I’ve been lucky to find Sebastian Marshall’s blog and have enjoyed reading his posts on philosophy, strategy, personal development and victory – so much so that I asked if I could write a guest post on his site. I had some ideas brewing that I thought would be perfect for his audience and it’d also be an opportunity to reach potential new readers of JasonShen.com

So after a few weeks of brainstorming, writing and editing, I’m proud to share with you my post on sebastianmarshall.com called “Unorthodox Strategies for Winning“. The post focuses on six strategies that are often overlooked and potentially quite effective when pursuing victory. Two excerpts:


From Sebastian: I was really honored and thrilled when Jason Shen offered to write a guest post here at SebastianMarshall.com – he’s an incredibly bright guy with broad knowledge and skillset, writes well and clearly, and is an all-around good guy. So I’m really excited to be able to bring you a guest post by him – I imagine you’ll want to read more by him afterwards, and you can reach him at his website – www.jasonshen.com.

Here’s Jason –


4) Winning via Simply Refusing to Lose

In a war of attrition, you win by simply being able to take more losses. You just keep taking hits and keep getting beat down, but you win through sheer force of will. If someone is fighting you and you just keep getting up every time they knock you down, they will get tired and therein lies an opportunity to win.

Beth Anne Waters got her GED, then her college degree, then her law degree, then passed the bar and found biological evidence to exonerate her brother from a crime he didn’t commit – all while raising two kids. It took her 18 years. They made a movie about it – but the story is real

Incredible – I mean who does that? Any reasonable person would have given up a long time ago. But if you simply decide you are not willing to lose and will do whatever it takes to win, your chances of success go up dramatically.


So definitely go read the whole article, and check out the rest of Seb’s stuff too – he’s reading stuff and thinking about things and it reflects in his writing – I don’t see much online that is like it. For example: The Differences Between Being High Born and Low Born. Very insightful observations, but something that few people talk about.

This is an expansion of a post I wrote on Quora (the social q & a site) that answered the question: “What Are the Best New Year’s Resolutions?

Is it possible to set successful New Years Resolutions?

I am a big believer in personal change. I think that we have a power within ourselves to dramatically change most aspects of our human experience for the better without the use of drugs, money, fame, the “perfect” mate or anything else.

Most of the good things in life can be acquired for free, or for very little money, through simply focusing on doing things (over and over) that will make you feel the way you want to feel. Is this a little vague? Here are some more concrete examples:

  • Feeling happy: start a happiness project – figure out what makes you happy and do more of it, figure out what makes you unhappy, eliminate it from your life, get therapy
  • Feeling healthy: do a combination of anaerobic and aerobic exercise 2-3 times a week for 30+ mins, eat a primarily plant based diet that’s low in refined sugars and saturated fat
  • Feeling smart: block out time to read high quality fiction and non fiction literature, write essays, converse with intelligent people on subjects that interest you, do brainteasers, play chess
  • Feeling confident: do positive affirmations, work on developing a skill that you are better than most people at, act “as if”, hang around other confident people

At Stanford, I had the opportunity to create and lead instruction for a course called “The Psychology of Personal Change” (PSYCH 15S). I’ll write a longer post on the experience overall but basically it was a chance for me to really dive into a subject I’m really passionate about.

About 36 students signed up to take this 2 unit course held in Spring of 2009. The first half of the course was reading papers, the second half was putting the learnings into action via a personal change project that each student did. Don’t remember the final numbers but I’d say a majority of the students made significant headway into their behavior change.

There is actually some really great research out there on the study of how people are able to self-initiate and sustainably maintain behavior change (smoking, drinking, diet, exercise, etc).

One stunning fact: in several studies published in peer-reviewed journals of 150+ people, about 40% of participants in each study who could be reached at 6 months said they were still being successful with their resolutions.

The Bottom line: You CAN make change your life and plenty of people succeed in setting New Year’s Resolutions

What are the qualities of great New Year’s resolutions?

In general, I believe a great New Year’s Resolution:

  1. improves your well-being or the well being of other sentient creatures
  2. has a decent chance of actually being achieved

To get more specific, a great set of New Year’s Resolutions have these qualities:

  • They are typically behavioral changes that are largely within your control (Resolutions should not be confused with Goals – which are external targets that rely substantially on things outside of your immediate control)
  • They are concrete and measurable (otherwise how will you or anyone else know that you achieved them?)
  • They are limited to 2-3 at one time. (Too many makes it difficult to stay on track on all of them, increasing the chances you’ll get overwhelmed and dump the whole thing)
    • It might actually be better to have resolutions for the 1st six months and after you have achieved and internalized those, go after another set of resolutions for the 2nd six months.
  • You have a strong desire to make the change (sounds obvious but can be overlooked. Do you want it or do you *want to want it*?)
  • You believe that you actually can and will maintain this behavior change (Again, also sounds obvious but most people don’t think about this)
  • You are ready to make this change NOW (not in a few weeks or a few months. Everything is set to go right away)
  • You have a some tactics you’ve prepared (reminders, an accountability partner, rewards for success) and a plan of action (“call Sue and ask for her help”) for making the change really work

So How exactly would I go about doing this?

Block out some time – maybe a few hours spread out over a few days. Think about what’s going on in your life. What’s going well? What’s not going so well? Consider what the root causes are – what can you do to make things go more right? What can you do to make things go less wrong?

You probably already have some things you’d like to change about your life. Let’s say you want to stop being late for everything (a problem that I definitely have). Spend some time thinking about whether you really want to not be late – why is it so important for you to make this change? Are you ready to spend a lot of mental energy *trying* to avoid being late? Will the satisfaction of being on time everywhere out-weight all the  time, effort and opportunity costs spent on making the change?

If it is, then design a program that will help you actually achieve this goal – starting with specific behavioral milestones you’d like to reach (“I am late to work 2 times or less in a week  by Jan 30th”) and COMMIT to making the resolution happen – while staying open to changing your tactics/program.

On what research are you basing all these absurd claims?

There are actually a lot of great studies in peer-reviewed journals on the effectiveness of New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve read lots of them when I was preparing my course on the psychology of personal change – but don’t have the time to summarize all of them here. Let’s dive into the data on one such study shall we?

Auld Lang Syne: Success Predictors, Change Processes, and Self-Reported Outcomes of New Year’s Resolvers and Nonresolvers

John C. Norcross, Marci S. Mrykalo, and Matthew D. Blagys – University of Scranton – JOURNAL OF CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 58(4), 397–405 (2002)

  • 159 “resolvers” interested in changing vs “123” non-resolver control subjects (subjects are all white, mostly female, and located in NE Pennsylvania)
  • Get structured telephone interviews before Jan 1 and 1-2 weeks, 3-4 weeks, 3 months & 6 months after Jan 1
  • Weight loss, exercise program and quitting smoking were top change processes
  • END RESULTS: “Although the success rates of New Year’s resolutions obviously depend on the interval and criteria considered, the proportion of self-reported continuous success was 46% at six months. This figure is consistent with, although a bit higher, than that reported previously in samples of student and community volunteers (Gritz et al., 1988; Marlatt & Kaplan, 1972; Norcross et al., 1989).”
  • KEY FINDINGS: (Parenthetical additions are mine) “Nine processes differentiated (with statistical significance) successful and nonsuccessful resolvers at 1 and 2 weeks. Successful resolvers reported using – self-liberation (aka will power) – reinforcement management (aka rewards or incentives) – stimulus control (aka reminders for the right behavior) – avoidance strategies (aka avoiding situations where you would do the wrong thing) – positive thinking significantly more than nonsuccessful resolvers. By contrast, nonsuccessful resolvers employed – self-reevaluation (thinking about how your problem is hurting you) – self-blame – wishful thinking, and – minimize threat (tell yourself the problem isn’t that bad) significantly more than the successful resolvers.” (so don’t do those things!)

Bottom Line: It is totally possible to make significant changes to your behavior but it takes serious commitment and some strategy to do it effectively. And I’ve read lots of these kinds of papers.

Today I want to talk about pushing yourself.

My recent post on winning and trying to be the best got some attention – mostly positive but some negative as well. The issue that critics had was that I seemed to be advocating a win-at-all-costs sort of mentality. I didn’t quite say anything like that, but I do admit that the article comes off as aggressive – and that was the point. To hit big targets you have to push yourself.

But of course, the danger to pushing yourself too hard is that you burn out. I know athletes, students and young professionals who beat themselves up until they are hollow shells of their former selves. And that is not winning either.

So see if you fall into one of these two buckets of people and if so, try my thoughts on for size and see if they do anything for you!

FOR THOSE OF YOU: who are working *pretty* hard but love to take extra breaks at work and maybe duck out a wee bit early to beat the rush and catch your favorite TV shows – and who look at folks Lebron James or Andrew Mason or David Eggers or Lady Gaga and say, (with a twinge of envy and disdain), things like: “I wish I could be that good.” or “It’s not fair that they’re famous/successful/fit/rich/talented and I’m not.”

Here’s my advice: Push Harder.

You’re suffering from a lack of ambition, a lack of hard work, or a lack of creativity. There are simple things you can do to get more awesome:

  • Take singing lessons if you want to become the next Youtube sensation
  • Get into the gym/office/classroom 30 mins early and do some advance prep work
  • Do something special for a colleague or business contact – who knows when you’ll need help from them next?
  • Get Strong: did you know it only takes 6 weeks to train up to doing 100 pushups?
  • Start a blog, write smart posts, explore ideas and get that startup idea off the ground

Give it a shot and see what happens. I promise it won’t be as painful as you expect and the results will turn out far better than you imagine. Not because you did one particular thing, but because your thing will lead to a small win, which will lead to more efforts and goal-setting and innovating and slowly those small wins become huge, massive wins. Which is sweet.


FOR THOSE OF YOU: who are getting up at 6am every day to hit the gym before work, or burning the midnight oil to ship that massive project on time, or who never calls home or sees friends because they are trying to “build the next Facebook” and knows that “execution is everything” and sometimes secretly fantasizing of a year-long trip to India…

Here’s my advice: Leave Some in the Tank

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I’ve been advising a community organizer who lives in a relatively isolated and lower-income part of San Francisco and has been working for some time to create a women’s community center in her neighborhood. The women in her area are mostly minorities and have lower-than-average education levels – they’re struggling financially, socially, and health-wise.

For the past year, the woman has been reaching out to people in her neighborhood trying to get them involved. She’s been researching at the library on corporate sponsorship programs and networking with influential city figures. She shared with me a grand vision of what this center could do for her neighborhood – providing health education, professional training, shelter for victims of domestic abuse, a place to get a healthy, wholesome meal. But she just can’t seem to get anything going.

This is the classic chicken-vs-egg problem. She needs resources and support to build the community center, but no one is going to give anything a project without anything to show for itself.

The basic question is: How do you make something from nothing? It’s one thing to grow an existing program, it’s another to start from scratch.

It turns out I have some experience in this areaas a nonprofit cofounder and early-stage startup employee. So what did I suggest to her?

Start small.

Get something started, even if it’s not much. I asked her what need she wanted to focus on: “Health education” she said. Then I asked if there was a specific topic she wanted people to learn about: “Diabetes” she said. So I suggested she to organize a one-time meeting of women in her area to learn more about how to protect & prevent yourself from the adverse effects of being diabetic.

All of a sudden real possibilities started opening up to her. Did she know anyone who could volunteer an hour of their time? Did she know of any facilities that might be open later that she could borrow a room for? Could she get flyers at a discount or even free at her local copy shop if she gives a shout out to the place during the meeting?

When you’re starting out, you do whatever it takes to get SOMETHING done.

Take pictures of the event. Get people’s phone numbers. Ask for help at the meeting. See what the community is looking for. Get someone to give a quote about the event being awesome. Then hold a bigger meeting next week, get the local news involved, fundraise some larger donations. That’s how she’ll accomplish her goal.

So what about you?

I’m sure you’ve got some BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) you’re trying to work towards. Maybe things are not going so well and you’re thinking about giving up. Try asking yourself this question:

What is the smallest step forward I could take that would get me closer to this goal?

Figure out exactly what that is – and then go do it. Chip away at the monolith that is your BHAG. Do something. Build small victory upon small victory, and eventually you’ll break that rock down and win.

Oh – and the community organizer wrote back a week after our conversation to say:

Just wanted to report on my progress from last Mondays phone conference:

Found a place to host meetings at
Found two speakers
Found a sponsor for events

I also spoke personally with the new District Supervisor and I have a meeting scheduled. I spoke to her about some of the issues plaguing our community, and she not only feels the same, but wants to work with me and my partner on ALL the issues. I will continue to keep you updated, Thanks again!

When you start small and bust your butt – things can HAPPEN. How can I help you get started?

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