Tag Archives: lessons learned

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.

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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.)

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.

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  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.