Tag Archives: lessons learned

Something We Tried (And Loved) In 2017: Wishing More People Happy Birthday!

A few years ago, my friend Leslie’s dad died, and she wrote a wonderful piece about him. This one part of her story really stuck with me: Every year, Leslie’s dad would call family, friends, and co-workers on their birthdays and sing “Happy Birthday”:

“The dude had a goddamn calendar full of people he would call on their birthdays. From what I’ve learned in the past couple of months, it numbered in the hundreds. If he knew your birthday, he would call you on it and sing happy birthday. He had what I would call a church choir voice. Which is to say, not great, but he would belt it out nonetheless. If you picked up, he’d sing your ear off. If you screened, he’d sing it to your voicemail.”

And it wasn’t until after he died that Leslie realized how much of an impact those yearly birthday calls had made on everyone who was on the receiving end:

“In the past three months, I’ve had untold numbers of people approach me and tell me they had messages from my dad on their phones singing them happy birthday. Happy birthday to Mark! Happy birthday to Suzanne! Happy birthday to Margaret! Happy birthday to family and friends and to people I don’t know from Adam!”

I loved the idea that one little gesture could matter so much to so many people. I’m not much for singing loudly, so Sally and I made a resolution to try something new in 2017: Sending birthday cards.

We made a calendar of people we love, we got their addresses, and we started sending cards to them. This year, we’ve sent about 75 cards — next year, I hope, we’ll send more.(1)

This has been a strange, stressful year for all of us, but sitting down and writing a birthday note to friends and family reminded us how lucky we are to have such great people in our lives. No matter what’s happening in the world, we have these relationships, and we’re so grateful for them. And every birthday is a reminder that there are always great reasons to celebrate with the people we love.

Here’s to getting older — and many more years of happy birthdays (and birthday cards) to come.

———

That’s a birthday card from hellosmallworld on Etsy. They make great cards.

  1. Etsy, I’ve learned, is a great place to buy birthday cards. I love stores like HenPenPaperCo, YeaOhGreetings, hellosmallworld, and lafamiliagreen for original cards.

Pay Your Debts.

A few years ago at BuzzFeed, my co-workers on the Product side of the house — the folks that built our website and kept it running — started talking about this idea of “tech debt.”

Here’s a simple way to think about it:(1) At BuzzFeed, we’d built our website on systems that were a few years old. Over time, our team hacked together solutions to build new features and tools using these older systems. These weren’t supposed to be long-term fixes — a lot of these solutions were hacked together.

Almost a decade later, we’d ended up with was a website that — from a coder’s perspective — was like a Jenga tower. We stacked these hacks and workarounds one on top of the other, and eventually, we couldn’t go any further. The building blocks of our site could no longer support it.

By making all these short-term compromises, we’d put ourselves in a tricky position. We couldn’t really move forward with new projects until we’d gone in and fixed the basic infrastructure of our website.

We’d accumulated all of these debts, and we finally faced the realization that we had to pay those debts off. In order to move forward, we first had to tear down and build from the ground up.

So our tech team did. It was challenging, and it took an incredibly smart team the better part of a year to do it. But they did it — and moving forward, with the right systems and structures in place, that team at BuzzFeed is going to be able to do amazing things. They’ve got a strong foundation to build off of.

But there’s more than just tech debt out there. In the first few months at my new job, I’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out what debts we need to pay at The New Yorker. I’ll ask co-workers: What are we doing that drives you crazy? What are you spending too much time on? What could we fix that would change the way you work?

Slowly, we’ve started to identify our debts. We’ve been able to streamline old processes that were broken, and build new processes that will allow us to move quickly. We had process debts (teams using inefficient systems to do work), communication debts (teams struggling to work together towards common goals), and quite a bit of tech debt (teams using outdated or ineffective tools and apps).

It’s going to take us a while to pay off these debts. But by identifying them, and putting together the teams to fix them, we’re making the short-term changes to allow for long-term success.

———

That piggy bank photo was taken by Fabian Blank for Unsplash.

  1. And I’m going to really oversimpify here — I promise that my old colleagues were incredibly bright, thoughtful people, and this doesn’t at all reflect the amount of work, effort, thought, etc. they put into building some amazing products.

My OOO Misadventure.

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A few months ago, I started thinking about ways to handle email while out of the office. I was getting a lot of email while I was on vacation, and I wanted to figure out a way to, A) Reduce the number of emails in my inbox, and B) Make sure that my co-workers weren’t sitting around and waiting forever for a reply.

That’s when I read this story about a company in Germany that auto-deleted emails sent to employees on vacation. It seemed a little intense, but intriguing. Maybe there was a way, I thought, for me to shut off the email spigot on vacation.

So I dug a little deeper. I read about Huffington Post trying a similar email strategy, and other leaders adopting this auto-delete strategy. They all raved about it. Communicate what you’re going to do, they said, and how you can help them when you get back from vacation. And then try it.

So I did. I reminded my team that I’d be on vacation and not checking email. I wrote an out of office reply explaining that I was on vacation, and declaring email bankruptcy. I’d be deleting my entire inbox when I got back, I said. So I asked co-workers to email me again on a specific date — the day I was returning to the office — and promised that I’d be able to help them quickly if they emailed me on that date.

I turned on the out of office reply, and I went on vacation.

And I got feedback pretty quickly: People hated it. They thought I was acting like a jerk.

And honestly? I couldn’t blame them.

Here’s what I believe: What matters most is not what you say — it’s what others hear.

What I thought I was saying was: Please help me maintain my sanity! Email me when I’m back at work, and I can help you then.

What my co-workers heard was: You clearly don’t value my work or my time.

And they were right! My OOO reply came across as rude, and borderline hostile. Instead of pointing people towards someone who could help, I was shutting the door on them entirely. And at a big company, where I was getting emails from people in other offices (and sometimes in other countries), there were a lot of people who were asking for stuff who didn’t really know me. This might have been one of their first interactions with me — and this was how I was treating them?

The “auto-delete” strategy seemed nice in theory, but at a big company, it didn’t work. (I sent a lot of “I’m so sorry” emails afterwards to apologize to co-workers. I probably spent more time apologizing than I would have spent just replying to my normal, post-vacation inbox.)

So I’m doing something different now. Now, the email you get from me says, “I’m out of the office until (this date). If you need to reach me, text or call my cell at (xxx) xxx-xxxx.” Then I list the contact info for colleagues who can help, and I explain how they can be helpful.

Here’s what I like about my new OOO reply: If someone desperately needs my help, they’ll reach out directly. But most people see it and think, “This can wait.” And they do. If not, they can reach out to a co-worker to get the answers they need. It’s an OOO that’s designed to make sure that others can get the help they need as soon as they need it.

As for the emails: Sure, they pile up a little. I have to take an hour on that first Monday back in the office clearing through my inbox. But if my OOO does its job, most of the emails are about issues that were sorted out while I was gone. I get my vacation, and the office keeps moving forward. That’s a win-win.

———

That photo at top, “Email” by Aaron Escobar, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When They Zig, You Should Zag.

I have a rule when it comes to picking new projects: If pretty much everyone is doing something, I try to head the other direction — and as fast as possible.

I like have my own space to experiment in. I like being different. Sometimes, that means I miss out on a new trend, and that’s OK. I’d rather be working on something that’s under the radar, trying to find an opportunity that nobody else sees.

And I love reading stories of people who’ve found opportunities just like that. “Moneyball” is the most famous example, but sports are full of “hidden in plain sight” stories. I found one this week while reading the obit for Frank Broyles, the former head coach at both Missouri and Arkansas. This paragraph stuck out to me:

“One of his strengths was recruiting, and particularly recruiting married athletes. In his first summer at Arkansas, Broyles recruited the newlywed Lance Alworth, a schoolboy All-American from Brookhaven, Miss., after the University of Mississippi had rejected him because of a rule against married players. Alworth went on to a Hall of Fame career as a wide receiver in the National Football League, almost entirely with the San Diego Chargers.

“Broyles had 20 married men on his 1960 squad alone.”

I’d never heard of college teams banning married players, but I find it absolutely fascinating. Broyles saw an opportunity to find talent that no one else wanted, and it eventually helped him win a national championship.

Or here’s one about my favorite baseball team, the Washington Nationals. The Nats have an unusual habit: They love drafting really talented players who are recovering from injury, like Anthony Rendon:

“Rendon, a Houston native, stayed near home for college at Rice, where he hit .371/.510/.679 as a three-year starter, including a .394/.539/.801 line as a sophomore, the year before the NCAA deadened the bats. He went pro after his junior year, and was perhaps the best player in the 2011 draft, the deepest of the past decade, but ankle injuries caused him to drop to Washington at no. 6.”

Rendon — who otherwise would have been the no. 1 pick — was a steal for the Nats. His ankle healed fine, and he made the major leagues two years after being drafted. This year, he’s been one of the best third basemen in baseball, and he’s a dark horse MVP candidate.

And it doesn’t stop there. Pretty much every year, the Nationals draft a talented pitcher who just had Tommy John surgery. Why? Most teams don’t want to put up with the rehab. But with modern medicine, pitchers who undergo Tommy John often come back healthy as ever, and the Nats have been able to acquire talent that nobody else in baseball wants.

When it comes to finding great opportunities, my motto continues to be: Don’t follow the leaders. Instead, ask yourself: What’s something that nobody else is doing? Is it something we should try?

You might find something of real value that nobody else sees.

A Thought For The Graduating Class Of 2017.

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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.

———

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.

So This Is 30.

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When I was in high school, my journalism teacher made us end every news report with “-30-“. Why -30-? Nobody really seemed to know. But if you saw it, that meant you’d reached the end of the story.

So I suppose that for most of my life, I’ve been thinking of 30 as the end.

Which is why it’s funny that today — my 30th birthday — doesn’t feel like much of an ending. My 20s were great to me: Studying abroad in Spain, covering an Olympics in China, graduating college, San Antonio, Biloxi, Columbia again, Springfield, the Stry.us team, the BuzzFeed team, New York, and Sally.

(Most of all, Sally. Seriously, how lucky am I?)

I’ve had an amazing life. Now my 30s are here, and I’m so excited about the decade ahead. This one core belief is as true as ever: We’re all trying to find things we love and people we love, and make time for both. Everything will change — but not that.

Onto the next.

———

That photo’s by the photographer Johannes, and was first published on 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.

———

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.

———

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.

Everyone Has Ideas.

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I have a lot of ideas. They’re not always good ideas — but I always have ideas.

I wrote about my approach to ideas back in 2012:

“The challenge, it turns out, isn’t coming up with good ideas. It’s deciding which of them is worth pursuing and working on.”

In that same post, I laid out 25 ideas I had. A few were pretty good. Some were ideas that I never actually expected to try out, like this one:

TV Dinners That Were On TV — A website featuring recipes that you saw your favorite characters make on TV. Kevin’s mom on ‘The Wonder Years’ and Betty on ‘The Flintstones’ always seemed to be cooking up awesome dishes, and here, we’d try to figure out how to make them.”

Fast forward five years, and I’m scrolling through my feed when this headline pops up:

binging with babish headline

This guy on YouTube had the same idea — but executed on it so much better than I ever could have. His videos are simple in concept, but produced in a way that’s almost hypnotic. They’re really fun to watch.

I’ll confess: The first few times I saw someone launch an idea that I’d also had, it was maddening. Why didn’t I make that? I’d ask myself. Why wasn’t I first?

But as I get older, I realize that what I wrote back in 2012 is still true: The challenge with ideas is deciding which ones to build or produce. As I wrote back then: “Ideas are only worth so much. Execution’s really what matters.”

You can’t make everything. But it is fun to see someone else turn a weird idea into something so fantastic. I’m adding “Binging with Babish” to my YouTube subscriptions — I hope he’ll be cooking up one of those “Flintstones” brontosaurus ribs soon.

———

The day after I published this post, Animal Planet announced that another one of the ideas from that 2012 blog post — a weight loss show for pets — was becoming a reality, too. (These things come in threes, so if someone launches the I’m On Dayquil Gmail plugin next week, please let me know.)