“On your very best day at work — the day you come home and think you have the best job in the world — what did you do that day?”
I’d have done two things:
1) I’d have a great conversation with a co-worker. — Every one of my best days involves a great conversation. Some of those conversations help a co-worker find a way to get past the roadblocks that are keeping them from their best work. When you help someone find a solution like that, it’s an AMAZING feeling. I don’t always have the answers, but on the rare day I do… that’s an awesome day.
Other times, I’ll have a conversation that gives a co-worker the chance to vent about their problems to a sympathetic ear. I don’t always have much more to say than “I’m sorry” or “That sucks.” But just being there to listen is often enough to help them — and help make the workplace a little better that day.
2) I’d launch something. — I love to launch new projects. I’ve launched big projects at BuzzFeed and smallprojectsonmyown. Some have grown into big things, and many more have not. But I love the feeling of launching new stuff. I’ve read interviews with stand-up comedians where they say they’re obsessed with the sound of laughter; I’m obsessed with the feeling you get when you put new work out into the world and get to see how the world reacts. I love coming up with an idea, finding a team, and sharing it with others. And on a great day, I’d get to launch something new.
So that’s what I would do. What would you?
That’s a photo I took eight years ago off the coast of Spain. It was a pretty great sunrise, and a pretty good day.
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.
Last summer, I asked my team to start doing a very simple thing: Every Monday, I wanted them to send an email to a co-worker who’d done a particularly good job that week. And the work didn’t have to be related to our team. If a co-worker in LA made an awesome video, they could send an email to say, “I loved your video! Nice job!” If someone in the London office wrote a great post, they could say, “Great work on that post! Congrats!”
The mission was to be friendlier as a team. But the goal was bigger than that.
When I started at BuzzFeed, we had 175 employees and two offices. Now we’re over 1,250 employees (give or take a few) in more than a dozen offices worldwide. My team works with teams in New York, LA, London, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, and Sydney on newsletters. This year, we’ll work with even more.
And it’s hard working with new teams. They don’t always know us or know our work.
The one thing we can control is our relationships with these teams. If we’ve got an established relationship with a team, that often paves the way for us to work together on a project.
Hence these weekly “Congrats!” emails. They’re often 1-3 sentences long. They exist entirely for us to drop a line out to another team or another office and say hi, and let them know that we’d seen their work and loved it. It’s with little emails like those that we’ve been able to establish relationships across a big company. And this year is the year we try to build on those relationships — and build great work from them.
It takes more than a quick email to establish a relationship. But it’s a start. In the long run, it helps put us top-of-mind when other teams are deciding what teams to work with — which is huge — and it might open doors for us. The emails don’t take much time — literally, a minute or two every week. And the best part: Even if they don’t lead to work, they still make our workplace a little bit friendlier.
Which makes me wonder: Why doesn’t everyone send an email like that on a regular basis?
“The best bosses share a common characteristic: they are encouragers. It’s easy to be an ass-kicker, to find holes in someone’s professional ability, but good bosses see a flicker of something and just let it barge out the front door.”
Two parts of that quote really spoke to me. The first was the “flicker of something.” In my career, I’ve had a few dozen of those ideas. I’ve had some big, crazy ideas, and I’ve written my fair share of memos trying to prove that my ideas could become a piece of great work. Many of my ideas were outlandish and were justifiably ignored. A handful were too good to ignore. But then there’s this strange middle ground of ideas: ideas that with the right team and a bit of work could become something great, but that could also be dismissed outright.
Which is where the type of boss comes in — because they’ll be the ones that decide which types of work get done. Like Gay wrote, some bosses are “encouragers.” To that, I’ll add the (obvious) second category: “discouragers.”
Encouragers tend to react with support to your ideas. When you’ve got a great idea, they’ll get the resources, talent, and money to make those ideas into great work. But when they hear a half-baked idea, they’ll give you the space and time to turn it into a really good idea. They’ll ask questions to try to draw out the idea. They’ll suggest that you talk with co-workers who might be able to help the idea along, or they’ll pass along a good article or book that might get the idea moving. They’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Encouragers try to turn a decent idea into a great idea, and a great idea into great work. When you try something and fail, encouragers back you up, share the blame, and don’t let it affect future work.
Discouragers tend to react with skepticism to your ideas. They’ll generally get behind your great ideas, but when it comes to anything less, they’ll try to pick holes in your idea. They’re critics. They’ll ask questions that are intended to find the faults in your pitch. Whatever your idea, you’ll have to prove it and maybe even debate it. You will not get the benefit of the doubt. Every idea has to stand on its own. Discouragers hear a half-baked idea and work to keep it from becoming a fully-baked flop. When you try something and fail, you will take the blame.
I think every boss needs be a bit of an encourager and a discourager — the perfect mix is probably 80/20, with a heavy lean towards encouragement. There certainly are times when it’s important to set boundaries and to say “no.” And when an encourager says “no,” that comes with some credibility, because “no” isn’t their default setting.
In general, I prefer to work with encouragers. When you’ve got a “C+” idea, it’s nice to know that you have a boss and a team that’ll work to turn it into an “A” idea. Working with a discourager is harder. It can feel like you have to reestablish trust with your boss every single day. Sometimes, you shy away pitching anything but your absolute best because you’re afraid of the debate that might come.
With encouragers vs. discouragers, it’s not just about positivity vs. negativity. It’s about support vs. discouragement. It’s about knowing that you have a team behind you, and that you don’t need to prove and reprove yourself.
Jason Gay’s not wrong: The best bosses are encouragers.
That photo of horses traveling together comes via Unsplash and photographer Susan Yin. There’s a metaphor there somewhere about teams traveling together, maybe? (OK, that’s a stretch. But you get the idea.)
BuzzFeed’s grown a ton since I started in December 2012 — not just in prestige or influence or monthly UVs, but also in raw size. We had about 175 staffers in New York when I started. Now, we’re so big that we take up two different offices — one across the street from the other.
And we’ve seen a few unexpected side effects of that growth. Here’s one: We don’t have nearly as much space in our canteen to eat lunch in anymore.
When I started, I regularly ate lunch with co-workers from across the company. We talked about what we were working on, and interesting ideas and projects often sprung from those lunches. But as we grew, and as space became as issue, I started eating more and more lunches at my desk. Eventually, it became my daily routine.
And because I started doing the Sad Desk Lunch, everyone on my team started doing it, too.
But a few weeks ago, I noticed one team at BuzzFeed that was still actively eating together — our team focused on content distribution. They’re run by Summer, who happens to be one of our best (and friendliest) managers. I noticed them eating lunch, enjoying conversation with one another, and I realized: My team needed to follow suit.
So on the newsletter team, we’ve made a new rule: On Mondays and Wednesdays, we grab lunch, head to the canteen, and eat together for 20 minutes. It’s a time to bond as a team, and it’s an opportunity to talk about work in an informal setting. Sometimes, you need to get buy-in from team members through a formal meeting or an emailed request. But other times, over a sandwich, you can talk about an idea and actually set some work in motion, and that’s also great! Some of our best ideas — our Dude A Day newsletter, for instance — have come out of those informal lunches.
Collaboration, communication, and a sense of camaraderie. They’re all wonderful things that have come out of a simple act: Eating lunch together.
If you’re interviewing for a job on my team, be ready to answer this question: What tools or apps do you use to work?
When I’m hiring, I’m looking for people who are going to be able to work well with my team. If a candidate has the right work habits already, I’m confident that we can teach them the skills and give them the confidence to do great work. So that’s where my question about tools comes in — because the tools you use to work secretly reveal a lot about your work personality.
◦ People who save lots of links with an app like Evernote, Pinterest, or Delicious usually have lots of big ideas.
◦ People who swear by a calendar app like Google Cal or Sunrise are often very punctual.
◦ People who love an inbox app (Boomerang, Sanebox, Rapportive, Mailbox, etc) are almost always super organized.
This question isn’t everything — I always follow up with more questions about why that person loves an app so much, and what they use it for. But it’s a great way to dig into the mind of a candidate and catch a glimpse of how they work, and that usually gives me a good idea of whether or not they’d be a good fit for my team.
Stand in my shoes for a second. You’re standing on a hill above the Pacific, maybe an hour north of San Francisco. You kayaked here from a bay, across unexpectedly choppy water. Your arms are sore. You set up camp on the beach, and then you start hiking up this hill. You’re not sure how far away the Pacific is, but it’s there, you think, somewhere beyond the ridge. The hill rises straight up out of the bay. You go, up and up. At the top of the ridge is a fence, and you climb that. Beyond is what looks like miles and miles of nothing. Clouds, perhaps?
No, your friends tell you. The Pacific.
You walk closer, across the hill. It’s more clear from here. You look south. You’re so high up, the waves don’t seem to move. They’re frozen, rising but never breaking along the beach. The fog is moving in. You can see the path down the coastline, the hills breaking into cliffs, the cliffs diving into the Pacific. There is a narrow stretch of beach that rolls all the way south. The coast does not end; it fades into the fog. You can see a large, black mass in the distance. You cannot tell what it is, or see it clearly through the fog. But you know whatever it is, it’s there.
Imagine following that path, down the cliffs, down the beach, down to whatever lies beyond that fog. From this vantage point, you could look back, sure, and see the journey already traveled, and you can look forward just a little bit — just a few miles down the coast. Beyond that, the fog, and whatever happens next. There is a path, absolutely, but you don’t know where it leads, or how far it leads you.
Imagine yourself on that path: the Pacific on one side, the cliffs on another, the fog, and the road unknown ahead.
Ask yourself: If you were brave enough to go on that path, who would you bring with you?
I know what I would want: Someone to laugh with on the thousands of steps ahead; someone for support when the steps slowed; someone with the joy and the curiosity to push us onward. I’d bring Sally; I cannot imagine the path without her. She’s the best I know.
But who would you bring? Who would you want with you for the next thousand steps, and beyond? Who would you want for when the path gets strange, when the journey demands everything you can give?
Stand in my shoes for a second, and imagine the first of those steps, and the people you’ll need to get to whatever lies beyond the fog — and whatever lies beyond that. Imagine it. This is the path, and for whatever comes next, you’ll need the best people you have to travel it.
I haven’t always been good at saying that word. I really like saying “yes.” I like being helpful to other teams at work, I like offering my time when I can, and I like working on new projects. I try to say “yes” to things as much as possible.
But I’ve also learned that “yes” can lead to trouble — if you say it one time too many.
There are three resources at my disposal that other people want: My time, my skills, and my team. As a manager, my job is manage those resources and make sure my team doesn’t overextend itself. So that means that more and more, I’m saying “no” to projects.
Don’t get me wrong: I want to be able to say “yes” to everything. I love helping people, and I’m lucky to be a position where I can help others do better work. But I’ve learned that there are times when you have to say “no.”
I’m still not great at saying that word, but I’ve learned a few things that have helped me say it better:
1) Be direct — I wrote it in that earlier post, and I’ll say it again: Being direct will save you time in the long run. Most co-workers initially request help via email, and that’s a place where you can be straight with people. I send a lot of these types of emails: “No, I can’t help right now. Sorry!” You’re not a jerk for saying that — you’re just being up front with people.
2) Saying “yes” when you don’t have the resources is even worse than a “no” — If you can’t actually help the person but say “yes” anyway, you’re making things worse for everyone. You’ll end up holding up their work, and on top that, it’s just plain rude. Don’t say “yes” if you can’t commit.
3) Try to find another way to help — If I can’t say “yes,” I’ll often meet with the person anyway just to listen and see if I can offer some advice. At the very least, maybe I can point them towards someone who can help.
I still don’t like saying “no,” but I’m learning how important it is to prioritize my three big resources: Time, skills, and team. Sometimes, you have to say “no” to keep those a priority.
Here’s a piece of advice you’ve certainly heard before: Not where you want to be? That’s OK.
Just fake it ‘till you make it.
I really hate those words. I think it’s a very dangerous piece of advice — especially for young people who are still trying to find their way.
And here’s what I want to say instead:
Don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t. When you’re young, there are days when you feel like you know everything — but far more when you’re convinced you know absolutely nothing. And on those days, it’s easy to pretend to be the expert you aren’t just yet. Some people make a short-term (and shortsighted) choice to fake it.
But there’s never a need to fake your expertise. Never.
So don’t fake anything. And anytime you feel like you’re becoming a person you aren’t, here’s all you need to remember:
And when someone asks you for something and you don’t have the answer, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”
But there’s a catch: The minute you say it, you have to start working towards actually finding the answer. That means realizing that you’re smart enough to build the support system around you to get the right answers, and understanding that you’re going to have to work hard to keep learning.
That’s the harder way — but it’s also the one that’s going to earn you trust and pay dividends in the long run.
I spent the first six months of 2008 studying abroad in a little seaside town in Spain called Alicante, “studying” being a very loose term for what was actually going on. The last few weeks, some Americans came out to visit, and I kept asking them the same question: What did we miss while we were away?
For the most part, I’d stayed pretty current on what was happening in the States. I was reading the news every day, and I’d watched the Super Bowl, and I was even up-to-date on the latest episodes of “Lost.”
But there was other stuff I knew we’d missed: The ad campaign that everyone in America knew by heart, or the catchphrase everyone had heard, or the hit song that kept playing on the radio. I was so scared of coming back to the U.S. and feeling like I’d been on a different planet.
But everyone kept telling me: You really haven’t missed anything.
So fast-forward to the fall. I’m back at school, at I go to the piano bar on a Wednesday night. It’s acoustic guitar night, and it’s mostly the same old stuff: Garth Brooks, Journey, Elton John.
And then the musicians break into a song I’ve never heard before, and everyone — and I remember it being literally every person in the bar — starts screaming out the lyrics.
I looked at my friends and asked them what the hell was going on. What was this song, and how did everyone know it?
This song, Dan? This is that Jason Mraz song that blew up last spring. It’s called “I’m Yours.”
Everyone in the world had heard that song at that point…. unless, of course, you had been living in Alicante, Spain, where the radio was still mostly playing 2007’s hits (with a healthy bit of Tupac thrown in). Nobody had mentioned that Jason Mraz had a no. 1 hit. I was the only person at that bar who hadn’t heard that song 50 times.
If you’ve never been in that boat — if you’ve never had a moment where you realize that you’re the only person in the room who doesn’t know what the hell is going on — know this: It’s a terrifying experience. All you want is to be in the loop as quickly as possible.
I wish I could say that the Jason Mraz song was my one experience with that feeling, but it wasn’t.
It’s also how I felt for first three months of my job at BuzzFeed.
You have to understand: When BuzzFeed hired me to build out an email program, I didn’t really know much about email. I had launched two small newsletters, yes, but otherwise, I was in way over my head. BuzzFeed knew that, too — but neither of us realized how truly clueless I was about email and publishing and BuzzFeed and pretty much everything on the internet.
I was working with Dao, who is now our publisher, and Dao knows everything about everything. She’d throw out basic acronyms and I would jot them down in a notebook to Google later. She’d start talking about spreadsheets, and I’d run home at night to learn how to use Excel.
Everything was brand new. Everything. And it felt like I was the only one in the room who could say that.
There were days where I truly felt like a fool, and many more where I wondered when I would ever feel like I had a grasp on my job.
Luckily, I asked a lot of questions. Luckily, the team I was working with answered them, and taught me so much in the process. Luckily, I really did want to get good at this job, and worked like crazy until I got there. (These days, it’s entirely possible that I know too much about email! So it goes.) But that’s the only way to do it: Find people who can really help you, ask as many questions as you can, and work your ass off to get to where you need to be.
The only other option is feeling like a fool. And that’s not much of an option at all.