One Thing I’m Trying To Get Better At.

more ladders

When I was younger, I was a bit of a know-it-all. In any situation, I almost always thought I had the right answers.

But as I get older, I’m learning to quiet that voice that jumps to a conclusion right away.

There’s a concept they teach at my office, called the Ladder of Inference. It says that any time we get a new piece of data about a situation, we start thinking. From that piece of data, we make assumptions. From those assumptions, we draw conclusions. And from there, we take action. All of us are sometimes guilty of moving up that ladder — from data to action — before we truly understand the big picture of what’s happening.

the ladder of inference

But there’s a way to keep yourself from moving up the ladder too fast, and it’s simple:

Ask more questions.

Before you start drawing conclusions and moving into action, ask lots of questions. Be curious! Talk to your team, and see if you can learn as much as possible about a situation before you move. Often, you’ll uncover something new that will change the way you approach a problem.

I’m trying to get better at this every day. I’m still not there yet. I have my biases and my beliefs, and when I’m facing a familiar-sounding problem, they can be tough to shake. But when I ask good questions and seek to learn first and act later, I find that I make far better decisions for myself and my team.

———

The photo of a ladder at top comes via photographer Jorge Mallo and Unsplash, and the ladder graphic comes via this Huffington Post article.

Being A Sports Fan Made Me An Optimist — Even Though My Teams Always Lose.

Maryland football

I love sports. I love my Washington Capitals and Washington Nationals. I love my Missouri Tigers. I love my Maryland Terrapins.

The only thing is: I happen to root for teams that almost never win the big one.

In my lifetime, my teams have combined for one championship: Maryland’s 2002 national title in basketball.

The rest have a history of coming up a little short. The Caps have been to the Stanley Cup finals only once — but never won a title. The Nats have never won a playoff series in their short history. Missouri basketball is one of the winningest teams to never reach a Final Four. Missouri football has made four conference championships games in the last decade, but lost all four.

For some, watching so many teams come up short might make them pessimists. I’m just the opposite. I’m optimistic because my teams still have yet to raise that big trophy.

Watching those teams has given me such wonderful reminders about the things that make great work happen. To have success, you need great, experienced leaders for your team. You need great team members. And you need to be a little lucky — being in the right place at the right time makes the difference, sometimes.

And I’ve been fascinated by the way my teams handle themselves despite pressure from fans and media. When everyone’s telling them, “No, you can’t,” it’s amazing to watch teams show resilience and unity.

Above all: The championships offer a carrot to keep chasing. There’s is always more work to do. There is always room to get better. There is always time to rewrite your own script.

I don’t know if this year is the year for my teams. But I’m optimistic — as always — that success is within our grasp.

———

That photo of the Maryland football team comes via Flickr user dbking and a Creative Commons license.

You Don’t Need Permission To Do The Best Things In Life.

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You don’t need permission to call someone you care about just to say hi.

You don’t need permission to send a kind email to a friend.

You don’t need permission to take a long run in the park.

You don’t need permission to learn something new.

You don’t need permission to try a recipe you really want to cook, or to listen to a band you love.

You don’t need permission to share a secret with someone, or a story.

You don’t need permission to do something nice for someone else.

You don’t need permission to stay up all night to write, or to read, or to talk.

You don’t need permission to sing in the shower.

You don’t need permission to treat yourself to that thing you always wanted.

You don’t need permission to go on an adventure, and you don’t need permission to get lost.

Sometimes, you have to remind yourself: You don’t have to wait for the things that matter most to you in life. Those things are always there, waiting for you, whenever you decide to start.

— — —

That photo comes via Unsplash and photographer Saksham Gangwar.

Nobody’s Going To Stop You.

Turner Field

There’s a fantastic story on Deadspin this week titled,  “I Covered The Braves For A Newspaper That Didn’t Exist.” It’s the story of how a real estate broker from Atlanta realized that he could get a press pass to cover his favorite baseball team by inventing a fake newspaper and becoming its one and only “employee.”

What I love most is this realization the author has about getting onto the field during the game. He writes:

“I was a Braves fan, and so I wanted to be in the Braves’ dugout, on the first-base side. Emboldened, I walked around behind the home-plate umpire while the pitcher threw warm-up tosses and simply walked into the home dugout and to the other camera well. As far as strategies go, ‘walk until someone stops you’ remains undefeated.”

And he’s not wrong. From my years covering sports, I can tell you that you can get away with just about anything at a sporting event as long as you:

A) Look like you know what you’re doing, and
B) Nobody stops you.

I’ve watched rain delays from the dugout, and snuck into stadiums when I wasn’t allowed. If no one else is going to stop you, why should you?

And it turns out that the same philosophy applies to pretty much anything you do. Here’s a lesson from work: A few years ago, we started aggressively promoting newsletters at the bottom of most posts on BuzzFeed.com. There wasn’t a meeting where a bunch of higher-ups agreed that this was the right strategy. My team decided that we should try it. We told our boss on the editorial side, and one on the product side, and then… just started doing it. We figured we’d do it until someone stopped us.

That lasted almost two years.

We had so much success with those boxes that other teams at BuzzFeed decided they wanted access to that space at the bottom of the page. Eventually, we made some rules governing that promo space, and my team is happy to play by the new guidelines.

But the minute we see the next opening — a space where we can try something without a lot of restrictions, an opportunity where another team says, “Sure, that’s OK with us!” — we’re going to take advantage. The rule remains the same: Just start moving until somebody says you have to stop.

———

That’s a photo I took at Atlanta’s Turner Field back in 2010.

Do One Thing Really Well.

that is a photo of me about to eat all the pizza

Last month, on a road trip back from New England, I had the best pizza of my entire life.

It was at a place called Sally Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut, a restaurant that’s been there since 1938. The pizza was incredible. Everything they did — the crust, the toppings, the sauce — was perfect. Right now, even just thinking about that pizza, I’m trying to figure out if there’s time for me to get on a train and make it to New Haven before Sally’s closes tonight.

Like I said: Their pizza was unbelievably good.

Here’s my favorite part of the Sally’s experience, though: The menu. This is what their entire menu looks like:

the Sally's meu

You’ll notice something about that menu: Sally’s does not sell the usual Italian fare. They don’t sell salads, or mozzarella sticks, or calzones, or pasta, or any sort of side dishes. They sell pizza, and drinks to go alongside pizza, and nothing else. That’s the way they’ve done it since 1938.

Turns out you can stay in business for 78 years selling only one thing if that one thing is that good.

There’s something to be learned from a place like Sally’s. When I was coming out of college, my skill set was like the menu at a New York diner: I did a little of everything, but nothing particularly well. I had written for print, blogged, edited video and audio, and even gotten into photography. I was OK at everything.

When I tried to figure out the first step in my career, I found myself stuck. I could do a lot of things, but I wasn’t sure what one thing to focus on. I didn’t seem fully qualified for anything.

So for that first job, I applied to everything — and I mean everything.

I applied to jobs as a reporter and editor. I applied to jobs on the radio. I even applied to a job as one of CNN’s new backpack journalists, despite the fact that I’d never been on air.(1) I didn’t hear back from anyone, because hiring managers could tell that my experience was a mile wide and an inch deep.

If I could go back, I’d tell myself to focus a little more in college. Yes, it’s good to be well-rounded, but it’s even better to have one killer skill that people can’t ignore.(2)

I’d tell myself: You can always improve your skill set later, and you can always move from one field to another. But especially for that first job, having a specialty sets you apart.

When it comes to careers, we could all be more like Sally’s Apizza: Do one thing, and it really well.

———

That is a photo of me about to eat all the pizza at Sally’s. (Two of us ate enough pizza for about 6 people, and I’m not embarrassed by that at all.)

  1. A fun fact: I applied to that CNN job in every single bureau they had, which meant I applied for the same job about six different times in six different cities. I didn’t realize one HR department handled everything, and they grew increasingly more annoyed with me as my applications kept rolling in. Whoops!
  2. Maybe it’s even connected to whatever weird/fun thing you make on the side!

Everybody Does Something Else.

Jonah

A week before I started my job at BuzzFeed, I started to get the sense that this new job was going to be a little… different. I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw everyone at BuzzFeed — literally, hundreds of my soon-to-be co-workers — retweeting an account called @SeinfeldToday, which imagined if Seinfeld took place in the present day:

That account was co-created by a BuzzFeed editor. And he wasn’t alone. Everyone at BuzzFeed, I’d discover, had something odd that they did on the side.

My co-workers were responsible for weird Tumblrs like Texts From Hillary, Onion-like Headlines In Real Life, and Daily Odd Compliment. They launched absurd internet projects like @Horse_ebooks. They had their own podcasts, newsletters, and comedy shows.

Even Jonah Peretti, the company’s founder, was responsible for hugely viral email chains and insane websites like blackpeopleloveus.com.

It’s not a coincidence that so many BuzzFeeders have a side project or gig. I work with an office full of people who love to make stuff — and are lucky enough to have a job that allows them to do even more of that during their 9-to-5. The common denominator at BuzzFeed is that we’re an office full of makers and creators. When you put people with a track record of making great stuff in a building together, you’re going to get some pretty impressive results.

It’s why I always tell people who visit BuzzFeed and want a job there someday: Do something weird with your spare time. You have the same tools that we do — Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. You have the same opportunities to make something amazing on the internet that we do.

So go ahead and make something. It’s the best way for you to learn — and it might be the best way for you to get noticed by a place like BuzzFeed.

———

That photo of Jonah Peretti was taken by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch, and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

Your Fuckup Probably Isn’t A Big Deal.

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In 2012, I wrote a blog post on this very site that asked a rather uplifting question: “How long are you willing to suck?” In it, I suggested that if you were going to get really good at anything, you were going to suck at it for a very long time first. It really does take a long time to master a skill. The people who do eventually get good at something are the ones who keep working to get better.

And today, I’d like to add on a corollary to that theory: As you work to get better at something, you’re going to make a tiny thousand fuckups. They’ll probably feel like a big deal at the time, but here’s the thing: They really aren’t.

Here’s a story:

I was 15 years old, and I was covering my first Washington Redskins game as a credentialed reporter. I got to sit in the press box with the other reporters, and I got to interview players after the game. I was very nervous and very excited to be there.

My first game was a meaningless preseason game. My job was pretty simple: At the start of every quarter and at the end of every half, I called this company’s central office and told a guy what the score of the game was. After every scoring play, I called that guy with an updated score. After the game, I called that guy and gave him a few quotes from the locker room. Then they’d send out game updates based on my updates.

That was it. It was a very, very easy job. It required me to watch football for money(1), but without actually doing any real work. I didn’t have to write a game story when the game was over, and I didn’t have to go on air. I just had to watch football, talk to a football player or two afterwards, and make a dozen phone calls.

I remember my first locker room experience. I’d gone to RadioShack to buy a brand new tape recorder — literally, it recorded audio on tiny 1-inch tapes.(2) I remember walking into the locker room and noticing the way the room was laid out, each group of players in their particular corner. I remember walking over to Champ Bailey and Chris Samuels, both Pro Bowlers, to ask questions.

And I remember this most of all: Getting back to my car after the game, pressing play to listen to the interviews I’d done, and hearing…. silence. I remember looking at my tape recorder, and realizing that I’d accidentally pressed the play button, not the “REC” button to record. I hadn’t recorded a single second of my interviews.

I felt like the biggest fuckup in the world. My first time in the locker room, and I didn’t do my job correctly.

And since, I’ve said and done the wrong thing so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve reported on big stories and then spelled a key source’s name wrong — in the print edition. I’ve sent the wrong email to huge lists of people.

I’ve stumbled, blundered, and fucked up over and over again.

And in each new skill I learn, I’ll keep fucking up! That’s part of the process of learning. You try stuff, you fuck up, you learn, you get better. Those fuckups are always little things that can be corrected and learned from. As long as you keep learning and working to get better, you’ll come to realize that your fuckups aren’t a big deal. They’re teachable moments, that’s all.

———

That photo of an old-school tape recorder comes via Orin Zebest of Flickr and a Creative Commons issue.

  1. They paid me $35 per game. $35! To watch football! It was a dream job for a 15-year-old.
  2. The more I look back, 2002 feels surprisingly like something out of “The Wonder Years.”

Ring That Bell.

that's Mel Brooks at Radio City

Last Monday, my wife emails me an interview with Mel Brooks. The interview has a bit of news: He’s going to do a showing of “Blazing Saddles” at Radio City Music Hall later in the week, and then a Q&A after the movie. We both love Mel and his movies, so I go looking for tickets. They’re a little pricey, and we’re debating whether or not to go. I’m leaning towards going — Mel is 90, he’s a living legend, and you never know if he’ll be back again.

Halfway through our email thread, the news breaks that Gene Wilder has died.

We buy the tickets.

Of course, it was worth the price of admission, and then some. The crowd could not have been more excited — you should have heard the ovation when Wilder’s Waco Kid first showed up on screen. And then Mel Brooks came out on stage and started telling stories, and we all went absolutely crazy.

He told this one that really landed for me. He’s told this story before, so I’ll quote it for accuracy:

At one point in the movie, an old lady in a bonnet says, “Up yours, n—-r.” Brooks recalled asking John Calley, then head of production at Warner Bros., “‘Can we beat the s— out of a little old lady? Can we punch a horse?’ He said to me, ‘If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it.'”

If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it. I absolutely LOVE that.

And it explains so much about Mel Brooks. This is a guy who did musical numbers about both the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi Germany. This is a guy who made Frankenstein dance. This is a guy who put a fart scene into a Western.

Yeah, Mel Brooks rang that bell.

If you’re going to go halfway, you might as well go all the way. Mel Brooks taught me that last week, and I’m going to try not to forget it.

———

That’s a (not very good) photo of Mel at Radio City that I took on Thursday. Look closely: There’s a little Jewish guy at the front of the stage. That’s Mel.

You Don’t Know Who Jerry O’Keefe Is. But Here’s Why I Remember Him.

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I was reading through the paper this morning when this headline caught my eye: “Jeremiah O’Keefe, Ace in His First World War II Battle, Dies at 93”.

I didn’t recognize the face of the man in the fighter plane, but down the page, there was a second photo of a man — the same face, but older, well into his 80s. I recognized that one.

I’d met him before.

I met Jeremiah O’Keefe — Jerry, to everyone around town — during my summer in Biloxi, Miss., in 2010. I interviewed him once at his home that July, just as I was getting started on Stry.us. I didn’t have a working website yet. I hadn’t published a single story. But he was gracious and gave me an hour of his day. We talked about his time in the Navy and his work running the town’s funeral home; about how he came to politics; about the time he tried to stop the Klan; about the projects he built in Biloxi, and the ones he didn’t. I wrote a story about his time as mayor, and gave it the headline, “The Man Who Tried to Save Biloxi.” Below that headline, I wrote:

“Four years after Hurricane Camille, in a town the storm left for dead, the man running the local funeral home decided to give his city new life.”

I wrote a lot of stories that summer about death and rebirth in Biloxi, but none quite as literal as Jerry’s.

And it’s really something that today, of all days, is the day Jerry’s obituary appeared in the New York Times. You might not realize this, but today is the 11th anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, and changed that part of the South forever. It would be easy not to know about the anniversary — after all, if you’re living pretty much anywhere outside the Gulf, you won’t be reading about the storm today. Those of us in the media simply don’t cover the 11th anniversaries of disasters — even those as life-changing as Katrina.

Here’s what I wrote about Katrina a year ago today over on Stry.us:

There is a particular disaster narrative that springs up after an enormous storm, and Katrina was no exception to the rule. The storyline is simple:

In the days after the storm, the story is one of loss.

A year after the storm, the story is one of recovery.

Five years after the storm, the story is one of remembrance.

10 years after the storm, the story is one of rebirth.

That’s the disaster narrative, and Katrina’s story has followed it to the letter: Loss. Recovery. Remembrance. Rebirth. Joplin is four years in to the disaster narrative; the Jersey Shore is two. But the stories of tornado recovery in Joplin will be everywhere next summer; in two years, we’ll read recovery stories from Sandy. On the 10-year anniversary, we’ll read of rebirth, same as it always was.

But this is the last Katrina anniversary you will ever read about.

After 10 years, an interesting thing happens: The disaster ceases to be a part of the present, and becomes something of the past. After 10 years, reporters stop writing about how the storm is affecting people’s lives today. Remember: This is a story that began with loss, and ends with rebirth. The story doesn’t go on forever; there is no epilogue.

So for Katrina’s story, this ends here. You will not read a front page story in the New York Times about the 11th anniversary of Katrina. You will not see a site like BuzzFeed put together a package on the 15th anniversary of the storm. And by the time the 20th anniversary rolls around, or the 25th, Katrina will simply be something of the past.

Of course, I opened the paper today, and there was no front page story about Katrina.(1) But on page B6 of the New York Times, there is a story about Jerry O’Keefe. And his story is the coast’s story, too.

So on this day, 11 years after Katrina hit the coast, I wanted to say:

Jerry, I’m grateful for the time you gave me back in 2010, and the conversation we had. You didn’t need to give a young reporter a chance, but you did. Thank you for sharing your story with me.

And Jerry, I wanted you to know: Whenever I think of you, I think about this stretch of beach out in front of your Mississippi home. Dating back to the 1950s, you told me that you’d planted palm trees out front. When a big hurricane came through and knocked the trees down — like with Hurricane Camille, and later Katrina — you’d go back and replant new ones in the sand. It was one of my favorite symbols of Katrina, those trees down by Highway 90. What the storms would take away, you’d find away to bring back. In Biloxi, there was death and rebirth — always.

I know, Jerry, that you’re gone, but there will be another storm. On the Gulf Coast, there’s always another.

And when that storm comes, and when it knocks down your palm trees, I wonder: Will someone come now to replace them?

I hope they will, Jerry.

the trees in the sand in front of Jerry's house

  1. Of the major national publications, only the Huffington Post ran a story about Katrina today. Credit to them for keeping the story alive.

The Blog Is Going On Hiatus For August!

PNC Park

Fun blog note: I’m getting married this week! And with the wedding and honeymoon coming up, the blog’s going to take a bit of a break. I’ll be back in September with more posts.

Have a great rest of your summer — and I’ll see you back here soon!

— — —

That’s a photo of PNC Park in Pittsburgh because the wedding’s in Pittsburgh. Also, that photo was taken by Dan Gaken, posted on Flickr, and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

A blog for people who want to do great work.