Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of a big project that’s still got more work to do, I just want to hit fast-forward and get right to the end — to the “good” part.
I never feel this way at the start. At the start of something, I’m excited! I’ve got ideas, and ambition, and lots of momentum. I have a concept in my head of how things will pan out, and I can’t wait to get there.
But something happens once I get into the work: I get a little antsy. I want to skip ahead to the part where everything’s working. This happens all the time: I’m bogged down in the work of all of it, and I want to skip ahead to the reward and see how it all pans out. Did I succeed? Did my predictions come true? And once I’ve hit that finish line, what’s the next series of steps and goals I’ll be shooting for?
This is natural, especially when there’s a lot of amazing stuff in the works. You remember the “Harry Met Sally” quote: “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” Take Meg Ryan out of that sentence and insert your own big project or ideas, and the same is true.
But that’s not how it works, of course, and I always eventually realize that. You have to go through the tedious, hard stuff. Great companies get founded because of the tedious, hard stuff learned along the way. Great writers and thinkers and people get to that level of greatness because of the stuff learned along the way.
There is no fast-forward button, because to fast-forward to the results is to miss everything valuable that’s learned between points A->B.
So I always get back in there and keep doing the work, even if it feels like I’m miles away from where I want to be. Maybe I’m really closer to a major breakthrough than I think — maybe you are, too.
That photo of a VCR comes via Flickr’s Rob Ketcherside.
This is something I’ve written about before — waiting for permission, as opposed to just going out and doing stuff — but I had a funny moment last week that made me think of it again:
I went to a show at Lincoln Center here in NYC. It was a free show, and one of my favorite New York bands, the Lone Bellow, was playing.
And everyone there — EVERYONE — was seated.
No matter what the band did, they couldn’t get the crowd to stand up. They asked, and they implored, and they stomped around and played. They never got mad about it, but having been to a Lone Bellow show before, I’m pretty sure they would have been happier had everyone stood up and danced.
And then with three songs left, a few people walked up to the front of the stage and started to dance. Ushers let them stay. And then more people walked up. And then from the back, I could see people pointing and gesturing: “Hey, let’s go up there, too!”
By the end of the show, there were a few hundred people in front of the stage, dancing.
I’m not sure why people didn’t go up earlier. I’m not sure what they were waiting for.
But beyond the matter of permission, there was another thing: When these fans were all seated and spread out, it was tough to tell how many true fans there were at the show. But when they all got together in front, it was obvious: The band had a big following.
Just the act of bringing those people together — a few groups of friends here and there joining to make a pretty big crowd — made a huge difference in the way the rest of the audience reacted to the show. Others started dancing. And when the show ended, the band got a standing ovation.
All those people coming together to enjoy the show made a huge, huge difference.
When you’re putting fans behind a piece of work, I think there’s a lot to learn here. Get those fans organized. Give them something to get excited about. And let them be visible — together is always better than alone.
I continue to be amazed at how often people stop — just stop.
These are people who say they love what they do, and are passionate about making it work. People who’ve started something.
And then they just stop.
But stop is the polite way of putting it. They give up. They quit.
And here’s the thing: Projects don’t work out. That novel or that screenplay or that launch — it doesn’t work out. And it fails more often than you’d like to know.
The best people I’ve met, though, don’t stop. They see ideas through to execution. If it fails, it fails. But it isn’t going to be because they didn’t put in the work.
So keep going. Just keep going — even when it seems like the work is shit, or isn’t taking you anywhere.
I believe this to be true — and so do many of the smartest people I know: The people you want to work with are those who keep going when the work gets hard. Those are the people you’re going to want on your team.
Be one of those people, too. Keep going.
That stop sign photo at top comes via Flickr’s Lion Towers.
Before you start the work, you’ve got to ask yourself:
Are you willing to struggle? Because you’re going to struggle with this. The work is going to kick your ass, and just when you think you’ve made a breakthrough, it’s going to kick your ass again. You are going to ride that struggle bus for a long, long time.
Are you willing to feel stupid? Because you’re not going to know everything — not by a long shot. You’ve got so much to learn, and it’s going to get to a point where you feel like you don’t know ANYTHING. It’s actually a good thing. It means you’re growing your skill set and pushing yourself into brand new areas. But it’s also really, really hard to cope with the fact that at times, you feel pretty dumb.
Are you willing to find the best people Because you’re not going to get anywhere without the best people. You’re going to have to find people you love to collaborate with, and people who will push your work into brand new areas, and also people you wouldn’t mind getting stuck with in a room at 2 a.m. (Because, btw, you probably will be stuck in a room with them at 2 a.m. at some point. It happens.)
Are you willing to keep going? Because after all this, you have to be willing to push on and keep doing the work. You have to be willing to launch stuff that isn’t quite perfect, and then go back and make that work better. Above all else, you have to be willing to keep stepping out there and pushing your work into the world, because it’s the only way to do it.
So are you willing to do all that? Because if you’re not, you’re not quite ready to start.
That photo of a state fair comes via Flickr’s Omar Bárcena.
Three years ago, I wrote a post about Todd Snider, a singer/songwriter I really love. Whenever I’ve gone through strange times, I’ve always had Todd to remind me that things can — and almost certainly will — get even weirder along the way.
This line especially stands out for me, re-reading that post now:
I know haven’t gotten that far in the entrepreneurial process. No, I don’t know what lies ahead.
But I suspect that when I get there, I’ll find there’s a Todd Snider song that explains it perfectly.
And, of course, three years later, there is.
It’s from a song called “Money, Compliments, Publicity,” and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I don’t always know what the right next decision is for me, and sometimes, I’ve wondered if there’s a magic piece of advice that could just unlock everything.
Todd’s obviously wondered that, too. And so he sings:
I went to see this therapist
She said, “Just do the best you can do
Do the best you can do”
I was hoping for something more specific
I love that. Most of the time, there isn’t a phrase or a single piece of advice that’s going to solve everything. You just have to listen closely, think wisely, and make the best choices you can.
And then move on.
Thanks for the reminder, Todd.
That photo of Todd comes via Flickr’s kubacheck.
Don’t get me wrong: I love working in journalism in New York. But the New York media world is pretty small. Go to events or conferences, and you see a lot of the same people. (And I’ve discovered that the world of New York people who do email stuff — my expertise at BuzzFeed — is even smaller.)
So once a year, I try to go to something that’s totally outside my little worlds.
In 2012, it meant a TEDx event in D.C. Last year, I went to Portland for a conference called the World Domination Summit.
And this year, I went to Fargo for MisfitCon — an impressive little conference for people who make stuff (both online and IRL).
I met all sorts of people this weekend in Fargo: actors, accountants, painters, writers… you get the idea. They’re people I don’t get to talk to that much. Which meant that I got to hear about stuff I don’t ever get to hear about — and now I’m coming back to New York with some good new ideas and energy.
I’m not saying you have to travel all the way to North Dakota to escape. But every few months, it’s worth getting outside your normal circles. You’d be surprised at what you might learn.
I took that photo at MisfitCon.
You can always — ALWAYS — make it better.
You can always go back and make that second edit, or fix that line or code.
You can always ask someone new for help to make the second version better than the first.
You can always try again.
It doesn’t have to be PERFECT the first time. Because it won’t be! Hardly anyone nails it on the first try, and that’s okay. Good work is meant to be built upon and improved. That first version is just a starting place.
So just launch it. Get it out there and see what people say.
You can always make it better.
That photo of a book being edited comes via Flickr’s Joanna Penn.
I got asked the other day about how you make it work as a one-man band — if you’re starting at a decently sized company, but you’re the only advocate for what you do.
And I told this person:
At BuzzFeed, when we launched email, I was the only staffer fully devoted to email. Every single newsletter that was sent in 2013 — and they numbered in the thousands — was written by me. (It was a lot. I wouldn’t recommend doing that.)
But now, we’ve three — and soon to be four — others helping write our newsletters, and the email team continues to grow.
So how’d we get from there to here?
-We set simple goals for the products we wanted to launch.
-We figured out the metrics that were more important, and worked hard to meet — and exceed — those numbers. But we didn’t obsess over those day-to-day numbers, especially if the overall feedback about the product was strong.
-We launched things quickly. Like I always write: When you build something with Good/Better/Done in mind, you’re able to get it out the door quickly, and then improve it as you go.
-We didn’t waste motion. After the first few weeks, we didn’t spend too much time talking about the What Ifs before a launch. We picked a target, we roped in the necessary people we needed for support, and we got the product out the door. Everything up until launch is an exercise in theory — so just get the thing launched.
I knew when I started at BuzzFeed that I was going to have to work like a crazy person to get email off the ground. But now it’s starting to take off. And as it has, my bosses have been hugely supportive of the project, and are helping give it the fuel it needs to grow.
I couldn’t have done this alone forever. But to start, I didn’t need a lot.
That photo of an actual one-man band comes via Flickr’s William Ward.
People have short memories.
I used to think that when I screwed up, people would remember forever. Or, at the very least, for an extremely long time. A long enough time that it might as well be forever.
But what I’ve found is just the opposite: When I’ve really messed up, I spend a little while kicking myself, and then a little while longer getting my ass kicked by others… and then things start to get better. Friends show up and offer support. Things get talked out.
And then more work comes along, and there’s another chance to get it right. If it’s a small mistake, it’s forgotten a day or two later. If it’s pretty big mistake, it lingers for a week.
But then it passes. People forgive. The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made — the biggest goofs — are things that friends and old co-workers now use as punch lines during happy hours. You remember that thing you did, Dan? Man, what a screw up!
Oh, the other part: You learn a lot about the people you work with when you screw up. Because what I’ve described is what happens when you screw up in the company of great people. They forgive you, and even help you move past your mistakes.
Not everybody is like that, though. There are workplaces that don’t forget mistakes — that punish you for them, that constantly remind you of them.
What I’m saying is: Screwing up is pretty good way to find out what kind of place you work at, and whether or not you want to be working with people who’ll punish you for screwing up.
That image of a small mistake comes via Flickr’s @tehlonz.
A few years ago, I came to a strange point with Stry.us. I had been working on the project for a while, and the initial giddiness of working on something new had worn off. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed with it all. There was so much I didn’t know, and it felt to me like I was the only one who didn’t know what he was really talking about.
I didn’t quite know how to explain it back then, but I can now. (Funny how much a few years of perspective helps.) What I was experiencing was twofold:
1) I was challenging myself, and realizing that to succeed in my new role, I was going to have to learn a lot.
2) I was struggling to remember that even though I had a lot to learn, I also still knew a lot.
That didn’t make sense to me when I first went through it. I honestly believed that I couldn’t be smart AND have lots to learn at the same time. I thought it was either one or the other.
But the more people I talk to about my experience, the more I realize that I wasn’t alone in this. A lot of people struggle with that mentality when they take on a big new role.
So when you find yourself in that situation — when you feel overwhelmed with what you still have to learn — these two things can help:
1) Be honest with others about what you know. When you know the answer, speak up! Chances are, you know a lot more about your work than you’d give yourself credit for.
2) Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not a sign of failure. When you say those words, you’re making a promise to yourself to go out and find the answers. And often, you’re making a promise to get help from others.
You can be stubborn, and pretend to know it all, or you can grow as you go. I’d take the second path if I were you.