“There are people who build things and people who tear things down. Just remember which side you’re on.” — Sharon Ann Lee
There is a phrase I use a lot. I overuse it. A lot of my friends do, too.
The word is “fail.”
Fail can mean a lot of things. It can mean:
-Go try hard things, and see what works!
-Don’t be afraid to mess up!
-If it doesn’t succeed, that’s okay — it doesn’t mean you’re a failure!
But sometimes, when we just wrap all that in into that one word — fail — we lose a sense of what we’re really trying to say. Sometimes, I’ll find myself telling people that they should be willing to fail, and they think, “Dan doesn’t think I can do it.”
And that’s not it at all! If you’ve got the skill and hustle and the team, you can absolutely pull it off.
So if I’ve told you, “It’s okay to fail” or “Go fail fast,” I’m sorry. I can say it better.
“Me shooting 40% at the foul line is just God’s way to say nobody’s perfect.” —Shaquille O’Neal
A story about my mother:
About five years ago, my mother was asked to serve on the board of directors at my synagogue. They asked her to write a short essay about her favorite moment from Jewish history. They wanted to publish it in the next synagogue newsletter.
Mom’s not much of a writer, but she got into the assignment. She spent a few days writing the essay. She wrote and re-wrote the essay. She kept us updated on her progress.
At the end of the week, she finally had a draft ready. I’m the editor in the family, and so she gave her essay to me.
Like I said: Mom’s not much of a writer, but she worked really hard on this one. And it showed.
Her essay was about the story of the exodus from Egypt, and it was a nice essay.
There was only one problem: My mother had written all about the parting of the Red Sea, and how Noah — not Moses — had been the one to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
“Uh, ma,” I told her. “It would’ve been way easier to get across the water if they’d had Noah and his ark.”
Point is: My mother is a remarkable woman. She’s one of the best networkers I know. She loves to help. And she’s a fantastic project manager.
She just knows how to make stuff happen.
But she also knows her weaknesses, and one of them is writing. She needs an editor — or sometimes two.
What I love is that she’s always willing to ask for help on these things. She’s willing to recognize her weaknesses.
This is where you need to avoid your instincts. This isn’t the time to dish out a job title. You’re not talking to HR. You’ve got Bill Gates next to you!
You’ve been given a tiny window to wow him with your story.
But this situation isn’t just limited to people pitching a company or a product. Every single person needs to figure out their story — and how to pitch it.
So what’s your story? It’s a combination of your work and your passion. We need a little taste of what it is you make/build/do and a lot of why you do it. Your story is the thing that tells us why you’re great, and why we need to pay attention.
I’ve met Sam several times and each time I’ve been at an event with him I’ve heard his opening line, “My name is Sam Jones. I buy dead magazines.” He gets a stare every time. You can’t help but lean forward and want to hear what the next line is. He’s a master. He waits for a brief moment and lets the suspense build. He knows your next line in advance, “Excuse me? You do what?”
When I work with young reporters, I ask them how they’re pitching themselves for jobs. There are thousands of young reporters out there applying to the same small pool of jobs. To get one, you’ve got to stand out.
I encourage reporters to pitch themselves differently. Let everyone else send the standard cover letter. Instead, tell me: What do you do?
I build great communities around stories.
I use data to tell great stories.
I listen, I learn — and then I share with my readers.
Something like that can stand out. And when you brand it across your platforms — on your blog, your Twitter bio, your resume — it really drives the point home.
What you’ll learn is that it’s surprisingly easy to stand out. The masses are all doing the same thing. Even taking a few steps out of the mainstream will get you noticed.
“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.
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. ↩
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.