Tag Archives: lessons learned

The 10-Year Plan For Overnight Success.

dan-win

“Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” — Morgan Missen

 
10 years ago this summer, I started my first internship in journalism. I was 16. That summer, I got an article published in the A section of The Boston Globe, and I thought: This journalism thing is going to be easy. I thought I was going to be a very big deal.

Five years ago this summer, I went to China to cover the Beijing Olympics for the Rocky Mountain News. I was in China, reporting on the biggest sporting event in the world. I was doing good reporting, and my bosses were happy with me. I was convinced: I was going to be a very big deal.

And now it’s five years later, and… well, the words “big deal” probably don’t apply just yet. I’m really happy with where I am in journalism. Thrilled, actually.

But this isn’t what I thought it would be. I had visions of reporting, of telling big feature stories that won big awards, of traveling to tell stories that could change lives. I had huge ambition, and no reason to doubt that everything I wanted would come soon.

I never thought about the work. There was no concept that it was going to take work and time and screw-ups to get somewhere good. Everything came easy: the reporting, the writing, the opportunities. Stuff just seemed to work out.

But I ended up in a pretty great place anyway. I’ve learned about the work. I’ve had leaps forward, and I’ve taken steps back. I have screwed up a lot, and I’m better for it.

Somewhere down the road, I might even get good at whatever it is that I do. I’m 26 now, and I think I’m getting closer. Not close — but definitely closer.

Every once in a while, someone tells me how far along I am. They say I’m doing well — really well for someone this young. They talk about how quickly success has come for me.

And not too far off — maybe a few years down the road, even — there’ll be more of them. They’ll talk about how fast it’s all happened for me. The words “overnight success” might even be used.

And only I will know: I’ll have been an overnight success more than a decade in the making.

Say It Now.

“Cause this is what you’ve waited for.” — Glen Hansard

When I was a kid, I was really shy about approaching people. An interview with a source, or just saying hello — I was always slow to make a move.

And at some point, I just got tired of dawdling. Waiting was exhausting.

I learned:

If there’s a goal that matters to you, starting talking about it now.

If there’s someone who matters to you, go tell them now.

If there’s work that matters to you, start doing something about it now.

Waiting doesn’t do anything for you. Get going, and start now.

You Are Not A Phony.

“It’s all going to be okay.” — Rick Webb

 
There is a certain point in your life when you realize that you don’t know anything.

Up until that point, you thought you knew what was up. You thought you’d experienced heartbreak. You thought you’d experienced pain.

And then comes this big breakthrough, and you realize, you don’t know jack. You’re just starting your life, and you’re starting from zero, and everyone else seems to know more than you do.

You feel like a fraud, and a phony. You feel like you don’t have anything to offer this world.

And there’s that expression you’ve heard: Fake it ’til you make it. That’s almost true.

Because there’s a second realization that comes a little later: Nobody else knows anything, either.

Everyone, turns out, is kinda faking it. Nobody is just born an astrophysicist or a banker. (And nobody is born or a social media expert.) We mold ourselves into these people. We see what others are doing, we think about what we like to do, and we make ourselves into the people we want to be.

But we are all just making this up — and figuring this out — as we go along. All of us.

And once you realize that, you don’t feel like a phony. You don’t know anything, but hell, neither does anybody else. We’re all just trying to make it work in this world.

So just do good work and surround yourself with good people, and you’ll be okay. It’s normal to feel like you don’t know anything.

We all feel that way, and we’re all in this thing together.

What Really Matters.

“To practice courage and compassion is to look at life and the people around us, and to say, ‘I’m all in.'” — Brené Brown

 
What really matters in this life?

People. That’s it.

Get good people in your life. People who lift you up. People who challenge you. People who help make you you.

People matter.

Money, anger, jealousy, things — the rest of it is just filler.

Find good people, and you’ll understand what makes this life all it can be.

What I Really Mean When I Say ‘Fail.’

Don't Stop Believin'

“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.

This year, be willing to do difficult things. Be willing to go on adventures where you don’t know the outcome. Be willing to persevere.

Most of all: Be willing to do great work.

Yes, some of the work won’t live up to your standards. Yes, yes, some of the work will take you directions you didn’t intend.

What matters is you and your work, and that you keep going.

The only true failure comes when you decide that the work isn’t worth it anymore.

Everything else is just a stop along the way.

Perspective Matters.

“When you look at the Moon, you think, ‘I’m really small. What are my problems?’ It sets things into perspective. We should all look at the Moon a bit more often.” — Alain de Botton

 
When I lived in Springfield, MO, I occasionally had to fly other places for work. Getting flights out of the Ozarks isn’t always easy, and it’s rarely cheap.

So twice this summer, I flew instead out of St. Louis. That airport is 227 miles away from where I lived in Springfield.

I am writing this blog post while riding a bus from New York to DC, and I am shocked at how fast this drive is going. I seem to remember it taking longer.

But now I’m checking the length of the trip on Google. The total distance? 225 miles.

So here’s a thought: In Missouri, I’d drive all that way to get on a plane. But if I decided to book a flight out of NYC — and I drove from DC to fly out — I’d be considered crazy. Why is that?

We all like to think of ourselves as creatures with steadfast principles, but the truth is, we’re constantly making decisions based on place, time and circumstance. Perspective matters.

In Missouri, when booking flights, price mattered most to me. In DC, I’ve got plenty of cheap options, so I shift to a new priority: convenience.

The same holds grow for the decisions we make during the course of our work. What matters most in one situation might mean less in another.

There are few decisions in this world that we will make every time, regards of circumstance. There are few easy calls.

Where you are and what you’re doing matters. We’re changing, and our work is changing with it.

There’s no need to fight it. Make the best decisions you can with the information you have in the moment you’re in — and then move on.

Photo of feet via @ishootiphone.

The Story About My Mother and Moses.

“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.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We all need it.

Sometimes, we’re just too stubborn or too vain to ask for it.

But we can’t be. Not when we’ve got work this important to do.

We can always use help to get it right.

What Would You Say You Do Here?

“Life. It’s the stories you tell.” — Eric Garland

 
There’s a thing that any entrepreneur needs to learn how to do in his/her career — if he/she wants to be a successful entrepreneur, that is.

Make the pitch.

You’re at a conference. You’re at an event. You find yourself seated next to Bill Gates on an airplane.

You’ve been working on something. Maybe it’s a business. Maybe it’s your career.

You have a really short window of time to make an impression, because here comes a big question:

“What would you say you do here?”

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.

Take Sam Jones of Formation Media. Here’s his story:

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?”

And once he’s hooked you, he gets into the story, explaining how he does what he does and who he works with.

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.

Then it’s just a matter of doing the work to establish yourself as someone truly different.

If you get on that plane with Bill Gates, here’s all I ask: Don’t tell him your job title. Tell him what you’re working on. Tell him why you’re passionate about it.

Tell him a great story.

It won’t be hard to do. After all, it’s your story.

Success Is….

“Success is never owned, it’s only rented; and whether you win or lose, the rent is still due every day.” — Rory Vaden

 
Success isn’t an easy thing to define. It is — at best — elusive. You set a goal, and then when you get there, you find that the goalposts have moved. Your definition of it has changed.

Still, I’m finding on a day-to-day basis that there are ways to measure success — and they’re not quite what you might expect.

Success is…

Taking the first step.

…Getting to unexpected places and knowing how to find your way out.

…That smile when you mention what you do.

…Surprising yourself with answers you didn’t know you knew and lessons you didn’t realize you’d learned.

…Being willing to do work every day.

Finding your focus.

Defining your greatness.

…A to-do list that’s been finished off and loaded up again for the next day.

…Loving something and giving everything to it.

…Staying in over your head without fear of eventually going under.

Finishing what you start.

Most of all, success is often unexpected — even when you’ve been chasing it all along.

That gold medal at the top comes via @johnphotography.

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.