Are You Optimizing For Just One Thing?

gymnast in mid-routine

There was a fascinating story in The Washington Post this week about men’s gymnastics, and how the University of Minnesota — which has had a men’s gymnastics team for 118 years — has decided to cut that sport at year’s end. The move will save the university $750,000 per year.

Wrote Liz Clarke:

Minnesota’s decision — combined with Iowa’s plan to drop men’s gymnastics and two other sports — is the latest blow to the dwindling ranks of Division I programs, leaving just five Big Ten schools with men’s teams and 12 in the nation. And it’s part of a larger pattern at Division I colleges and universities across the country, where “nonrevenue” sports are being dropped in the name of fiscal responsibility.

At a university like Minnesota, there are only two sports that make money: Football and men’s basketball. Those sports fund the rest: Softball, hockey, and so on.

But I think what we’re really seeing here is what my former boss, Dao Nguyen, used to warn me about: The danger of optimizing for just a single metric.

What the University of Minnesota — and so many other universities that have cut sports — is doing is making all of their decisions around a single metric: Profit or loss. Sports that make money can stay. Sports that lose money, even a small amount, are expendable.

But there are other ways to measure success for a college athletics program. You can look at the obvious metrics of success: Wins or losses, championships won, or Olympians produced. You could look at the engagement of the community with these sports: Attendance, or tickets sold. You even could look at less obvious downstream metrics of success: How much of an economic impact will these scholarship athletes have on their state over the course of their careers? (A study of previous athletes might help a university understand the long-term return on their investment.)

There’s a lesson here for all of us: If profit is the only goal, then you’re only going to work on things that make money. But there are other ways to measure success. Make sure you have a few metrics in mind so you can optimize for the things that matter — and not just that which produces the highest immediate return.


That photo of a gymnast participating at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games comes via Flickr and is used via a Creative Commons license.

Be the First One on the Dancefloor.

If it’s alright, I’d love to tell you about one of my favorite random things on the internet.

It’s a video of Eric Clapton playing his hit, “Cocaine,” at the Royal Albert Hall, in 2015. It starts with that legendary riff, in E, and you can see the crowd recognize it immediately. But here’s the thing that amazes me the most: You’ve got one of greatest guitarists of all time, in one of the most famous concert halls in the world, and people are just… sitting there. They’re not, up they’re not dancing. Eric Clapton is playing freaking “Cocaine,” and people are sitting on their butts like they’re watching someone perform at an open mic night.

And then comes one of my favorite random things on the internet.

It happens at about 2:19 in the video. Clapton’s in a guitar solo, and the camera pans across the crowd: 5,000 people, lots of butts in seats.

But there, in the bottom corner, at the edge of the stage to Clapton’s left, is this one couple.

They’ve snuck up to the front, and they’re dancing like — excuse the cliche, but it’s accurate here — no one’s watching.

They shimmy. They shake. They twirl.

They — and I mean this in the best possible away — do not appear to give even the slightest shit about the fact that no one else is dancing.

The camera cuts to the band, and they’re loving it. They cut back to the couple: Now jumping up and down, cheering wildly for Clapton.

And then something happens: People notice that couple, and seem to snap out of their stupor. They remember: They’re watching Eric Clapton! One of the great rock and roll musicians of all time! And he’s playing one of the most famous rock and roll songs of all time! People start to get out of their seats. Some folks rush to the stage to cheer. The crowd gets loud.

Sometimes, it takes two people, getting up and showing everyone else the way. Sometimes, you have to be the one to give everyone else permission to get up and do something — to dance, to experiment, to try something bold.

We’re moving into this next phase of the pandemic, and I don’t know what happens next. But here’s your permission: Don’t stay seated. Don’t idle. Get up and dance, even if you feel like you might look a little silly. You never know who might be right behind you on the dancefloor.

Do We Have to Do It That Way?

We went on a road trip this week up into New England, just to get away from work for a few days. On the road, we stayed in a few different hotels.

At pretty much every hotel room I’ve stayed in over the past decade, there’s been a tiny coffee machine in the room — something like this:

hotel coffee machine

To me, they’re like the alarm clocks in hotel rooms: Something that’s purely decorative. In all the nights I’ve stayed in hotels, I don’t think I’ve ever used one of these machines.

But one night on our trip, in Burlington, Vermont, the front desk explained that they’d recently renovated the rooms, and made a small change. Instead of a coffee machine in each room, they’d built a coffee bar on each floor, available to all guests. We’d find it at the end of the hall.

When we went upstairs, we noticed it right away: They’d built out a full bar area with coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as sparkling and still water on tap. And in the room, where there’d usually be a space for a coffee machine, the hotel had been able to carve out a bigger space for a desk.

It was a small thing, but it got me thinking: What else are we doing simply because we’ve always done it a certain way? Sure, a coffee bar instead of a machine in every room is a small tweak for a hotel. But to me, it suggested that this hotel had asked some interesting questions when redesigning their rooms. They’d clearly asked guests what they wanted, and likely heard that guests wanted a better selection of coffee and water on demand. (Why is it that at most hotels, to fill up a water bottle, you have to go to the hotel gym?) They’d almost certainly noticed how many of those coffee pods were going unused by visitors. (Do those get thrown away? Do they just sit there, waiting for another guest?) And they’d considered how costly it is to maintain hundreds of small coffee machines instead of just a single machine on every floor. (Where do you even get the in-rooms machines repaired?)

The result was a simple but really smart innovation. And I’m betting that if you took a step back and looked at your work, you might find a few opportunities for improvement, too, simply by asking two questions:

Why do we do it this way?

And: Do we have to?


I took that photo of a tiny coffee machine at a different hotel. In retrospect, I probably should’ve taken a photo of the coffee bar, too!

Why I Work So Well on Planes.

me, flying back to New York on March 12, 2020 — my last work trip

I miss flying.

I miss those hour-long flights to Boston to Pittsburgh — just enough time to pull out the laptop and work on a deck or a memo for 45 minutes. I miss those longer flights out west — 90 minutes of work, an hour of reading, and then a movie I’d never seen before. I miss that time in the airport lounge, that feeling when I know I’ve only got 20 minutes to reply to as many emails as I can before the flight boards.

I suppose what I really miss, as I think back on it, is that flying puts me in a place of focused work. At home, I can get easily distracted, but when I fly, I usually don’t buy the WiFi on the plane. That means that when I’m sending those emails before I take off, I’ve got a timer in my head — 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 10 minutes before I disconnect. It means that when I’m on the flight, I can only do the projects I’ve preloaded onto my laptop before I took off. It means that I can do the work I have to do — and then say, alright, it’s time for a break.

The structure of flying seems to put me in the right mood to work. I tend to do really good, focused work on flights. I think part of it is the timing of the flight, and part of it is the feeling that it’s OK to take a break and spend 90 minutes watching a movie — a mid-day movie on a Monday would feel like a waste of time on a normal day, but on a flight, it feels pretty normal. One more thing: On flights, I’m not bouncing from call to call. That helps with focus, too.

I know I won’t be traveling again for a little while longer, and this isn’t a post where I’m going to make suggestions as to how to recreate the feeling of travel from home. It’s just this moment where I’m thinking about the way my work has changed in the last year, and the way it might change again a few months down the road.

Anyway, I miss flying.


That photo’s aboard a flight home from South Carolina to New York on March 12, 2020 — my very last work trip of the year.

Don’t Write The Story Until It’s Over.

Nine years ago, I attended a baseball game I’ll never forget.

It wasn’t a particularly important game: Nats-Phillies, in the middle of the 2011 season. The Nats finished that season 80-81 — out of the playoffs, again.

It was a humid night in D.C. We sat through a two-hour rain delay before the game really got going, and once it did, the Nats fell behind, 4-0. By the 7th, with a score of 4-2, my friends said they were tired and wanted to go home. I couldn’t blame them — it was late, and the game really didn’t matter.

Still, it was my last baseball game of the season — I’d be heading to Columbia, Mo., for a fellowship in a few days — and I wanted to see it through. I’d been to enough baseball games to know that if your team’s losing by a few runs that late in the game, they usually don’t come back.

But then again: You never know. And I remember from my days covering the team that you can’t finish your game story until the final out.

My friends went home, but I stayed.

In the 9th, the Nats faced Ryan Madson, the Philadelphia closer who’d only blown one save all year. But the Nats came back, stringing together a few hits to tie the game. Then came Ryan Zimermman, the third baseman and the face of the franchise. Two outs, bases loaded, bottom of the 9th, full count — and he hits a walk-off grand slam to left.

I remember texting my friends and telling them to turn on the TV. I remember their disbelief at the score. (“We…won???”) I remember how strange it felt to be truly surprised by a result like that. Up until those last moments, it seemed unlikely — even impossible — that the game could have ended the way it did.

I almost never leave games early anymore. As long as there’s still more to play, there’s more story to be written. You never know when you’ll get the chance to write a better ending.


That photo is of Nationals Park, and was taken by Sung Shin for Unsplash. The video is of the walk-off grand slam — wait until the very end.

Beware the Ground Beneath Your Feet.

In 2010, while reporting in Biloxi, Mississippi, on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I stumbled upon this story:

A century earlier in Biloxi, there was a man of some renown named Walter Hunt. He didn’t go by that name, though — in town, locals called him Skeet.

Skeet was quite the figure in Biloxi. At age 26, he’d become the youngest alderman in the city’s history. He’d been the grand marshall of the Mardi Gras parade. Later in life, he’d move to Washington, D.C., and become a captain of the Capitol Police. (He’d ship up fresh seafood from the Gulf on trains when he was trying to curry favor with members of Congress.)

But in 1925, Skeet took a gamble. He’d inherited an island, twelve miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, from his grandfather, and decided to build a casino on it. He called it the Isle of Caprice — “caprice,” as in, a sudden, unpredictable series of changes.

For a few years, things went well for Skeet and his casino. Business boomed. In 1927, an estimated 40,000 visitors came to the island. Ethel Merman played the lounge.

Then in 1931, Skeet’s team went out to the island to get the casino ready for the summer season.

But the casino wasn’t there.

What must it have been like to be a member of the crew, floating out in the Gulf of Mexico, and suddenly realizing that Isle of Caprice had been built not on an island, but a sandbar? What were they thinking as they discovered that over the winter, when the sandbar moved, the casino had sunk into the Gulf?

All the staff could find was a single pipe sticking out of the water, still connected to a well that had been dug deep into the ground. Everything else was gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Skeet’s story. I’m thinking about all the things that will be different once we’ve emerged from this pandemic. Businesses will change, cities will change. We don’t know what life will look like in a few years, but things will almost certainly be different.

Right now, that once-solid ground is shifting underneath our feet. Standing still isn’t an option. It’s up to each of us to recognize that we need to move with the tides — or we will sink.


At top, that’s a postcard from the 1920s of the island. Below, a photo of Skeet from a Mardi Gras parade.

Do It Again. Make It a Little Better.

A few weeks ago, we tried making pizza at home for the first time. It wasn’t even close to being from scratch — the pizza dough was purchased at the local market, and the tomato sauce was from the jar — but we broke out the pizza stone and a bunch of toppings and gave it a go. The result? Not bad!

But there was room for improvement. The cheese was nice and bubbly, but the crust was a little soft on the bottom.

So we decided to try again, really trying to get the crust right. This time, we rolled out the dough a little thinner, and put it on the pizza stone for about seven minutes before adding on the toppings and cheese. An improvement — but still not perfect!

So we started asking around to friends who do this: What’s your secret? How do you get the crust right?

And one friend suggested: Have you tried putting the stone in the oven in advance for 30 minutes first to get it nice and hot, and then adding the pizza to it?

We’d never thought about that before.

So we’re going to keep trying. Every time we make this thing, we’re trying to make it a little better. A small tweak here, a slight adjustment there. It’s never going to be perfect, but we’re going to keep working to do better.

It could be pizza, it could be your work. Just keep working to make things a little better, bit by bit, until you get it right.


That’s a photo of our first pizza — not bad for a first attempt!

Don’t Get Stuck on Repeat.

I first heard of ghost repeaters through a songwriter I love, Jeffrey Foucault, who has a song — and an album — called “Ghost Repeater.” As Foucault explained in the liner notes:

“Ghost Repeaters are empty radio stations scattered around the country to re-broadcast demographically tailored playlists, endless echoes of American market culture, from thousands of miles away.”

I remember my days at BuzzFeed when we’d try a new idea — quizzes, video, email — and then dozens of copycats would spring up, seemingly overnight. I remember being at The New Yorker, seeing other sites realize that our subscription strategy was working, and then watching other news organizations across the country try to copy it. Some of these places put their own spin on things, but many were just ghost repeaters — copying even the tiniest details and formats.

Original ideas are hard to come by. When I look around the media landscape and beyond, I see a lot of the same ideas, repeated over and over again.

But the thing is, what works for one place might not work for you. When I give talks about my work at BuzzFeed and The New Yorker, I always say: My team had success with these sorts of ideas, products, and tests. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. See what works best for you.

And one more thing: Focus on your unique audience — who are they, and what do they need that only you can serve? Focus on delivering value for them every day. Focus on being the best version of you — with whatever it is you do best.

Celebrate the Little Victories.

My Washington Nationals are — and I can’t believe I’m typing this — heading to the World Series. They’re a remarkable story. On the morning of May 24, the Nationals were 19-31, with just a 22.2% chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. You can see what happened next, in the playoff probability chart above. They turned the season around, going from 12 games under .500 to finishing 24 games above .500. On Tuesday, they’ll begin a series vs. the Houston Astros for the championship.

How’d they do it? A lot’s been made of the chemistry on the team, or the positive attitude of manager Davey Martinez. But here’s another wonderful anecdote from MASN reporter Byron Kerr:

There is a long hallway between the coaches’ and manager’s offices and the training area next to the Nationals clubhouse on field level at Nats Park. Along this wall is a collection of baseballs positioned on a long single shelf that runs down the hallway. Each ball represents a win the Nats enjoyed so far in 2019.

Written on each baseball are the names of one or more players who, in the estimation of manager Davey Martinez, were the most valuable in each of those victories.

And as Martinez later mentioned in the piece:

Martinez’s players would come by during the season and pick up each ball and reminisce about that particular victory during their turnaround run.

“Every now and then, I see guys just going in there, staring at each ball and dates,” Martinez said. “And what we’ve done and how we did it. I could tell that they really appreciate it. You hear them say, ‘Oh, man, I remember this. Strasburg was dealing this day.’ Or, ‘(Gerardo) Parra. Grand slam this day in L.A.!’ They all talk about it and remember it. It’s pretty cool to hear ‘em call each others’ names out, knowing they all participated at some point.”

A baseball season’s 162 games long. Opening Day was nearly seven months ago. There are so many games, and it’s easy to forget about all the little moments that led to this one big opportunity. But I love the idea of the wall of baseballs. Every day, the players walk by that shelf and think about those daily achievements — the wins and the contributions that got them there. They’re a public reminder of the work that’s been done over the course of a season.

There are so many ways to bring an idea like this to your office:

      • Have an award that’s given out weekly/monthly to an outstanding teammate (and give out a physical trophy or prize that can sit on their desk)
      • Shout out a big achievement in an email to the larger team
      • Hold a regular all-hands meeting to celebrate team victories
      • Make a public space in your office to highlight teammates who’ve done great work
      • Stop by a colleague’s desk to privately say thank you for their effort

However you do it, celebrate those little wins. When your colleagues make a difference, make sure they know how much you appreciate it. You never know what a difference it might make.


That graph at top is off the Nationals’s playoff odds throughout the season, as charted by FanGraphs.

Here, Read This: “The Marlins Are Sending Everyone to Spanish Class. Even Derek Jeter.”

I’ve written before about how important it to invest in your teams, and how one of the secrets of BuzzFeed’s success was the company’s learning and development team. Here’s a great example of that from an unexpected source: The Miami Marlins baseball team:

Teaching English to minor league players from Latin America has understandably become commonplace. Nearly 30 percent of players in the major leagues — and even more in the minors — were born in that part of the world. The Marlins, however, are among the few teams also doing the inverse: conducting Spanish classes for English speakers throughout the organization, from players to coaches to top executives….

So when [Derek] Jeter, 44, took over the Marlins, he and Emily Glass, 25, who oversees the team’s education efforts, made it a goal to address this weakness. He called for an overhaul of the club’s player development program, including a focus on life skills — from cooking to financial planning to language classes.

Read the entire story here.