Tag Archives: do the work

Just Because It’s Hard Doesn’t Mean It’s Complicated.

I’m watching college basketball last Saturday. Clark Kellogg, who’s been doing games for CBS for 20+ years now, is on the call. It’s the Missouri-Florida game, and Mizzou’s on offense. There’s a mismatch: One of the Florida guards is matched up in the post against a Missouri player who has seven inches and probably 70 lbs. on him.

The ball goes into the post, but the Florida defender doesn’t give an inch. So the Mizzou forward kicks the ball out, then reestablishes position on the inside. He gets the ball back, turns, and hits the shot.

“It’s not always easy,” Kellogg says, the replay playing over his commentary, “but it certainly isn’t complicated.”

I’d never heard anyone say something like that before — it really clicked for me. So I paused the game, grabbed a notebook, and drew this up:

Most of the things I work on fall into one of the two categories on the left: Easy + simple or Hard + simple:

Easy + simple — This is the category for things like A/B tests on a subject line, or small tweaks to a newsletter.

Hard + simple — This is for the projects that don’t seem like they should be all that hard — for instance, changing a CTA on our website — but might require a handful of engineers and a complicated series of steps to execute.

A smaller percentage of work falls into the two categories on the right:

Hard + complicated — These are the big picture projects that involve multiple teams and ambitious goals or testing. If we’re launching a new newsletter; moving our email operations onto a new piece of technology; or attempting to shift to a new roadmap, we’re probably operating in this quadrant.

Easy + complicated — There aren’t a lot of things that fall under this heading, but here’s one: Having a really tough conversation with a co-worker, or attempting to get buy-in from your team. Those things seem simple on paper, but once you attempt to factor in all of the relationships, opinions, and egos on a team, things can get complicated quickly.

As your grow in a role, you’ll find that your work tends to shift from the left half of the graph to the right half. You’ll take on bigger projects, with larger goals and more on the line. But there will always be left-half types of projects to maintain. The challenge for all of us: Figuring out ways to handle the little things quickly so that you can stay focused on the big picture.

Everyone Needs A Good Editor.

A few weeks ago, I flew to Australia to give a talk about email, and I flew down on Fiji Airways.(1)

Ever since, I haven’t stopped thinking about the flight map in their in-flight magazine. I’ve always been fascinating by these route maps — I recently discovered a Tumblr dedicated to old airline maps, and wasted a few hours browsing through maps from the past. But the Fiji Airways map was a little different.

At first glance, everything seems pretty ordinary.

But when you zoom in on the North American section of the map, you start to notice something: It’s wrong.

Toronto is basically at the Northwest Passage. Chicago, Indianapolis, and Salt Lake are in Canada. Raleigh is in Baltimore, Charlotte and Phoenix are in the Midwest, and Reno is in Portland. St. Louis added an “e” to its name and moved to the Bay Area.

I don’t know how the map ended up this inaccurate — but it really could have used a good editor.

I used to think that editors were just for catching big mistakes — like the ones on this map. But really great editors do more than that. They can also help shape the projects you’re working on. They’re people to bounce ideas off of, and people who can challenge your point of view. They’re there for typos, yes, but also partners to help turn your work into something amazing.

You don’t have to go it alone. Find an editor, a mentor, a partner — someone to work with on your ideas. Whatever you’re making, a great editor can help you make it better.

As for Fiji Airways: If you need an editor for this map, I’m happy to help. All I’ll need is two first-class tickets back to Fiji and a week or two off work to help you get this one right, OK? :-)

———

  1. I should say: Their customer service was excellent. I’d absolutely recommend them if you’re flying to that part of the Pacific.

Direction Is More Important Than Speed.

A co-worker asked me this week: How busy are you these days?

I’ve been at this job for four months, and my co-worker knows that we have a thousand things to do. We have to improve the way we drive newsletter growth. We have to launch new products. We have to improve our existing products. We have to work more closely with our sales and marketing teams to serve their needs. We have to improve the types of data we collect, and find and build better tools to work with.

That’s why my response seemed to catch my co-worker by surprise: I have a list a mile long of things to do… but I’m not crazy busy.

Yes, there’s a lot to do. And yes, I want to get these things done as quickly as I can.

But I can’t make all these things happen at once. I don’t have the team in place yet to take on all these projects, and I’m still getting buy-in from other teams in the office that we’ll need to work with.

Sure, I could try to run through walls to try to get stuff done. But I know I can’t get past those walls by myself. The only way to get through them is with time, teamwork, and money. But I don’t have those things yet — and if I push too hard, too fast, I’m going to drive myself insane.

Instead, I’m trying to work smarter — not faster. I wrote about this last week in my annual Things I Believe post:

“Direction is more important than speed. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going if you’re headed the wrong way.”

Building something new is going to take time. For now, the best thing I can do is help point the team in the right direction. I’m spending a lot of time meeting with other stakeholders, figuring out what they want and how it lines up with what I want. I’m spending a lot of time asking questions, and a lot of time listening.

We’re not moving as fast as I want to, but that’s OK. We’re starting to move in the right direction, and it’s OK to take slow steps towards progress. If we’re heading the right way, and if we’re working with the right people and tools, we’ll build up speed over time.

———

That photo is by Robin Pierre on Unsplash.

Be Willing To Suck.

samuel-edwards-road

I talked to a journalism class this week, and they asked me about Silicon Valley mantras, like “Move fast and break things” and “Fail fast, fail often.”

How do you feel about them?, they wanted to know.

I’ve written a 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.

Those Silicon Valley mottos miss one key point: The only way forward is being willing to suck. If you’re just starting out, remember this: It will be a long time before your work is any good, and that’s OK.

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.

———

Unfortunately, I still suck at picking images to run with posts, so here’s a very cool (but very generic) photo of the road less traveled. This photo’s by Samuel Edwards, and was posted on Unsplash.

Make It Work.

oscar-nilsson-13605

If you don’t have all the money you need to build something, you can still make it work.

If you don’t have all the knowledge you need to build something, you can still make it work.

If you don’t have all the time you need to build something, you can still make it work.

It won’t be perfect. It might be far from perfect, to be honest. But find a way to get started. Find a way to make it work.

———

That generic desk photo comes via Oscar Nilsson on Unsplash.

A Good Test Starts With A Great Question.

science experiment

Perhaps you’ve run an A/B test before. You wanted to see which would result in more clicks: Headline A vs. Headline B. A red “Click Here!” button vs. a blue “Click Here!” button. A photo of a cat vs. a photo of a dog.

What you’ve done is an optimization test. It’s a simple form of testing — you’re tinkering with the variables to try to find the best possible combination of content.

But when I talk about testing, I’m talking about something different. A test is more than just tweaking stuff at the margins.

A good test starts with a great question.

Right now, I’m asking two really big questions at work:

1) How can we build a big, highly engaged audience through email?

2) How can we convert those readers into paying subscribers to our print or digital editions?

These are complicated questions. To get the answers, we’re going to run dozens of experiments over the coming months. We’ll test out new sign-up funnels to grow our audience; build new designs for our existing newsletters; create original content to live in our emails; launch entirely new newsletter products; and test all sorts of calls to action to see how, when, and why a newsletter subscriber might be willing to pay for access to our premium products.

But it all starts when you ask clear questions. Those questions help set the boundaries for your work, and make clear what you should be focusing on, and what you shouldn’t.

And a few months down the road, once we’ve used these tests to build out the framework to answer these questions, that’s when we’ll get into the nitty gritty of optimizing. We’ll run all sorts of little tests — button colors! subject lines! cats and dogs!(1)— to get to that optimal version.

But first, we have to answer these big questions.

———

That photo, “Science experiment” by Zyada, is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  1. OK, maybe not this one.

Play The Chorus Another 20 Times.

I write a lot about the work — about the idea that there’s value in putting in the work every day, in trying even when the results aren’t very good, in showing up when you know that you don’t have 100% in you that day.

Here’s what that actually looks like. There’s a story I love from Glenn Frey, formerly of the Eagles, in the documentary “History of the Eagles.” He’s talking about his former downstairs neighbor, Jackson Browne, and the work that Browne used to put into each of his songs:

“We slept late in those days, except around 9 o’clock in the morning, I’d hear Jackson Browne’s teapot going off — this whistle in the distance. And then I’d hear him playing piano.

I didn’t really know how to write songs. I knew I wanted to write songs, but I didn’t know how exactly. You just wait around for inspiration, you know — what was the deal?

Well, I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor exactly how to write songs. Because Jackson would get up, and he’d play the first verse, and the first chorus, and he’d play it 20 times, until he had it just the way he wanted. And then there’d be silence. And then I’d hear the teapot go off again. Then it’d be quiet for 10 or 20 minutes. Then I’d hear him start to play again, and there was the second verse. So then he’d work on the second verse, and he’d play it 20 times. And then he’d go back to the top of the song, and he’d play the first verse, the first chorus, and the second verse another 20 times until he was really comfortable with it, and, you know, change a word here or there. And I’m up there going, ‘So that’s how you do it! Elbow grease, you know, time, thought, persistence.’”

The work doesn’t show up fully formed. You have to do the work over and over again to get it right.

The work will not always be very good. But the work is the only way to get better, and the only way to deliver the results you want.

So go ahead: Play the chorus 20 times, then play it 20 more. Go put in the work.

5 Things Before Breakfast.

before breakfast

My first job turned me into a morning person. I worked from 6:30 am to 3:30 pm, but to actually do my job, I needed to wake up around 5:30 in the morning to start updating the KENS5.com homepage. Then I’d eat breakfast and leave home around 7. By the time I showed up at the office, I’d already gotten an hour of work in for the day.

The routine worked for me, and I’ve mostly stuck with it over the years. I’ve found mornings to be a productive time for me. It’s when I get some of my best work done.

Lately, I’ve been tinkering with my morning routine, trying to make sure I’m getting even more out of my mornings. I’ve been testing out a new rule: Every day, I need to get five things done before breakfast.

Those five things could include:

-Writing a new blog post
-Outlining a new project
-Setting up key meetings for the week
-Going for a run
-Making time to read
-Analyzing data for a report
-Handling small tasks (paying bills, cleaning around the house, etc)

I find that if I show up at the office and I’ve already knocked a few things off my to-do list, I’m more likely to be motivated to keep the momentum of the day going. I’ve already gotten a lot done, and it’s easier to tackle big projects at the office once I know I’ve already accomplished a few things that day.

The five things don’t have to be big things, but that’s OK. The important thing is that by breakfast, I’ve already accomplished something, and gotten the day off to the right start. It sets the right intention for the day: Today’s going to be a work day, and it’s already begun.

———

My breakfasts aren’t usually as hectic as the one at the top. That painting is “The Breakfast” by Thomas Rowlandson (British, London 1757–1827 London), Samuel William Fores (British, 1761–1838) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is licensed under CC0 1.0.

Enough.

william-stitt-111353

You know enough to start. You don’t have to know everything — in fact, it’s probably a good thing that you don’t. If you knew everything that was coming your way, you might convince yourself that the obstacles ahead were too great. You might decide that what you’re doing is too big, too ambitious, too crazy. Don’t talk yourself out of this. You know what you know, and that’s enough.

You have enough to start. You have good people alongside you. You have good ideas. You have enough resources — not everything you want, but enough. You have enough to do the work you need to do.

You’re good to enough to start. You have the work ethic. You have the right skills. Those will get even better over time — but right now, you’re more than good enough to start.

So start.

———

That photo of a guy at the starting line comes via photographer William Stitt, and was first published on Unsplash.

Success = Work + Luck

feeling lucky?

Five years ago, I wrote about the magic equation for work. It was simple:

Work =
Passion
+ Hustle
+ Skills
+ Time
+ Tribe

If you had passion for what you did, the ability to hustle and ramp up your work rate, the right skills for the job, enough time, and an awesome team behind you, then you could make great work happen.

But great work does not always lead to great success.

If you want that, you need to follow another formula, and this one’s even simpler:

Success = Work + Luck

The output of all your work — your teamwork, your talent, your hustle — doesn’t fully determine success. You can work unbelievably hard on an amazing thing with great people and still fail.

No matter what you’re working on, you also need to be lucky.

Luck can be a combination of things: It can mean a chance encounter or introduction that leads to a breakthrough. It can mean getting the timing right: Working on the right project at a time when your industry is growing, when the tools you need to do your work are readily available, or when your audience/customers are ready for your work. It can mean taking a big risk that pays off. It can even mean making a small decision that accidentally saves you from disaster, like picking the wrong vendor for a piece of software you need.

You still have to put in the work. But to be successful, you’ve got to get a little bit lucky, too.

———

That photo comes via photographer Guilherme Cunha, and was first published on Unsplash.