I turn 33 today. A year ago, I was just thinking about leaving The New Yorker. I didn’t know that in the year ahead, I’d get to work with clients across the country and across the world. I didn’t know how much this business would grow. (I’m not sure I even realized that I was building a business!) I didn’t know that I’d have the chance to give talks to teams on four continents. I didn’t realize how familiar I’d get with Zoom. I didn’t know I’d get to spend so much with Sally in such wonderful places: Rio, Salt Lake, Surf City. I didn’t know how much I would learn.
I don’t know what 33 will bring. This year’s been unexpected, eye-opening, and full of opportunity. I hope I get to do it all again, and more, in the year ahead.
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’s hard to do, but if you can, focus more on the immediate future. For instance, I’ve been telling teams with newsletters: Right now, your daily email is focused on the crisis in your community — deaths, illnesses, the situation at hospitals. But next week, it might need to shift, as the crisis goes from a medical one to an economic one. In a few months, if the virus comes back in your community, you might need to pivot again. My best advice: Be willing to adjust the products on a week-to-week basis to make sure you’re serving your readers as best you can at that moment.
It’s hard for us to shift to a short-term mindset. It’s not our default position. But the organizations that think about today, tomorrow, and this week are the ones that will move nimbly and build things that truly help their audience when it’s needed most — now.
I was reading an interview with Gerald Parker, a leading pandemic expert who worked in the Bush administration on the nation’s pandemic strategy plan. It’s a fascinating interview in which Parker talks about the lengths that previous administrations went to prepare the country for a pandemic like this, and I found this exchange particularly striking:
We’ve had lessons observed over and over: SARS, the 2009 pandemic, Ebola, Zika, and so forth. I say “lessons observed” very purposefully. That’s different from “lessons learned.”
We’ve observed things, but we haven’t really turned them into lessons learned.
Yes, Parker’s saying, we’ve seen pandemics before, and yes, we know what happened. But in this case, we didn’t learn from them — because had we done so, we would have made changes to prevent something like this from happening again.
On a note far less serious note than pandemics: I’ve had countless conversations over the years that fit this exact phenomenon. Someone will tell me, “We know that we should do this, and we’ve seen others succeed by taking this step… but we just haven’t done it yet.” Even though they know it’s a best practice, or a necessary next step, they still haven’t been able to do so.
Now’s a good time for all of us to revisit the things we’ve observed. If there’s something you believe can help — or know will help — why haven’t you taken the step to actually learn the lesson and implement the changes you need?
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.
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.
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.
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.
What I’ve always known — and what this year reinforced for me — is that the road will be full of the unexpected. Things don’t just go wrong — things *will* go wrong. You’ll leave 60 minutes before that presentation, but the New York City subway system will turn a 20-minute trip into a 55-minute adventure. You’ll get stranded at the Detroit airport for, somehow, 48 hours. You’ll fry a laptop at the airport just before boarding a 13-hour flight home. (All of that really did happen this year.)
Things are going to go wrong, and no amount of prep work is going to prevent that from happening. So the big question is: When it happens, can you still find a way to make it work?
When things go wrong, I try to look for all the best possible outcomes. Stranded on the train? Well, that’s an extra 20 minutes to prep for the meeting. Stuck in Detroit? Let’s get a hotel and reschedule those meetings as video calls. Laptop’s dead? That’s OK — did you know the Duty Free store sells Mac laptops now?
Shit happened in 2019, and I’m sure 2020 will be full of many more unexpected (and unwanted) surprises. Here’s my wish for you: When it does, don’t dwell on it. Text your loved ones (“You won’t believe what happened to me THIS time!”), give yourself a minute to regroup, and then figure out what doors are still open for you. Whatever happened, I promise it’s just a speed bump along the way. If you look carefully, there’s always still a path forward.
That’s a photo I took at the Brisbane airport back in November. I’m holding the laptop I bought at Duty Free a few minutes earlier. I wouldn’t usually recommend an impulse purchase like that, but it turns out there are circumstances that call for such a purchase!