Beyond the 10,000 Hour Rule: Talking with Anders Ericsson on How People Reach Expert Performance

We’re all familiar with the 10,000 hour rule, which was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2010 bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, Gladwell makes the argument that 10,000 hours of practice is a critical number that separates the great from the truly extraordinary. One of the bodies of work Gladwell relied on to support his thesis were from research by Florida State University Psychology Professor K. Anders Ericsson, the granddaddy of research on how people developing expertise.

Ericsson studied violinists from the West Berlin Music Academy: the highest performing students did not differ significantly from average or low performing students by IQ, family background, or other factors. The only thing that separated top students who and those who would likely end up as music teachers was the total number of hours they had logged over their lifetime engaged in deliberate, focused, independent music practice.

By the age of 20, the top students had logged over 10,000 hours of this kind of training — a nice round number that Gladwell hammered home over and over again in Outliers. [1]  Continue reading…


The Science of Growth with Sean Ammirati (2-time Founder Turned VC)

I recently finished reading a new book about startups. It’s called The Science of Growth: How Facebook Beat Friendster and How Nine Other Startups Left the Rest in the Dust. It’s written by Sean Ammirati, who is a partner at Birchmere Ventures and an Adjunct Professor at Carnegie Mellon, where he teaches a courses on entrepreneurship. He was previously COO of ReadWriteWeb and cofounded mSpoke, a content recommendation engine that was acquired by LinkedIn.

The book is a spiritual successor to Four Steps to the Epiphany, in that it is an intellectual framework for thinking about high-growth entrepreneurship written someone with deep experience in the field. While there’s a cursory similarity to Good to Great / Great by Choice in comparing pairs of winner/loser companies, it really shines as a way of thinking about, talking about, and analyzing startups at different stages of growth: Continue reading…

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…

Great Career Paths are Messy Creatures

Most people seem to dislike their jobs or at best, find it tolerable. So when we encounter someone who seems to have a great job – work that is interesting, enjoyable, fulfilling and  impactful – it’s natural to get curious. How did they get there? What steps did they take to arrive at their current position. And of course:

How can I do the same?

I’d like to suggest two resources for everyone in their quest to reach their own great career:

Resource 1: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

The first is a book by Cal Newport of Study Hacks called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. This book, (based of a quote by Steve Martin), offers a framework for finding great work.

Great work, according to Newport, is work that offers things like autonomy/control over your work, the feeling that you’re good at what you do and a sense that you are having an impact on the world. He argues that getting a fulfilling career has far less to do with the type of work you do (the first chapter is devoted to bunking the myth that the way to a fulfilling career is “following your passions”) but more has to do with building career capital and leveraging it to gain a position that offers these things.

Career capital depends on the type of role you seek (for TV writers, it’s simply the ability to write really good scripts, while for entrepreneurs it might be a mix of technical skill, unique insight into a market, and a network that can reach great investors). The book is relatively short, quite insightful and full of profiles of people who have found great work. Go check it out.

Resource 2: CareerHoot Interviews

The second resource is a website called CareerHoot by my friend Andrew Chen which an online resource of interviews of people who have made career transitions – so people looking to switch jobs can see how others have done it. Continue reading…

Interviewed on True Ventures TEC Blog

I got in touch a while back with a U of Michigan student Jenny Li, who was interning at True Ventures as part of the TEC Program. The original interview was here, but I figured it might be worth posting it on the blog as well. Enjoy!

On Tuesday, July 12, I attended StartupRoots and met Manish Shah from Rapleaf (next blog post–stay tuned!), who referred me to Steve Newcomb’s essay on team building, which led me to googling “cult creation,” which led me to a blog entry by Jason Shen, who turned out to be a San Francisco start-up guy, whose blog inspired me so much that I emailed him, from which he was nice enough to answer some questions, which are below.

If you got through that long story and run-on sentence, here’s what he had to say about start-ups, life, and #winning. Thanks again Jason!

1. Can you tell us your abridged life story? What led you to Stanford, nonprofits, and start-ups?

Oh man – how much editing to do? I was born in China, moved to a suburb of Boston at age 3 with my mom to join my father, who was getting a doctorate degree in education at Boston University.

Mom was a gymnast in China and I ended up in the sport at age 6. Loved gymnastics – great outlet as I was a highly excitable kid. Didn’t really start to excel until around age 10. Started competing in nation-wide competitions at age 11 – think I placed 70 something out of 90 competitors at my first Jr Nationals. In sophomore year of high school, I changed gyms and started training with a hard core Armenian coach – made the Jr National team that first year.

I always liked school – especially reading. My parents had high expectations for my grades but I rarely got straight As – usually had some B+’s due to sloppy work. Read 7 Habits of Highly Effective people when I was 13, which sparked a life long obsession with personal development and making myself a better human being. Went to a big, well run public school and took a number of honors and AP classes. Found that I had a knack for standardized testing and did really well in the SATs and various SAT IIs.

Got recruited by a number of schools my senior year, but there was only one school that had a good athletic and academic program: Stanford. I applied through a special earlier-than-early application and after getting accepted in October plus a partial scholarship, my college decision was settled.

2. You maintain a pretty kickass blog—can you tell us how it got started and what it’s like keeping up an awesome blog despite your busy schedule? What advice do you have for writing a successful blog?

I’ve tried to keep a various versions of a blog since 2006 but the current version of the site began when I was working at isocket in summer of 2010. My coworker Ryan Hupfer convinced me to write – his experiences writing a blog with his girlfriend-turned-wife showed him that even if only a few people read your blog, the people you would touch and get in contact with would make it worth it.

I started to write about what I was learning at my startup. My big break was writing “How to Land a Killer Job at a Tech Startup” with my friend Derek. The post landed on Hacker News and sent ~3k unique visitors to my site in one day. I think at the time my traffic was around 5-10 uniques a day.

Like a drug dealer I was hooked.

My blog has turned into an incredibly valuable asset for me – as a channel for distributing ideas, a way to “build my personal brand”, and as a learning mechanism (writing makes you think + you get to interview smart people).

Writing now is more something I’m compelled to do. It’s the act of creating something – I get uncomfortable if I’m not putting out a post at least once a week. When I was working at isocket, I’d write on the train ride to and from work, or on weekends. If you see the value, you’ll make time.

My biggest piece of advice is to not quit. So many people start blogs with good intentions and can’t stay with it. Start small, don’t quit and you’ll figure everything else out along the way.

3. Most experienced entrepreneurs say that 1) persistence is key, 2) the idea is nothing without execution, and 3) people are the startup’s best assets. Since you have a unique perspective on that since you’re currently in the middle of getting a start-up off the ground, what would you say about that?

These things sound like truisms but make a lot of sense when you think about what starting a startup involves. Pretty much every viable idea has been tried by someone somewhere at some point. A big part of succeeding is figuring out how your version of this idea will work when others have failed (execution). When you start out, it’s just you and whoever else you’re working with, maybe some money, maybe a prototype and some code. But really, having the right people shapes the outcome more than anything else early on is so key (people). And finally, you are unlikely to get everything right the first time around so you have to be willing to run into walls again and again until you get something going (persistence).

4. You’ve written about recovering from setbacks—what other stories can you tell us about the sorts of rejection that new entrepreneurs will face and the best ways to deal with them?

One good story that I think shows the power of persistence is that Pandora went two years without paying people. So many entrepreneurs and employees would have given up right there but somehow as a company they survived and have now IPOed. More here:

5. You’ve won a NCAA championship in men’s gymnastics, graduated from Stanford University, cofounded a nonprofit, worked in sales & marketing at isocket, are a certified professional in the Art of Kicking Ass, and are now in the midst of a tech start-up. Is there anything you can’t or don’t do, and more importantly, where’s the guide on #winning in life? What’s your version of “7 Habits for Highly Effective People”?

Haha. Thanks for the kind words. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and failed at many things. I keep a failure resume that I should update since I’ve f-ed up many things since last time I edited it. A short list:

– failed to get a girlfriend in high school

– failed to make the jr national team my senior year of high school

– failed an advanced organic chem class at Stanford

– failed to “hit” my routine at Day 2 of NCAA championships in 2008

– failed to get into Harvard Business School’s 2+2 program

– failed to get the Stanford Daily to profitability in my year as COO

In general I perform poorly on things that require super high level of organization / attention to detail, need me to do a lot of math, require a really great deal of patience without short term payoffs. And if I’m really honest, I’d say that I don’t think I’m great at first dates.

I have more to learn before I write any sort of overall life advice book but I’d love to someday in the future. In 2007, at the bequest of my father I wrote something called A Guide to Life for Asian American Teens. I think it’s held up pretty well and isn’t that age or race specific despite the title. You can check it out here: