Tag Archives: keep going

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.

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.

Do Something Small, Do Something Kind.

andre-benz-257878

I’ve written before about bad days — how to react to them, how to keep going when you’re having one. I even wrote a blog series back in 2011-12 called “Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong.”

I was thinking about those posts this morning on the way into work. The New York subway system has been having a rough year, and things went a little off the rails(1) this morning. It took three trains and an extra 45 minutes to get into work, and me and my fellow New Yorkers were understandably grumpy as we made our way into the office.

Here’s what I know: A bad commute can ruin the rest of your day. I’ve certainly been guilty of getting frustrated with co-workers after a bad ride into work — the chain of screaming is real:

So I’ve been trying to find new ones to break the chain — to take a bad day and turn it around. Here’s the simplest one: I try to find a few moments during the day when I can be especially kind to someone else. That might mean helping a tourist on the subway find the right stop after a train delay. It can mean sending a nice note to a friend. It can tipping the extra buck at the corner bodega, or stopping by a co-worker’s desk to thank them for something they did.(2)

I don’t know if it really helps — maybe it’s just an act of good karma — but it’s something. And on bad days, it’s something I can focus on besides a lousy start to the day. These aren’t big acts, but I’d like to think they help a little.

———

That NYC subway photo comes via Andre Benz and Unsplash.

  1. Pun unintended, sorry.
  2. If there’s something you do to break the cycle of a bad day, I’d love to hear it. Shoot me a note.

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.

The Montage Scene.

montage scene

I was having dinner recently with a few friends, all of whom have started new jobs in 2017. We were talking about the struggles with a new job: Building relationships with new co-workers, learning new workplace procedures and etiquette, and challenging yourself in a new role.

And then, in the way that dinner conversations tend to go to strange places, we got to talking about the movies. A friend noted that they don’t show people putting in the day-in and day-out work in movies. If movies were like real life, someone would show up at an office, pitch a big idea, and then spend the next eight months slowly getting the buy-in to make that idea happen. Nobody wants to watch a movie where someone spends two months writing memos or getting coffee to brainstorm new ideas. Wouldn’t make for much of a movie.

Then we thought about it some more, and realized that we were wrong. They actually do show people putting in the work in movies! But it’s always in a montage:

And all of us at that dinner table agreed: The early stages of a job are a lot like the montage scene of the movie. You put in a lot of work, you try to make stuff happen, but it’s not glamorous. It’s… work.

In the movies, the montage scene is always fun. When you see a montage in a “Rocky” movie, you know that a big fight is coming up. You know you’re going to get closure for a character soon.

The montage scene at a new job isn’t quite like that. It’s work, and more work, and building new routines, and learning new stuff. It doesn’t always lead somewhere right away. You start a new job with a lot of ambition, but it always takes more time than you think to start getting stuff done that you’re excited about and proud of.

At BuzzFeed, the montage scene lasted my entire first year. It took a long time to build something from nothing, and even when we made progress, I’d look back on what we’d built so far and realize: We hadn’t done that much. It was frustrating.

But eventually we got there. Eventually, all new jobs get out of the montage scene, and then you can move on to bigger things. But you’ve got to put in that work first — and unlike the movies, you can’t compress it all into a three-minute-long montage.

Keep your head down and keep doing the work. You’ll make it through.

———

That photo of a film reel comes via Noom Peerapong and Unsplash.

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.

How Do You Know It’s Time To Leave Your Job?

exit

Since I announced that I was leaving BuzzFeed, a lot of people have been asking: How did you know it was the right time to leave?

I hadn’t been applying to jobs elsewhere when the New Yorker opportunity came around. So to make sure it was the right time for me to leave, I made a list of six questions, and thought carefully through each:

1) Am I still being challenged in my current role?
2) Am I still learning new things?
3) Am I part of the decision-making process at my office? Do I have a seat at the table where big decisions are made?
4) Is there a path for me to grow at this company?
5) Do I have the right people on my team?
6) Do I have what I need to do my best work?

If the answer to one or two of these is “no”, you might be unhappy at your job, but it’s probably not time to leave. Have a conversation with your boss about your role — maybe there’s an opportunity for them to give you the support/training/help you need to fix those issues.

But if you’re answering “no” to more than that, it’s time to make a change. You deserve to be at a place where you’re surrounded by the best team, working on projects that challenge you, and supported with the resources you need to do great work.

One more thing: You’ll notice that money’s missing from this list. I’m lucky in that at this point in my career, I didn’t have to make a move based on financial needs. But if you’re at a different stage in your career, that should absolutely play a role. Don’t stay at a job that pays you less than you’re worth — otherwise, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to make a significant salary leap.

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That photo at top is called “Exit” by Paul Downey. It’s licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Launch It, Or Leave It Behind.

a folder full of bad ideas

It’s my last week at BuzzFeed, and I’ve been cleaning out my desk drawers. It’s amazing what I’ve found in there: Gadgets I haven’t used in years; random articles of clothing I never wear; and folders and folders of ideas, going back to my very first week of work in 2012.

I’ve written about this before: Coming up with ideas is never the problem. You will always have more ideas, as Ze Frank put it so brilliantly in this video from 2006:

What actually matters is getting those ideas into the world. Finding the right team to build on those ideas with. Testing those ideas. Launching those ideas. Making sure you’re getting the right data to learn more about how your fans are engaging with those ideas. Being willing to kill those ideas when they’re not as good as you thought. Being willing to build on those ideas when they’re better than you could have expected.

The only truly dangerous thing you can do is hang onto an idea too long. The longer you hold onto it, the more precious it becomes. The more you think that one day, when conditions are just perfect, you can release that idea into the world and let it bloom into something great.

That never happens.

You have to make something of your ideas, or you have to move on.

That’s why I’m leaving that 2012 folder — and thousands of other ideas I’ve generated over the past four years — at BuzzFeed. Maybe someone will turn those unused ideas into something real. Maybe they’ll end up in the trash. But I don’t need to cling to them.

It’s time to move on to whatever big idea is next.

It’s OK If Your Ideas Suck.

buzzsnow

I want to tell you about a bad idea of mine.

My bad idea happened on December 18, 2012. It was my second day at BuzzFeed. I didn’t know anyone yet, and I didn’t have any idea what I was supposed to be doing. I’d met with one of our designers to build the templates for our brand new newsletters, and it was pretty clear that it was going to be a few days — if not weeks — until we had something that we could actually test out.

I didn’t want to wait that long.

So I decided that I’d create a project for myself: I’d send out an email to our lists wishing them a happy holiday season. The goal was twofold:

1) I’d learn a little more about how to use the email system at BuzzFeed, which was brand new to me.

2) I’d meet some of the people that I’d be working with over the coming months.

This wasn’t the bad idea.

The bad idea was that I wanted to spoof a famous Christmas poem, title the email, “The Night Before GIFmas”, and write the entire thing using GIFs we’d created throughout the year.

It was a very bad, very quarter-baked idea.

I wrote the poem, but never sent it out to our subscribers. An editor stepped in to politely tell me that I might want to re-think the idea of a parody poem in my first week. I scrapped the email.

But as bad as the idea was, the rest went exactly as I’d hoped. I did learn more about our email service provider. I did meet a half-dozen co-workers, figuring out who did what at BuzzFeed and they all fit together within the org. And I even learned how crazy talented the BuzzFeed team was. They could turn a weird request — “Can you add a dancing Santa hat to the BuzzFeed logo?” — and turn it into something neat.

I’ve had a lot of bad ideas over the years — most of my ideas are pretty terrible! But I’ve discovered that what matters most is learning how to do the work and who you can do the work with. Figure those things out, and eventually the good ideas (and good work) will follow.

— — —

The amazing John Gara designed that BuzzFeed logo with the Santa hat, and I really wish we’d had the chance to use it on BuzzFeed.com.

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.

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