Tag Archives: inspiration comes from strange places

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.

Here, Listen To This.

I’m a huge fan of James Andrew Miller, the author behind the best-selling oral histories of ESPN and “SNL.” He’s also got a podcast, “Origins,” and the new season focuses on ESPN. I just listened to the episode about “Pardon The Interruption,” the ESPN talk show that changed the landscape for debate on cable TV. If you’re fascinated by the way creative people build things, give it a listen. It has a little of everything: anecdotes about brainstorming segment ideas with dentists; stories about building something from nothing; and even the production team’s list core values for success. (They are, in order: Be different, better, and special. Listen and you’ll also hear the team behind “PTI” explain why a show that was “good but not different” would fail.) It’s a wonderful episode, even for non-sports fans.

Listen to the episode below, or add it to iTunes here.

Here, Read This.

A few weeks ago, I wrote, “When They Zig, You Should Zag”, about trying to find opportunities hidden in plain site. And with that in mind, I wanted to share this fantastic piece from The Ringer about the unusual lessons that the Atlanta Falcons have learned from a cycling team. It’s a fantastic example of how a team is making small improvements — in the way their players sleep, eat, train, and learn — to get better at their work.

>> How a Cycling Team Turned the Falcons Into NFC Champions — The Ringer

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.

Try Not To Be Stupid.

charlie-munger

I’ve written lovingly about Warren Buffett before(1) — I’m a fan. And any follower of Buffett’s will tell you that they’re also a fan of his right-hand man, Charlie Munger. Munger has been as important to the rise of Berkshire Hathaway as Buffett himself. And he might be an even better quote than Buffett.

A friend sent me one the other day, from Munger’s 1989 letter to shareholders of the Wesco Financial Corporation.(2) In it, Munger dove into the idea of taking risk. He said that taking big risks for short-term gains — particularly by acquiring other companies — is a foolish move:

“Wesco continues to try more to profit from always remembering the obvious than grasping the esoteric. It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

That’s not to say Munger wouldn’t ever take risks. He wrote:

“Wesco would cheerfully invest $75 million tomorrow, with a 60% chance of total loss, provided the pay-off for winning was large enough to cause statistical expectation to provide a handsome return.”

So what’s the lesson here? Understand who you are and what you do best, and manage risk. It’s okay to bet big sometimes — as long as you understand the size of the opportunity and the amount of risk involved.

Otherwise, Munger’s advice was simple: Try not to be stupid! Yes, he wrote, it’s a strategy that “is bound to encounter periods of dullness.” But it also works in the long-term.

Munger wrote that letter in 1989. Today, he’s worth $1.48 billion. Maybe we should heed his advice.

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That photo of Munger was taken by Nick Webb, and re-used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

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  1. See here, here, here and here.
  2. Berkshire owned them, though Munger served as CEO and Chairman of the board.

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.

Ask, Listen, Learn, Decide. (The Tevye Theory Of Leadership.)

Fiddler

Can we talk about “Fiddler on the Roof” for a second?

I love “Fiddler.” I love the music, and I love the story.(1) And as I grow into a leadership role at my office, I’ve been thinking a lot about the main character of Tevye, and how his role in “Fiddler” has partly inspired the way I try to make decisions at work.

If you’ve never seen “Fiddler,” here’s the 15-second version: It’s the story of a humble milkman (Tevye), trying to lead his family and his Jewish community through a period of huge upheaval in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Over the course of the story, Tevye’s homeland rejects him for his religious beliefs; his daughters grow older and marry, but not to the men he’d once envisioned for them; and his family is uprooted from their home. It’s a fascinating — and heartbreaking — story.(2)

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about Tevye’s role in “Fiddler” story — specifically, the way Tevye adapts to the realignments happening around him. As his world changes, Tevye deals with every new issue by moving through the same four steps:

1) Ask — Tevye asks a lot of questions, seeking to understand the “why” behind changes that affect him.

2) Listen — He listens carefully to what the people he trusts most (his family, his fellow villagers, even some Russian officials) tell him.

3) Learn — He’s receptive to a variety of viewpoints, and willing to accept ideas that aren’t his own. He challenges himself to see things through other people’s eyes.

4) Decide — He tries to make the best decisions he can with the information he’s been given.

And by using the same method for every major change — ask, listen, learn, decide — Tevye consistently makes good decisions. He surrounds himself with people who support him, but who are also willing to challenge him. And Tevye has the humility to understand that by listening to those perspectives, he can push himself towards the best possible decision. In his family, the decisions are always ultimately his, but Tevye never makes a decision without going through that decision-making process first.

All of this matters when you’re making decisions as a leader in your workplace. You have to surround yourself with smart people who are willing to confront you with hard truths. On a team, dissent and disagreement can be a good thing — as long as you’re willing to recognize that you don’t have all the answers. Together, the team can always get to a better solution than you will alone.

The next time you watch “Fiddler,” watch it with Tevye’s process in mind. I think you’ll be impressed at how such a humble character can show such wisdom as a leader.

———

That photo of a “Fiddler” playbill was taken by Deb Nystrom and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

  1. I especially love the Lin-Manuel Miranda version of “To Life”, but that’s for another day.
  2. For Jewish families like mine, watching “Fiddler” can feel like watching a biography of our ancestors.

Look Up.

the morning 6 train

I’ve lived in New York City for four years, and in those four years, I don’t believe I’ve ever gone all Tom Friedman and written a post in which I take a tiny public transportation experience and make it into a big thing.

That, sadly, ends today.

So with apologies to the Times’s op-ed page, here’s a story:

I’m riding the subway down to work this morning, and the arrival board on the downtown 6 train has one word on it: “Delay.” I wait for a few minutes, but the subway still hasn’t arrived.

And then a voice comes over the loudspeaker: There’s a sick passenger on the train one stop away, and it’s not moving. If you want to go downtown, please go to the other side of the tracks, take a 6 uptown one stop, and then take an express train back downtown.

It’s annoying. But it is what it is.

So I start walking to the uptown platform, and a handful of people are walking there, too. But everybody else on the platform is just standing there.

The voice comes over again to repeat the message, but most people still aren’t moving.

I get to the other side of the tracks, and I look back at the downtown platform. There must be a hundred people still standing there, completely oblivious to the message from the loudspeaker. I look up and down the platform. Everyone’s in their own world, listening to something via headphones, or loudly locked in conversation with someone else. The trains aren’t moving, and they’re too busy to even notice.

Now here’s where Tom Friedman would make a profound statement about the state of the world based on that one story, and since I’m already this deep into my anecdote, here goes:

We all have ways of building little bubbles for ourselves, and shutting the rest of the world out. You throw on headphones. You hide in our offices, doors closed, or in corners of the building where you won’t be bothered. You tell yourself that you need the quiet, or you need to be productive. You need to get away.

But here’s the downside: That leaves you isolated. You miss out on the things happening all around you — sometimes little, sometimes big and obvious.

I used to laugh about a manager at my office who was infamous for a leadership style called Management By Walking Around. It seemed like such an odd way to lead. But I’m starting to see the benefits. Being visible and keeping your eyes open exposes you to what’s happening around you — at least at the surface level. It opens the door to serendipitous conversations, and as a manager, it’s certainly not a bad thing to be a noticeable presence around the building.

But first you have to open your eyes and ears. Things are happening all around you — it’s up to you to decide if you want to pay them notice.

———

That’s a photo of my subway platform, taken by yours truly.

This Behind-The-Scenes Video Of The ‘SNL’ Crew Tearing Down A Set In Two Minutes Is Absolutely Fascinating.

I love learning about the way other people work — not just what they do during their day, but how they do it. A few years ago, I remember grabbing a burrito at Chipotle late in the afternoon, in the dead time between the lunch rush and dinner. The manager was training a team of new hires how to move customers through the line. The new hires were taking a full minute to get a customer from “Hi, what would you like to order?” to the cashier. The manager wanted them to get it down to 22 seconds. He explained that if there were a dozen people in line, serving a customer in 22 seconds meant that last person in line would be paying for their burrito in a little over 4 minutes. At their current pace, that last customer wouldn’t pay for 12 minutes — and would probably abandon the line for another lunch option long before then.

So I watched as the manager trained each member of the team in ways to shave seconds off of every step of the burrito-making process. The manager kept driving home this message: One person’s work impacts the success of everyone else on the team. It was fascinating to watch.

Which brings me to this video that the “Saturday Night Live” YouTube channel posted a few days ago. Watching the “SNL” crew tear down an entire set in two minutes, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the way everything moves. Four seconds after the actors finish saying, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”, the crew is already on stage dismantling the set. Then the crew starts dismantling the walls of the set — a set, I should say, that was built specifically to be assembled and dismantled as quickly as possible. And all along, you hear the voice of the director, imploring his team to get the stage clear. We have a family friend who likes to say, “Don’t rush, but hurry up” — and that’s exactly what the director is conveying here.

In less than two minutes, the “SNL” crew manages to make everything on set — the actors, the walls, the fake fireplace, the carpeting — disappear, and those of us watching at home on TV never notice it at all. It’s an impressive bit of teamwork. I don’t know how they move so fast or stay so calm, but they do. I’d watch an entire “SNL” episode just of what happens behind the scenes — I’d love to know more about how their crew trains for the live show. There’s a lot to learn from a team like this.