Tag Archives: do the work

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.

———

What Do You Do On Your Best Day?

sunrise over Spain

There’s a question that Facebook’s recruiting team asks potential new hires, and it’s a great one:

“On your very best day at work — the day you come home and think you have the best job in the world — what did you do that day?”

I’d have done two things:

1) I’d have a great conversation with a co-worker. — Every one of my best days involves a great conversation. Some of those conversations help a co-worker find a way to get past the roadblocks that are keeping them from their best work. When you help someone find a solution like that, it’s an AMAZING feeling. I don’t always have the answers, but on the rare day I do… that’s an awesome day.

Other times, I’ll have a conversation that gives a co-worker the chance to vent about their problems to a sympathetic ear. I don’t always have much more to say than “I’m sorry” or “That sucks.” But just being there to listen is often enough to help them — and help make the workplace a little better that day.

2) I’d launch something. — I love to launch new projects. I’ve launched big projects at BuzzFeed and small projects on my own. Some have grown into big things, and many more have not. But I love the feeling of launching new stuff. I’ve read interviews with stand-up comedians where they say they’re obsessed with the sound of laughter; I’m obsessed with the feeling you get when you put new work out into the world and get to see how the world reacts. I love coming up with an idea, finding a team, and sharing it with others. And on a great day, I’d get to launch something new.

So that’s what I would do. What would you?

———

That’s a photo I took eight years ago off the coast of Spain. It was a pretty great sunrise, and a pretty good day.

Little Things You Can Do To Be A Better Team Player.

Office life, Vladimir Kudinov

I got coffee the other day with a friend who’s maybe a year out of college, and we were talking about how her work was going.

You know, she said, I just didn’t understand how hard it would be to adjust to working at an office.

And that’s a common sentiment! I know didn’t understand it either when I started my first job. Working at an office is a little different than working a service job or in education. At an office, you have to learn how to operate within a team and what kind of etiquette is required in the workplace.

Here are seven things I’ve learned over the years about being a good co-worker:

Be on time. — Everyone has the one co-worker who shows up 10 minutes late for everything. Don’t be that co-worker. Being on time means showing up at the assigned time if you’re meeting someone in your office, and 5-10 minutes early if you’re meeting someone outside your office.(1) And if you’re late — make sure to send the email 5-10 minutes before apologizing for your lateness.

Prepare people before the meeting. — Nobody should show up for a meeting and not understand what they’re meeting about. Make sure everyone’s on the same page — and has the necessary documents — before they walk into the meeting. And follow up with actionable next steps after the meeting, too!

Respond to emails/calls within 24 hours. —
If someone writes in asking you to take a specific action, you’ve got 24 hours to respond. After that window, I find that emails sit in the inbox for days and days, and projects stall. Respond quickly, and you’ll become someone co-workers actually want to work with because you have a track record of getting things done quickly.

Deliver on deadline. — This goes hand-in-hand with responding quickly. Be a “get shit done” kind of person, and be someone who sticks to deadlines. When you find out that a co-worker doesn’t finish their work on time, you might be less willing to work with them in the future.

Send friendly emails. — The occasional “Congrats!” email goes a long, long way towards setting a tone for your work. Send those friendly emails!

Ask great questions. — I love working with people who are curious and ask great questions. They’re people who think critically about issues and can push work in interesting and unexpected directions. I always try to work with people who love to ask “Why?” and “How?”

Be honest. — You can earn my respect by doing the work every day. But you can earn my trust by sitting down to have the tough conversations. If you do both, I’ll run through walls for you. Being honest with someone — even if you’re saying “I don’t know” when you don’t have the right answer — is the first step towards building that trust.

———

That photo of an office — as viewed from the outside — comes via Unsplash and photographer Vladimir Kudinov.

  1. This is really hard to do, and I’m still trying to get better at it myself.

When You Send An Email Matters As Much As What’s In The Email.

Last year, I wrote down six simple rules for writing better emails. Follow those six rules and you’ll get so much more out of your inbox.

But there’s something almost as important as learning how to write better emails.

Learning when to send those emails.

If you deliver your email at the wrong time, you’re significantly less likely to get a response or the action you’ve requested. And that’s an issue.

It’s why I use the 7-to-7 Rule — I try to send emails only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Why? At my office, most people are at work from 10 to 6. A lot of them are up earlier than that, and checking email. After work, many stop checking email entirely until the next day. So my goal is to send email during that window where they’re most likely to be on their work email and ready to take action on whatever I’m asking.

Does it mean I don’t check email after 7 p.m.? Actually, no! I usually do a quick scan of my email first thing in the morning, and I’ll hop onto email in the hour before bed. The only catch is: I won’t send the email until 7 a.m. the next day.

The secret behind all of this is an app called Boomerang. It works within Gmail and allows you to schedule emails for whatever time you want. I’ve set it up with a series of custom times that allow me to get my email to the top of your inbox first thing in the morning.

So if I realize on Saturday morning that I have something to ask a co-worker, I’ll write the email immediately but schedule it for Monday at 7 a.m. The result? More of my emails get answered at a time that’s convenient for both of us — and when we can move quickly to get the work done.

Boomerang is also great if you’re working with someone in another time zone. My team is doing a lot of work with our office in Sydney, and Boomerang makes sure we get the emails to them in the morning Aussie time — instead of in the middle of the night.

Boomerang’s been a lifesaver for me, and it helps me stick to the 7-to-7 Rule. (Which, in turn, helps me maintain a general sense of sanity.) If you want to give it a try, download it for your Gmail account right here.

———

That photo of a laptop comes via Unsplash and photographer Seth Schwiet.

How We Measure Success On the BuzzFeed Newsletter Team.

A photo posted by BuzzFeedx (@buzzfeedx) on

Fast Company has a cover story on BuzzFeed this month. In it, Dao — our publisher, and my former boss — talks at length about how we interpret data at BuzzFeed. She even dives deep into how we do things on the newsletter team!

I want to highlight one passage. When asked, Is the newsletter team looking at click-through rate(1), she answered:

For a long time, it was: you want to get subscribers up, you want to get clicks up, you want to get unsubscribes down. But one of the things we talk about all the time is there is no one metric you are optimizing for. Anyone who just optimizes to one metric is going to eventually have a problem. This obsession over time spent. In some way I feel that sort of rhetoric has died down. There really is no one metric.

I’ve learned a lot from Dao over the years. But one sentence in there really drives home Dao’s biggest message: “Anyone who just optimizes to one metric is going to eventually have a problem.”

What we’ve learned with newsletters is that there is no “silver bullet” metric. If you try to optimize your email for open rate, you’ll try to game the system with headlines that entice subscribers to click. (Case in point: “You’re Fired.”) But if you overpromise and underdeliver, you’ll lose subscribers in the long run. If you try to optimize for clicks, you’ll use bold colors and buttons. It’ll work well at first — but readers will learn to tune them out. There are dozens of other metrics out there for email. And what Dao’s taught me is true: If you focus all of your energy on a single metric, in the long run, you’ll fail.

So what we do at BuzzFeed is keep an eye on about five key metrics.(2) Knowing what matters most allows us to get a better understanding of how readers are using our newsletters. The data isn’t the full story — we still have to interpret it and figure out what our readers are trying to tell us from it. But in the long run, those data points help us iterate and build a better product.

And the same is true for any product you want to build. Try to pick a few metrics that give you a complete picture of the success of your work. If you’re a basketball coach, you can’t just tell your team to focus on 3-point shooting percentage — because that ignores huge metrics (rebounding, defensive field goal percentage, turnovers) that also make a difference in the outcome in a game. If you’re an app designer and the only metric is total downloads, you’ll do anything to game the system to get more downloads — while possibly neglecting an important set of metrics that can measure how much people like and use your app.

Point is: There is no silver bullet. The sooner you stop chasing one, the sooner you can start working to build a more complete product.

At top, a screenshot of BuzzFeed.com a decade ago.

  1. Click-through rate is a way to measure what percentage of readers who open a newsletter click through to a piece of content on our site.
  2. The five big ones right now: Subscription rate, open rate, click rate, clicks per 1000, mobile open rates.

Some Of My Favorite Books About Work.

books-i-like

When I was in 9th grade and starting to focus in on journalism as a career, I interviewed a neighbor for a school project. He was a reporter for the Washington Post, and he’d written a few books. I asked him for career advice, and I remember his advice well:

Read a lot, and write a lot.

That’s stuck with me over the years. I try to write a lot — here on the blog, especially — even when the core of my job doesn’t involve writing. And I’m always pushing myself to read more. (It helps that I live in a city with an amazing library system!)

I read for pleasure, but I also like to read books about the way people work. And these tend to fall into two categories: Books that’ll make you think about work, and books that’ll show you how others work. These are a couple of my recent favorites from both:

Books That’ll Make You Think About Work

 
Do The Work by Steven Pressfield
Anything You Want by Derek Chivers

These are both remarkable little (and I mean little — like 100 pages each) manifestos about doing your best work. I read them both in late 2011 — and it’s not a coincidence that some of the best work from Stry.us happened in the months after.

The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg
This book made me totally rethink my day-to-day habits and the stuff I need to do in order to do great work.

Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro
This is technically about working as a designer — but it’s really about how to choose the right people to work with and how to ask for what you want. (Also: It features chapters like “Fuck You, Pay Me.” This book is nothing if not very direct.)

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
This is all about startups — how to build them, how to grow them, and how to survive them. (Especially that last part.)

Books That’ll Show You How Others Work

 
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
Still maybe the single best book about what it’s like for a smart, dedicated team to take on a huge mission and… then fail over and over again. (When work goes wrong, I love thinking about Wolfe’s famous line: “Our rockets always blow up!”)

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
An inspiring book about one man trying to take on impossible work in a foreign land — and somehow finding success.

Sous Chef by Michael Gibney
A fascinating look into a day in the life of a chef, going minute-by-minute into all the little routines that allow a kitchen to do the work it needs to do.

A Season On The Brink by John Feinstein
Hey, I had to sneak a sports book in here! I love this behind-the-scenes look at a single season for Indiana University’s men’s basketball team, and the way a team changes in the face of tough leadership.

Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman
How does a movie get written and made? Goldman goes deep (sometimes a little too much) into the process.

Sam Walton: Made In America by Sam Walton
The Everything Store by Brad Stone
I’m Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards

One’s about Wal-Mart. One’s about Amazon. One’s about Google. But all three dive deep into the beginnings of what would become three enormous brands. I loved reading about the early days of all three companies, and the decisions that helped shape their futures.

Setting A Reach Goal.

Goal

It’s January, and you’re two weeks into your New Year’s resolution, so let’s talk about goals for a second.

I love New Year’s resolutions. I think they’re a wonderful way to set ambitious goals for the year ahead. And if they’re matched with a change in habits, they can actually lead to some incredible changes in your life.

But most of all, I love when someone sets a New Year’s resolution that’s also a “reach goal.”

What’s a reach goal? It’s any type of goal that can’t be achieved without extraordinary effort. It’s a goal that you set knowing that you may try your hardest — and still come up short.

The difference between an ordinary goal and a reach goal is huge. An ordinary goal might be to say, “I want to write more this year.” But with a reach goal, you’d pledge something bigger: “I want to write 1,000 words a day this year!” The goal is both concrete and ambitious. With a reach goal, you set the bar well beyond your ordinary limits — and then find out how far you can actually go.

Sally and I set a few goals for ourselves this year. We want to bring our lunch to work more often, and we want to dedicate 30 minutes every Sunday to clean the house. Those are goals we can definitely achieve.

But we also set a reach goal for ourselves: Together, we want to run 1,000 combined miles this year.

I like running. But I’ve never run 500 miles in a year. I’m the kind of runner who might run 20 minutes on the treadmill every week, or run a 5k every now and again. In my best year, maybe I’ve run 250 miles. So to run 500 miles, I’m going to have to log some serious miles every single week.

It’s going to be a lot. I don’t know if I’m going to get there. But that’s besides the point: I’ve decided to push myself to do something that I don’t know if I can do, and I’m excited to see how far and how hard I can go.

———

That photo of an actual goal comes via Flickr user Al King and Creative Commons.

Encouragers Make The Best Bosses.

photo-1450226840871-893c2e0bf620

I just finished Jason Gay’s excellent book of advice, “Little Victories”, and in the chapter about work, he touches on something I’ve been thinking about a lot:

“The best bosses share a common characteristic: they are encouragers. It’s easy to be an ass-kicker, to find holes in someone’s professional ability, but good bosses see a flicker of something and just let it barge out the front door.”

Two parts of that quote really spoke to me. The first was the “flicker of something.” In my career, I’ve had a few dozen of those ideas. I’ve had some big, crazy ideas, and I’ve written my fair share of memos trying to prove that my ideas could become a piece of great work. Many of my ideas were outlandish and were justifiably ignored. A handful were too good to ignore. But then there’s this strange middle ground of ideas: ideas that with the right team and a bit of work could become something great, but that could also be dismissed outright.

Which is where the type of boss comes in — because they’ll be the ones that decide which types of work get done. Like Gay wrote, some bosses are “encouragers.” To that, I’ll add the (obvious) second category: “discouragers.”

Encouragers tend to react with support to your ideas. When you’ve got a great idea, they’ll get the resources, talent, and money to make those ideas into great work. But when they hear a half-baked idea, they’ll give you the space and time to turn it into a really good idea. They’ll ask questions to try to draw out the idea. They’ll suggest that you talk with co-workers who might be able to help the idea along, or they’ll pass along a good article or book that might get the idea moving. They’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Encouragers try to turn a decent idea into a great idea, and a great idea into great work. When you try something and fail, encouragers back you up, share the blame, and don’t let it affect future work.

Discouragers tend to react with skepticism to your ideas. They’ll generally get behind your great ideas, but when it comes to anything less, they’ll try to pick holes in your idea. They’re critics. They’ll ask questions that are intended to find the faults in your pitch. Whatever your idea, you’ll have to prove it and maybe even debate it. You will not get the benefit of the doubt. Every idea has to stand on its own. Discouragers hear a half-baked idea and work to keep it from becoming a fully-baked flop. When you try something and fail, you will take the blame.

I think every boss needs be a bit of an encourager and a discourager — the perfect mix is probably 80/20, with a heavy lean towards encouragement. There certainly are times when it’s important to set boundaries and to say “no.” And when an encourager says “no,” that comes with some credibility, because “no” isn’t their default setting.

In general, I prefer to work with encouragers. When you’ve got a “C+” idea, it’s nice to know that you have a boss and a team that’ll work to turn it into an “A” idea. Working with a discourager is harder. It can feel like you have to reestablish trust with your boss every single day. Sometimes, you shy away pitching anything but your absolute best because you’re afraid of the debate that might come.

With encouragers vs. discouragers, it’s not just about positivity vs. negativity. It’s about support vs. discouragement. It’s about knowing that you have a team behind you, and that you don’t need to prove and reprove yourself.

Jason Gay’s not wrong: The best bosses are encouragers.

———

That photo of horses traveling together comes via Unsplash and photographer Susan Yin. There’s a metaphor there somewhere about teams traveling together, maybe? (OK, that’s a stretch. But you get the idea.)

I Started At BuzzFeed Three Years Ago Today, And This Is What Happened.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 4.04.00 PM

Today is my three-year anniversary at BuzzFeed. I remember my first day vividly. My then-boss, Dao Nguyen, was out sick. So Chris Johanesen, our head of product, welcomed me and showed me to my desk. “You know what you’re supposed to do, right?” he asked.

I most certainly did not.

I had built out Stry.us and launched Tools For Reporters. I had launched newsletters with both of those projects, and I had enough experience to know that newsletters could work at scale. But I didn’t know how to launch a project at this level. I didn’t know how to grow it, or even what I was looking for in a team. I wasn’t even sure if I would last long enough at BuzzFeed to hire a team!

And now on my three-year anniversary, I’m looking back with amazement at a few incredible facts:

-On Sunday, BuzzFeed newsletters drove its 100 millionth click to BuzzFeed.com. ONE HUNDRED MILLION CLICKS.

-In the chart at the top of this post, the giant blue hockey stick of a line is traffic to the site on a month-by-month basis. How did we even do that?

-To put everything in perspective: The week I started, our five automated newsletters were driving 14,000 clicks a week. We’ve grown from those five newsletters to a dozen core newsletters, plus another 10 automated newsletters (like this) and original newsletters in four other countries on four different continents. Pretty good!

-When I started, we had fewer than 20,000 subscriptions across our newsletters. Now, we’ve got more than 2 million subscriptions across our lists. (And we’ve got plenty of room to grow!)

-The team’s grown from me to a team of four in New York, plus another half dozen BuzzFeeders around the world who pitch in to write newsletters in three different languages every week.

-Our newsletters used to be automated, and almost unreadable on your phone. Now every newsletter is written by a human, and they’re all responsively designed.

How’d we achieve all this? By testing out lots of weird ideas (This Week In Cats, anyone?) and spending a lot of time looking at the data and trying to figure out where it was pointing us. By being super clear in our mission: to send newsletters that were always useful and delightful. And by seeking out great people who could bring the ideas, energy, and work to take newsletters to amazing places.

Thanks to everyone who’s been a part of growing newsletters into such an tremendous program at BuzzFeed. Here’s to what we’ve accomplished — and to everything we’ll learn between now and our billionth click. (Hey, we’re 10% of the way there already!)

Why Didn’t Anyone Show Up To My Presentation?

13702112694_4d2257378c

Here’s something that happens at every office: You work hard on a big presentation. It’s got everything a great presentation needs: Actionable advice, clear takeaways, and data to back up your big points. You send out the calendar invite to a large group of co-workers — maybe an office listserv full of people who could use your advice.

Then when presentation time comes, only a fraction of the invited employees show up.

Why? What went wrong?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem lately. It’s something we struggle with at BuzzFeed, and something I hear echoed in conversations with friends who work in fields from media to medicine. Why aren’t people showing up for valuable presentations?

Three things are usually at play:

1) No one is holding them accountable — This is the big one. If you’re inviting people on a more personal basis — emailing 2-3 people at a time, or reaching out to folks on a 1-to-1 basis — they know that you personally want them there, and that you expect them to be there. When you reach out to a big team/group/listserv, it’s more impersonal, and people often feel like their attendance isn’t necessary. They also know that if they don’t show up, there won’t be any pushback — you won’t follow up to ask why they didn’t make time for your presentation.

2) They don’t know what’s in it for them — WIIFM isn’t just a silly acronym — it’s also an important part of any good presentation! Every time someone gets an invite to a presentation or a training, they should have an expectation for what they’ll be getting out it. If there’s nothing in it for them, why would they show up in the first place?

3) They don’t believe presentations are valuable — If you’ve been to a handful of sub-par presentations at your office, you’re less likely to think of them as valuable — and much more likely to think of them as a waste of time. And that’s a shame! A great presentation can change the way you work and give you the skills to produce amazing things. In a perfect world, people would LOVE going to presentations — they’re opportunities to make you better at the things you do every day!

So what can you do to improve your presentations? I’d start here: When you send out the calendar invite, let everyone know what they’re going to get out of your talk and why it’s so important. Follow up with people in person to make sure they understand why they should come — and create the expectation that their attendance is important. And lastly: Knock your presentation out of the park, and give them great advice that they can use!

———

That photo of a presentation comes via the University of the Fraser Valley’s Flickr.