Tag Archives: do the work

The Rules Don’t Apply.

3-dots

Imagine you’ve got a pencil in your hand, and I give you this challenge: Using four continuous straight lines, without picking up your pencil, what’s the best way to draw a line through every one of those nine dots?

I’ll give you a second.

If you try to go around the outside first before cutting to the middle, that’s five lines. If you try starting in the top left, then going to bottom right, and then up and over and… well, that’s far more than four.

The issue most people have with this puzzle is that they — without even realizing it! — try to stay within the boundaries of the dots. But there’s no rule against going outside the dots. Nobody’s going to stop you from trying something like this:

3-dots-4-lines

And if there really are no rules(1), who’s to say you can’t solve the puzzle with just three lines, like this?

3-dots-3-lines

The challenge isn’t in thinking outside the box — it’s thinking entirely without a box! It’s about thinking without any boundaries or rules. Nobody’s going to stop you from trying something unexpected or different. The solutions you’re looking for don’t have to be elegant — they just have to work.

Here’s your permission to break a few rules today. There’s always another way to do the work you want to do.

  1. Channel your inner Ferris Bueller! Only the meek get pinched!

The 1-1-1 Model.

d9hv7uxenei-danka-peter

A friend forwarded me an email the other day — Mikki Halpin’s Action Now newsletter. It’s an email series geared towards inspiring progressive activism, but she said something so wonderful that I wanted to give it a little shoutout here.

She wrote:

Think about all of the things swirling around you, all the opportunities you have to do things and act on your values and choose these three things:

• One thing to be a leader on

• One thing to be a follower on

• One thing to make a habit of

I love this so much. If I had a cubicle wall, I’d print this out and hang it beside my desk. It’s so simple, yet potentially so powerful.

I’ve been trying to think about how to adapt this for my team. Here’s what I’m thinking so far:

One thing to be a leader on — There are always so many projects in the works. Instead of centralizing power among just a handful of leaders, why not spread the responsibility around and give everyone something to take charge on? Even a smaller project — overseeing some design fixes to our newsletters, for instance — could be a great opportunity to give a junior staffer the opportunity to lead.

One thing to be a follower on — As teams gets stretched thin with additional work, it’s easy for a team member to be left alone on a project. And that should never be the case. Everyone should have someone to bounce ideas off of, or to support the work. It’s true that when two people work together on a project, their total output far exceeds what you’d expect from adding 1 + 1 together. Every leader needs a follower to support them.

One thing to make a habit of — Building good habits matter. Whether it’s making time to read in the morning or starting a new routine at the gym, I really believe that building good habits can change your life. And you don’t need to wait for New Year’s Day to resolve to build better habits. You can start today!

That 1-1-1 model — lead, follow, and build good habits — is an amazing example. I can’t wait to bring it to my team.

— — —

That photo of someone to follow comes via Unsplash and photographers Danka & Peter.

The One Thing You Can Control Is The Way You Work.

start of the Olympic race

Imagine for a second that you’re a kid again, and you’re fast. You’re really fast. You’re the fastest kid on your block. The fastest guy in your neighborhood. The fastest guy in your school. When you run, everyone else spends a lot of time looking at your backside as you pull away. You don’t run as much as you glide, effortlessly, as though you were born to do this one thing. In a way, you were. For you, running is effortless. You’re the fastest guy in every meet you enter. You’re the fastest kid in the county, the state.

You keep running. You start training with coaches whose whole purpose is to help you find ways to run faster. Your speciality is sprinting, a sport where every hundredth of a second matters. You train to shave .01s off your time. Every fraction of a tick is important. Imagine how many ticks in your life have gone by that you didn’t even notice, and now they all matter. You push every day to find ways to get faster. Your times keep getting better and better. You’re now the fastest guy at your university, the fastest guy at every meet, and those meets are full of runners who were the fastest guy on their street and at their school and in their state — until they ran against you. Imagine that for a second: You were faster than all of them.

One day, you go to a national meet, and you find out that you’re the fastest guy in your entire country. You go to bigger meets, and you win those, too. It’s hard to believe, but the results say it’s true: You’re the fastest guy on the entire continent. Imagine that: the fastest guy out of a billion people! You!

And imagine that you’re so fast that you make it here: To the Olympics. It’s 2008, and you’re in a stadium of tangled steel that the Chinese call the Bird’s Nest. You’re running faster than ever. You’re fast enough to make the quarterfinals of your best race, the 200 meter dash, and then the semis, and then the finals. There are almost 100,000 people in the stands to watch you run for a medal. Imagine: You are one of the eight fastest humans in the world, and now you will run to find out if you are the fastest.

You are not.

200m-final

You are fourth fastest — still impossibly fast by any definition of the word, but no one seems to care, because the guy one lane over turns out to be the fastest man who ever lived. You are fast, but the guy in lane 5 is a tall Jamaican who runs at speeds that scientists said were unthinkable for humans to reach. He passes you less than five seconds into the turn — nearly impossible in the 200 meter! — and by the time you hit the straightaway, for once, you are looking at someone else’s backside. At the 150 meter mark, you could parallel park an SUV — not some rinky dink little thing, but a Cadillac Escalade — in the gap between him and you.

You still finish fourth in an Olympic final, the fourth fastest human in the world. You’re a quarter of a second away from a bronze, which is damn fast. You’re still the fastest guy on your continent, and an Olympian.

But the Jamaican in lane 5 finishes nearly a full second ahead of you. It’s impossible to imagine, but you try anyway: You are this fast, and yet, there is a human who is that much faster than you. The difference in that one second is the difference between you and sports immortality.

That one second is the difference between you and Usain Bolt.

———

I think about that 200 meter race a lot. I remember watching the finals live from my hotel room in Beijing, and I remember watching Usain Bolt pass the runner in lane 6 within steps. I couldn’t believe it then, and re-watching that race recently, I can’t believe it now. Bolt’s speed is unfathomable.

That runner I asked you to imagine? His name is Brian Dzingai, and he’s from Zimbabwe. He was the only African runner to make the 200 meter finals in Beijing. I like to think about the work he must have put in to make it to the Olympics. It must have taken an astonishing amount of work — physically, mentally, emotionally — to reach those starting blocks. I imagine that journey often, from the fastest kid on his street to one of the fastest men in the world. But I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to realize, after always being the fastest in every meet, to realize that there were humans who were actually faster than you.

I’ve written before about the idea of running your own race in life, and I’ll take the analogy a step further here: What I learned from watching that 200 meter race is that you truly cannot control what happens to the runners beside you. You cannot control how tall they are, or how fast they are. (Bolt was taller by a head, and faster by 0.92 seconds.) You cannot control the resources they have — money, training facilities, coaching. (Bolt surely had the better of all three.)

And you cannot control what you, yourself, are born with.

What you can control is this: The way you work. The hours you work. And the intensity with which you work.

Everyone else is going to run their race. You have to accept that you can only run yours.

When I re-watch that race, I always think about Brian Dzingai, and the work he put in to reach those starting blocks. There’s a man who imagined greatness in himself, and put in the work to be great. You can only control the work you do, and Brian Dzingai did just that. His work got him to the Olympics.

Here’s to you, Brian — and everyone else who puts in the work.

———

That photo was taken by photographer Ross Huggett at the 2012 London Games, and is used here thanks to a Creative Commons license and Flickr.

Is There Anything Else I Haven’t Asked About?

ask more questions, by Jonathan Simcoe

There’s a trick that I learned in journalism school that more people should know about. It’s simple: If you’re interviewing a source, ask your questions. Listen carefully, and ask follow-up questions.

And before you end the interview, ask one final question: Is there anything else you want to discuss that I haven’t asked about?

You’d be shocked at how often people say yes. Sometimes, they really want to get something off their chest, but they’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to speak up. So it’s up to you to open the door for them.

This works outside of interviews, too. I’ve found that as a manager, in a 1-to-1 check-in with a direct report, it’s always worth asking, “Is there anything else going on that you want to talk about?” They don’t always have something to say. But when they do want to talk, it’s often something important. And you can use this technique in larger meetings, too, to make sure teams are talking about things that matter to them.

The lesson: Keep the conversation going a little bit longer. You don’t know what you’ll discover until you ask.

———

That photo at top was taken by photographer Jonathan Simcoe, and first published on Unsplash.com.

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.

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.

How To Explain That Blip In Your Resume.

the Golden Gate Bridge, photo by Denys Nevozhai

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 wrote this a few weeks ago about narratives in sports, but it’s also true for you, the recent grad:

“We’re all crafting these narratives, and every bit of work we put in is a chance to flip the script. You can always keep going, and always keep working to rewrite your story.”

Remember: A single job isn’t going to define you forever.

One last thing: Last night, I was watching an episode of “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” with J.B. Smoove, and Jerry Seinfeld told this story about one of his first jobs. It’s too good not to share:

“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.

— — —

That photo of 5oo-foot view from above the Golden Gate Bridge comes via photographer Denys Nevozhai and Unsplash.com. 

  1. Way back in 2009, I wrote those three words as, “Life? After college?” And that still seems to ring true for recent grads.

Stuff I Didn’t Know Was OK When I Started My First Job.

feeling reflective

It’s okay to say, “No.”

It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

It’s okay to be wrong, too — sometimes your intuition points you one way, or the data points you one way, and you end up being wrong. Happens.

It’s okay to ask for what you want.

It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to ask uncomfortable questions.

It’s okay to try hard things. And if you’re trying hard things, you should ask for help! Working with smart people on something hard is how you get better.

It’s okay to reach out to smart people — even outside your company — to ask for advice. (Just remember to ask good questions and bring them coffee!)

It’s okay to be the quiet one at work. And it’s okay to be loud, too. Either way, as long as you have a boss who supports you and your team, you’ll be okay. You don’t need to pretend to be someone you’re not to do great work and get noticed. You have a team behind you to support you and your work.

It’s okay to hate meetings. (Everyone hates meetings.)

It’s okay to take your vacation days. (That’s why we gave them to you!)

It’s okay not to respond to that unexpected late-night email from your boss until the next morning. (7-to-7 is fine! But be someone who responds to emails within 24 hours, OK?)

It’s okay do something different, and it’s definitely okay to make mistakes.

It’s okay to feel completely lost.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed.

It’s okay to be the one who asks a few extra questions to make sure you understand.

It’s okay to pitch big ideas, and it’s okay to be the one who tries to turn those big ideas into big work.

To be honest: As long as you work hard; listen well; respect your team and your co-workers; and show up every day ready to do the work, then it’s okay to be whoever you are. We hired you for a reason. It’s okay to do your thing.

— — —

I picked that photo from Rosan Harmens and Unsplash.com because I was (sorry in advance, but you’ve been warned) … in a reflective mood.

It Takes A Lot To Know A Little.

I’m obsessed with learning about the habits of people I respect.(1) It’s no surprise, but: Great people often have awesome habits.

Take my favorite sports announcer, a guy named Bill Raftery. If you’re a college basketball fan, you know his catchphrases: “Onions!” “With a kiss!” “Send it in, big fella!” Watching a game with him is like watching a game with an old mentor: He knows everything and sees everything, but there’s never a moment where’s he not trying to make you feel comfortable.

The wisdom isn’t just an act. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal did a profile on Raftery where they revealed the secret behind his madness: A yellow legal pad stuffed with game notes and scouting reports on every team he covers:

Produced while he watches a half-dozen tapes of each team he’s assigned to cover, Mr. Raftery’s one-page, double-sided reports are written in capital letters and a tiny, crowded scrawl. But his 60-odd team reports are also meticulously structured and filled with countless diagrams, notes on player tendencies, strategic predictions and statistics that could only be the work of a person whose life is set to the rhythm of balls bouncing on wood.

The reports “are like the random etchings of John Nash from ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ ” said Ian Eagle, the CBS play-by-play announcer who has worked alongside Mr. Raftery for years. But, Mr. Eagle added, “because his personality is so strong and effervescent, his basketball preparation often gets overlooked.”

This spring, CBS aired a documentary on Raftery, and they showed off his game notes. I couldn’t believe the detail in them.

Bill Raftery's game notes

If anything, the Journal article understated how in-depth he goes with his game prep. His print is tiny, and he squeezes notes into every square inch of those yellow pages. If you watch a Raftery-called game, he won’t bring up 95% of the stuff in his notes.

So why does he do it?

“I think it takes a lot to know a little,” he said in the documentary. “You try and know everything that they do, not to be a know-it-all, but just to be aware.”

It takes a lot to know a little. How great a motto is that? You study and prep for any situation. Most of the prep work will go unnoticed, but that’s OK. Whatever happens, you’ll be ready.

———