When Software is Eating the World, You Better Start Making Dishes

Photo Credit: Kuba Bożanowski via Compfight cc

One of my goals for 2013 is to learn enough about programming to build and release publicly a simple web application that does something interesting.

I’ve been working toward this goal for about a month and wanted to share some thoughts on it so far. In this post, I’ll share my history with programming and why I’ve dedicated myself toward this goal. In a later post, I’ll talk more about how it’s progressing.

My history with programming

In high school and college, I took a few basic computer science courses. I learned Java and Python, played with if/then statements and while loops, and built little applications that did things like simulate games of Craps.

While it was interesting, I struggled with the assignments and learned more towards basic sciences, like biology, where simply mastering a lot of content was enough to get good grades. I didn’t pursue advanced studies in CS.

In September 2010, I made my first attempt at learning Ruby on Rails. Back then I was still working at isocket as a business guy and not a founder.  I made a number of mistakes, including not having a learning plan and trying to start on the newly updated versions of Ruby and Rails at the time (1.9.2 and 3.0.0, respectively). Continue reading…

Rebounding from Setbacks: a step-by-step guide

Photo Credit: Kevin_Morris via Compfight cc

Setbacks are a pillar of an ambitious life. If you’re looking to do big things in 2013, you will encounter obstacles and challenges and may find yourself moving farther away from your goals, rather than closer to them.

Big setbacks can be a lot to handle. They can be discouraging, exact damage to our bodies, bank accounts and social status, and getting your groove back may take a long time and never be fully complete.

While I’m very grateful for the life I’ve lived thus far, it was not without setbacks. I’ve encountered them as an athlete (injuries and training plateaus), entrepreneur (investor rejections, unhappy customers, hiring difficulties) and human being (missing flights, trouble with the law, arguments among friends).

I was recently talking with two people – a parent of a young child, and a former coworker about dealing with setbacks and thought I’d share some thoughts that might be useful for anyone who has recently faced a difficult setback.

13 Steps to Rebounding from a Big Setback

  1. It’s OK to feel bad.
     It’s completely natural to feel strong negative emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment and humiliation. Don’t deny these feelings or take them as indication that you are a failure. You’ve hit road block on your way toward a goal and that never feels good.
  2. You won’t feel this way forever
    We tend to project our current state into the future. If we feel good, we think we’ll always feel this good. If we feel bad, we think we’ll always feel this bad. Realize that like how the pain from stubbing your toe subsides over time, the strong negative emotions you feel from your setback will subside with time, allowing you to heal and move on.
  3. You are not alone
    Because failures and setbacks are not broadcast the way successes are, we tend to think that no one has ever dealt with the situation we’re dealing with. But chances are —  whether it’s a divorce, a criminal charge, a job loss, a public failure, the death of someone close to you, a huge debt or a natural disaster —  someone you know has dealt with it before.
  4. Continue reading…

Introducing The Monthly FitChal (Max Sit-Ups Pre-Training)

I’ve found that I’m more motivated to work out when I have set goals for myself. Last year, I was on a big running kick and did my first half marathon, first triathlon and my big goal was to run the San Francisco Marathon.

This year, I am still running a couple times a week, but the SF cold has kept me from doing a lot of long runs on the weekends, especially without a big race to train for. I do plan to do more racing, but I’m not sure when. So I’ve decided to mix things up this year.

Here’s how my Monthly Fitness Challenges will work:

  1. At the start of each month, I’ll post a blog post of me doing a particular fitness challenge
  2. If you want to join in, you can post your own time/score in the comments
  3. During the month, I will train for the exercise and share what workouts I do for it
  4. At the end of the month, I’ll post again with my final results
  5. If you’re following along, you can share your results too!

This coincides nicely with my goal to try new stuff on the blog —  as I’ll be trying to shoot videos for every one of my challenges. I’m sure I’ll make lots of mistakes along the way, but I’ll try to fix them as they come up. Let me know if you have thoughts or suggestions!

Note: I know it’s already halfway through the month, so I apologize for taking a while to get this post up. Future posts should come up at the beginning of the month.

Without further ado, here’s my first one: Continue reading…

Using Variable Rewards to Drive Behavior Change

Easily distracted by shiny objects

Sound familiar to anyone?

There’s something thrilling about newness and uncertainty. Whether it’s watching a gripping Christopher Nolan film, starting the next level in a game or going on a first date, we can be easily captivated by what we don’t know.

The human species possesses a disposition towards novelty - and tens of thousands of years ago, that drove us to explore new lands, try new foods and see what happened when we struck two rocks together.

But just as our craving for sweets, salts and fats were valuable in the Paleolithic era, when such foods were scarce, but are now warped in the age of carmel-drizzled kettle corn, our novelty-seeking tendencies can lead us astray.

Variable rewards are a particularly powerful “hook” for the brain. Casinos and many games use frequent but hard-to-predict rewards to keep their players coming back for more.

In this post, I want to talk about how variable rewards work and how we can use them to drive positive behavior change for ourselves.

The science behind variable rewards

Variable rewards are when you positively reinforce a behavior at an non-fixed (ie less predictable) schedule. By varying when you deliver the reward for a certain behavior and how big that reward is, you can quickly reinforce that behavior and make it very strong and resistant to extinction (aka it becomes a habit or routine).

This finding is born out of the research conducted on animals, for instance: teaching a rat to press a lever. Researchers found that when compared to a fixed schedule (eg: a piece of cheese every other lever presses), mixing up the schedule (eg: two rewards in a row after one press, then a single reward after three presses, etc) was more effective even when the overall reward ratio was 1 to 2.

How Variable Rewards Work - Jason Shen

Quick chart I whipped up to explain the difference between fixed ratio and variable ratio rewards.

Why does this work?

The answer has to do with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s tightly linked with desire and habit. Getting a reward increases dopamine levels in your brain, which motivates you to do the thing which got you the reward (rats with missing dopamine receptors struggle to build habits). Continue reading…

The Art of Ass-Kicking’s Best Posts of 2012

Welcome to the 2012 Art of Ass-Kicking Year in Review. I wanted to do a little roundup of my best blog posts of the past year, review some stats and offer a few thoughts for the new year.

Most popular posts by traffic:

  1. Eleven Compelling Startup Pitch Archetypes
    After helping a number of startups apply to YC, I was buzzing with ideas and this post was the result. It was shared all across the web (700+ tweets, 28k views) and I was floored by the response from entrepreneurs all over the world.
  2. How to Be Relentlessly Resourceful [a practical guide]
    Frustrated by a pathetic comment someone made on Hacker News, I wrote this guide to make sure no one can ever say they don’t understand what PG calls the definite characteristic of a good founder.
  3. The Most Memorable Quotes from Startup School 2012
    Y Combinator’s Startup School brings some of the smartest & most successful entrepreneurs and investors in the world and I definitely wanted to capture and remember those insights
  4. How to Give Negative Feedback Effectively
    Do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? If people don’t take your advice, then you’ve failed, no matter how good the advice was.
  5. How Coffee Meetings Power Silicon Valley
    I dashed this one off after a good meeting with someone. Surprised to see it so high on the list, but it goes to show that I don’t always know what people want.
  6. Great By Choice — Surprisng Lessons of How Tech Startups Suceed over the Long Term
    In which I mine for insights a great new book by one of the smartest business teachers in the world – Jim Collins. Big post clocking in at 4000 words.
  7. The Story of How a Business Guy Earned the Opportunity to Co-Found a Tech Startup
    This is one of those stories that doesn’t appear on Techcrunch, but really shows what great founders are about. Business co-founders, take note.
  8. The Well-Crafted Mobile App – A UX Design Case Study for Startups
    A guest post by Suelyn Yu, an interaction designer and friend of mine who guided many of the decisions we made in building the Ridejoy mobile app.
  9. Book Notes: Smart Choices – a Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions
    When you’re faced with making an important life decision, it’s worth taking the time and effort to really figure out the right answer. This book offers a great approach.
  10. Out of My Element: Notes by a Former Gymnast Turned Runner in His First Triathlon
    I was trying a different style with this post, interweaving the triathlon itself with my previous athletic background and the training I did in preparation for the race.
  11. Old School Posts
    There were also a couple posts that were in the top 10 traffic-wise in 2012 that were actually published in previous years. They were: Taking Cold Showers (2011), The Anatomy of a Great Email Introduction (2011) and The Rejection Therapy Challenge Week 1 (2010)

My Personal Favorites

Beyond the chart toppers, I wrote a number of other posts that I’m proud to share and think you might like. Check ‘em out.

  1. Guide to YC
    Not technically a post, but 96 page book I wrote that was published by Hyperink. Over 2000 people snagged a copy and you can get yours for free by signing up for the Insider’s List.
  2. Getting Buy-In For Your Ideas (3 Part Series)
    One of the most frustrating things in the world is to have your good ideas shot down. This series shows how to persuade a group and prevent naysays from ruining everything.
  3. What I Learned from My First Blunder-Filled Marathon
    I ran the San Francisco Marathon in July 2012 and it was dream come true, and a very rough time. Here’s the story.
  4. What the Research of Habits Reveal about Willpower and Overall Well-Being
    A guest post for the Buffer blog, this post looks at some fascinating research on what happens when you get people started on new habits.
  5. UX Design For Non-Designers
    Notes on from the first Skillshare class I ever took. I’ve learned a lot about interaction design this year and it started with this class.
  6. Ignite Talk on Rejection Therapy
    Ignite gives you 5 minutes and 20 slides to tell your story. I told mine about 3 rejections I had and what I learned from the challenge. This is the video.
  7. What Helps You Grow Stronger?
    Originally an answer on Quora, I am proud of the research I did on understanding the biology of strength and applying those ideas to other areas
  8. Twelve Life Lessons Learned from Burning Man
    In my second year at the festival, I reflect on what being a Burner has taught me about life.
  9. Answering the Big Gymnastics Questions of the 2012 Olympics on Quora
    Where I give you the real deal on why American female gymnasts are so dominant, and what Mary Lou Retton’s 10.0 vault would have scored by 2012 judging standards.
  10. What’s the One Thing you Wish You Knew When You Were 26?
    This was a fun post I did on my birthday asking people to share their lessons (or hopes) on the year 26. Some great discussion ensued.

Honors

Just wanted to record, if only for myself, a few things that were nice-to-haves from this year.

Stats & Data

I still see big spikes in my traffic due to highly upvoted posts on Hacker News. I had a total of 196k visits off 153k vistors, indicating 56% and 53% growth respectively. I had exactly the same time on site (2mins 3sec) and slightly fewer pages per visit (1.41 vs 1.46)

This means I averaged ~13k visitors a month and 23k pageviews. On a regular, none chart topping day, I’m running around 275 visitors and 470 pageviews.

Referrals accounted for 46% of total traffic (91k visits) and while HN again was my top referrer, I had less traffic from HN this year, vs last year (44k vs 46k) despite growing 50% traffic overall. That means it came from other sources, like social media. Twitter + FB + StumbleUpon accounted for 19k visits, over 40% of HN.

Search traffic grew in 2012, accounting for 29% of my total traffic (56k visits), double what it was in 2011 (15%). This means that while direct traffic grew from 33k to 42k visits, it’s relative percentage went down from 26% to 21%. A little frustrated by the lack of insight on the “not provided” search terms, but apparently I’m not the only one.

Reflections & Resolutions

I’m pretty happy with the writing I’ve done on the blog this year. It’s covered a wide range of topics, from pure tech startup stuff, to my athletic training and competition, to behavioral psychology and more inspirational material.

I’ve noticed that I’m writing fewer posts – 61 in 2012, down from 121 in 2011 – and the fact that my traffic grew says to me that what matters is quality, not quantity. I will probably post even few posts in 2013, but my guess and my hope is, that each post will be even better.

In 2013, I’m hoping to expand my reperetoire of communication styles and do some new things with the blog, like YouTube videos, charts/diagrams, slide decks, long-form pieces and even audio. Other than that, I’m leaving it open ended – who knows what will happen!

As always, I’ll try to keep it fun, actionable and focused on helping you. Thanks for sharing the journey with me.

—  Jason

Past Year in Reviews