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