Tag Archives: lessons learned

The Story That Never Got Told. (or: A Tale of Poor Hustle.)

The Beijing scuba guy

“You get a limited number of chances in life to do something really, really big. Take them.” ― Dharmesh Shah

 
Four years ago, I was in Beijing, reporting from the Olympics for the Rocky Mountain News. It was my first true experience reporting from a foreign country, and it was the Olympics, and the whole thing was pretty surreal.

I was pretty prolific that summer — once the Games began, I was churning out 4-6 blog posts a day. The Games only last two weeks, so I knew I had a limited window of time when the audience cared about what was happening in China. I wrote fast, and I wrote a lot.

There was one story that didn’t end up in the Rocky, though, and it’s my fault that it didn’t.

I’d found a local businessman who taught scuba diving in Beijing. But there was a catch: Beijing’s nowhere near the ocean, and there aren’t many public places to swim in the city. So this man taught his classes in the local aquarium.

It was a damn good story, and I had the photos — like the one above — to match. Best yet, the business owner went to school in Colorado, which gave me a local hook for the Rocky.

But I didn’t want to spend my final couple of days in Beijing writing up a 1,500 word story for the print edition on a scuba diver in China. (1) Instead, I waited — about two weeks. When I finally sent it to my boss at the Rocky, he told me it was too late. Why would readers care about this guy now?

I’ve had stories killed for a number reasons. I’ve had them killed due to bad editors (“Dan, this story on the uncatchable serial robber will be better once the police catch this guy!”) and bad timing (“Sorry, Dan, so and so paper ran a similar piece a year ago.”)

This was the first story that ever died due to a lack of hustle on my end.

It hurt. It wasn’t fun knowing I screwed up a good story because I was too lazy to get my work done on time.

There is a limited window for the work we do. The longer it takes to get the work out into the world, the faster that window closes.

So hustle. Your bosses will appreciate it. Your co-workers and friends will notice it.

And the world will get to see your work. That’s an excellent reward in itself.

  1. A funny aside: I really wanted one more print edition clip from the Rocky. In 2008, having a story in print was still a big deal to me.

How I Learned To Stop My Selfishness And Share Stry.us With Everyone.

“Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on.” ― Wilco

 
Two years ago this month, I officially moved to Biloxi to start Stry.us. In July 2010, it was just me, an apartment, some really expensive photo equipment, and an idea that was way bigger than myself.

A lot of people want to know if I was lonely in Biloxi. I wasn’t. I was so on fire with all the work I was doing that I never much noticed it. But I do remember wanting a team. I so badly wanted others to help me. I needed help. I was in over my head.

And a funny thing happened between Biloxi and now: I stopped wanting help and started looking for ways to share.

The difference has been enormous. What I wanted in Biloxi was selfish: Please, come copy edit this, fix that, do this — and do it all for me! In Biloxi, Stry.us was mine and mine alone. When you did something nice for the project, you were really doing something nice for me.

What I want in Springfield is totally different: I want to share this thing with everyone. I want to bring a community together to build something awesome for all of us. For the Ozarks. For journalism. For communities everywhere that want to learn how to better tell their stories.

When you help out Stry.us, you’re actually helping out everyone associated with the project — our team, our stakeholders, our readers, our friends — and everyone who might one day learn from the project.

At first, Stry.us existed to serve me. Now I exist to serve Stry.us.

See the difference?

There are so many people who own a little piece of Stry.us now, so many people who’ve come on board and helped take this thing far beyond me. I look at where we are right now, and I hardly recognize the Stry.us I launched two years ago.

What we’re working on now is really an incredible thing, and it all started the day I stopped being selfish and learned to share.

This thing is ours, and I’m so very thankful for that.

That gorgeous photo of a sunset over Biloxi via @katiewhite727

We May Look Silly For Trying To Predict The Future. But We’ll Look Like Morons If We Don’t Try To Build It Anyway.

I just finished Michael Eisner’s autobiography, “Work in Progress.” It’s an excellent read, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the final chapter. It’s 1997, and Eisner — CEO of Disney — starts predicting the future of his corporation.

Hindsight makes a book that’s only 15 years old seem like an absolute relic. Eisner offers his predictions for the future, but the stuff that matters most in today’s media — the Internet, Google, streaming video, HDTV — is barely touched upon. He mentions that Disney is expanding on the web, but only by mentioning Go.com.

And if you go to Go.com right now, you’ll see… a web portal that hasn’t been updated in five years.

The point is: We cannot see very far into the future. We are going forward, semi-cluelessly. We have ideas. We have dreams. We have leaders.

We have no idea what happens next. And we have no idea how the things that come next will affect the things we believe in now.

To quote a Florence & the Machine song that’s been in my head for a few weeks now:

A revelation in the light of day
You can’t choose what stays and what fades away

We do not know what is next. We are all out here making it up as we go along.

But future is ours, and we’re the ones who’ll be shaping it, in our own haphazard way. We may look silly for trying to predict the future, but we’ll look like morons if we don’t try to build it anyway — each of us — today.

Thanks to Instagram user @jpcherry for the excellent photo of Tomorrowland.

My Little Brother is Lazy. But What I Can Really Do About It?

Sam O

My little brother is — and I say this with all the love that I can muster — the laziest little shit I know.

I just got off the phone with my mother. She told me that ever since he got back from college, he’s been sleeping in until 2 p.m. every day. She wants to get him tested for mono. She thinks something’s wrong with him.

There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s just 19 years old, and the only difference between him and Garfield the cat is that Garfield sometimes makes his bed.

Sam O, despite that laziness, actually pulled off an amazing internship this summer. It starts Monday. He’s also got a dream job in mind, and that company has offered him the opportunity to do some volunteer work on weekends.

Whether or not Sam O takes advantage of any of this is really up to him.

There’s something I’ve learned over the years, and it’s that no matter the situation, there’s only one way you can really learn something:

Your own way.

You cannot be told to do something. Comments from friends and strangers can spark something in your head, but the only action comes when you decide to take it.

And often, that action only comes when you’ve hit bottom.

I hope Sam O takes advantage of his opportunities this summer. I hope he works hard. I hope he changes his sleeping habits. I hope he decides to get off his lazy ass and join a gym.

I hope all of these things for Sam, but I know that no number of calls or texts or emails will change his habits.

He will do what he wants to do. He will learn when he wants to learn.

It is his road, and the best I can do is to support him and hope that he learns sooner rather than later.

Keep Stabbing. Keep Going. Keep Working.

I remember seeing the band Phoenix in Austin three years ago. It was at the Austin City Limits Festival. It was just an afternoon slot on a Friday — not quite primetime –but a massive crowd showed up. Even the band’s lead singer admitted that day that it was the biggest crowd they’d ever played for.

And it showed. They were very good — Phoenix’s songs are layered and powerful and super dancy — but they weren’t electric. Their music was fantastic, but the band didn’t look quite ready to perform on such a big stage.

Then I saw them a year later in Denver. It wasn’t even the same band. The singer was climbing up scaffolding on the stage and singing from high above his bandmates. At one point, the band just stopped mid-song, their instruments still reverberating, and walked off stage. The crowd — this was at another festival, mind you — started to leave the stage. And then the band rushed right back out and kept playing. The crowd flooded back in, a stampede of people jumping and screaming and generally losing their minds.

It was epic.

Maybe they weren’t ready for the big stage in Austin. Maybe they didn’t know what they were doing yet.

But they went out and played anyway. They started before they were ready, and they found themselves through doing the work, night in and night out.

The same holds true for Florence & the Machine. I saw her open for U2 last summer in Baltimore. She was very good. The crowd knew her music. But there was simply no way she was prepared to play for 60,000 people that night.

Then I saw her on Thursday in New Orleans. She blew the crowd away. She looked completely comfortable on stage. Her banter was good. When she told the crowd to jump, they jumped. When she told every guy in the crowd to grab their girlfriends and put them up on their shoulders, 500 women popped up in the air.

It’s an amazing thing to watch someone find who they are and embrace it, and to watch the crowd embrace it, too. But even the best — even the biggest rock and roll acts in the world — struggle to find themselves at first. I’ve seen it with Phoenix, and I’ve seen it with Florence.

It’s only through doing the work that we find our way.

Like Teller (of Penn and Teller) once said:

Get on stage. A lot. Try stuff. Make your best stab and keep stabbing. If it’s there in your heart, it will eventually find its way out.

Go out today and put yourself into the world. Take a step towards doing the work you really want to do.

Better Passes, Better Catches: How To Live Your Life the Bethesda Magic Way.

The year was 1996. OJ went on trial in California. Michael Johnson ran away from everyone at the Atlanta Games. Garry Kasparov lost to an IBM computer in chess.

And, probably most notable of all: The Bethesda Magic recreational basketball team was formed.

I was one of the original Magic. There are many things I could say about Bethesda Magic basketball. I could tell you that in 1999, one of our players played an entire game in blue jeans. I could tell you that for several years, more players on the team owned Rec Specs than basketball shoes. I could mention that for several seasons running, a player on our team attempted to score on the wrong basket.

I should probably also mention that we were not very good.

It wasn’t until our 15th game as a team — the final game of our second season — that we won a game by anything other than forfeit.

But we ended up playing for 10 seasons. In our final three seasons, we actually won more games than we lost. By the end, we started to actually learn things. We didn’t totally suck.

I remember that decade of rec basketball fondly. Most of all, I remember the lessons that our coach — Coach Dinerstein — taught us. He was not a very good coach, by pretty much any metric through which you measure basketball coaching ability. We all probably knew more about basketball than Coach. But in his own way, he taught us a lot about basketball.

And if I may be bold enough to say: Some of his lessons remain true today.

Master the Fundamentals

If there’s one thing that I’ll always remember about Coach, it’s that he spent more time talking about passing than any coach I’ve ever seen. Our practices were 65 percent passing drills. We practiced bounce passes and chest passes all night long, with Coach walking around yelling, “Throw better passes! Make better catches!” This was rather necessary, because when we started, none of us could pass. I was particularly fond of throwing behind-the-back passes from the high post. The problem was that nobody ever caught them.

So we spent a lot of time practicing our passes and catches. We were determined to be more fundamentally sound than any other team in our league.

And by 12th grade, we were! Nobody threw a bounce pass like the Bethesda Magic. Our passes were crisp, our catches were clean.

Coach knew that great teams start with great teamwork. The best teams share the ball. So that’s what he made us do, every practice for 10 years.

Understanding What’s Important

Of course, there’s a catch to the all-passing, all-the-time practices: We didn’t really practice shooting. So we’d pass it beautifully in games. But then somebody would be open, and we’d yell, “Shoot!,” and that player would be forced to actually heave the ball at the basket. It rarely went in. And that’s kind of an issue in a game where scoring points matters.

Ultimately, you have to know what’s most important in your quest to do the work right. If you’re a small business, it doesn’t matter if you’ve mastered social media and if you’ve got a YouTube video that’s gone viral. If your product stinks, you’re not going to be in business very long.

We were a basketball team that couldn’t shoot, and if you can’t shoot, you can’t win. This was a fairly big hole in our overall basketball strategy.

Whenever I master a new skill, I try to ask myself: How does this change the way I do my work? If it doesn’t bring me a step closer to doing better work, then I need to refocus on different skills.

Keep Things Simple

In about sixth grade, Coach decided we were ready to add set plays to our game plan. We had two plays. Coach decided that when we ran Play no. 1, our point guard would yell out the name of a fruit. When we ran Play no. 2, our point guard would yell out the name of a vegetable.

In games, our point guard was fond of yelling out, “Tomato!,” which typically led to the team running both plays simultaneously.

We didn’t score very often.

There was one team in our league, though, that ran a play well. This was kind of amazing, actually. Sixth graders aren’t typically smart enough to do anything well that requires mass coordination.

This team’s play was called “UConn.” They ran it after every basket they scored. “UConn” was the call to set up their pressure defense.

Here’s how it worked: Their entire team swarmed the ball in the backcourt until our point guard turned it over. Then they took the ball and shot a layup.

It was a stupid play. It was painfully simple. It was basically five guys running at the ball simultaneously. It wouldn’t work on any team with players taller than 5’3”.

But none of us had hit puberty. So it worked. Every. Single. Time.

Simple things can be effective things, too.

 

Remember to Enjoy the Work

We were not very good. And if we had taken ourselves seriously, we wouldn’t have made it past the first season.

But we loved our teammates. We loved playing together. We were happy playing basketball together — even when we didn’t win.

And while other teams were in their huddles, yelling at each other, we were goofing around in ours.

Work should be fun. It can sometimes be stressful, and agonizing, and difficult.

But if it’s never fun, that’s a problem.

We lost more than we won. But nobody ever looked at us after a game and thought that we weren’t enjoying ourselves.

All these years later, my teammates from the Bethesda Magic are still some of my closest friends. We made a hell of a team.

Were we any good? Not really.

But we were everything I want from any team I’m a part of. We had fun. We knew our roles. We played together. We learned a lot.

Although I’m not sure if any of us will ever be totally sure whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable.