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.
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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.
There are a lot of things you can’t control at your job. In fact, the longer you stay at a job, the more you realize that many — if not most! — of the things that happen at work are outside your control. Successes are a group effort, and so are failures. I’m not here today to talk much about that.
What I do want to discuss are the things you can control. They’re smaller things, but they really matter:
You can control your work ethic: how hard you work, how smart you work, and with whom you work.
You can control your attitude: the energy and enthusiasm you bring to your work.
You can control the way you communicate: the way you talk to your co-workers, follow up on projects, and collaborate on your work.
There’s one more thing that you can definitely control: The amount you learn every year.
I just finished J. Keith Murnighan’s “Do Nothing!”, a book about learning how to adjust to a new leadership role. And in it, he makes a powerful case for setting learning goals for yourself and your team.
The idea is simple: As you advance in a job, you need to keep improving your skill set, your habits, and your knowledge, too. If you’re not learning more, you’re going to eventually hit the upper limits of your abilities — and peter out at your company.
So what’s the way to fight that? Keep learning. If your company has a learning & development team, take advantage of their classes! If not, talk to your manager about having the company pay for outside classes — somethingonline, something at a local university, or something hosted by a professional organization in your field.
And if that’s not a possibility: You can always commit to two things that don’t cost a dime: 1) Reading more books, blogs, and articles, and 2) Networking with people in your field and asking great questions. Learning doesn’t have to come through classes.
This is the first year my team has set specific learning goals. We’re committing to learning new skills — how to get more out of Google Sheets, how to grow in managerial positions, how to communicate more effectively. And by making learning a bigger part of each job, I hope we’ll be able to grow that much stronger as a team.
My wife and I spent last weekend at a wedding on the Jersey shore, and like every other outdoor wedding we’ve ever been to — and I believe this was our sixth outdoor wedding together — there was the threat of rain.
This is how it works with weddings. You plan for the perfect day, and then… you don’t always get what you planned for.
But like the other five outdoor weddings we’d been to before, the couple found a way. They moved the venue to a beach-adjacent gazebo, and got married as a light drizzle fell outside.
And impressively, the change of plans didn’t seem to bother the couple — in fact, I’m not sure I’ve been to a wedding where the couple had such a good time!
What made these two such an exception? How’d they deal with the last-minute change of plans? Simply, they owned the moment.
They photos in the rain, big umbrellas billowing behind them on the boardwalk. They laughed when strangers in yellow raincoats accidentally photobombed their ceremony. They did something that most would struggle with: They embraced the changes, and in doing so, made their wedding day uniquely theirs.
Things get in the way of your big plans — that big day, that big project, that big goal. All you can do is work hard to prepare; hope for the best, and expect the worst; and on the day of, own whatever comes your way.
It’s just what I do. I’m the kind of guy who looks at a bad situation and tries to see the opportunity, not the let down. Even in rough times, I try to find the upside.
I’ve found it to be a powerful way to live. From optimism springs joy — and nothing in life is quite as wonderful as those brief moments of joy. I’m not sure I’d be able to recognize those moments if I didn’t stay so positive.
I’d add to that: Learn from the past, but leave it there. Failure gives you experience; letdowns breed humility. But you can’t let the past burden you forever. If you can stay positive, you might just find a way to move on and seize the next opportunity.
Which, as far as my hockey team is concerned, means one thing: Tonight, and always, I’ll believe.
The class of 2017 is going to graduate in a few weeks. They’re going to be ambitious, and they’re going to be ready to go from 0 to 60 in their careers. (I know I expected to hit the ground running.) But careers don’t move quite that fast.
When I talk to recent grads and explain the first decade of my journalism career, it makes a lot of sense:
In 2008, I covered the Olympics for a big paper and did a ton of blogging.
In 2009, I graduated and started working on the digital side at a TV station.
In 2010, I quit my job to build Stry.us and write about the five-year anniversary of Katrina.
In 2011, I got the fellowship at Mizzou to keep growing Stry.us.
In 2012, I launched a bunch of new projects, created my first newsletters, and grew the Stry.us team.
In 2013, I used that experience launching newsletters to start a career at BuzzFeed as their first newsletter guy.
In 2014, we grew newsletters, built out a marketing strategy, and started growing the team.
In 2015 and 2016, we launched a ton of new projects, kept hiring, and really figured out the marketing side of things.
And looking back, there’s a very clear path! There’s the big arc: I’m a guy who launches digital projects and grows teams. There’s the common thread through every year: Being able to use my writing skills, whether it’s for telling stories, writing newsletters, or creating good marketing copy.
But I’ll tell you this: In real time, my career didn’t make sense at all. I had no idea where all of this was taking me, and definitely never expected to land here at BuzzFeed. That I’ve gotten here is a wonderful, happy accident.
“You know, there’s a philosopher who says, ‘As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, nonrelated events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it’s overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time, it don’t.’”
And he’s right! In real time, it’s chaos. It’s only in looking back that it makes sense.
So here’s my advice to the class of 2017: Think about writing your career in reverse. Visualize where you want to be in five years, and ask yourself:
What would I need to do in year 4 to be able to make the leap to that dream role in year 5?
Would would I need to do in year 3 to get to year 4?
What about in year 2?
And ultimately: What do I need to do in that first year after graduation to get started on that path?
I had no plan, so I stumbled around and accidentally ended up here. (I’ve said it before: I’m lucky to be lucky.) But maybe you can work smarter: Start with the dream role, and then reverse engineer a potential career path to get to that dream. Create the mile markers you’ll use to measure success. And don’t get frustrated when you career veers in a different direction — things never go as planned!
No, you’re probably not going to get that dream job as a reporter at the big daily paper or website just yet — but maybe you can in five years. Instead, start planning out the path, and then get working to take that first step on your 5-year plan.