitar solo at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2004. Says Tom Petty (bolding mine):
It’s funny because just a few days ago, he was in mind all afternoon, I was thinking about him. And I had just been talking with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles — he wrote their “Manic Monday” song. She was telling me the story of that, of how she came to have that song and meet Prince. And I was thinking about him a lot that day, and I almost told myself I was going to call him and just see how he was. I’m starting to think you should just act on those things all the time.
I don’t post a lot of personal stories anymore on the blog, but I put this one up on Facebook this week, and it got such a response that I wanted to re-post it here. TL;DR — I’m an idiot.
It’s Game 2, Caps-Flyers. The Flyers are on a power play. Sally goes to the kitchen to get some water. She walks back and looks at me.
“Do you smell something burning?”
I don’t, and besides, THE GAME IS ON. I don’t think much of it.
Five minutes later, the period ends, and Sally goes to the bathroom and screams, “The sink is on fire!”
We’ve left a candle burning in the bathroom. OK, correction — I’VE left a candle burning in the bathroom. It melted the plastic candle holder, and it caught fire in the sink. The flames are a foot high. Smoke is pouring out of the bathroom.
Here’s the good news: My in-laws bought a fire extinguisher for Sally when she first moved in to this apartment. (And if this story is any indication, you should probably buy one, too! This is the one we own.) I grab it and put out the fire. We clean up the sink.
But the point is: I nearly set fire to our entire apartment, but didn’t notice because I was too busy watching playoff hockey. I may need to adjust my priorities.
Four years ago, I took a job at BuzzFeed. I didn’t know BuzzFeed would grow into the company it is today. I didn’t know I’d get to do the work I’ve done, or get to work with the team I have. I took a risk in taking the job, and it paid off.
This isn’t the story of how I got the job at BuzzFeed.
It’s the story of the job I nearly got three months earlier — one that would have been a total disaster.
It’s August 2012, and I’m living in Springfield, Missouri. It’s the final month for the Stry.us team in the Ozarks. At the end of the month, we’re all about to be unemployed. I have no idea what I’m doing next, but I know I’m done with Stry.us.
I start applying to jobs. I want to go to New York. I think it’s the next big step for me.
And that’s when I see this story on the Nieman Lab blog about a news organization that owns a dozen papers around the country. They’re opening up an office in NYC that’ll be the central hub for all those papers. It’ll be the news desk coordinating national stories for all their properties, and they need a senior editor who can work with all these papers — and occasionally parachute in with a team to run point on big, national stories.
It’s the job I’ve been training for this entire time.
I apply, and I get an email back four hours later from the editor-in-chief: Let’s talk.
I interview with her, and I nail it. I do a second phone interview, and I nail that, too. I do a third, with a senior advisor to the company. He loves me.
They offer to fly me out to New York to meet in person. It seems like a formality at this point: I’m going to get this job.
I don’t get the job.
I bomb the interview. I don’t know why, but I’m a trainwreck that day. I’m evasive and vague in my answers. They ask me some personal questions that I don’t know how to answer. The interview gets uncomfortable, and then more uncomfortable. And worst of all: The trip home takes forever. It’s a three-hour flight to St. Louis, and then a three-hour drive back to Springfield. For 6+ hours, all I can think about is how I’ve blown the chance at my dream job.
I never hear from the newspaper company in New York again.
And then… three months later, I get the job at BuzzFeed. I don’t know at the time that it’ll change my life, but it does. And two months after that, the newspaper company files for bankruptcy. They close their New York office soon after that. Everyone gets fired.
The day I bombed that interview, I thought I’d blown it. I thought I’d missed my one big change.
I had no idea that I’d just experienced one of the luckiest days of my life.
Had I nailed the interview, I would’ve gotten that job. And five months later, I would’ve been out of work.
Instead, I landed at BuzzFeed, and I got the chance to be a part of building something amazing.
“On your very best day at work — the day you come home and think you have the best job in the world — what did you do that day?”
I’d have done two things:
1) I’d have a great conversation with a co-worker. — Every one of my best days involves a great conversation. Some of those conversations help a co-worker find a way to get past the roadblocks that are keeping them from their best work. When you help someone find a solution like that, it’s an AMAZING feeling. I don’t always have the answers, but on the rare day I do… that’s an awesome day.
Other times, I’ll have a conversation that gives a co-worker the chance to vent about their problems to a sympathetic ear. I don’t always have much more to say than “I’m sorry” or “That sucks.” But just being there to listen is often enough to help them — and help make the workplace a little better that day.
2) I’d launch something. — I love to launch new projects. I’ve launched big projects at BuzzFeed and smallprojectsonmyown. Some have grown into big things, and many more have not. But I love the feeling of launching new stuff. I’ve read interviews with stand-up comedians where they say they’re obsessed with the sound of laughter; I’m obsessed with the feeling you get when you put new work out into the world and get to see how the world reacts. I love coming up with an idea, finding a team, and sharing it with others. And on a great day, I’d get to launch something new.
So that’s what I would do. What would you?
That’s a photo I took eight years ago off the coast of Spain. It was a pretty great sunrise, and a pretty good day.
A: A business strategy course in my senior year stands out. I had maintained a 4.0 average all the way through, and I wanted to graduate with a perfect average. It came down to the final exam, and I had spent many hours studying and memorizing formulas to do calculations for the case studies.
The teacher handed out the final exam, and it was on one piece of paper, which really surprised me because I figured it would be longer than that. Once everyone had their paper, he said, “Go ahead and turn it over.” Both sides were blank.
And the professor said, “I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this: What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”
And that had a powerful impact. It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the B I deserved. Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name. I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.
It was just a great reminder of what really matters in life, and that you should never lose sight of people who do the real work.
I love this so much. For one, it’s a wonderful message about being decent to the people you work with. There are a LOT of Dotties in my life, and I need to learn more of their names.
But another thing: Learning these names (and a little about these people) is also good for your career! When I was first working as a stringer covering D.C. sports a decade ago, I noticed something about the best beat reporters: They were usually there a long time before the game, casually chatting up everyone. It wasn’t just the players and coaches — it was the equipment managers, the trainers, the ushers, the elevator guy. They knew everyone’s name. They built relationships with everyone, because they never knew who might open a door for them one day.
We could all be a little friendlier to the Dotties around us.
“I get jealous, sometimes, when I see 25 year olds who are way ahead of where I am. I get competitive. How’d that person pull off a book deal at 25? How’d they get a movie done? How’d they make their first million already?
But then I remember that this isn’t a 400-meter race. We’re not all shooting for the same end goal.
We’re all on different paths. We’re all running our own races at our own speeds.
It’s tough to tell where each of us is going now. It’s only with time — a decade, maybe more — that we’ll start to understand where we’ve been going.”
That last sentence really echoes with me now, this idea that it’s only with time that you understand where you’ve been going. If you’d asked me in September 2012 where I was headed, I wouldn’t have mentioned anything about BuzzFeed or newsletters. I thought I was on one path. Four years later, it’s clear I was headed somewhere different — and had no idea how fast I was getting there.
As for BuzzFeed in 2016: I get to work with so many awesome young people. I get to help them make great work, and they get to push me to make better things. We’re all on different paths, but at this very moment, we get to work with each other — and for that, I’m thankful.
And most importantly: I am doing my own thing, and I love it. I have to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing, and keep owning my own thing.
Everybody has bad days. Especially at work, everyone has days where you get weighed down by the little things: Too much stress; Thoughts about better work/money/hours somewhere else; Little details that can overwhelm you.
Lately, when I have one of those days, I try to remind myself of something:
A little more than 100 years ago, my great-grandparents fled Eastern Europe and came to America. If you go see “Fiddler on the Roof,” that’s basically an autobiography of the Oshinsky family.When they came to America, they came to New York. They came here for opportunity for their family, and a better life.
A century later, I live in New York, working a job so thoroughly modern that — if they were alive — I couldn’t even explain to my grand-grandparents, and the job I have pays better than they ever could have believed.
Sometimes, I try to play out that conversation in my head with my great-grandpa, a butcher in Jersey City, trying to figure out how I’d explain to him words like “email marketing” or “viral news” or “BuzzFeed.” I’m not sure how I’d explain it, or if he’d even understand. But I think he’d be proud to see how far his family has come. My ancestors came here for opportunity, and they gave me all that — and more. The opportunities I’ll have in my life are unexpected and pretty remarkable, and it’s thanks to the risks that they took, and the work that every subsequent generation has put in.
So when I get bogged down in the little details, I try to remind myself of the big picture. 100 years ago, we came here for the chance to have these opportunities and the hope of living this life, and now I have it.
Best to be thankful, and work hard for whatever — and whoever — comes next.
I got coffee the other day with a friend who’s maybe a year out of college, and we were talking about how her work was going.
You know, she said, I just didn’t understand how hard it would be to adjust to working at an office.
And that’s a common sentiment! I know didn’t understand it either when I started my first job. Working at an office is a little different than working a service job or in education. At an office, you have to learn how to operate within a team and what kind of etiquette is required in the workplace.
Here are seven things I’ve learned over the years about being a good co-worker:
Be on time. — Everyone has the one co-worker who shows up 10 minutes late for everything. Don’t be that co-worker. Being on time means showing up at the assigned time if you’re meeting someone in your office, and 5-10 minutes early if you’re meeting someone outside your office.(1) And if you’re late — make sure to send the email 5-10 minutes before apologizing for your lateness.
Prepare people before the meeting. — Nobody should show up for a meeting and not understand what they’re meeting about. Make sure everyone’s on the same page — and has the necessary documents — before they walk into the meeting. And follow up with actionable next steps after the meeting, too!
Respond to emails/calls within 24 hours. — If someone writes in asking you to take a specific action, you’ve got 24 hours to respond. After that window, I find that emails sit in the inbox for days and days, and projects stall. Respond quickly, and you’ll become someone co-workers actually want to work with because you have a track record of getting things done quickly.
Deliver on deadline. — This goes hand-in-hand with responding quickly. Be a “get shit done” kind of person, and be someone who sticks to deadlines. When you find out that a co-worker doesn’t finish their work on time, you might be less willing to work with them in the future.
Ask great questions. — I love working with people who are curious and ask great questions. They’re people who think critically about issues and can push work in interesting and unexpected directions. I always try to work with people who love to ask “Why?” and “How?”
Be honest. — You can earn my respect by doing the work every day. But you can earn my trust by sitting down to have the tough conversations. If you do both, I’ll run through walls for you. Being honest with someone — even if you’re saying “I don’t know” when you don’t have the right answer — is the first step towards building that trust.
An unusual and alarming thing has been happening lately, and I’m only now starting to figure out how to handle it:
College football is making me feel old.
It started about a year ago, when recruits coming to my alma mater, the University of Missouri, started saying things like, “I was a huge fan of Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin growing up,” or “Sean Weatherspoon was my favorite player when I was a kid.”
Those guys played at Mizzou when I was at school. Some of their teammates were in my classes.
If they’re the heroes that today’s 18-year-olds looked up to when they were in elementary school or middle school, that means….
Well, I must getting old.
But it also means another thing, something more about how long it takes a team or a business — or even someone like you or me — to build a reputation.
When I came to Mizzou in the fall of 2005, we weren’t particularly good at football. We’d beaten our biggest rival, Nebraska, just once in the previous 25 years. Mizzou was more famous for our lossesthan our wins.
But starting the fall of 2005, we started to win — and win a lot. Over the next decade, we’d win two Big 12 North titles, and two SEC East titles. We’d win three January bowl games. We’d have a Heisman trophy finalist. We’d reach no. 1 in the country.
And over the course of that decade, the conversation around Missouri football changed. When I entered as a freshman, nobody knew what “Mizzou” meant. My own grandmother often got confused and thought that I attended Washington University in St. Louis, and not the much larger, much-better-at-football school 120 miles west in Columbia, Mo. (When we hit no. 1 my junior year, she figured out which school I really went to.)
A decade later, I walk around New York in a Mizzou shirt and regularly hear people screaming “MIZ!” from across the road, the same way I see Michigan grads yelling “Go Blue!” when they see Wolverines gear. We even have a bar in the city, and we fill it every Saturday.
It took a decade of success for Mizzou to switch the conversation. Why? Old timers in the state still think about Mizzou as the hapless team from the ‘90s and early ’00s that couldn’t win big games and could never beat Nebraska. But the younger generation — people like me, or the kids just entering Mizzou now — only know Missouri as a perennial football contender. In the decade we’ve been following Mizzou, we’ve only ever seen success. So why should we expect anything different?
It took an entire generation of success — a full decade of winning — to change the conversation.
And that’s gotten me thinking about the idea of a decade of great work. My first big journalism breakthrough came in the summer of 2008, when I covered the Olympics for the Rocky Mountain News. Which means that I’m two years away from that 10-year mark. In that decade, I think I’ve had enough highs (Stry.us, the RJI fellowship, BuzzFeed, speeches at several conferences) to have built a reputation in the industry. I’m not all the way there yet, but eight years in, I’ve established myself through my work.
Here’s to changing the conversation — and finishing off that decade strong.
I’m Dan Oshinsky, and I’m the Director of Newsletters at BuzzFeed. I lead a team that’s trying to build great stuff for the internet and your inbox. On this blog, I'm here to share what I know about creating amazing products and building great teams.