This is the part three in a three-part series about the knee injury that changed my life and my road to an NCAA championship. In part two I talked about the physical therapy I did to recover from my knee injury, the return to competition and our team’s devastating loss to Oklahoma on home turf in 2008. Here’s how the story ends.


1. Channeling the pain

I kept this picture of me mid-fall above my desk for an entire year to remind myself of what I owed my teammates.

When you’re going for gold, getting silver really does feel like being the first loser.

Waiting in the backroom in preparation for the award ceremonies with my team was probably the most depressing thing I’ve ever done. Some guys were walking around, muttering underneath their breath, others sat on the floor with their knees against their chest. It was hard to make eye contact with anyone.

It was especially hard for me because I felt like I had screwed it up.

In my mind, my fall didn’t just cost our team a precious few tenths of a point, it actually set us on the trajectory towards failure. I got thrown off my game and it threw my team off theirs. And that sucked.

But pain of this loss was not all a bad thing. After the award ceremony we got into a team huddle and someone, I think it was David Sender (a captain and a World Championship team member) spoke to us as a group and said something like:

“You all feel like shit right now? Yeah, you should. We didn’t deliver and we got beat. We let Oklahoma take it from us. I’m done here – it’s over for me. But I want all of you to remember this feeling. Remember how terrible this feels and make sure that when you go back next season, to never forget the pain you’re feeling now. Keep it. Use it.”

And we would.

2. Culture change is hard

VIDEO: The promo video I made for the beginning of the season: “Call on Cardinal”

Our team captains are selected by a vote of the team and approval by our coach. I was honored to be selected as one of the captains for my fifth and final season, along with Bryant Hadden and Sho Nakamori. During the Spring of 2008 I remember meeting a few times to talk about how we could shape our team’s culture to prepare for success.

Post NCAA’s it seemed like our team had lost their spirit. Guys weren’t working that hard and sometimes cut out early from practice. It just felt weak. I think psychologically, we were trying to protect ourselves from the pain of defeat by sandbagging ourselves. “If we tried so hard last time and had everything going for us but we still lost, then why try? That was our one and only chance.”

So as captains, we decided to take off the focus on NCAAs.

Our motto going forward, we decided, was all about training and competing to our potential. I remember Bryant saying – “We’ve got incredible talent on this team. We’ve got what it takes to blow the rest of the country away – but only if we compete to our potential. And that’s what we’ll focus on doing, each and every day.”

Remembering the pain was still important – but it was there to drive us to do our best each and every turn – instead of “saving it” for the one big meet.

It sounded like a good plan, but could we make a change in the culture?

3. A slow start

VIDEO: One of my final parallel bar performances ever. I added a number of new skills. Wish I had stuck the dismount! =P

Summer was slow. Several people did internships while training, others (including myself) spent some time traveling or otherwise out of the gym. But once September rolled around, we put our plan into action. We started changing the language in the gym:

  • “Ryan, I know your Diamodov is better than that. Show me one that kicks ass.”
  • “Hey Josh, you need to get a stronger block off the horse. I know you know how.”

In conjunction with this focus on personal capacity and the here and now, our coach also decided to really kick up the difficulty of our routines. Every one had super ambitious plans for big skills they would learn and compete that year – to the point of being overextended. But the idea would be to build as much capacity as possible, wow everyone with these big routines, and potentially drop a skill here or there before NCAAs, which would make the routine feel down right easy.

This fit well with our “compete to your potential” program because it meant instead of focusing on being perfect, our routines were packed with so many points that we just needed to score a solid hit and we’d still do very well. The demo reel of the video really show cases the crazy-hard skills we were doing.

We started off the season a little rough and actually lost our first few meets. This was almost better because we were no longer trying to defend a number one ranking, but instead focused on climbing back up from the bottom.

It looked like everything was on track…

4. Not everything is on track

Stanford Men’s Gymnastics – Conference Championships 2009 from Jason Shen on Vimeo.

This is the part of the story that’s kind of lame.

During warmups, we would do jumps off a block to practice “sticking” the landing. One of my teammates, Bryant, started doing some with a full twist just for fun. I tried some, knowing full well that ACLs are particularly vulnerable to twisting/cutting motions. And in an effort to stick one, I felt a snap. I stood up and there was a sharp pain in my knee.

I didn’t want anyone to see that I had hurt myself, so I slowly took my shirt off (we typically practice with no shirts) and made my “Fuck this hurts” face while my face was covered up. Then I walked calmly over to my assistant coach and told him I didn’t think I could finish practice that day.

  • The bad news was: I had retorn my ACL.
  • The good news was: I could keep going if I wanted to.

It was a serious decision and something I thought about. Ultimately I chose to keep going – I had come this far and I wanted to see it completion.

Because I had already damaged my knee before, this ACL didn’t affect me as dramatically. I took a few weeks off, continued doing lots of PT, and slowly resumed training and competition. To secure my knee, my trainer would tape everything up and then I’d put my giant knee brace on.

It was unwieldy and a lot of work but I was going to make it.

5. “Just another day in the office”

As the season progressed, our team really started coming together. Practices were tough but energetic. We really started nailing this high scoring sets in competition. And it felt like people were responding to the “compete to your potential” mindset.

In fact, we even had a saying that started with Sho. Whenever we would do an amazing routine or skill, instead of getting super high-fivey about it, we would just shrug our shoulders and say “Just another day in the office.” Because we were professionals and outstanding performance was just what. we. did.

One of the highlights of the season was winning against Oklahoma at Maples Pavilion in our conference championships. That was redemption for me. They came to our house and got taken down. It was the first time we had beaten OU at conference championships in the past five years. We hoped it was a good omen.

5. Getting on to that podium … finally!

VIDEO: Technically a promo video for the 2009-10 season, you can see some great clips of us winning around 50 seconds in.

The meet went by in blur. I only remember snippets. Some great routines. A few falls. A lot of sets where we fought and stayed with it. We competed the way we trained – nothing worse and nothing less. And at the end of the night, we were champions.

I ultimately didn’t end up competing in NCAAs.

One the last practice before we flew out to NCAAs, I landed wrong on a parallel bar dismount – something I had been concerned might happen throughout the season but always ended up fine. It was just a sprain – no tears. But it was enough to keep me out of the meet. I was disappointed … and it sucked having to tell my mom that she wouldn’t get to see the last meet of my career.

Outside of the slight bittersweetness of not being able to fully redeem myself for the 2008 failure – it was awesome to win. A number of my teammates from 2008 came out to watch the meet and we all celebrated together – I told them that this victory was as much theirs as it was mine.

We had finally done it – we had closed the deal and won.

A couple pictures…

Me holding the giant team trophy!
We could barely fit on the podium!
Yes - we got Super Bowl-esque rings. No - I don't wear it most of the time because it's gigantic and I don't want to lose it.
Pain is temporary. Glory (and tattoos) are forever.

6. Lessons learned

When trying to generalize a story like this, the lessons run the risk of becoming cliche and sounding like the crappy motivational posters you’d find in Dilbert / The Office. That’s partly why I went into so much depth about what happened. There were ups and downs and its not something you can wrap up neatly into a bow. But I do think there are some things I’ve learned that I’ve taken on to other areas of my life and I would like to share them.

  • Visualize your success before it happens. I mean this figuratively and literally. Every year, our team would commit to winning NCAA Championships. We knew what success looked like and that’s what drove us to work hard, even if it took us 14 years achieve our goal. And when I was returning to competition, I focused on imagining myself performing new skills and doing full routines so that when I came back, it felt completely natural. Imagine yourself confidently nailing that sales call, or being more calm with your kids and when the time comes, it’ll feel right.
  • Don’t be perfect, be aggressive. When I tried to do my Diamodov “perfectly”, I psyched myself out. When our team felt like they had to be perfect to win, we lost. When we focused on doing in a meet what we do in practice (which was just solid, aggressive performance) we won. Don’t try to avoid making mistakes. Go for what you want and know that passion and enthusiasm beat tepidness and over-caution nine times out of ten.
  • Savor the journey AND the destination. Winning was awesome. But that one shining moment will not be satisfying if you hated the many years leading up to it. Just coming back to competition for me was a dream come true – and after the injury I was grateful for every day that I could continue to do the sport that I loved. Whether you’re doing a startup or a PhD – remember that journey matters as much as the destination.
  • Winning with others is better. Dan Gill is a Stanford Men’s Gymnastics alumni who cofounded a startup called Huddler. (He’s pretty much my hero.) He’s a 9-Time All American and a 2-time NCAA Vault Champion. He told us he’d give it all up to win one team championship. So while striving for individual success is totally awesome – what’s even better is winning with others.
  • Never give up. I know this is such a cheesy ending but ultimately, that’s what this story is about. If you have a dream and you’re willing to do whatever it takes, and go however long it takes to reach that goal – you dramatically raise the chances that you will find a way to succeed. It’s what Paul Graham talks about in his essay How Not to Die. So believe in yourself, believe in your dreams and as long as they stay compelling to you – never give up on them.

Curious about getting more involved in startups? Interested to know why I love working for them? Curious reader, this post is for you. Read on…

One thing that I love about writing a blog getting and responding to reader emails. The questions asked are often stuff I talk about on the blog so sometimes I decide to essentially repost the thing on my blog [1]. I wrote a post earlier this month on having too many ideas and not executing that was prompted by a reader email. Well, it’s happened again. I got in touch with a dude named Nick who’s got a corporate job at Target but want’s to get into startups. Here’s what he said:

Hi Jason,

I came across your site while looking for advice on working for startups. Your entry on how to get hired by one was really helpful and, after going through many of your entries, I really admire what it is you do. I personally graduated from the University of Southern California (USC 2010) after an abroad stint in Thailand and realized my love for entrepreneurship/leadership later in college, which pivoted me away from pursuing a finance career.

As a result, I’m currently part of an executive management program for Target Corporation, where I manage an Assets Protection team that resides over a $60M sales/yr store.

In the next year or two, like you, I plan to be part of a close-knit entrepreneurial team to be part of companies that make positive social impact.

I’m sure you’re extremely busy, but I really admire your success and was wondering if you might be able to chat on the phone for just 20 minutes. I’m fascinated by your career and would love to learn more about how you got to where you are.

Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon!


Nick is clearly a driven and accomplished guy who has a good sense of what he wants to be doing next. His email gave me a bit of info on him (which is important), but his somewhat vague request to learn more about my background made it harder for me to write back with something of value. And since I had never met this guy, I didn’t necessarily want to start blocking off precious evening hours to chat with a stranger right off the bat.

So I pushed back on him and asked him if he had more specific questions I could help answer. He obliged with the list of great questions seen below, and even followed up after I didn’t get back to him after a few days. Good man. So let’s cut to the chase:

Startup Career Q&A with Jason and Nick

How did you come to realize that you wanted to work at a startup and what qualities make you successful?

It’s been a slow journey / process to learning about my interest in entrepreneurship. I think the first time was when I created a book called Stanford Spirit essentially from scratch and sold 50 copies to my college bookstore. The fact that I, over the course of a year, took something that was purely an idea in my head and brought it into the world, was a really awesome feeling.

I then got involved in more student groups and I think starting or leading a student group is often much like running a startup – you’ve got to recruit and organize the work of a bunch of talented individuals to do awesome stuff with limited time and resources. I cofounded a nonprofit my junior year focused on student entrepreneurship and microfinance which really turned me away from the idea of research or medicine (I was a biology major) to the idea of creating not just products but organizations from nothing into something awesome.

I’ve always been interested in exploring new technologies (especially stuff online) and eventually realized you can work at the companies that build this cool new stuff. So finally I put two and two together and here I am! Doing all these things I mentioned earlier + reading lots of startup material has helped me develop skills and attitudes that I think will make me successful (though the jury is really still out on if that actually ends up being the case). This include in no particular order:

  • a bias for action
  • really enjoying working closely with people
  • a strong urge to create and have creative ownership of my work
  • learning quickly
  • being persistent in face of obstacles / challenges.

I’m looking to switch career paths – I’m currently part of a management program for Target Corporation and have a great set of leadership/time management/performance management skills. How are these skills applicable for an entry-level startup job and how can I highlight what I’ve learned to them?

I’ve heard great things about the Target internship (definitely looked appealing when I was a senior). While I’ve never personally worked a corporate job, it seems like you can potentially gain some valuable skills there: the disciplined setting and measuring of team/personal goals, being held accountable for delivering results, taking a long term, holistic perspective on decision making, good communication skills (email, phone, one on one, small group, big group), professional training and development opportunities, being diligent and consistent and conscientious about your work.

There are of course potential downsides of working a corporate as well: the work (and therefore people) are often slow moving / slow to change, you are less resourceful because you have some much money / time / manpower at your disposal, you learn more about pleasing your boss more than getting results, your skill set is too specialized, you hare not a hustler, etc. Your best bet is to do whatever you can do to emphasize the positives and show how the negatives don’t apply to you.

I’ve written much more on this topic in post How to Land a Killer Startup Job Out of College

When applying to startups, what pitfalls would you avoid?

Avoid spamming lots of startups – focus and really go deep with a few at a time. Recognize there are a limited amount of business positions. Be willing to take a “lower level” position like customer support as a starting point. Don’t be too formal – figure out creative ways to 1) get their attention and 2) demonstrate you know your stuff and can deliver results.

What is it that you love most about what you do now?

I love directly interfacing with customers and representing the company. I like being thrown into new situations, going into business development meetings with my CEO at big companies, sitting in board meetings, closing deals with big customers, bringing in more revenue, trying new things like implementing analytics software or managing a team of virtual assistants, planning out our long term strategy & pricing models, learning about how our databases are configured, etc. The doing everything and moving fast and learning lots appeals greatly to the action oriented, ADD personality I have.

I wrote more about my startup experiences in my posts Things I’ve Learned Three Weeks at a Startup and 21 Lessons Learned 21 Weeks at a Startup.

I can only imagine that working at a smaller startup like isosocket requires a lot of personal time and long nights (not that it’s a bad thing), so how do you manage your personal work/life balance?

Time management is hard. So far it’s been pretty even keel at isocket (though this month and the months ahead are definitely more intense). It’s more the mental energy of thinking a lot about the business outside of work and the being potentially on call / on duty at a random time or on a weekend.

I make time to work out (sometimes at work as we’re doing the 100 pushup challenge) and see friends 2-3 times a week to stay grounded. I also blog because it helps me internalize what I’ve learned, meet new people (like you!) and develop my personal brand outside of my job. Sleeping is something I don’t do enough of, but somehow I’m making do with about 6 hours a night. Hope I can keep that up.


[1] My buddy Sebastian Marshall really likes doing these kinds of posts. I’ll be honest, sometimes I see those posts and I think Man, I want to know what Sebastian thinks, not read his specific responses to some random guy’s questions. So part of me hesitates, because I’ll see that it’s a direct response to a reader’s letter and think “This post isn’t for me, it’s going to be specifically for that guy. But then I’ll actually read the post and at least half the time I find it really valuable.

Also, I realized that because the writing is more specific, if you DO share the same interests / questions as Nick, this post will be twice as interesting as a normal post. Also, I hope this post encourages more people who have good questions to email me because they see that I’m really open to that kind of thing.

Oh – Nick and I have now scheduled to talk on Skype and I’m looking forward it. :-)