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.
Last year, I wrote down six simple rules for writing better emails. Follow those six rules and you’ll get so much more out of your inbox.
But there’s something almost as important as learning how to write better emails.
Learning when to send those emails.
If you deliver your email at the wrong time, you’re significantly less likely to get a response or the action you’ve requested. And that’s an issue.
It’s why I use the 7-to-7 Rule — I try to send emails only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Why? At my office, most people are at work from 10 to 6. A lot of them are up earlier than that, and checking email. After work, many stop checking email entirely until the next day. So my goal is to send email during that window where they’re most likely to be on their work email and ready to take action on whatever I’m asking.
Does it mean I don’t check email after 7 p.m.? Actually, no! I usually do a quick scan of my email first thing in the morning, and I’ll hop onto email in the hour before bed. The only catch is: I won’t send the email until 7 a.m. the next day.
The secret behind all of this is an app called Boomerang. It works within Gmail and allows you to schedule emails for whatever time you want. I’ve set it up with a series of custom times that allow me to get my email to the top of your inbox first thing in the morning.
So if I realize on Saturday morning that I have something to ask a co-worker, I’ll write the email immediately but schedule it for Monday at 7 a.m. The result? More of my emails get answered at a time that’s convenient for both of us — and when we can move quickly to get the work done.
Boomerang is also great if you’re working with someone in another time zone. My team is doing a lot of work with our office in Sydney, and Boomerang makes sure we get the emails to them in the morning Aussie time — instead of in the middle of the night.
I want to highlight one passage. When asked, Is the newsletter team looking at click-through rate(1), she answered:
For a long time, it was: you want to get subscribers up, you want to get clicks up, you want to get unsubscribes down. But one of the things we talk about all the time is there is no one metric you are optimizing for. Anyone who just optimizes to one metric is going to eventually have a problem. This obsession over time spent. In some way I feel that sort of rhetoric has died down. There really is no one metric.
I’ve learned a lot from Dao over the years. But one sentence in there really drives home Dao’s biggest message: “Anyone who just optimizes to one metric is going to eventually have a problem.”
What we’ve learned with newsletters is that there is no “silver bullet” metric. If you try to optimize your email for open rate, you’ll try to game the system with headlines that entice subscribers to click. (Case in point: “You’re Fired.”) But if you overpromise and underdeliver, you’ll lose subscribers in the long run. If you try to optimize for clicks, you’ll use bold colors and buttons. It’ll work well at first — but readers will learn to tune them out. There are dozens of other metrics out there for email. And what Dao’s taught me is true: If you focus all of your energy on a single metric, in the long run, you’ll fail.
So what we do at BuzzFeed is keep an eye on about five key metrics.(2) Knowing what matters most allows us to get a better understanding of how readers are using our newsletters. The data isn’t the full story — we still have to interpret it and figure out what our readers are trying to tell us from it. But in the long run, those data points help us iterate and build a better product.
And the same is true for any product you want to build. Try to pick a few metrics that give you a complete picture of the success of your work. If you’re a basketball coach, you can’t just tell your team to focus on 3-point shooting percentage — because that ignores huge metrics (rebounding, defensive field goal percentage, turnovers) that also make a difference in the outcome in a game. If you’re an app designer and the only metric is total downloads, you’ll do anything to game the system to get more downloads — while possibly neglecting an important set of metrics that can measure how much people like and use your app.
Point is: There is no silver bullet. The sooner you stop chasing one, the sooner you can start working to build a more complete product.
At top, a screenshot of BuzzFeed.com a decade ago.
Click-through rate is a way to measure what percentage of readers who open a newsletter click through to a piece of content on our site. ↩
The five big ones right now: Subscription rate, open rate, click rate, clicks per 1000, mobile open rates. ↩
Four years ago this week, I wrote a post about something I didn’t quite understand: The idea that time was simultaneously moving really fast and really slow. I wrote:
Fast. It’s moving so damn fast. So many things to cross off the to-do list. So many things happening all at once. So many tasks. Knock one off, another one takes its place.
Slow. It’s moving so damn slow. So much time between now and May, and May just won’t come. Why can’t it all just come faster?
So fast, and so slow.
And yet I know: A thousand baby steps to get to where I need to go.
Two years ago also this week(1), I wrote again about time, saying:
A week ago today, I sat in a room and listened to Jerry Seinfeld speak. It was seven days ago.
It feels like months ago.
One of the things about working on the internet is that time moves in incredibly bizarre ways. News that blows up in the morning is forgotten by the afternoon. Things move fast.
In 2012, and again in 2014, I didn’t quite understand what was happening. But with — what else? — time, I think I’ve figured it out:
Time moves most slowly when your work becomes repetitive. You understand how to do the work — habits take over, and you get lost in the process of those habits and that work. Time moving slowly isn’t a bad thing. Those repetitive tasks are an anchor. They keep you grounded in the day-to-day. You work quickly, but the habits and processes you’ve created seem to handle the heavy lifting for you. You know what happens now, and what comes next.
Time moves most quickly when your work becomes unexpected. Instead of relying on habits, you find yourself making up the processes as you go. You’re figuring out how to do the work, and who you need to work with to do it. With nothing to anchor you down, and each milestone bringing a new set of challenges, time moves fast. You forget about down the road, and focus on now. You’re on deadline. You work fast because there is something next for you — whatever it is.
I’ll give you a personal example: In a normal week, I have a handful of meetings that anchor each day, and a handful of tasks. This is my fourth year working on newsletters. The work is repetitive — in a good way. Days can move slowly.
But then…. something happens. A breaking news event at the office. The new launch of a product. And suddenly, the new work jolts me out of the day-to-day. There’s an urgency to the work — it’s not the work that has to be done, it’s the work that NEEDS to be done. Days and weeks fly by. We accomplish a lot. Or maybe it just feels that way, because we’re accomplishing so many new goals.
And then we’ll come back the following Monday to our normal routines, with time seemingly moving half-speed.
Some work anchors you down, and some work unmoors you from those anchors and makes you move fast to do new, unexpected things. Time moves slow, then fast, then slow again. And they’re both OK! I understand now: To do the work, you need to understand how operate at both speeds.
My youngest brother graduated in December (congrats, Sam!), and he’s out searching for his first real job. We had a nice talk about it last weekend. He wanted to know: What should I be looking for in a first job?
I think the list of things is pretty short:
1) A great boss
2) A great team to work with
3) The opportunity to take on real responsibility
Great bosses often turn into great mentors. Great teams provide you with the structure to learn how to do great work. And, of course, any opportunity to own a task/project is a wonderful thing for a new hire.
How do you know if you’re coming into a situation with a great boss or a great team? You can always look at their previous output of work. I also think it’s important to ask questions that can reveal how the boss/team will use you. Questions like:
-How does the team work together?
-What types of personalities do you work best with?
-What projects need help right now that I could work on?
-What kind of opportunities for growth do you see for me in this job?
Almost as important as the answers is this: Does your future boss seem invested in you? Do they make lots of time for you during the interview process? Do you get to meet 1-on-1 with the team? How do they describe the opportunities available there? You’re looking for interest, engagement, and positivity. An interview’s like a first date: If the chemistry isn’t there, or if something’s off, you’ll sense it.
It’s funny: Looking back, I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I took my first job. Instead, I was thinking about whether or not the money was any good. (It wasn’t, but I didn’t care — unless I took a job as an investment banker, the money was always going to be lousy.) I was thinking about whether or not it had great benefits. (My first job offered two weeks of vacation. Media companies don’t offer much in the way of vacation because… well, they don’t have to. It’s part of the deal.) I was thinking about whether or not it was the “perfect” job for me. (At the time, I was obsessed with the idea of Google’s 20% time when I really should have been obsessed with working hard and proving that I was capable of taking on bigger projects.)
By accident, I stumbled into a few really good bosses who gave me lots of opportunity. I got lucky. My first job was pretty much exactly what I needed it to be. But I didn’t realize that at the time.
Sam (and others!): Be smarter than I was. Don’t worry about finding the perfect job. Just find the best bosses and the best team you can. It’s the best decision you can make at this stage in your career.
When I was in 9th grade and starting to focus in on journalism as a career, I interviewed a neighbor for a school project. He was a reporter for the Washington Post, and he’d written a few books. I asked him for career advice, and I remember his advice well:
Read a lot, and write a lot.
That’s stuck with me over the years. I try to write a lot — here on the blog, especially — even when the core of my job doesn’t involve writing. And I’m always pushing myself to read more. (It helps that I live in a city with an amazing library system!)
I read for pleasure, but I also like to read books about the way people work. And these tend to fall into two categories: Books that’ll make you think about work, and books that’ll show you how others work. These are a couple of my recent favorites from both:
Books That’ll Make You Think About Work
Do The Work by Steven Pressfield Anything You Want by Derek Chivers
These are both remarkable little (and I mean little — like 100 pages each) manifestos about doing your best work. I read them both in late 2011 — and it’s not a coincidence that some of the best work from Stry.us happened in the months after.
The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg
This book made me totally rethink my day-to-day habits and the stuff I need to do in order to do great work.
Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro
This is technically about working as a designer — but it’s really about how to choose the right people to work with and how to ask for what you want. (Also: It features chapters like “Fuck You, Pay Me.” This book is nothing if not very direct.)
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
This is all about startups — how to build them, how to grow them, and how to survive them. (Especially that last part.)
Books That’ll Show You How Others Work
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
Still maybe the single best book about what it’s like for a smart, dedicated team to take on a huge mission and… then fail over and over again. (When work goes wrong, I love thinking about Wolfe’s famous line: “Our rockets always blow up!”)
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
An inspiring book about one man trying to take on impossible work in a foreign land — and somehow finding success.
Sous Chef by Michael Gibney
A fascinating look into a day in the life of a chef, going minute-by-minute into all the little routines that allow a kitchen to do the work it needs to do.
A Season On The Brink by John Feinstein
Hey, I had to sneak a sports book in here! I love this behind-the-scenes look at a single season for Indiana University’s men’s basketball team, and the way a team changes in the face of tough leadership.
Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman
How does a movie get written and made? Goldman goes deep (sometimes a little too much) into the process.
Sam Walton: Made In America by Sam Walton The Everything Store by Brad Stone I’m Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards
One’s about Wal-Mart. One’s about Amazon. One’s about Google. But all three dive deep into the beginnings of what would become three enormous brands. I loved reading about the early days of all three companies, and the decisions that helped shape their futures.
It’s January, and you’re two weeks into your New Year’s resolution, so let’s talk about goals for a second.
I love New Year’s resolutions. I think they’re a wonderful way to set ambitious goals for the year ahead. And if they’re matched with a change in habits, they can actually lead to some incredible changes in your life.
But most of all, I love when someone sets a New Year’s resolution that’s also a “reach goal.”
What’s a reach goal? It’s any type of goal that can’t be achieved without extraordinary effort. It’s a goal that you set knowing that you may try your hardest — and still come up short.
The difference between an ordinary goal and a reach goal is huge. An ordinary goal might be to say, “I want to write more this year.” But with a reach goal, you’d pledge something bigger: “I want to write 1,000 words a day this year!” The goal is both concrete and ambitious. With a reach goal, you set the bar well beyond your ordinary limits — and then find out how far you can actually go.
Sally and I set a few goals for ourselves this year. We want to bring our lunch to work more often, and we want to dedicate 30 minutes every Sunday to clean the house. Those are goals we can definitely achieve.
But we also set a reach goal for ourselves: Together, we want to run 1,000 combined miles this year.
I like running. But I’ve never run 500 miles in a year. I’m the kind of runner who might run 20 minutes on the treadmill every week, or run a 5k every now and again. In my best year, maybe I’ve run 250 miles. So to run 500 miles, I’m going to have to log some serious miles every single week.
It’s going to be a lot. I don’t know if I’m going to get there. But that’s besides the point: I’ve decided to push myself to do something that I don’t know if I can do, and I’m excited to see how far and how hard I can go.
Last summer, I asked my team to start doing a very simple thing: Every Monday, I wanted them to send an email to a co-worker who’d done a particularly good job that week. And the work didn’t have to be related to our team. If a co-worker in LA made an awesome video, they could send an email to say, “I loved your video! Nice job!” If someone in the London office wrote a great post, they could say, “Great work on that post! Congrats!”
The mission was to be friendlier as a team. But the goal was bigger than that.
When I started at BuzzFeed, we had 175 employees and two offices. Now we’re over 1,250 employees (give or take a few) in more than a dozen offices worldwide. My team works with teams in New York, LA, London, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, and Sydney on newsletters. This year, we’ll work with even more.
And it’s hard working with new teams. They don’t always know us or know our work.
The one thing we can control is our relationships with these teams. If we’ve got an established relationship with a team, that often paves the way for us to work together on a project.
Hence these weekly “Congrats!” emails. They’re often 1-3 sentences long. They exist entirely for us to drop a line out to another team or another office and say hi, and let them know that we’d seen their work and loved it. It’s with little emails like those that we’ve been able to establish relationships across a big company. And this year is the year we try to build on those relationships — and build great work from them.
It takes more than a quick email to establish a relationship. But it’s a start. In the long run, it helps put us top-of-mind when other teams are deciding what teams to work with — which is huge — and it might open doors for us. The emails don’t take much time — literally, a minute or two every week. And the best part: Even if they don’t lead to work, they still make our workplace a little bit friendlier.
Which makes me wonder: Why doesn’t everyone send an email like that on a regular basis?
These are two words that people often use interchangeably:
One is “opportunities.”
One is “possibilities.”
As you get older, you learn that there’s a big difference between the two.
Opportunities are the concrete choices you have to make. They come in the form of job offers or acceptance letters from a school. There’s nothing theoretical about them. When you’re presented with an opportunity, you have to make a choice.
Possibilities, on the other hand, are just dreams. Could I move to Bolivia one day and become a goat farmer? Could I quit my job, move to Thailand, and teach ex-pats how to surf? Could I become president of a big company? Sure, anything is possible!
To put it another way: Opportunities are the things that can happen, and possibilities are the things that could happen.
But here’s where it gets important: When you’re young, it’s all possibility. You’ve got dreams and ambition, but not a lot of hard choices that need to be made. As you get older, the scale starts to shift. You’re no longer thinking about what could happen because you have choices that you actually have to make. You’re setting down, you’re starting a family, and you’re thinking about the opportunities that actually exist for you at this moment.
If you’re lucky, when you’re young, you can turn a dream into real work. You’re not tied down by anything — a job, a significant other, a family, a mortgage. That freedom gives you the ability to try something crazy. That’s what Stry.us was for me — a crazy dream that I actually made happen. But as you get older, the windows of possibility start to close. You still try to stay ambitious and idealistic, but you also start to become more practical. You start to make hard choices because you have to, not because you want to.
There’s a difference between “What will you do?” and “What can you do?” So when you’re young, and everything’s still on the table, take advantage of it. Those doors might not stay open for long.
“The best bosses share a common characteristic: they are encouragers. It’s easy to be an ass-kicker, to find holes in someone’s professional ability, but good bosses see a flicker of something and just let it barge out the front door.”
Two parts of that quote really spoke to me. The first was the “flicker of something.” In my career, I’ve had a few dozen of those ideas. I’ve had some big, crazy ideas, and I’ve written my fair share of memos trying to prove that my ideas could become a piece of great work. Many of my ideas were outlandish and were justifiably ignored. A handful were too good to ignore. But then there’s this strange middle ground of ideas: ideas that with the right team and a bit of work could become something great, but that could also be dismissed outright.
Which is where the type of boss comes in — because they’ll be the ones that decide which types of work get done. Like Gay wrote, some bosses are “encouragers.” To that, I’ll add the (obvious) second category: “discouragers.”
Encouragers tend to react with support to your ideas. When you’ve got a great idea, they’ll get the resources, talent, and money to make those ideas into great work. But when they hear a half-baked idea, they’ll give you the space and time to turn it into a really good idea. They’ll ask questions to try to draw out the idea. They’ll suggest that you talk with co-workers who might be able to help the idea along, or they’ll pass along a good article or book that might get the idea moving. They’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Encouragers try to turn a decent idea into a great idea, and a great idea into great work. When you try something and fail, encouragers back you up, share the blame, and don’t let it affect future work.
Discouragers tend to react with skepticism to your ideas. They’ll generally get behind your great ideas, but when it comes to anything less, they’ll try to pick holes in your idea. They’re critics. They’ll ask questions that are intended to find the faults in your pitch. Whatever your idea, you’ll have to prove it and maybe even debate it. You will not get the benefit of the doubt. Every idea has to stand on its own. Discouragers hear a half-baked idea and work to keep it from becoming a fully-baked flop. When you try something and fail, you will take the blame.
I think every boss needs be a bit of an encourager and a discourager — the perfect mix is probably 80/20, with a heavy lean towards encouragement. There certainly are times when it’s important to set boundaries and to say “no.” And when an encourager says “no,” that comes with some credibility, because “no” isn’t their default setting.
In general, I prefer to work with encouragers. When you’ve got a “C+” idea, it’s nice to know that you have a boss and a team that’ll work to turn it into an “A” idea. Working with a discourager is harder. It can feel like you have to reestablish trust with your boss every single day. Sometimes, you shy away pitching anything but your absolute best because you’re afraid of the debate that might come.
With encouragers vs. discouragers, it’s not just about positivity vs. negativity. It’s about support vs. discouragement. It’s about knowing that you have a team behind you, and that you don’t need to prove and reprove yourself.
Jason Gay’s not wrong: The best bosses are encouragers.
That photo of horses traveling together comes via Unsplash and photographer Susan Yin. There’s a metaphor there somewhere about teams traveling together, maybe? (OK, that’s a stretch. But you get the idea.)
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.