Tag Archives: keep going

A Thought For The Graduating Class Of 2017.

zz top

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.

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That photo of ZZ top is called, “ZZ Top – Poble Espanyol, Barcelona”, by Alterna2 http://www.alterna2.com, and is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Let’s Get Uncomfortable.

peter-nguyen-128476

I hate feeling comfortable.

Why?

When I’m comfortable, I’m not challenging myself.

When I’m comfortable, I’m not learning new things.

When I’m comfortable, I’m not trying to reach really big goals.

So what do you do when you start feeling comfortable?

You can start a new routine. You can set a new goal. You can launch a side project. You can learn a new skill.

But you have to do something — nothing isn’t an option. If you’re comfortable, you’re not growing.

So push yourself to do something new. Get uncomfortable.

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That photo of a literal crossroads comes via photographer Peter Nguyen and Unsplash.

Set Learning Goals For Yourself.

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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 — something online, 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.

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I love that ad at the top. It’s called “Vintage Ad #950: You’ll Have to Move Fast to Get Smart” by Jamie, and it’s licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Own The Moment.

ocean grove

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.

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That ‘30s postcard is called “Sea gulls dip over breaking waves, Ocean Grove, New Jersey” (the lovely town where our friends got married) by Boston Public Library, and it’s licensed under CC BY 2.0

Keep On The Sunny Side.

It’s that time of the year when I’m spending a lot of my time watching playoff hockey. I write about it pretty much every year. Last year, I wrote about how every new opportunity gives us an opportunity to rewrite our story. The year before, I wrote about chasing the action, and learning when to find space for yourself to work. The year before that, I talked about learning how to go 100% in everything you do.

And while the hockey post changes every year, one thing never seems to change: The results for my favorite team, the Washington Capitals.

To put it simply: We’ve lost in more painful ways than I care to recount.

And yet, as I wrote last fall: I’m a sports optimist. Even tonight, with my Caps in a make-or-break game on the road, I believe.

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.

That’s not to say I don’t get frustrated or upset — I do. But I’m always looking for the sunny side. Experts say there’s even a health benefit to positivity: Positive people may actually live longer.

The New York Times has a few good ideas for turning from a negative thinker into a positive one, including:

  • Do good things for other people.
  • Develop and bolster relationships.
  • Learn something new.
  • Practice resilience.
  • Practice mindfulness.

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.

Write It In Reverse.

jamie-saw-26902

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.

I’ll quote you Joe Walsh, the guitarist for the Eagles, who — quite surprisingly, I should say! — explains this phenomenon well:

“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.

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That photo of stairs — the path upwards, I suppose — comes via Jamie Saw and was first published on Unsplash.

Try Not To Be Stupid.

charlie-munger

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.

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

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  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.

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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:

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

3-dots-3-lines

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!

Momentum Matters.

locked door

I hate feeling stuck.

I hate those weeks where you feel like things aren’t moving forward — your relationships, your job, your life. You feel like things aren’t going at the speed you want.

I’ve been there enough times to know how to get myself unstuck, and it might work for you, too:

By starting something.

A new series of classes at the gym. A new writing routine. A new challenge: reading a new book every month, cooking a new recipe every week, whatever.

I find that as soon as I get a little energy behind a new thing, even if it’s a small thing, everything else my life tends to open up, too. Motion turns into momentum. I start noticing new ways to attack a problem at work. I start developing new ideas for launches or ways for teams to work together.

There’s something about trying a new thing that kickstarts my brain. I know I can get stuck in my head, dwelling on a problem or project for way too long. Starting something new gets me past that and focused on what’s ahead. And often a simple act — deciding to start — is enough to get me past a big obstacle.

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This post got me thinking about getting past the obstacles in your life — hence that photo of a locked door. The photo’s by Cristina Gottardi, and was first published on Unsplash.

The One Thing You Can Control Is The Way You Work.

start of the Olympic race

Imagine for a second that you’re a kid again, and you’re fast. You’re really fast. You’re the fastest kid on your block. The fastest guy in your neighborhood. The fastest guy in your school. When you run, everyone else spends a lot of time looking at your backside as you pull away. You don’t run as much as you glide, effortlessly, as though you were born to do this one thing. In a way, you were. For you, running is effortless. You’re the fastest guy in every meet you enter. You’re the fastest kid in the county, the state.

You keep running. You start training with coaches whose whole purpose is to help you find ways to run faster. Your speciality is sprinting, a sport where every hundredth of a second matters. You train to shave .01s off your time. Every fraction of a tick is important. Imagine how many ticks in your life have gone by that you didn’t even notice, and now they all matter. You push every day to find ways to get faster. Your times keep getting better and better. You’re now the fastest guy at your university, the fastest guy at every meet, and those meets are full of runners who were the fastest guy on their street and at their school and in their state — until they ran against you. Imagine that for a second: You were faster than all of them.

One day, you go to a national meet, and you find out that you’re the fastest guy in your entire country. You go to bigger meets, and you win those, too. It’s hard to believe, but the results say it’s true: You’re the fastest guy on the entire continent. Imagine that: the fastest guy out of a billion people! You!

And imagine that you’re so fast that you make it here: To the Olympics. It’s 2008, and you’re in a stadium of tangled steel that the Chinese call the Bird’s Nest. You’re running faster than ever. You’re fast enough to make the quarterfinals of your best race, the 200 meter dash, and then the semis, and then the finals. There are almost 100,000 people in the stands to watch you run for a medal. Imagine: You are one of the eight fastest humans in the world, and now you will run to find out if you are the fastest.

You are not.

200m-final

You are fourth fastest — still impossibly fast by any definition of the word, but no one seems to care, because the guy one lane over turns out to be the fastest man who ever lived. You are fast, but the guy in lane 5 is a tall Jamaican who runs at speeds that scientists said were unthinkable for humans to reach. He passes you less than five seconds into the turn — nearly impossible in the 200 meter! — and by the time you hit the straightaway, for once, you are looking at someone else’s backside. At the 150 meter mark, you could parallel park an SUV — not some rinky dink little thing, but a Cadillac Escalade — in the gap between him and you.

You still finish fourth in an Olympic final, the fourth fastest human in the world. You’re a quarter of a second away from a bronze, which is damn fast. You’re still the fastest guy on your continent, and an Olympian.

But the Jamaican in lane 5 finishes nearly a full second ahead of you. It’s impossible to imagine, but you try anyway: You are this fast, and yet, there is a human who is that much faster than you. The difference in that one second is the difference between you and sports immortality.

That one second is the difference between you and Usain Bolt.

———

I think about that 200 meter race a lot. I remember watching the finals live from my hotel room in Beijing, and I remember watching Usain Bolt pass the runner in lane 6 within steps. I couldn’t believe it then, and re-watching that race recently, I can’t believe it now. Bolt’s speed is unfathomable.

That runner I asked you to imagine? His name is Brian Dzingai, and he’s from Zimbabwe. He was the only African runner to make the 200 meter finals in Beijing. I like to think about the work he must have put in to make it to the Olympics. It must have taken an astonishing amount of work — physically, mentally, emotionally — to reach those starting blocks. I imagine that journey often, from the fastest kid on his street to one of the fastest men in the world. But I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to realize, after always being the fastest in every meet, to realize that there were humans who were actually faster than you.

I’ve written before about the idea of running your own race in life, and I’ll take the analogy a step further here: What I learned from watching that 200 meter race is that you truly cannot control what happens to the runners beside you. You cannot control how tall they are, or how fast they are. (Bolt was taller by a head, and faster by 0.92 seconds.) You cannot control the resources they have — money, training facilities, coaching. (Bolt surely had the better of all three.)

And you cannot control what you, yourself, are born with.

What you can control is this: The way you work. The hours you work. And the intensity with which you work.

Everyone else is going to run their race. You have to accept that you can only run yours.

When I re-watch that race, I always think about Brian Dzingai, and the work he put in to reach those starting blocks. There’s a man who imagined greatness in himself, and put in the work to be great. You can only control the work you do, and Brian Dzingai did just that. His work got him to the Olympics.

Here’s to you, Brian — and everyone else who puts in the work.

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That photo was taken by photographer Ross Huggett at the 2012 London Games, and is used here thanks to a Creative Commons license and Flickr.