Tag Archives: lessons learned

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 9.30.33 PM

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.)

Ask For A Little More.

salary negotiations

Last week, I wrote about a big mistake I made when I was first interviewing at BuzzFeed: I didn’t talk to colleagues and mentors about the role, so I incorrectly estimated the value of the job. In the end, I accepted an offer for less money than I should have.

And a few days after writing that post, I realized that I left a key part of the negotiating process out. So let’s discuss it here:

Let’s say you’re about to get the offer. You’ve talked to your network. You’ve figured out what you want to ask for. You’ve done some research online for salary ranges. You’ve asked for your number, and you’ve gotten the offer.

You should go back and ask for a little more.

That HR lead you’re dealing with? They’ve been authorized to give you more money already. It’s probably not a ton of money — depending on the size of the offer, it might be anywhere from 5-10% more. But if you ask for a little more, you’re likely to get it.

How do you actually approach that conversation? You could try an approach like this:

“I’m really excited to work here, and I know that I will bring a lot of value. I appreciate the offer at $58,000, but was really expecting to be in the $65,000 range based on my experience, drive and performance. Can we look at a salary of $65,000 for this position?”

Or:

“I’ve done some research and I see the salary range for comparable positions is $45,000 to $55,000. I think what would be fair for me is $50,000.”

Or:

“I realize you have carefully considered how much you think this job is worth. As we discussed in our interview, I believe I can do this job [more profitably, more efficiently, more quickly, more effectively] by doing [such and such]. For these reasons, I believe my contribution on this job would be worth between $X-$Y in compensation…. Are you open to discussing this?”

Several of my co-workers even referenced Sheryl Sandberg in their negotiations, and got more money.

Yes, it can feel a little awkward asking for more. But they’re almost certainly not going to pull an offer because you asked, and in most cases, they’ve already built in a little wiggle room to offer you more. So go back and ask.

And if they genuinely can’t offer you more: Ask for something else! Ask for more vacation days. If the company offers stock options, ask for more stock. You can even ask to do your next salary review on an advanced timeline. At BuzzFeed, I negotiated my first review 6 months into the job — and ended up getting a five-figure salary bump at that mid-year review.

Ask for a little more. If you don’t, you’re leaving money on the table.

———

That drawing at top is called the “Payment of Salaries to the Night Watchmen in the Camera del Comune of Siena, anonymous, 1440 – 1460” by anonymous. It’s licensed under CC0 1.0.

Talk To Your Friends.

“Two men in Conversation”

We’re interviewing candidates for a new member of my team right now — exciting, I know! And that’s gotten me thinking about what I wish I knew when I was on the other side of the table, trying to get that offer.

I’ve written before about things recent grads should be doing to get an offer:

Let’s add another to this list: Utilizing your network of peers.

When I was interviewing at BuzzFeed, I was wading into brand new territory. I’d never worked at a start-up like that before. I didn’t have a good sense of how much they’d pay, what my hours would be like, or whether or not their offer of stock options was something I should take seriously.(1)

I’d made this mistake once before: In the final months of my senior year at Mizzou, I’d been offered the chance to run a blog network, and I turned out it down without talking to my network. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized the size of the opportunity I’d refused. As I wrote back in 2012:

What I’ve learned since is the importance of a really good conversation. You need people who can advise you, guide you and — most importantly — ask the kind of questions that will help lead to you the right answers. When you have an opportunity, talk about it with smart people. It’s amazing how a good conversation can really open your eyes to your full potential.

I made a similar mistake with BuzzFeed. I talked mostly to my family during the interview process, and I accepted BuzzFeed’s offer. But I ended up accepting an offer for less than I was worth.

What happened? I didn’t utilize my network correctly. I should have also been talking to:

1) Colleagues a few years older than me — They could have told me more about what to expect from a growing company like this, and helped me understand how to approach a difficult salary conversation.

2) Peers my age — They could have told me more about what they were making doing similar jobs in the same city, and made sure I understood how much I really needed to make to live in New York.(2) That would have helped me set a salary floor for the negotiations.

Why didn’t I talk to my network? Honestly, I was just a little nervous about bothering people. I was worried that it might sound like bragging if I told them about the exciting new offer I had on the table. I was scared that they wouldn’t want to open up about their personal experiences.

I was wrong on all counts.

Five years later, let me offer this simple advice: You should always ask for help. Utilize every resource you have to make sure you get the best offer at the right company.

This is your career. You should never be afraid to ask for the help you need to get it right.

———

That drawing at top is called “Two men in Conversation” by Hans Schliessmann (German, Mainz 1892–1920 Vienna). It’s part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, and is licensed under C0 1.0.

———

  1. Looking back, I definitely should have.
  2. More than I ever would have guessed!

Ask, Listen, Learn, Decide. (The Tevye Theory Of Leadership.)

Fiddler

Can we talk about “Fiddler on the Roof” for a second?

I love “Fiddler.” I love the music, and I love the story.(1) And as I grow into a leadership role at my office, I’ve been thinking a lot about the main character of Tevye, and how his role in “Fiddler” has partly inspired the way I try to make decisions at work.

If you’ve never seen “Fiddler,” here’s the 15-second version: It’s the story of a humble milkman (Tevye), trying to lead his family and his Jewish community through a period of huge upheaval in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Over the course of the story, Tevye’s homeland rejects him for his religious beliefs; his daughters grow older and marry, but not to the men he’d once envisioned for them; and his family is uprooted from their home. It’s a fascinating — and heartbreaking — story.(2)

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about Tevye’s role in “Fiddler” story — specifically, the way Tevye adapts to the realignments happening around him. As his world changes, Tevye deals with every new issue by moving through the same four steps:

1) Ask — Tevye asks a lot of questions, seeking to understand the “why” behind changes that affect him.

2) Listen — He listens carefully to what the people he trusts most (his family, his fellow villagers, even some Russian officials) tell him.

3) Learn — He’s receptive to a variety of viewpoints, and willing to accept ideas that aren’t his own. He challenges himself to see things through other people’s eyes.

4) Decide — He tries to make the best decisions he can with the information he’s been given.

And by using the same method for every major change — ask, listen, learn, decide — Tevye consistently makes good decisions. He surrounds himself with people who support him, but who are also willing to challenge him. And Tevye has the humility to understand that by listening to those perspectives, he can push himself towards the best possible decision. In his family, the decisions are always ultimately his, but Tevye never makes a decision without going through that decision-making process first.

All of this matters when you’re making decisions as a leader in your workplace. You have to surround yourself with smart people who are willing to confront you with hard truths. On a team, dissent and disagreement can be a good thing — as long as you’re willing to recognize that you don’t have all the answers. Together, the team can always get to a better solution than you will alone.

The next time you watch “Fiddler,” watch it with Tevye’s process in mind. I think you’ll be impressed at how such a humble character can show such wisdom as a leader.

———

That photo of a “Fiddler” playbill was taken by Deb Nystrom and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

  1. I especially love the Lin-Manuel Miranda version of “To Life”, but that’s for another day.
  2. For Jewish families like mine, watching “Fiddler” can feel like watching a biography of our ancestors.

One Thing I’m Trying To Get Better At.

more ladders

When I was younger, I was a bit of a know-it-all. In any situation, I almost always thought I had the right answers.

But as I get older, I’m learning to quiet that voice that jumps to a conclusion right away.

There’s a concept they teach at my office, called the Ladder of Inference. It says that any time we get a new piece of data about a situation, we start thinking. From that piece of data, we make assumptions. From those assumptions, we draw conclusions. And from there, we take action. All of us are sometimes guilty of moving up that ladder — from data to action — before we truly understand the big picture of what’s happening.

the ladder of inference

But there’s a way to keep yourself from moving up the ladder too fast, and it’s simple:

Ask more questions.

Before you start drawing conclusions and moving into action, ask lots of questions. Be curious! Talk to your team, and see if you can learn as much as possible about a situation before you move. Often, you’ll uncover something new that will change the way you approach a problem.

I’m trying to get better at this every day. I’m still not there yet. I have my biases and my beliefs, and when I’m facing a familiar-sounding problem, they can be tough to shake. But when I ask good questions and seek to learn first and act later, I find that I make far better decisions for myself and my team.

———

The photo of a ladder at top comes via photographer Jorge Mallo and Unsplash, and the ladder graphic comes via this Huffington Post article.

Nobody’s Going To Stop You.

Turner Field

There’s a fantastic story on Deadspin this week titled,  “I Covered The Braves For A Newspaper That Didn’t Exist.” It’s the story of how a real estate broker from Atlanta realized that he could get a press pass to cover his favorite baseball team by inventing a fake newspaper and becoming its one and only “employee.”

What I love most is this realization the author has about getting onto the field during the game. He writes:

“I was a Braves fan, and so I wanted to be in the Braves’ dugout, on the first-base side. Emboldened, I walked around behind the home-plate umpire while the pitcher threw warm-up tosses and simply walked into the home dugout and to the other camera well. As far as strategies go, ‘walk until someone stops you’ remains undefeated.”

And he’s not wrong. From my years covering sports, I can tell you that you can get away with just about anything at a sporting event as long as you:

A) Look like you know what you’re doing, and
B) Nobody stops you.

I’ve watched rain delays from the dugout, and snuck into stadiums when I wasn’t allowed. If no one else is going to stop you, why should you?

And it turns out that the same philosophy applies to pretty much anything you do. Here’s a lesson from work: A few years ago, we started aggressively promoting newsletters at the bottom of most posts on BuzzFeed.com. There wasn’t a meeting where a bunch of higher-ups agreed that this was the right strategy. My team decided that we should try it. We told our boss on the editorial side, and one on the product side, and then… just started doing it. We figured we’d do it until someone stopped us.

That lasted almost two years.

We had so much success with those boxes that other teams at BuzzFeed decided they wanted access to that space at the bottom of the page. Eventually, we made some rules governing that promo space, and my team is happy to play by the new guidelines.

But the minute we see the next opening — a space where we can try something without a lot of restrictions, an opportunity where another team says, “Sure, that’s OK with us!” — we’re going to take advantage. The rule remains the same: Just start moving until somebody says you have to stop.

———

That’s a photo I took at Atlanta’s Turner Field back in 2010.

Do One Thing Really Well.

that is a photo of me about to eat all the pizza

Last month, on a road trip back from New England, I had the best pizza of my entire life.

It was at a place called Sally Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut, a restaurant that’s been there since 1938. The pizza was incredible. Everything they did — the crust, the toppings, the sauce — was perfect. Right now, even just thinking about that pizza, I’m trying to figure out if there’s time for me to get on a train and make it to New Haven before Sally’s closes tonight.

Like I said: Their pizza was unbelievably good.

Here’s my favorite part of the Sally’s experience, though: The menu. This is what their entire menu looks like:

the Sally's meu

You’ll notice something about that menu: Sally’s does not sell the usual Italian fare. They don’t sell salads, or mozzarella sticks, or calzones, or pasta, or any sort of side dishes. They sell pizza, and drinks to go alongside pizza, and nothing else. That’s the way they’ve done it since 1938.

Turns out you can stay in business for 78 years selling only one thing if that one thing is that good.

There’s something to be learned from a place like Sally’s. When I was coming out of college, my skill set was like the menu at a New York diner: I did a little of everything, but nothing particularly well. I had written for print, blogged, edited video and audio, and even gotten into photography. I was OK at everything.

When I tried to figure out the first step in my career, I found myself stuck. I could do a lot of things, but I wasn’t sure what one thing to focus on. I didn’t seem fully qualified for anything.

So for that first job, I applied to everything — and I mean everything.

I applied to jobs as a reporter and editor. I applied to jobs on the radio. I even applied to a job as one of CNN’s new backpack journalists, despite the fact that I’d never been on air.(1) I didn’t hear back from anyone, because hiring managers could tell that my experience was a mile wide and an inch deep.

If I could go back, I’d tell myself to focus a little more in college. Yes, it’s good to be well-rounded, but it’s even better to have one killer skill that people can’t ignore.(2)

I’d tell myself: You can always improve your skill set later, and you can always move from one field to another. But especially for that first job, having a specialty sets you apart.

When it comes to careers, we could all be more like Sally’s Apizza: Do one thing, and it really well.

———

That is a photo of me about to eat all the pizza at Sally’s. (Two of us ate enough pizza for about 6 people, and I’m not embarrassed by that at all.)

  1. A fun fact: I applied to that CNN job in every single bureau they had, which meant I applied for the same job about six different times in six different cities. I didn’t realize one HR department handled everything, and they grew increasingly more annoyed with me as my applications kept rolling in. Whoops!
  2. Maybe it’s even connected to whatever weird/fun thing you make on the side!

Your Fuckup Probably Isn’t A Big Deal.

7892591408_db8bc41f58

In 2012, I wrote a blog post on this very site that asked a rather uplifting question: “How long are you willing to suck?” In it, I suggested that if you were going to get really good at anything, you were going to suck at it for a very long time first. It really does take a long time to master a skill. The people who do eventually get good at something are the ones who keep working to get better.

And today, I’d like to add on a corollary to that theory: As you work to get better at something, you’re going to make a tiny thousand fuckups. They’ll probably feel like a big deal at the time, but here’s the thing: They really aren’t.

Here’s a story:

I was 15 years old, and I was covering my first Washington Redskins game as a credentialed reporter. I got to sit in the press box with the other reporters, and I got to interview players after the game. I was very nervous and very excited to be there.

My first game was a meaningless preseason game. My job was pretty simple: At the start of every quarter and at the end of every half, I called this company’s central office and told a guy what the score of the game was. After every scoring play, I called that guy with an updated score. After the game, I called that guy and gave him a few quotes from the locker room. Then they’d send out game updates based on my updates.

That was it. It was a very, very easy job. It required me to watch football for money(1), but without actually doing any real work. I didn’t have to write a game story when the game was over, and I didn’t have to go on air. I just had to watch football, talk to a football player or two afterwards, and make a dozen phone calls.

I remember my first locker room experience. I’d gone to RadioShack to buy a brand new tape recorder — literally, it recorded audio on tiny 1-inch tapes.(2) I remember walking into the locker room and noticing the way the room was laid out, each group of players in their particular corner. I remember walking over to Champ Bailey and Chris Samuels, both Pro Bowlers, to ask questions.

And I remember this most of all: Getting back to my car after the game, pressing play to listen to the interviews I’d done, and hearing…. silence. I remember looking at my tape recorder, and realizing that I’d accidentally pressed the play button, not the “REC” button to record. I hadn’t recorded a single second of my interviews.

I felt like the biggest fuckup in the world. My first time in the locker room, and I didn’t do my job correctly.

And since, I’ve said and done the wrong thing so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve reported on big stories and then spelled a key source’s name wrong — in the print edition. I’ve sent the wrong email to huge lists of people.

I’ve stumbled, blundered, and fucked up over and over again.

And in each new skill I learn, I’ll keep fucking up! That’s part of the process of learning. You try stuff, you fuck up, you learn, you get better. Those fuckups are always little things that can be corrected and learned from. As long as you keep learning and working to get better, you’ll come to realize that your fuckups aren’t a big deal. They’re teachable moments, that’s all.

———

That photo of an old-school tape recorder comes via Orin Zebest of Flickr and a Creative Commons issue.

  1. They paid me $35 per game. $35! To watch football! It was a dream job for a 15-year-old.
  2. The more I look back, 2002 feels surprisingly like something out of “The Wonder Years.”

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.