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.
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.