Tag Archives: keep going

Ring That Bell.

that's Mel Brooks at Radio City

Last Monday, my wife emails me an interview with Mel Brooks. The interview has a bit of news: He’s going to do a showing of “Blazing Saddles” at Radio City Music Hall later in the week, and then a Q&A after the movie. We both love Mel and his movies, so I go looking for tickets. They’re a little pricey, and we’re debating whether or not to go. I’m leaning towards going — Mel is 90, he’s a living legend, and you never know if he’ll be back again.

Halfway through our email thread, the news breaks that Gene Wilder has died.

We buy the tickets.

Of course, it was worth the price of admission, and then some. The crowd could not have been more excited — you should have heard the ovation when Wilder’s Waco Kid first showed up on screen. And then Mel Brooks came out on stage and started telling stories, and we all went absolutely crazy.

He told this one that really landed for me. He’s told this story before, so I’ll quote it for accuracy:

At one point in the movie, an old lady in a bonnet says, “Up yours, n—-r.” Brooks recalled asking John Calley, then head of production at Warner Bros., “‘Can we beat the s— out of a little old lady? Can we punch a horse?’ He said to me, ‘If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it.'”

If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it. I absolutely LOVE that.

And it explains so much about Mel Brooks. This is a guy who did musical numbers about both the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi Germany. This is a guy who made Frankenstein dance. This is a guy who put a fart scene into a Western.

Yeah, Mel Brooks rang that bell.

If you’re going to go halfway, you might as well go all the way. Mel Brooks taught me that last week, and I’m going to try not to forget it.

———

That’s a (not very good) photo of Mel at Radio City that I took on Thursday. Look closely: There’s a little Jewish guy at the front of the stage. That’s Mel.

Get Ready To Grab That Baton.

usain bolt running

I love the Olympics, and I think there’s a lot to learn from watching them. I’ve written before about the Yellow Line Theory. I’ve written about the importance of keeping your eyes on the road ahead. And with the Olympics just a few days away, here’s this year’s big Olympics idea.

— — —

I’ve talked to a few groups of journalism students this summer. They’re graduating next year, and they’re starting to ask: How do I get the first job after college? How do I successfully make the transition from college to the real world?

Here’s the way I think about it: College moves fast. Ever since you first got accepted to a university, your family’s been telling you: Enjoy it, because it goes by fast. And it really does. Three years blow by, and the last year moves even faster. The transition between the end of school and the start of your career is a blur.

In a way, it’s a lot like the baton toss in the 4×100 relay at the Olympics.

You’ve seen that race on TV. Each race has four legs, with the tiniest of transition areas for one runner to hand the baton off to the next. If you’re one of the last three legs, you go from a standstill to a sprint in a matter of yards.

Nail all four handoffs and you’ll save precious seconds, and maybe win the race. Botch even one — or, worse, drop the baton entirely — and you’re out of the medals.

the handoff

Whenever I watch that race, I always keep an eye on the men and women who have to run the final legs. Being a later leg of that race is fascinating to me. Those runners know what’s coming, but they still can’t move until the previous leg finishes. And then suddenly, there’s a moment when they go from a standstill to a full-on sprint.

That anticipation is a lot like what you feel as you approach the end of senior year. You start getting the big question: What are you going to do after college? You start applying to jobs. You realize that once you graduate, you’re going to have bills to pay, and you won’t have the crutch of college to hold you up anymore.

Except that you can’t full start the next phase of your life until that first one ends. You have to pass the baton from College You to Real World You.

So you sit there, full of anticipation, just waiting for the next leg of your life to arrive.

Some of your classmates will nail the handoff, and good for them! You’ll look at them a year or two after college and think: They’ve made it already. They’re so far ahead of me.

Some will botch the handoff. A few years after college, they’ll still be trying to figure out what career paths to take and what happens next. Sometimes, the next phase of your life shows up, and you’re just not ready to hit the ground running.

It happens.

The important thing to remember is: No matter how well or how poorly that transition goes, just keep running. Your career isn’t a race, and you’re not competing against your classmates. Once you get that baton, you get to forge your own path ahead at your own pace.

It doesn’t matter where you go, or how fast you go. The only thing that matter is: Are you bold enough to grab that baton and start running?

Get ready, class of 2017. You’ll be off and running before you know it.

— — —

Those GIFs from the 4×100 relay in 2012 come via this video.

The More Things There Are, The More Things Will Go Wrong.

Downtown Pittsburgh, by David Lemonick

I’m getting married in three weeks. And: I’m excited! I can’t wait to see so many people I care about in one place, and I cannot wait to finally say “I do” to the woman I love.

Of course, there is this one thing that’s been nagging at me for a little while, and I want to say something about it out loud:

There is a typo on the welcome note that’s going in everyone’s gift bags. And I can’t do anything about it.

Let me explain.

When you plan a wedding, you end up making a thousand tiny decisions about stuff you never knew you needed to care about. From one big decision — Will you marry me? — comes a thousand tiny ones: Is this the right font for us? Should we upgrade the napkins? Are we making the best possible choice about chairs?(1)

You end up making a lot of decisions, and you end up with a shocking number of moving parts for a single event.

Which is why, eventually, you end up realizing something: The more things there are, the more things will go wrong.

If you make a thousand tiny choices, a handful aren’t going to go the way you wanted them to. It happens! The caterer is going to forget about that cheese you specifically requested. The DJ is going to play a song you didn’t want them to play. The bouquet will include a flower you didn’t ask for.

Or, yes: You’ll make a tiny typo on a note going in the gift bags at the hotel. (I forgot a comma! I should proofread more closely next time! I’m sorry!)

Say it with me: The more things there are, the more things will go wrong.

That’s how it goes with weddings, or with any big project you work on. It’s inevitable. The more complicated a project gets, or the more people who get involved, the more likely it is that things are going to go wrong. Mistakes always get made. The hardest thing is accepting the mistakes, and being willing to keep your focus on the big picture and not the little details.

They only notice the big picture anyway.

I’ll tell you a quick story. It’s about my bar mitzvah. 48 hours before the big day, I stood in an empty synagogue with my rabbi and my parents, practicing my Torah portion. I’d spent months preparing for the day, and this was the final rehearsal before it actually happened.

But during that rehearsal, I flubbed a line in Hebrew — a language, it’s worth noting, that I don’t speak! — and got completely flustered, ran to the bathroom, and locked myself inside for 20 minutes.

And I cried.

When I finally came out of the bathroom, my rabbi gave me some advice: If you screw up a line, it’s OK! Just go back to the beginning of the line, and read it all over again. Nobody will ever notice.

And on the day of: I did screw up a line. But I went back to the beginning, and read it all over again.

My rabbi was right, of course: Nobody noticed. If anything, the family members who could read Hebrew just assumed that I was supposed to chant that one line in Leviticus twice.

Again: The hardest part of mistakes is learning to let them go.

So as for that missed comma on the note in the gift bags: We’ve got enough time to fix it, but… we aren’t going to. It’s just a missed comma, and this is the first of many, many little details that we’re going to mess up.

The big picture matters far more. Yes, we’ll remember the tiny flubs. But we’re trying to stay focused on giving the rest of our guests a whole night they’ll never forget.

— — —

That drawing is by my soon-to-be father-in-law, Dave. (He’s quite talented!) It’s of downtown Pittsburgh, where we’re having the wedding.

  1. Did you know those chairs you see at every wedding have a name? And did you realize you have to pay more for those fancy chairs, even though they’re kind of uncomfortable? Weddings are weird like that.

How To Explain That Blip In Your Resume.

the Golden Gate Bridge, photo by Denys Nevozhai

I’ve been talking to a lot of recent grads lately, young people who’ve moved to New York and are trying to figure life after college.(1) The market seems to be improving for grads, but it’s still not easy. The best way to get a job is by accumulating a lot of work experience and a big network of friends who can open doors for you — and both of those are things that recent grads usually don’t have yet.

Which is why a lot of these grads have been asking me: Is it OK if I take a job I don’t love because I need the money?

The answer is: Yes, of course!

It’s OK to take the job that isn’t quite what you want — that content marketing job at the law firm; that graphic design job at the big marketing agency; even that job behind the counter at Starbucks — because you need the money. You do have to pay the bills somehow! And know this: Hiring managers were once in your shoes, too. They’ve all taken jobs because they needed to, not because they wanted to.

Here’s the important thing to remember: When you’re writing your résumé, that’s the perfect opportunity to craft your story and to shape all of your experiences into a personal narrative. Same goes for an interview. You can always use it to explain the “big picture” reason why you took a job, like:

– “I loved my boss, and wanted to have her as a mentor.”

– “I wanted to learn more about how to work effectively as part of a big team.”

– “I was trying to launch a new project, and needed a side gig to keep me afloat while I launched.”

Just make sure you’re the one putting your story out there first. With your résumé and your interviews, you can explain why you’ve done the work you’ve done and where all of it is taking you.

I wrote this a few weeks ago about narratives in sports, but it’s also true for you, the recent grad:

“We’re all crafting these narratives, and every bit of work we put in is a chance to flip the script. You can always keep going, and always keep working to rewrite your story.”

Remember: A single job isn’t going to define you forever.

One last thing: Last night, I was watching an episode of “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” with J.B. Smoove, and Jerry Seinfeld told this story about one of his first jobs. It’s too good not to share:

“I used to be a waiter. I was doing stand-up for free at night, and I would work as a waiter from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. I did the lunch rush, and a couple of times, J.B., I walked up to a table, and they looked up at me and said, ‘I saw you on stage last night! I thought those were professional comedians!’”

“And I would just have to go: ‘Well, not yet.’”

Like I said: Everyone has to pay the bills sometimes. Even Jerry Seinfeld.

But what I love most about that story: It’s a reminder that even then, Jerry Seinfeld had a career arc in mind. He wasn’t a waiter. He was always working towards becoming a comedian.

So it’s OK! Take that job that isn’t perfect — just as long as you know where you’re going and how the work you’re doing today helps get you there.

— — —

That photo of 5oo-foot view from above the Golden Gate Bridge comes via photographer Denys Nevozhai and Unsplash.com. 

  1. Way back in 2009, I wrote those three words as, “Life? After college?” And that still seems to ring true for recent grads.

Do It For The Story.

take the leap

A buddy of mine from college got married last weekend. We went to Chicago to celebrate him and his new bride, and to toast good times. We told all of our favorite stories for the thousandth time, and we laughed until the wee hours.

And one phrase of ours from college kept coming up again and again:

“Do it for the story.”

Do it for the story was something we said when we needed a push to try something we knew was going to be hard.

Do it for the story was the motivation to be courageous, even when the odds were long.

Do it for the story was a reason to go for it, just because.

We were a pretty grounded group of guys back in college. 95 percent of the time, we did the reasonable thing.

But there was the 5 percent of us that was a little bit crazy, that was willing to try something maybe that shouldn’t be tried. It was the wild card in each of us, and you never knew when it might come out and make one of us try something unexpected. That 5 percent is the reason I ended up in China covering the Olympics, and the reason I ended up in Biloxi in 2012. It’s the 5 percent that — to quote the immortal words of “Risky Business” — made you say, “What the fuck.”

It’s good to be unreasonable. It’s good to push yourself to do crazy things. When you grow up, you learn that it’s so easy to get caught behind walls of your own design. Sometimes, you need to force yourself outside of your day-to-day and do something big, even if you’re not quite sure why you’re doing it in the first place.

So try something crazy. Do something you’re not supposed to do.

Do it for the story.

———

That photo of skydivers taking the leap comes via a Creative Commons license and Flickr user Laura Hadden.

What Happens After The Rocket Ship Levels Off?

The rocket ship levels off

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I completely agree with Simon Cowell on something.

You remember Simon, of course. He was the loud, controversial judge from “American Idol”, and the reason even I tuned in to see that show’s finales.(1)

Anyway, he said something in an interview with the New York Times last weekend that got me thinking about the way we define failure. He was asked about one of his other shows, “X Factor”, and he said:

“I read a book once about Coke and Pepsi and it was called ‘The Other Guy Blinked.’ And we blinked. We thought 12 million [viewers] was bad. Now, I’m thinking, ‘Christ, if I could launch a show with 12 million today, I’d be a hero.’ But we beat ourselves up so much about it and we changed so many things. The show became unrecognizable. I blame myself, but we made crazy decisions. We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”

That last sentence is the big one. What must it be like to launch a huge TV hit and still feel like a failure?

It makes sense if you think about where he’s coming from. Simon’s first U.S. hit, “American Idol” once drew 38 million viewers for a finale. But then the numbers dropped, and never fully recovered. Here’s what it looked like, according to Billboard:

American Idol ratings by year

Even into it’s thirteenth season, the show was still drawing big numbers for finales. But it wasn’t what it had been a decade earlier.

Keep that chart in mind for a second. Now look at this:

Upworthy before

That’s a chart that Upworthy, one of the fastest-growing publishers of the decade, showed off publicly in 2014 as they grew from zero to nearly 70 million unique visitors.(2)

Now let’s zoom out for a second:

Upworthy after

That’s what it looks like when you rely entirely on another entity for success — in this case, Facebook — and then that business changes they way they do business. Facebook changed their algorithm, and Upworthy went from 70 million uniques to 50 million uniques, and kept dropping. Afraid that they could go from 70 million to nothing just as fast as they’d gone from 0 to 70, Upworthy changed their publishing strategy, and then changed it again. Now they’re doing what a lot of media companies — including BuzzFeed, where I work — are doing: Following the lead of distribution channels and hoping that the Facebooks and Snapchats of the world take us all to profitability. We’ll see how that strategy plays out over the next 3-5 years.

But what I’m most interested in is what happens to the people on the inside when a rocket ship like Upworthy starts to level off. That’s where Simon’s quote comes to mind. Read it again:

“We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”

“American Idol” was a rocket ship, too. It grew from nothing into a national phenomenon. But it didn’t last forever. The numbers dropped, and “Idol” merely became a big and hugely profitable TV show — merely a big and hugely profitable TV show! — not a supernova.

It’s all about perspective, though. What “Idol” built — and “X Factor” did, too — was a huge success, but from the inside, it clearly didn’t feel like that. And when you’re on a rocket ship like “Idol” or Upworthy, or the one I’m still on at BuzzFeed, it’s all about perspective. They’re about understanding that the ride up doesn’t last forever, that leveling off can be a normal course correction, that from where you stand — 12 million viewers, 50 million unique visitors, whatever — you’ve still built something impressive. You might feel like you’re losing ground because you’re not meeting your own expectations, and then you look around and realize where you actually are.

Maybe it’s not the up-up-up ride you thought, but you’ve still reached rarified air.

One last anecdote, from one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Todd Snider. I saw him tell a story once about Hootie and the Blowfish, a band he opened for back in the ‘90s. He talked about how their first album sold 16 million copies. Their second sold 3 million. Their third sold a million. They were a rocket ship that burned out. People called them a failure.

And it’s at this point in the story that Snider said, “Their third album still sold a MILLION copies! Sign me up for that kind of failure!”

It’s worth saying again: After “Idol” started to fail as a show, it still ended up running for 15 years. Simon Cowell launched two more hit shows. Upworthy is one of the biggest publishers in the world. Hootie sold several million albums. Darius Rucker went on to win a Grammy.

Yeah, sign me up for that kind of failure.

———

That photo of a rocket comes via SpaceX and Unsplash.

  1. I still stand by my Ruben Studdard vote.
  2. I’m going to pick on them for a second not because I dislike them — I actually think they’re doing really good work! — but because their last 4 years have been so well documented.

Is It Baggage Or Experience?

Joe Thornton

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the narratives that we construct around our lives, and how they influence the way we see the world.

Point in case: The Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The San Jose Sharks are going to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history — after years of coming up just short. Wrote the San Jose Mercury News this week:

…their 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals came with an air of the surreal. This was Sisyphus getting the boulder up the hill. This was Wile E. Coyote catching The Road Runner.

Two guys on the Sharks — Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — had played a combined 2,767 games, but never made a Finals. And the narrative around them had always been about one thing: Baggage. Any discussion of their playoff success required talking about their many previous playoff failures. This was their fourth trip to the conference finals since ’04 — but they’d never been able to get over the hump.

Then this year, they did.

And suddenly, the narrative’s changed. For a player like Thornton, the media’s now talking about his 150 career playoff games as a sign of experience, not futility. Suddenly, he’s a veteran player who’s made it! The failures that came before were a test of his mettle, not proof that he couldn’t get it done in the clutch!

We’ve been through this before with so many great athletes. LeBron was the superstar who couldn’t win the big one, until he did. (Twice!) Phil Mickelson was the golfer who couldn’t win the big one, until he did. (He’s since won five majors!) The Red Sox couldn’t do it, until they did. (Twice!) The San Francisco Giants didn’t have what it took, until they did. (Three titles in five years!) Alex Ovechkin couldn’t win it all, until… OK, I guess I’m still waiting on that one.(1)

Point is: We’re all crafting these narratives, and every bit of work we put in is a chance to flip the script. You can always keep going, and always keep working to rewrite your story. It’s never too late — not even for a 19-year veteran like Joe Thornton — to breakthrough and change the narrative forever.

———

That photo of Joe Thornton was taken by Flickr user pointnshoot and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

  1. ☹ ☹ ☹

Owning My Own Thing.

running, by Linh Nguyen

I am not old — but working at BuzzFeed sometimes makes me feel old.

Our staff is filled with so many awesome and truly talented young people. There are a lot of staffers in their early 20s. At 28 — almost 29 — I’m probably well above the median age at the company.

And the thing about working with so many young people is that every once in a while, you see someone truly kicking ass and realize: Oh, they’re five years younger than me.

Sometimes, a little bit of jealousy sets in. I’ll wonder: Why wasn’t I doing that when I was their age?

Whenever that happens, I have to remind myself of something I wrote four years ago about that exact phenomenon:

“I get jealous, sometimes, when I see 25 year olds who are way ahead of where I am. I get competitive. How’d that person pull off a book deal at 25? How’d they get a movie done? How’d they make their first million already?

But then I remember that this isn’t a 400-meter race. We’re not all shooting for the same end goal.

We’re all on different paths. We’re all running our own races at our own speeds.

It’s tough to tell where each of us is going now. It’s only with time — a decade, maybe more — that we’ll start to understand where we’ve been going.”

That last sentence really echoes with me now, this idea that it’s only with time that you understand where you’ve been going. If you’d asked me in September 2012 where I was headed, I wouldn’t have mentioned anything about BuzzFeed or newsletters. I thought I was on one path. Four years later, it’s clear I was headed somewhere different — and had no idea how fast I was getting there.

As for BuzzFeed in 2016: I get to work with so many awesome young people. I get to help them make great work, and they get to push me to make better things. We’re all on different paths, but at this very moment, we get to work with each other — and for that, I’m thankful.

And most importantly: I am doing my own thing, and I love it. I have to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing, and keep owning my own thing.

———

That absolutely awesome photo of someone running comes via photographer Linh Nguyen and Unsplash.

How Long Does It Take To Build A Great Reputation? Try 10 Years.

Mizzou football, 2007

An unusual and alarming thing has been happening lately, and I’m only now starting to figure out how to handle it:

College football is making me feel old.

It started about a year ago, when recruits coming to my alma mater, the University of Missouri, started saying things like, “I was a huge fan of Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin growing up,” or “Sean Weatherspoon was my favorite player when I was a kid.”

Those guys played at Mizzou when I was at school. Some of their teammates were in my classes.

If they’re the heroes that today’s 18-year-olds looked up to when they were in elementary school or middle school, that means….

Well, I must getting old.

But it also means another thing, something more about how long it takes a team or a business — or even someone like you or me — to build a reputation.

When I came to Mizzou in the fall of 2005, we weren’t particularly good at football. We’d beaten our biggest rival, Nebraska, just once in the previous 25 years. Mizzou was more famous for our losses than our wins.

But starting the fall of 2005, we started to win — and win a lot. Over the next decade, we’d win two Big 12 North titles, and two SEC East titles. We’d win three January bowl games. We’d have a Heisman trophy finalist. We’d reach no. 1 in the country.

And over the course of that decade, the conversation around Missouri football changed. When I entered as a freshman, nobody knew what “Mizzou” meant. My own grandmother often got confused and thought that I attended Washington University in St. Louis, and not the much larger, much-better-at-football school 120 miles west in Columbia, Mo. (When we hit no. 1 my junior year, she figured out which school I really went to.)

A decade later, I walk around New York in a Mizzou shirt and regularly hear people screaming “MIZ!” from across the road, the same way I see Michigan grads yelling “Go Blue!” when they see Wolverines gear. We even have a bar in the city, and we fill it every Saturday.

A photo posted by Mizzou NYC (@mizzounyc) on


It took a decade of success for Mizzou to switch the conversation. Why? Old timers in the state still think about Mizzou as the hapless team from the ‘90s and early ’00s that couldn’t win big games and could never beat Nebraska. But the younger generation — people like me, or the kids just entering Mizzou now — only know Missouri as a perennial football contender. In the decade we’ve been following Mizzou, we’ve only ever seen success. So why should we expect anything different?

It took an entire generation of success — a full decade of winning — to change the conversation.

And that’s gotten me thinking about the idea of a decade of great work. My first big journalism breakthrough came in the summer of 2008, when I covered the Olympics for the Rocky Mountain News. Which means that I’m two years away from that 10-year mark. In that decade, I think I’ve had enough highs (Stry.us, the RJI fellowship, BuzzFeed, speeches at several conferences) to have built a reputation in the industry. I’m not all the way there yet, but eight years in, I’ve established myself through my work.

Here’s to changing the conversation — and finishing off that decade strong.

———

That photo of Mizzou football in 2007 comes via Flickr, a Creative Commons license, and Jim Ross for EAGLE 102 Sports.

Setting A Reach Goal.

Goal

It’s January, and you’re two weeks into your New Year’s resolution, so let’s talk about goals for a second.

I love New Year’s resolutions. I think they’re a wonderful way to set ambitious goals for the year ahead. And if they’re matched with a change in habits, they can actually lead to some incredible changes in your life.

But most of all, I love when someone sets a New Year’s resolution that’s also a “reach goal.”

What’s a reach goal? It’s any type of goal that can’t be achieved without extraordinary effort. It’s a goal that you set knowing that you may try your hardest — and still come up short.

The difference between an ordinary goal and a reach goal is huge. An ordinary goal might be to say, “I want to write more this year.” But with a reach goal, you’d pledge something bigger: “I want to write 1,000 words a day this year!” The goal is both concrete and ambitious. With a reach goal, you set the bar well beyond your ordinary limits — and then find out how far you can actually go.

Sally and I set a few goals for ourselves this year. We want to bring our lunch to work more often, and we want to dedicate 30 minutes every Sunday to clean the house. Those are goals we can definitely achieve.

But we also set a reach goal for ourselves: Together, we want to run 1,000 combined miles this year.

I like running. But I’ve never run 500 miles in a year. I’m the kind of runner who might run 20 minutes on the treadmill every week, or run a 5k every now and again. In my best year, maybe I’ve run 250 miles. So to run 500 miles, I’m going to have to log some serious miles every single week.

It’s going to be a lot. I don’t know if I’m going to get there. But that’s besides the point: I’ve decided to push myself to do something that I don’t know if I can do, and I’m excited to see how far and how hard I can go.

———

That photo of an actual goal comes via Flickr user Al King and Creative Commons.