Around the Web: The science of “practice makes perfect”, Are Asians the new Jews at Ivies? and more

While this blog is where most of my content goes, from time to time, I’ve written articles for other websites and it’s nice to be able to share those with you. Here are five articles ranging from neuroscience, higher education, digitization, fitness, and personal development for you to enjoy!

~ Jason

Buffer – Why practice actually makes perfect: How to rewire your brain for better performance

rewireOne of my favorite blogs out there is run by the social sharing app Buffer. As many of you know, I’m very passionate about behavior change, new skill acquisition, and research on improvement. So a few months ago I did some research on how practice actually changes the way our brains work and how a fatty tissue called myelin super-charges our neural connections. My post was published on the Buffer blog and then picked up by Lifehacker, which is always a neat thing.

A quote from the post:

One compelling piece of evidence comes from brain scans of expert musicians. There’s been a lot of research done on how musician brains differ from the brains of ordinary people – and one specific study used a particular brain scan called Diffusion MRI, which gives us information about tissues and fibers inside the scan region in an non-invasive way.

The study suggested that the estimated amount of practice an expert piano player did in childhood and adolescence, was correlated with the white matter density in regions of the brain related to finger motor skills, visual and auditory processing centers, and others — compared to regular people. And most significantly was that there was a directly correlation between how many hours they practiced and how dense their white/myelin matter was. [4]

Read more on the science of practice here. Continue reading…

Great Training Beats Great Equipment and Other Thoughts

A friend recently emailed me an old compilation video of myself as a high school gymnast. It includes clips from both training and competition and sparked a few thoughts for me that I thought I might share. Watching the video isn’t really necessary but I’ve included it below for context.

(Click through to watch the video if you’re reading this as an email)

  • Great training > great equipment:
    I switched to a new gym and a new coach in fall of 2001-02. It was my sophomore year in high school and I was working under a young Armenian coach named Levon (who I interviewed earlier this year). He really understood great gymnastics technique and extremely enthusiastic about making sure you made corrections every turn. Despite the fact that the gym was small and the equipment was old and rickety, but I improved tremendously – making the junior national team. Even after moving to a better facility the next year, and even better equipment at Stanford, I never experienced a greater improvement in my skill as a gymnast in a single year, than I did that year.
  • You rarely see the long road to excellence
    We often see other people only when they are at their best. Presenting at a meeting, pushing a finished feature, showcasing a portfolio. Rarely do we see the struggle, the mistakes, and the preparation that came before that performance. In the video, I repeat one move on the parallel bar, where I swing up, release and land with two arms on one bar. I do it over and over again – usually with an error. But if you just watched me in competition, you’d rarely see me miss it.
  • Nothing beats the thrill of performing at a high level
    Watching myself compete at the USA National Championships (the clips where I’m wearing a silver, red and blue uniform) bring me back to the excitement of competition and high level performance. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the concept of “flow” which he says is triggered by a “high challenge, high skill” endeavor. I think many athletes would find that a good descriptor for their experience when competing/performing. And I think this idea applies to careers as well. Finding work that you enjoy, fulfills a market need and that you can get really good at is so important – because it feels so good to succeed at something that is hard and that you are good at.

PS – The friend who sent me the video is Jamie Northrup, a professional stuntman and a former teammate of mine. You can see his stunt reel here.

How a Gymnastics Coach Became a Single-Digit Handicap Golfer in Six Years

Is athletic ability something that’s transferable? Deion Sanders was an outstanding baseball and football player, but Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, struggled in his short-lived baseball career.

I spent over a decade as a nationally competitive gymnast and learned a ton about performing under pressure, overcoming fear and mastering skills. I owe much of my success to my amazing coach, Levon Karakhanyan, who trained me for the last 3 years of high school and helped me earn a spot on the US Jr. National Team. (He also is the only man I have truly feared because he was … aggressive about correcting my mistakes and making sure I finished every last rep of my strength conditioning. And yes, there were serious consequences if I cheated.)

In 2007, Levon picked up golf as a hobby but quickly made leaps and bounds in his play. He is now a single digit handicap golfer (about 7.3), which puts him in the top 16% of all golfers in the US who keep a handicap, which is even more impressive when you consider that most golfers probably don’t keep a handicap at all.

And he’s done all this while being the Head Coach for the boy’s program at NESA and raising a young son. He’s now

In the interview, Levon and I discuss:

  • How he got started as a gymnast himself
  • What differentiated him from other gymnasts
  • Why patience was a key quality of becoming a better coach
  • How he found the time to practice while holding down a full-time job
  • Why the ratio of practice to competition matters so much 
  • Jason:  Levon, let’s start with gymnastics.  You’re my gymnastics coach.  When did you start doing gymnastics?
  • Levon:  I was about six years old in Armenia.
  • Jason: Did they pick you up from a program?  How did they find you?
  • Levon: My parents were very concerned about me doing all kinds of crazy things.
  • Jason:  You were a really active as a kid so they wanted to put you in a gym.
  • Levon: Yes.  My aunt actually had a friend who worked in a gymnastics facility, after her complaining about me doing crazy things, she said,”Oh, it looks like he might be just the right person to do gymnastics.  Why don’t you bring him over so they can check it out and see if he’s good.”
  • Jason: So were you a good gymnast as a kid? Did you immediately …
  • Levon:  When I came, it was a selection process.  They wouldn’t pick anybody.  They were impressed.  They put me on the bars.  I did 10 pull-ups, and they said, “Enough,” and they were pulling me off the bars, and I was still trying to do more pull-ups.
  • Jason: You were pretty strong as a kid.
  • Levon: Yes.
  • Jason: Did you have good air sense? Were you able to pick up some of that like the skills? Did you learn skills quickly, do you feel?
  • Levon: Yes, relatively quickly. It was a long process from that point. Many years of training and everything else.
  • Jason: You liked gymnastics too.
  • Levon: Oh, yes. Absolutely. It was a lot of fun. I could do everything that I wanted to do instead of everybody telling me, “Oh, stop doing that.” Everybody was like, “Oh, yes. Do more.” Continue reading…
Learning to Code: Lessons From Building a Rails App with Treehouse

Learning to Code: Lessons from Building a Rails App with Treehouse

Last night I pushed my first Rails app to production – you can find it at (oops! It looks like all the traffic has crashed the app. Hiding the URL for now) Here’s what it looks like.

It’s like a super stripped down version of Twitter – you can create an account and post statuses. It uses Twitter Bootstrap for some basic styling and Gravatars for profile pics. One obvious area for improvement (among many) is that right now, you can post a status as any user (not just yourself) and edit anyone’s status.

Despite this issue, I’m still very proud of it. Deploying the app to Heroku was a very satisfying moment and feels like a real milestone in my quest to learn how to code. I have a long way to go, but I thought I’d stop and share some lessons I’ve learned so far as a business guy venturing into web development.

Note: My friend Bevan is starting a Ruby on Rails Newbies Meetup in SF if you’re interesting in connecting in meatspace.

Learning to Code: Lessons From Building a Rails App with Treehouse

1) Have a learning plan

I signed up for Treehouse (referral link) in late December and have been going through their modules for the past 6 weeks . You can see my progress here. Treehouse was recommended to me by a non-technical friend (thanks Tony!) who found it very accessible and I completely agree.

Having a program or system, especially an interactive one that’s designed for newbies, is incredibly comforting. I know I can work my way through the modules and learn the basics without missing something important or getting too stuck. Obviously there are many options beyond Treehouse. CodeSchool and Lynda are paid subscription based models, and the Ruby on Rails Tutorial are other learning plans that would be worth checking out.

2) Setup is a big hurdle and something to be proud of

When I tried to learn Rails a few years ago, I struggled with correctly configuring Rails and Ruby. It was frustrating and embarrassing to be stymied by such a basic issue that I didn’t feel comfortable asking for help. That was a mistake. I am comforted by Michale Hartle (author of Ruby on Rails Tutorial) when he talks about getting up and running:

There is quite a bit of overhead here, especially if you don’t have extensive programming experience, so don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to get started. It’s not just you; every developer goes through it (often more than once), but rest assured that the effort will be richly rewarded.

So don’t be discouraged by the first hurdle of just getting setup. When you finally get it done, celebrate it – it’s a worthy accomplishment for a newbie. Continue reading…

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…