Tag Archives: inspiration comes from strange places

Try Weird Stuff.

I’ve written before about my love of the morning paper — the physical edition that shows up on my doorstep every morning. You never know when you’ll flip through the pages and find something unexpected.

For instance: the obituaries. I’d never go looking for them online, but in the paper, I try to make a few minutes for them. If these people made it to the New York Times print edition, they must have left some sort of mark.

Here’s one from this week that caught my eye:

“Ethel Stein, a weaver who created countless intricate textile artworks and one particularly influential sock puppet, died on Friday in Cortlandt, N.Y. She was 100.”

A particularly influential sock puppet? Go on…

“A more lighthearted part of her legacy came from a side business that grew out of her penchant for repurposing things that others might have discarded. She turned old socks into puppets, first for her son’s nursery school, then for a growing body of fans.

“She began selling them at a booth in a department store in Manhattan; a monograph published by her representative, Browngrotta Arts, says she sold 10,000. One wound up in, or on, the hands of a young puppeteer named Shari Lewis, who by 1953 was making a name for herself in children’s television in the New York market. Ms. Stein, the monograph says, designed several puppets for Ms. Lewis, who would later in the 1950s achieve national fame with Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and the rest of her puppet pals.”

How incredible is that? An artist’s side project accidentally helped launch one of the most influential children’s TV shows in the country.

Reading about Ms. Stein, her side project reminded me so much of my old co-workers at BuzzFeed. Everyone there had something they did just for fun: a podcast, a newsletter, a weird Tumblr. Some people did physical crafts. Some people were in bands or choirs. Everyone did something.

Try something yourself: something fun, something weird. Make a new thing. You never know where it might lead.


That photo is by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

You Can Quit When You Have A Good Day.

On Saturday, I was in midtown for a Cycle for Survival ride.(1) I heard some incredible speeches that day — including one from Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Nastia Liukin.

She told this great story. She said that when she was a kid, she’d come home after a bad day and try to quit gymnastics, but her mom wouldn’t let her. “You can quit,” her mom would say, “but you can’t quit until after you’ve had a good day.”(2)

So she’d go back to the gym day after day, until she finally had a good day. And on that good day, she’d come home, and her mom would see the smile on her face. ”OK,” her mom would ask her. “Do you still want to quit now?”

Of course, Liukin wouldn’t — and she went on to become one of the most decorated Olympians in U.S. gymnastics history.

I listened to that story and nodded along the whole time. You’ve probably experienced it, too: Things are never as quite bad as they seem on your worst days, and never quite as good as they feel on your best days. But sometimes, when you’re in a lull, you find little ways to dig yourself out and get back to a better place. It’s easy to want to give up when things are bad. It’s much harder to be resilient enough to keep pushing through with the work you need to do.


That very shaky GIF was the view from my bike at last week’s Cycle ride.

  1. If you’ve got the chance to be a part of one, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It was SO inspiring.
  2. Both of her parents were gymnasts, so they may have known a thing or two about tough days at the gym.

Make The Hockey Assist.

Here’s something I love about team sports: Credit’s given not just to the person who scores, but also the players who set up the score. In basketball, an assist is only given to the player who makes the pass that leads to a basket. But in hockey, there’s also a secondary assist, given to the player who makes the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal.

Here’s what it looks like in action, as illustrated by my Washington Capitals:

The whole play is set up by #19, Nick Backstrom. He draws two defenders to the center of the ice, then makes the pass to #8, Alex Ovechkin. But because Backstrom’s already drawn the defense in, the goalie and defense have to be extra aggressive in defending against a shot from Ovechkin. Instead, Ovi surprises everyone by passing back to the middle of the ice, where #2, Matt Niskanen has a tap-in at the empty net.

It’s a beautiful goal — but none of it is possible without the play from Backstrom. The pass that led to the pass set up an easy goal.

I love the hockey assist. It’s a reminder that the big play often isn’t possible without a lot work first to set things up.

When you’re a manager, a lot of your job is making hockey assists, and trying to set up the conditions for success. That might mean getting your team the resources — technology, money, additional team members — do to work. It might mean setting the goals or giving your team the training so that they can do their work. It might mean figuring out a way to divvy up tasks so that your team can focus on doing something big.

You might not get the credit for your team’s win, but that’s OK. Being a manager isn’t about getting credit — it’s about putting your team in position to do its best work.

So make the  hockey assist — and set your team up for success.

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.


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.


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


  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.


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:


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


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.


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.