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.
I’ve writtena 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you had passion for what you did, the ability to hustle and ramp up your work rate, the right skills for the job, enough time, and an awesome team behind you, then you could make great work happen.
But great work does not always lead to great success.
If you want that, you need to follow another formula, and this one’s even simpler:
Success = Work + Luck
The output of all your work — your teamwork, your talent, your hustle — doesn’t fully determine success. You can work unbelievably hard on an amazing thing with great people and still fail.
No matter what you’re working on, you also need to be lucky.
Luck can be a combination of things: It can mean a chance encounter or introduction that leads to a breakthrough. It can mean getting the timing right: Working on the right project at a time when your industry is growing, when the tools you need to do your work are readily available, or when your audience/customers are ready for your work. It can mean taking a big risk that pays off. It can even mean making a small decision that accidentally saves you from disaster, like picking the wrong vendor for a piece of software you need.
You still have to put in the work. But to be successful, you’ve got to get a little bit lucky, too.
Ladies and gentlemen, faculty and staff, distinguished guests, graduating students from the class of 2017: I’d like to tell you a story about a simpler, more honest time in American history.
The year was 2005.
I remember it like it was… well, about 12 years ago. Was it really only 12 years ago? It feels like longer.
I want you to imagine a young Dan Oshinsky. He’s a senior at a suburban high school outside Washington, D.C. He’s heading soon to journalism school — one day, he’ll write for newspapers! He’s yet to discover hair product. He’s driving his maroon Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight down the highway.
When a song comes on the radio. (Again, it’s 2005.) It’s a song that he knows, and loves.
He can’t remember the name of the song.
But he loves the riff. It goes: Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh.
The song ends, but the radio DJ does not say the same of the song.
So young Dan drives down the highway in his Oldsmobile, singing the riff over and over again, trying to remember the name of the song. He sings: Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh.
But he cannot, for the life of him, remember the name of the song.
He gets home, and he finds his mother, who grew up loving rock music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Surely, he hopes, she’ll know the name of the song.
Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh, he sings.
And she recognizes the riff immediately… but fails remember the name of the song.
So they call their neighbor, Matt. Matt grew up in rock bands. Still plays in one, in fact. Plays guitar, knows everything there is to know about rock music.
They get Matt on the phone — on his house line, naturally. (Again, the year was 2005.)
Matt, they say, we heard this riff on the radio but can’t remember the name of the song. Do you know it?
And loudly, on speakerphone, they begin to shout: Dah-NUH duh duh duh duh dah-NUH nuh nuh.
And Matt says: Yeah, I know that song! That’s “La Grange”, by ZZ Top.
Matt was right:
I tell you this story tonight, Class of 2017, for a simple reason: That story, from 12 years ago, makes 2005 feel as far away as the the 1980s. It feels like a story from an entirely different era.
In 2005, I was driving around in an Oldsmobile — a car company that no longer exists — with a tape deck — a technology that barely exists — with a flip phone — a product I haven’t used in years. The iPhone wouldn’t exist for another two years, and I wouldn’t discover a music discovery app called Shazam for another five. At that point in my life, I’d never owned an iPod, and the idea of high-speed data being transmitted to cell phones was years away.
So if you would have told me in 2005 that one day, there would be a magical, mobile device that could listen to and identify songs on the radio, I would have been amazed. That was something that could only happen… in the future!
The future, it turns out, is happening right now. In the dozen years since I couldn’t remember the name of a ZZ Top song, nearly everything that exists in our day-to-day lives has changed. The technology, the tools, the resources — it’s all changed.
In just a dozen years.
And I cannot imagine what we’ll have at our fingertips in the year 2029. The changes, I’m sure, will astound all of us.
But there’s the flip side to all this change: Just thinking about the unknown ahead of us can be frightening. How do you prepare yourself for a future you don’t recognize? What are the right careers for such a future? What are the right choices?
I wish I had the answer for you — but I don’t.
Instead, Class of 2017, I have a challenge: No matter what happens in the years ahead, invest in yourselves. College may be over, but push yourself to keep learning. Read a lot. Try new products. Learn new skills. If you work at an office that has a Learning & Development team, take their classes. Don’t be afraid to keep growing your skill set.
In the dozen years ahead, everything in our lives will change again. So don’t be afraid to keep learning — it’s the only way to change with whatever the world throws at us next.
Congrats, Class of 2017, and in the words of ZZ Top: Have mercy.