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.


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

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.

One Lesson From Remote Work: You Have To Find Time To Pause.

I’m just a few months into working remotely as I grow Inbox Collective. There’s a lot I like about it. For one: I’m writing this from Utah, where I’ve been working for the past 10 days. It’s been fun getting to work in a new place (and then getting the chance to ski when I can).

But something I’ve learned about remote work: Your office is wherever you are. If you’re on a plane and there’s decent WiFi, that can be your office. If you’re on a chairlift checking your email, that’s your office. If it’s midnight, and you’re at home, on the couch, laptop open, well, that’s your office.

When you’re remote, it’s easy for the work to follow you around all day. I wake up, walk over to my desk, and often start my day by 7 a.m. But if I’m not careful, it can be 10 p.m., and I’m still there, working hard. And I’ve learned quickly that that’s not a recipe for success. If I try to work long hours every day, including weekends, I’l burn out.

So I’m trying a few things this year that are a little different to make sure I keep that balance between work and play. Here’s one: I’m pushing myself to make 90 minutes every day, in the middle of the day, for a pause. I can go to the gym, take a walk, step out for lunch, or get coffee with a friend — but I have step away from the desk for a little bit.

Here’s another: I’m going to set a time to shut down work at the end of the day. (It’ll be around 7:30-8 p.m.) I’m thinking of this as the “pencils down!” request your teacher probably gave you in high school at the end of a test. There’s always going to be more work, and I can’t just work all day. I’ve got a lot on my plate — consulting work through Inbox Collective, work on Not a Newsletter, and speaking gigs. I know I have to find time to pause.

We’ll see how this goes in 2020. I’m hoping that creating this time for breaks gives me the time to focus on the other things happening in my life — and hopefully, gives me the energy to come back and tackle bigger work projects in the long run, too.


That illustration is by Katerina Limpitsouni for unDraw.

Here, Read This: “Draw the Owl.”

I love this post from Daniel Zarick, a former product manager at Twilio, about the strategy at his old company. The focus was always on starting quickly and figuring things out as you go. Or as they put it: “Draw the owl.”

Start figuring it out. Put some of the pieces together. When you truly get stuck, ask for pointed advice. Stuff like “What sort of salary should I be asking for at my experience for this type of job?” and “Do you think X marketing strategy is good for this type of product?”

Nobody else can lay out all the steps for you, because nobody else has been you or is in your situation.

You’ve just got to draw the owl.

Read the whole post here.

Less is Enough.

You’ve heard the expression, “Less is more.” I don’t believe that to be true.

I think less is enough.

I believe that, yes, you should sketch out those big plans. You should think about the best-case scenario. You should lay out the roadmap — the work you want to do in six months, in twelve months, and beyond.

But you should also be willing to start soon. Remember: Direction is more important than speed. The goals you want to achieve are ambitious, and they’re going to take time. You’re not going to be able to move as fast as you want to go.

But you can start. It won’t be everything you want, but take the first step anyway. Start moving in the right direction.

Less isn’t everything you want — but it’s enough to start.


That photo by Jamie Templeton was published on Unsplash.

Make Time for the Work.

When you become a boss or a manager, you have to learn how to deal with meeting creep — that phenomenon when meetings take over your calendar, with barely enough time to take a breath between them. You’ve got check-ins and calls and workshops and presentations. Every hour between 9 and 5 is booked.

And the question becomes: When do you actually do the work?

There are a few strategies I’ve tried over the years that have helped lessen the burden of meetings on my calendar:

1) Make your meetings better — Make sure everyone has an agenda for the meeting up front. When the meeting starts, recap the topics that need to be discussed, and see if anyone has anything else they need to discuss. Close the meeting with clear next steps. And by all means, try to finish on time!

2) Turn some meetings into drop-bys or emails — There are a number of meetings that could be solved by taking 5-10 minutes to drop by a coworker’s desk to talk things out. And there are far too many meetings that could have been a quick question solved over email. Know when you need to call a meeting (to build consensus, to decide on next steps as a team, to check in with a team member, etc.) and when you can save time.

3) Make time on your calendar for actual work — That might mean blocking out 90 minutes a few times a week on your calendar to sit down and do real work. It’s tough to get anything done when you’re only getting five minutes between meetings to try to take on a project. If your day’s overrun with meetings, block some time off so that others can’t take over your entire calendar.

Another idea: Save certain types of meetings — 1-on-1s, for instance — for certain days of the week. So many employees take days off on Mondays and Fridays throughout the year — meaning that any Monday/Friday check-ins end up getting frequently rescheduled — that maybe you want to move all of your 1-on-1s for mid-week, and save Monday and Friday for full work days.


That photo of an office building comes via Dylan Nolte for Unsplash.

Don’t Overthink It.

This morning, I had an idea for a friend, but I wasn’t sure how to tell them. I started thinking about how I’d present the idea to them. In my head, I started writing the email to them — how I’d say hi, maybe share a story or two from the weekend, then get into the idea, couch the idea with a few different caveats just in case they didn’t like it, and then close with a “lemme know!” kind of thing at the end. I spent the better part of breakfast thinking about that email, writing and rewriting it in my head.

I can overthink things sometimes, and this was one case. It was a simple idea, not all that controversial. It didn’t need a whole email. In fact, I realized, it didn’t need an email at all — a text would do the trick.

So that got me out of the rut. I picked up my phone, and fired off the text. Two sentences, and it was done. If my friend wants to follow up, they can. If they want to talk about it on the phone, they can. But I spent 20 minutes this morning overthinking an email I didn’t even send, and then 20 seconds sending a text instead. I wish I could have those other 19 minutes and 40 seconds back.

Send the email, send the text, make the decision — and move on. You’re too busy to waste time overthinking something as small as this.


When you search “overthinkingon Unsplash, that photo by Nathan Dumlao pops up.

When Will Then Be Now?

This is the second in a semi-occasional series of Spaceballs-inspired blog posts.

Lord Dark Helmet: What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?
Col. Sandurz: Now. You’re looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now is happening now.
Lord Dark Helmet: What happened to then?
Col. Sandurz: We passed it.
Lord Dark Helmet: When?
Col. Sandurz: Just now. We’re in now now.
Lord Dark Helmet: Go back to then!
Col. Sandurz: When?
Lord Dark Helmet: Now!
Col. Sandurz: Now?
Lord Dark Helmet: Now!
Col. Sandurz: I can’t!
Lord Dark Helmet: Why?
Col. Sandurz: We missed it!
Lord Dark Helmet: When?
Col. Sandurz: Just now!
Lord Dark Helmet: When will then be now?
Col. Sandurz: Soon.

When you’re building something new, it’s hard to be patient. You’ve got a great idea, and you’ve got some momentum, and it feels like you’ve got all the potential in the world. You want to fast forward to the ending — when the work is done, and everyone gets to see your genius idea become something real.

But when it comes to the work, there is no fast-forward button. There are no shortcuts. The work still needs to be done. Networks still need to be built. The team needs to be assembled. Hours need to be put in.

The future you want needs to be made, piece by piece, and day by day. I promise: Then will be now — and sooner then you think. But you’re in now, now. It’s time to start putting in the work.


That photo and quote at top comes from Mel Brooks’s classic spoof, Spaceballs.

The Bad Idea Notebook.

I have a lot of ideas — and most of them, frankly, are bad. But having bad ideas is OK — as long as you develop a filter to decide which ideas are worth working on, and which ideas should move to the scrapheap.

I know I’m not along in having bad ideas. I read a story recently about Dr. Seuss, and learned that he was full of bad ideas, too!

In 1939, at the age of thirty-five, Theodor Seuss Geisel was tinkering with an invention that was doomed to failure. Geisel had published a few books under the name Dr. Seuss, but he was hoping that a device he had patented, the Infantograph, would be a money-maker at the techno-utopian New York World’s Fair, which was opening that year. “If you were to marry the person you are with,” the banner that Geisel designed for his pavilion asked, “what would your children look like? Come in and have your INFANTOGRAPH taken!” In the tent, a couple would sit side by side; a double-lensed camera would blend their features together, then plop a composite mug shot atop an image of a baby’s body. “It was a wonderful idea,” Geisel insisted, but, as a feat of engineering, it was more of an evocation of outlandish, off-kilter Seussian machinery than it was a functional prototype. After much fiddling, he scrapped his plans, admitting, “All the babies tended to look like William Randolph Hearst.”

Knowing when to kill your bad ideas is crucial. I run a lot of my ideas through the Shower Test to see if they’re sticky enough. But I’ve also started doing a new thing: Writing my bad ideas down in what I’ve been calling my Bad Idea Notebook.

The Bad Idea Notebook is what it sounds like: a small notebook full of truly terrible ideas. There are ideas for products, for TV shows, and startups in there — all ideas worthy of the scrap heap. Every time I have a quarter-baked idea , it goes into the Bad Idea Notebook.

And sometimes, when I get really excited about an idea, I’ll pop open that notebook and scroll through my list of terrible ideas. It’s a reminder for me: Yes, Dan, you’re excited about this idea right now — but just remember, 70 percent of your ideas are truly terrible. Give it some time, mull over the idea a bit. Think through what it would really take — time, team, money, work — to put this idea into motion.

Often, a few minutes later, having started to think more clearly through things, I’ll realize a few flaws in the idea — and pop open my Bad Idea Notebook to add a new entry. I have lots of ideas, and lots of work already in the mix. The next idea — a better one, often — typically comes around soon enough.


That photo comes via Unsplash and AP x 90.