Tag Archives: lessons learned

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.

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.

Before You Take A Leap, Find Your Anchor.

an actual anchor

It can be scary when you make a big life change, like starting a new job or moving to a new city. When you change something so central to your life, sometimes you struggle to find stable ground to stand on. The changes can feel overwhelming.

But I think there are ways to make a big life change without getting overwhelmed. The secret is having an anchor.

An anchor is any source of stability in your life — a constant that stays with you even as you undergo a big life event. It’s a bridge from one stage of your life to another. An anchor could be something like:

A stable relationship with a S.O.

A job you really like.

Strong personal friendships.

Strong relationships with your family.

It could even be a hobby or activity. If you’ve go to regular yoga classes or volunteer on a weekly basis, that could be a strong anchor for you.

The more anchors you have in your life, the less intimidating a big life change will be. The anchors are there to keep you grounded and make sure you feel connected to your true self, even as you make these life changes.

I’ll use myself as an example here.(1) I have a few anchors in my life:

I’m in a wonderful relationship with my S.O.

I have great friends here in New York.

I have several close family members in the city.

I have a really good job.

So let’s say I decided to make a huge life change and move tomorrow to work at BuzzFeed’s Los Angeles office.(2) I’d still have two strong anchors: The relationship with my S.O., and my job. A lot would be changing: I’d be leaving New York, and the relationships with family and friends I have here. But I’d still have two huge constants to help me throughout the move.

Making huge life changes without those anchors is so hard. I did it when I moved to San Antonio. I was single, I was starting a new job in a new field, and I didn’t have friends or family in the city. And looking back, I was so overwhelmed by the move. It was too much to take on all at once. There wasn’t anything that felt familiar to me, and it affected my day-to-day life.

The next time, a big life change will be easier for me. And it can be less stressful for you, too! If you can find an anchor to keep you grounded throughout the change, it makes a world of difference. It might be the difference between you surviving and thriving through the change, or not.

———

That photo of a boat dropping anchor comes via photographer Woodrow Walden and Unsplash.

  1. I’m not planning anything big! I’m just an example, I promise.
  2. Again, I’m not! It’s just a hypothetical!

The Job I Didn’t Get In New York.

Dan Oshinsky, Director of Newsletters - BuzzFeed

Four years ago, I took a job at BuzzFeed. I didn’t know BuzzFeed would grow into the company it is today. I didn’t know I’d get to do the work I’ve done, or get to work with the team I have. I took a risk in taking the job, and it paid off.

This isn’t the story of how I got the job at BuzzFeed.

It’s the story of the job I nearly got three months earlier — one that would have been a total disaster.

It’s August 2012, and I’m living in Springfield, Missouri. It’s the final month for the Stry.us team in the Ozarks. At the end of the month, we’re all about to be unemployed. I have no idea what I’m doing next, but I know I’m done with Stry.us.

I start applying to jobs. I want to go to New York. I think it’s the next big step for me.

And that’s when I see this story on the Nieman Lab blog about a news organization that owns a dozen papers around the country. They’re opening up an office in NYC that’ll be the central hub for all those papers. It’ll be the news desk coordinating national stories for all their properties, and they need a senior editor who can work with all these papers — and occasionally parachute in with a team to run point on big, national stories.

It’s the job I’ve been training for this entire time.

I apply, and I get an email back four hours later from the editor-in-chief: Let’s talk.

I interview with her, and I nail it. I do a second phone interview, and I nail that, too. I do a third, with a senior advisor to the company. He loves me.

They offer to fly me out to New York to meet in person. It seems like a formality at this point: I’m going to get this job.

I don’t get the job.

I bomb the interview. I don’t know why, but I’m a trainwreck that day. I’m evasive and vague in my answers. They ask me some personal questions that I don’t know how to answer. The interview gets uncomfortable, and then more uncomfortable. And worst of all: The trip home takes forever. It’s a three-hour flight to St. Louis, and then a three-hour drive back to Springfield. For 6+ hours, all I can think about is how I’ve blown the chance at my dream job.

I never hear from the newspaper company in New York again.

And then… three months later, I get the job at BuzzFeed. I don’t know at the time that it’ll change my life, but it does. And two months after that, the newspaper company files for bankruptcy. They close their New York office soon after that. Everyone gets fired.

The day I bombed that interview, I thought I’d blown it. I thought I’d missed my one big change.

I had no idea that I’d just experienced one of the luckiest days of my life.

Had I nailed the interview, I would’ve gotten that job. And five months later, I would’ve been out of work.

Instead, I landed at BuzzFeed, and I got the chance to be a part of building something amazing.

I’m lucky to be lucky, I guess.

———

That photo was taken by Anthony Lindsey, and graciously re-used here with permission of Campaign Monitor.

What’s Your Name Again?

Hello, by Travis Wise

A few weeks ago, I read a Q&A with Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab, and I keep coming back to something he said:

Q: What about lessons you learned in college?

A: A business strategy course in my senior year stands out. I had maintained a 4.0 average all the way through, and I wanted to graduate with a perfect average. It came down to the final exam, and I had spent many hours studying and memorizing formulas to do calculations for the case studies.

The teacher handed out the final exam, and it was on one piece of paper, which really surprised me because I figured it would be longer than that. Once everyone had their paper, he said, “Go ahead and turn it over.” Both sides were blank.

And the professor said, “I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this: What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”

And that had a powerful impact. It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the B I deserved. Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name. I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.

It was just a great reminder of what really matters in life, and that you should never lose sight of people who do the real work.

I love this so much. For one, it’s a wonderful message about being decent to the people you work with. There are a LOT of Dotties in my life, and I need to learn more of their names.

But another thing: Learning these names (and a little about these people) is also good for your career! When I was first working as a stringer covering D.C. sports a decade ago, I noticed something about the best beat reporters: They were usually there a long time before the game, casually chatting up everyone. It wasn’t just the players and coaches — it was the equipment managers, the trainers, the ushers, the elevator guy. They knew everyone’s name. They built relationships with everyone, because they never knew who might open a door for them one day.

We could all be a little friendlier to the Dotties around us.

———

That photo was taken by Travis Wise and is used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.