Planting the Seeds for Whatever’s Next.

plants growing

In the past 24 hours, I stumbled upon two very similar quotes from two very different people.

The first: I was reading a New York Times essay by Christoph Niemann about a trip to Eastern Europe, and he quoted former Estonian President Lennart Meri, who in 1992, just a year after his country was granted independence from Russia, famously said: “Our situation is shit, but this is the fertilizer for our future.”

The second: J.B. Smoove of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” went on a podcast recently to talk about his comedy career, and he said, “I like to plant seeds. I’m a seed planter. Whether that tree grows a week, a month, a year, five years, ten years from now, at some point, it’s going to grow. It’s just a matter of how fast it’s gonna grow.”

None of us really knows what things will look like a few weeks or a months down the road. We don’t know if we’re headed for a recession, a depression, a global change in the way we do business — or if this all just a blip.

But what I do know is that this is a moment for us to plant seeds. In the next few weeks, I’m going to launch a few small projects — some on my own, some with partners in the news space — to try to be helpful. I’m not focused on driving revenue with these projects. The goal is just to help, in the way I can be helpful, at a time of need.

Long term, my hope is that the help I give and the relationships I build now will lead to interesting things down the road — whenever and whatever that might be.

As the former President of Estonia and a guy on HBO both wisely noted: Now’s the moment to plant the seeds for whatever’s next.

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That photo of plants growing comes via Unsplash and photographer Markus Spiske.

It Happens When It Happens.

My mother used to have this expression: “Hurry up and wait.” I remember when we used to go to the beach, and there was this one part of the trip that required us to get on a ferry. The ferry captain would announce that we’d be docking in 20 minutes, and people would rush to the exits, even though they weren’t going to be able to get off the boat for another 20 minutes. Mom always laughed at the idea of rushing to get to the exits before you could exit. We’d sit on the top deck of the boat instead, enjoying the final minutes of the ride into the dock. “Everyone else is just hurrying up to wait,” she’d tell us.

Right now, at this moment, we’re all dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re calling airlines to ask for refunds on upcoming travel. We’re on hold with the doctor’s office. We’re waiting to check out at — or just to get in to — the grocery store.

We’re all going through this together, and not nearly as quickly as we want. The whole world, it seems, is in hurry up and wait mode.

These next few weeks — and months, if we’re being honest with ourselves — things aren’t going to be normal. Our lives are being disrupted, and things are going to change.

What I’m trying to remind myself is: Things will get moving again, and life will go on, even though we’re not entirely sure when. Things will happen when they happen.

In the meantime: Be kind to one another, and be patient with one another. These are stressful times. The least we can do is show kindness and patience in this moment.

Three Things I’ve Learned About Working From Home (So Far).

Back in August, I started working from home for Inbox Collective. And with much of the world joining me in remote work (at least for a little while), I wanted to share a few learnings about how to work well remotely:

1.) You have to wear pants — When I first started doing this, there were days when I tried to work in sweatpants… and it just didn’t work. Sweatpants are for sick days and weekends. I realized quickly that I needed to dress like I was still going into the office. That meant showering and putting on pants. (I mostly wear shirts with a collar, too.) As I ramped up video calls with clients, that gave me an additional reason to dress professionally, even as I worked alone from home.

2.) Make yourself a real work space — Designate a space in your home — ideally a desk — just for work. Again, I’ve tried working in other spaces (the couch, the dining room table), and it’s just not the same. I’m someone who needs that designated work space to really focus. Bonus points for picking a space that’s far from a TV — doing work while watching Netflix in the background isn’t really work.

3.) If you’re going to be on video calls, make sure you’ve got good lighting — I picked up these USB-powered LED lights from Home Depot and highly recommend them. They emit a nice little glow to make sure you’re well lit on your calls. It really does make a difference!

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That is not my desk — it’s just a photo by Aleksi Tappura for Unsplash.

Be Prepared.

When I interviewed a candidate at BuzzFeed for a role on the newsletter team, I always asked the same first question: Do you subscribe to any of our newsletters?

These were candidates who’d applied specifically for a job on the newsletter team. They’d submitted resumes and cover letters for the role. We’d read through them, picked the candidates we’d liked, and set up a quick phone screener — 20 minutes on the phone to ask a few questions. Each candidate had a few days to prepare for that interview.

And yet: Probably forty percent of the candidates I interviewed immediately said “no” to my simple question: Do you subscribe to any of our newsletters?

I was always astonished by that. How could so many people know absolutely nothing about the types of work we’d done? Signing up for a newsletter was remarkably easy, and free. And yet two out of every five candidates failed to do even that.

In all the interviews I did, I can’t recall a single candidate who answered “no” and got a second interview.

I tell that story now because I’m reading “In the Land of Men,” a memoir by Adrienne Miller about her time working at GQ and Esquire. In it, she tells the story of her first day of work, walking through the office with GQ editor David Granger:

“As Granger and I spoke, it became apparent that I did have one thing going for me: I was able to talk about past issues of GQ. Later, he said that I got the job because I was the one person he’d interviewed who’d actually even bothered to open the magazine.”

“ ‘Never underestimate how unprepared most people are,’ he would later observe, correctly.”

The bar to clear in a first interview is pretty low: Show up on time, have a few questions ready to ask, and make sure you’re knowledgeable about the place you’re interviewing at. That minimum effort won’t get you the job — but it might be enough to get you to the second round of interviews.

Just Listen.

A friend is starting a brand new job on Monday, after more than a decade in his previous role. We were chatting the other day, and I was asking him: What’s it going to be like starting a new job like this? How are you going to approach it?

His reply was incredibly smart:

I’ve got a lot of big ideas for the job, he told me. But my job isn’t to tear everything down and start fresh. I want to figure out how to take what they’re already doing and make it better. So the first couple of weeks, my job is simple: I need to ask a lot of questions, listen to the team around me, and then try to figure out how to get others to buy into the vision that I have for the job.

I love everything about that reply:

1.) He’s putting listening first.

2.) He’s trying to build a team with a shared vision.

3.) He’s thinking about incremental changes as a way to build respect and drive the organization in the right direction.

Big changes don’t happen overnight — direction is more important than speed. But if you listen, if you get others to buy in, and if you work to make positive changes — even small ones — you can make a difference in the long run.

That illustration is by Katerina Limpitsouni for unDraw.

Here, Read This: “Mourning Rootitoot, the Happiest Place on the Internet.”

Here’s a piece from The Ringer’s Katie Baker about a Facebook group called “Rootitoot Instant Pot Recipes & Help,” started by a 63-year-old Canadian woman named Ruth McCusker, about the Instant Pot — a group that, in two years, grew to more than 92,000 members. As Baker explains:

For as influential as Rootitoot is, though, what always differentiated McCusker most was that she was no influencer. Besides her books, she didn’t hawk merch. She didn’t seek engagement on Twitter. There were no YouTube tutorials with her face on them, or Alison Roman–style hashtagged viral recipes and Instagram story Q&As. I have thousands of friends on Facebook and exactly zero of them follow Rootitoot, which practically seems like it would be an algorithmic impossibility. But I love it that way: It has the effect of making this group feel like my important little secret, like all the ones I once got to have on the increasingly distant internet of my youth, the one that enabled me to indulge in weird enthusiasms (DMB, hockey) with like-minded users without my friends and coworkers getting notifications about my dorky activity.

The whole thing is a fantastic tribute to a woman who started an amazing community online. Read the piece here.

Email Is For Action.

Before you send an email to a colleague, ask yourself one question: What do you want them to do when they get this email?

The best emails are the ones that have a clear next step. Email’s the perfect way to:

      • Get a quick answer to a question
      • Set up a meeting or call
      • Review a document
      • Connect two colleagues

And when you send the email, make sure the subject line of your email conveys that immediate action. (For instance: “Here’s the contract for our upcoming work”, or “Can you review this document by Friday?”) Get right to the point, and make sure that the call to action is right there so you get the fastest possible reply.

Email’s great for action, but unfortunately, it’s a lousy place to start a discussion or have a deeper conversation. I’ve always found it far better to have that sort of conversation elsewhere: In person, on the phone, or even via a chat tool, like Slack. If you need that kind of depth, send the email to set up the meeting, but then move things to a better forum.

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Be Good To Each Other. Enjoy Every Moment.

My grandma passed away this week — she was 96 years old. The past few days, I’ve been thinking about something she told us a few years ago. My brother and I went to visit her, and at the end of our visit, Grandma made sure to mention something to the two of us. She said: “Be good to each other. Enjoy every moment.”

When I think about her today, and always, I’ll try to remember those words.

The First Thing Isn’t The Biggest Thing.

When you’re just getting started with something new, you’re going to run into some roadblocks. You’ll start with some momentum, and suddenly, you’ll hit a snag. Your project’s just begun, and already you’re at an impasse.

The first time you get stuck like this, it’s easy to make a big deal of it — often, too big a deal of it. This is the biggest obstacle you’ve run into so far, so you think: This must be the biggest obstacle I’m ever going to face.

And that’s just not true. It’s probably just the first of many hurdles you’ll have to clear, and you can’t let this first one stop you.

I ran into this exact situation a few weeks ago. I was working on a project, and I ran into a brand new obstacle. I hadn’t run into anything like it before, and I was really upset about it. Instead of taking it head on, I spent some time replaying in my head the steps that had led to there. I fretted, I worried, and I mostly just paced around the house. For a day or two, I didn’t get anything done.

And then when I finally took on the obstacle, I found a way to get by it. It wasn’t all that big of a hurdle, it turned out — it was just the first time I’d faced an obstacle like that, so I didn’t have the right plan to take it on initially. But once I worked through the problem, I realized that I knew enough to get by it and keep going.

Don’t let the first obstacle slow you down. There’s always a way forward if you’re willing to work for the right solution.

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That illustration is by Katerina Limpitsouni for unDraw.

One Door Opens Another.

Think about this for a moment: What’s something you’re working on right now that, a year or two ago, wasn’t even on your radar?

I remember at BuzzFeed when we launched our Royal Baby newsletter. There wasn’t a Royal Baby section at BuzzFeed, and we didn’t have many tools we could use to grow that newsletter. So that led to one big question: We tools do we actually have? What are we good at when it comes to newsletter growth?

Once we learned a few things, it led to another question: What could we get better at? So we tried a half-dozen new ways to grow our lists, and a handful worked well. We doubled down on those.

Once we had that set of tools, we had a new question: Which of these promotional levers could we automate? Was there anything we could do to save our team time to keep testing new things? So that led us down a new road with our product team.

Over time, these answers consistently led to brand new questions, and we kept searching for answers. Every time we asked a new question, we discovered there was even more to learn — often things we didn’t even realize we didn’t know until we’d reached that point!

One new door often opens another. The thing you’re going to be excited on in a year or two might not be what you’re working on today. But by being curious, by asking really good questions, and by seeking new answers, you might be able to open up that next door — and open yourself up to all sorts of new possibilities.

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That photo comes via Christian Stahl for Unsplash.