I’ve writtena few times over the years about failure, and I’ve been thinking about it more at this new job. Here’s what I told them:
The first time you do something, you’re not going to do it very well. I look back on things I wrote a decade ago — sometimes even stuff I wrote a year ago — and I’m embarrassed at how bad it is. I look at old projects of mine, and I can’t believe how average the work is.
My earlier work sucked.
The only way to get better is to keep pushing yourself, and to surround yourself with people who push you just as hard. It takes time, and it takes work.
And yes, it will often suck.
The best people I know are a lot of things: Talented, creative, and lucky. And nearly all have something else in common: They’re willing to go through periods where their output isn’t very good, and they’re willing to work hard to improve.
Doing great work isn’t about failure — it’s about perseverance. You’re not failing — your work just isn’t very good yet, and there’s a difference.
They won’t put this on a bumper sticker or a poster, but it’s the truth: Be willing to suck. Adversity and struggle is how you get better. Keep at it until you get to a place where you’re doing the work you really want to do.
One of my former BuzzFeed colleagues, Millie Tran, put together this fantastic presentation about how to visualize your career. It’s full of wonderful advice for people in their 20s and 30s — especially if you work in media. Take 5 minutes and give it a read here:
I stumbled across this quick video featuring career advice from Carla Harris, a vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, and I had to share it. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, take two minutes and listen to her advice.
Her three big points:
1) “You will have the opportunity to have four to five careers — not jobs — over the course of your professional journey.” Which means that every few years, you should be evaluating where you are in your career, and whether or not it’s time to switch fields — or merely switch roles.
2) “There is no substitute for the power of relationships.” About this, she’s 100% right — building relationships is the key to helping you move up in your field.
3) “The way you differentiate yourself in any environment is to show that you’re comfortable taking risks, because it says to the marketplace that you’re comfortable with change.” Everyone is going to experience change in their jobs — so prove now to your bosses that you’re willing to lead your team into and through those changes.
Watch the whole video — it’ll be the best two minutes of your day.
Ladies and gentlemen, faculty and staff, distinguished guests, graduating students from the class of 2017: I’d like to tell you a story about a simpler, more honest time in American history.
The year was 2005.
I remember it like it was… well, about 12 years ago. Was it really only 12 years ago? It feels like longer.
I want you to imagine a young Dan Oshinsky. He’s a senior at a suburban high school outside Washington, D.C. He’s heading soon to journalism school — one day, he’ll write for newspapers! He’s yet to discover hair product. He’s driving his maroon Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight down the highway.
When a song comes on the radio. (Again, it’s 2005.) It’s a song that he knows, and loves.
He can’t remember the name of the song.
But he loves the riff. It goes: Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh.
The song ends, but the radio DJ does not say the same of the song.
So young Dan drives down the highway in his Oldsmobile, singing the riff over and over again, trying to remember the name of the song. He sings: Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh.
But he cannot, for the life of him, remember the name of the song.
He gets home, and he finds his mother, who grew up loving rock music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Surely, he hopes, she’ll know the name of the song.
Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh, he sings.
And she recognizes the riff immediately… but fails remember the name of the song.
So they call their neighbor, Matt. Matt grew up in rock bands. Still plays in one, in fact. Plays guitar, knows everything there is to know about rock music.
They get Matt on the phone — on his house line, naturally. (Again, the year was 2005.)
Matt, they say, we heard this riff on the radio but can’t remember the name of the song. Do you know it?
And loudly, on speakerphone, they begin to shout: Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh.
And Matt says: Yeah, I know that song! That’s “La Grange”, by ZZ Top.
Matt was right:
I tell you this story tonight, Class of 2017, for a simple reason: That story, from 12 years ago, makes 2005 feel as far away as the the 1980s. It feels like a story from an entirely different era.
In 2005, I was driving around in an Oldsmobile — a car company that no longer exists — with a tape deck — a technology that barely exists — with a flip phone — a product I haven’t used in years. The iPhone wouldn’t exist for another two years, and I wouldn’t discover a music discovery app called Shazam for another five. At that point in my life, I’d never owned an iPod, and the idea of high-speed data being transmitted to cell phones was years away.
So if you would have told me in 2005 that one day, there would be a magical, mobile device that could listen to and identify songs on the radio, I would have been amazed. That was something that could only happen… in the future!
The future, it turns out, is happening right now. In the dozen years since I couldn’t remember the name of a ZZ Top song, nearly everything that exists in our day-to-day lives has changed. The technology, the tools, the resources — it’s all changed.
In just a dozen years.
And I cannot imagine what we’ll have at our fingertips in the year 2029. The changes, I’m sure, will astound all of us.
But there’s the flip side to all this change: Just thinking about the unknown ahead of us can be frightening. How do you prepare yourself for a future you don’t recognize? What are the right careers for such a future? What are the right choices?
I wish I had the answer for you — but I don’t.
Instead, Class of 2017, I have a challenge: No matter what happens in the years ahead, invest in yourselves. College may be over, but push yourself to keep learning. Read a lot. Try new products. Learn new skills. If you work at an office that has a Learning & Development team, take their classes. Don’t be afraid to keep growing your skill set.
In the dozen years ahead, everything in our lives will change again. So don’t be afraid to keep learning — it’s the only way to change with whatever the world throws at us next.
Congrats, Class of 2017, and in the words of ZZ Top: Have mercy.
Last week, I wrote about a big mistake I made when I was first interviewing at BuzzFeed: I didn’t talk to colleagues and mentors about the role, so I incorrectly estimated the value of the job. In the end, I accepted an offer for less money than I should have.
And a few days after writing that post, I realized that I left a key part of the negotiating process out. So let’s discuss it here:
Let’s say you’re about to get the offer. You’ve talked to your network. You’ve figured out what you want to ask for. You’ve done some research online for salary ranges. You’ve asked for your number, and you’ve gotten the offer.
You should go back and ask for a little more.
That HR lead you’re dealing with? They’ve been authorized to give you more money already. It’s probably not a ton of money — depending on the size of the offer, it might be anywhere from 5-10% more. But if you ask for a little more, you’re likely to get it.
“I’m really excited to work here, and I know that I will bring a lot of value. I appreciate the offer at $58,000, but was really expecting to be in the $65,000 range based on my experience, drive and performance. Can we look at a salary of $65,000 for this position?”
“I realize you have carefully considered how much you think this job is worth. As we discussed in our interview, I believe I can do this job [more profitably, more efficiently, more quickly, more effectively] by doing [such and such]. For these reasons, I believe my contribution on this job would be worth between $X-$Y in compensation…. Are you open to discussing this?”
Several of my co-workers even referenced Sheryl Sandberg in their negotiations, and got more money.
Yes, it can feel a little awkward asking for more. But they’re almost certainly not going to pull an offer because you asked, and in most cases, they’ve already built in a little wiggle room to offer you more. So go back and ask.
And if they genuinely can’t offer you more: Ask for something else! Ask for more vacation days. If the company offers stock options, ask for more stock. You can even ask to do your next salary review on an advanced timeline. At BuzzFeed, I negotiated my first review 6 months into the job — and ended up getting a five-figure salary bump at that mid-year review.
Ask for a little more. If you don’t, you’re leaving money on the table.
We’re interviewing candidates for a new member of my team right now — exciting, I know! And that’s gotten me thinking about what I wish I knew when I was on the other side of the table, trying to get that offer.
I’ve written before about things recent grads should be doing to get an offer:
Let’s add another to this list: Utilizing your network of peers.
When I was interviewing at BuzzFeed, I was wading into brand new territory. I’d never worked at a start-up like that before. I didn’t have a good sense of how much they’d pay, what my hours would be like, or whether or not their offer of stock options was something I should take seriously.(1)
I’d made this mistake once before: In the final months of my senior year at Mizzou, I’d been offered the chance to run a blog network, and I turned out it down without talking to my network. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized the size of the opportunity I’d refused. As I wrote back in 2012:
What I’ve learned since is the importance of a really good conversation. You need people who can advise you, guide you and — most importantly — ask the kind of questions that will help lead to you the right answers. When you have an opportunity, talk about it with smart people. It’s amazing how a good conversation can really open your eyes to your full potential.
I made a similar mistake with BuzzFeed. I talked mostly to my family during the interview process, and I accepted BuzzFeed’s offer. But I ended up accepting an offer for less than I was worth.
What happened? I didn’t utilize my network correctly. I should have also been talking to:
1) Colleagues a few years older than me — They could have told me more about what to expect from a growing company like this, and helped me understand how to approach a difficult salary conversation.
2) Peers my age — They could have told me more about what they were making doing similar jobs in the same city, and made sure I understood how much I really needed to make to live in New York.(2) That would have helped me set a salary floor for the negotiations.
Why didn’t I talk to my network? Honestly, I was just a little nervous about bothering people. I was worried that it might sound like bragging if I told them about the exciting new offer I had on the table. I was scared that they wouldn’t want to open up about their personal experiences.
I was wrong on all counts.
Five years later, let me offer this simple advice: You should always ask for help. Utilize every resource you have to make sure you get the best offer at the right company.
This is your career. You should never be afraid to ask for the help you need to get it right.
That drawing at top is called “Two men in Conversation” by Hans Schliessmann (German, Mainz 1892–1920 Vienna). It’s part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, and is licensed under C0 1.0.
The class of 2017 is going to graduate in a few weeks. They’re going to be ambitious, and they’re going to be ready to go from 0 to 60 in their careers. (I know I expected to hit the ground running.) But careers don’t move quite that fast.
When I talk to recent grads and explain the first decade of my journalism career, it makes a lot of sense:
In 2008, I covered the Olympics for a big paper and did a ton of blogging.
In 2009, I graduated and started working on the digital side at a TV station.
In 2010, I quit my job to build Stry.us and write about the five-year anniversary of Katrina.
In 2011, I got the fellowship at Mizzou to keep growing Stry.us.
In 2012, I launched a bunch of new projects, created my first newsletters, and grew the Stry.us team.
In 2013, I used that experience launching newsletters to start a career at BuzzFeed as their first newsletter guy.
In 2014, we grew newsletters, built out a marketing strategy, and started growing the team.
In 2015 and 2016, we launched a ton of new projects, kept hiring, and really figured out the marketing side of things.
And looking back, there’s a very clear path! There’s the big arc: I’m a guy who launches digital projects and grows teams. There’s the common thread through every year: Being able to use my writing skills, whether it’s for telling stories, writing newsletters, or creating good marketing copy.
But I’ll tell you this: In real time, my career didn’t make sense at all. I had no idea where all of this was taking me, and definitely never expected to land here at BuzzFeed. That I’ve gotten here is a wonderful, happy accident.
“You know, there’s a philosopher who says, ‘As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, nonrelated events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it’s overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time, it don’t.’”
And he’s right! In real time, it’s chaos. It’s only in looking back that it makes sense.
So here’s my advice to the class of 2017: Think about writing your career in reverse. Visualize where you want to be in five years, and ask yourself:
What would I need to do in year 4 to be able to make the leap to that dream role in year 5?
Would would I need to do in year 3 to get to year 4?
What about in year 2?
And ultimately: What do I need to do in that first year after graduation to get started on that path?
I had no plan, so I stumbled around and accidentally ended up here. (I’ve said it before: I’m lucky to be lucky.) But maybe you can work smarter: Start with the dream role, and then reverse engineer a potential career path to get to that dream. Create the mile markers you’ll use to measure success. And don’t get frustrated when you career veers in a different direction — things never go as planned!
No, you’re probably not going to get that dream job as a reporter at the big daily paper or website just yet — but maybe you can in five years. Instead, start planning out the path, and then get working to take that first step on your 5-year plan.
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:
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 thatgood.
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.)
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! ↩
I love the Olympics, and I think there’s a lot to learn from watching them. I’ve written before about the Yellow Line Theory. I’ve written about the importance of keeping youreyes on the road ahead. And with the Olympics just a few days away, here’s this year’s big Olympics idea.
— — —
I’ve talked to a few groups of journalism students this summer. They’re graduating next year, and they’re starting to ask: How do I get the first job after college? How do I successfully make the transition from college to the real world?
Here’s the way I think about it: College moves fast. Ever since you first got accepted to a university, your family’s been telling you: Enjoy it, because it goes by fast. And it really does. Three years blow by, and the last year moves even faster. The transition between the end of school and the start of your career is a blur.
In a way, it’s a lot like the baton toss in the 4×100 relay at the Olympics.
You’ve seen that race on TV. Each race has four legs, with the tiniest of transition areas for one runner to hand the baton off to the next. If you’re one of the last three legs, you go from a standstill to a sprint in a matter of yards.
Nail all four handoffs and you’ll save precious seconds, and maybe win the race. Botch even one — or, worse, drop the baton entirely — and you’re out of the medals.
Whenever I watch that race, I always keep an eye on the men and women who have to run the final legs. Being a later leg of that race is fascinating to me. Those runners know what’s coming, but they still can’t move until the previous leg finishes. And then suddenly, there’s a moment when they go from a standstill to a full-on sprint.
That anticipation is a lot like what you feel as you approach the end of senior year. You start getting the big question: What are you going to do after college? You start applying to jobs. You realize that once you graduate, you’re going to have bills to pay, and you won’t have the crutch of college to hold you up anymore.
Except that you can’t full start the next phase of your life until that first one ends. You have to pass the baton from College You to Real World You.
So you sit there, full of anticipation, just waiting for the next leg of your life to arrive.
Some of your classmates will nail the handoff, and good for them! You’ll look at them a year or two after college and think: They’ve made it already. They’re so far ahead of me.
Some will botch the handoff. A few years after college, they’ll still be trying to figure out what career paths to take and what happens next. Sometimes, the next phase of your life shows up, and you’re just not ready to hit the ground running.
The important thing to remember is: No matter how well or how poorly that transition goes, just keep running. Your career isn’t a race, and you’re not competing against your classmates. Once you get that baton, you get to forge your own path ahead at your own pace.
It doesn’t matter where you go, or how fast you go. The only thing that matter is: Are you bold enough to grab that baton and start running?
Get ready, class of 2017. You’ll be off and running before you know it.
I’ve been talking to a lot of recent grads lately, young people who’ve moved to New York and are trying to figure life after college.(1) The market seems to be improving for grads, but it’s still not easy. The best way to get a job is by accumulating a lot of work experience and a big network of friends who can open doors for you — and both of those are things that recent grads usually don’t have yet.
Which is why a lot of these grads have been asking me: Is it OK if I take a job I don’t love because I need the money?
The answer is: Yes, of course!
It’s OK to take the job that isn’t quite what you want — that content marketing job at the law firm; that graphic design job at the big marketing agency; even that job behind the counter at Starbucks — because you need the money. You do have to pay the bills somehow! And know this: Hiring managers were once in your shoes, too. They’ve all taken jobs because they needed to, not because they wanted to.
Here’s the important thing to remember: When you’re writing your résumé, that’s the perfect opportunity to craft your story and to shape all of your experiences into a personal narrative. Same goes for an interview. You can always use it to explain the “big picture” reason why you took a job, like:
– “I loved my boss, and wanted to have her as a mentor.”
– “I wanted to learn more about how to work effectively as part of a big team.”
– “I was trying to launch a new project, and needed a side gig to keep me afloat while I launched.”
Just make sure you’re the one putting your story out there first. With your résumé and your interviews, you can explain why you’ve done the work you’ve done and where all of it is taking you.
“I used to be a waiter. I was doing stand-up for free at night, and I would work as a waiter from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. I did the lunch rush, and a couple of times, J.B., I walked up to a table, and they looked up at me and said, ‘I saw you on stage last night! I thought those were professional comedians!’”
“And I would just have to go: ‘Well, not yet.’”
Like I said: Everyone has to pay the bills sometimes. Even Jerry Seinfeld.
But what I love most about that story: It’s a reminder that even then, Jerry Seinfeld had a career arc in mind. He wasn’t a waiter. He was always working towards becoming a comedian.
So it’s OK! Take that job that isn’t perfect — just as long as you know where you’re going and how the work you’re doing today helps get you there.