Great by Choice

The surprising lessons of how tech startups succeed over the long term

Summary: Great by Choice describes the results of a deep investigation into how young companies can survive and thrive in chaotic, turbulent environments to achieve spectacular results. The book is of great value startups and entrepreneurs seeking to build enduringly great companies. In this blog post, I look at how his concepts of fanatical discipline, productive paranoia, and empirical creativity apply to building a startup that succeeds over the long-term [1].

Introduction

I just finished reading Jim Collins’ new book Great by Choice: Uncertainty Chaos and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (GBC from here on out). GBC is the spiritual sequel to a highly-regarded & best-selling book published by Collins in 2001 called Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’tBoth are great reads, but I find GBC particularly relevant to technology entrepreneurs (like myself). Why? Two reasons.

The level of research behind the book:

Unlike many business books, this is not just one successful guy waxing philosophical about how he made stuff happen [2]. Jim Collins and his coauthor Morten Hansen had entire teams of research analysts work for 9 (!!) years to complete the book.

They picked industries that were highly volatile and selected young/small companies that did extraordinarily well (beating their industry’s average stock growth by 10x or more for at least 15 years). They found comparison companies that were started off very similar to the “10x companies” but only had average performance, and dissected all the data they could gather on both companies to find the differences. For more, see Appendix A below.

The companies / industries studied:

  • Computing/Software: Microsoft vs Apple [3]
  • Integrated Circuits: Intel vs AMD
  • Biotechnology: Amgen vs Genentech
  • Medical Devices: Biomet vs Kirschner
  • Surgical Devices: Stryker vs USSC
  • Insurance: Progressive vs Safeco
  • Airlines: Southwest vs PSA

The companies are relevant and familiar to tech entrepreneurs like me and many of the folks on this blog. My focus in this post is to look at how the conclusions from the research could be applied to early stage startups that WANT to build enduring and spectacularly successful companies. I’m excited to see what we find.

Myth-Busting: It’s not about more vision, creativity, risk-taking or luck

One of the great things about this study is that it’s not just studying winners but looking at the difference between winners and losers. GBC found that the 10x companies were NOT more creative, visionary, ambitious, lucky, hard working, risk-taking, innovative, etc. It’s not that those things weren’t important – I think they were/are. And GBC acknowledges this.

It’s just that both groups had lots of these things. Yet they had different outcomes. So we have to look at what DIFFERED between the 10x and comparison companies. Let’s start by looking at how innovation happens at 10xers.

Fire Bullets then Cannonballs: Another look at launching MVPs

In the startup world, most people are familiar with the concept of the MVP: the minimum viable product. The idea is that before you prep your product for scale, spend lots of money on marketing/advertising or build advanced features — you first need to find that MVP that really delights customers. GBC confirms that within 10x companies were not necessarily characterized by gigantic innovations/breakthroughs, but an intelligent system of “empirical creativity” that they call “Fire bullets, then cannonballs”.

Basically the 10x companies tended to fire more bullets (testing products/services/channels,etc in a limited capacity), did NOT fire more cannonballs (big deals/major efforts/expensive acquisitions)  vs comparison companies in total, but when the 10xers did go all out, their efforts were more likely to result in positive outcomes.

Some examples:

Microsoft In 1987 Microsoft had built Windows to run on the IBM PC based on MS-DOS, which was becoming the industry standard. But IBM was also preparing to release a new set of computers running OS/2 – which Gates himself thought would dominate the industry within 2 years. Microsoft had only IPOed a year ago and still had limited resources. Gates hedged his bets and continued working on Windows development even as he committed tons of resources on developing on top of OS/2 — in the face of strong resistance from some of the people in his own executive team. This turned out to be a really good idea when OS/2 failed to become the market winner. Microsoft was then able to throw the full weight behind Windows and launched Windows 3.1 selling a million copies in 4 months (3x more than OS/2 did in 3 years).

Apple Today, Apple makes boatloads of cash on their 300+ retail stores – earning more per sq ft than Tiffany’s. But it didn’t start that way. Jobs recruited the President of GAP to the Apple Board way back in 1999 and spent a year testing the concept before they launched their first two stores in 2001. Through refining their stores over a decade, Apple now has more people coming through their stores in one quarter than went through all four Disney resorts in 2010. That’s how you go from bullet to cannonball. [4]

What I think this means for startups:

Don’t feel like you have to be THE first company out there, or the first one with a specific feature. Gowalla was founded either one or two years before foursquare (depending on who you ask) but foursquare won. Yes, it’s valuable to be first for many reasons, but it’s not worth being first on something that sucks.

Look at Zynga: criticize them all you want about Farmville being a ripoff and a waste of time. The company has IPOed, which puts them among a very select group when it comes to internet/consumer tech startups. In the games business, you need hits. Zygna uses “ghetto testing”to make sure that they invest their resources in projects that are going to pay off, based on user data. This is what it means to fire bullets then cannonballs as a startup.

On a personal note, when we launched Ridejoy on the West Coast in the fall, we had already tested a lot of elements of our rideshare service from our month long Burning Man rideshare site BurningManRides.com in the summer. And now we’re taking the lessons we’ve learned from the West Coast to our SF <> Tahoe route.


The 20 Mile March: Great companies are built through fanatic discipline

This concept is about fanatic discipline when it comes to your company’s performance. Specifically, setting high but reachable goals (that are specific to the business and largely within your control) and consistently hitting them, even during bad times, without overreaching or getting greedy during good times. By doing this you build your company’s confidence to perform an adverse conditions, reduce the likelihood of catastrophe when hit with turbulent disruption and helps you exert self control in an out of control environment.

I chose to lead with the empirical creativity section because we’re talking about startups, but the book lead with the 20 Mile March because it was “a distinguishing factor, to an overwhelming degree, between the 10X companies and the comparison companies in our research”. Wow. Discipline is what matters.

Some examples:

The race to the South Pole Jim Collins lives in Colorado and is an lifelong rock climber, so it’s not surprising that he takes inspiration from famous expeditions. One re-occuring example is of the race to the South Pole in 1911: two teams battled to be the first – one lead by Roald Amundsen and another led by Robert Falcon Scott.

Amundsen turned out to be the 10xer of the comparison for many reasons, but for this section we’ll focus on his relentless discipline. Amundsen pushed his team to go 15-20 miles every day despite weather conditions. On good days he would not overextend (even against the wishes of his team) and on bad days he made sure they kept moving forward. In comparison, Scott’s team fluctuated wildly with their march, sometimes traveling a lot and sometimes traveling not at all (with similarly varying weather).

Amundsen hit the South Pole in mid December and arrived back at camp exactly on the day he had scheduled: January 17, 1912. Scott arrived to the South Pole in January, cursed the Amundsen flag, and headed home, ultimately getting stranded in a storm and freezing to death in March, only 10 miles from a supply depot.

Southwest Airlines Southwest had a 20 Mile March of being profitable each year – a demanding task when the US airline industry as a whole turned a profit on only 6 of 14 years (1990-2003). Despite major changes in the industry where big players went bankrupt, Southwest was able to stay profitable for 30 years straight, including in 2001 amidst the 9/11 attacks. It also had the discipline to not grow too quickly even when lots of cities demanded their service, expanding for instance, to 4 new cities in 1996 even as 100 demanded SW. They left growth on the table in order to be more steady.

Stryker (biomed devices) CEO John Brown set a benchmark of 20% net income growth every year in 1977, calling it “the law”. Excuses were not acceptable. Executives behind the 20% mark got the “Snorkel Award” because you were basically going to drown. At regional sales meetings, people who make the 20% sat at the front and the rest sat in the back. The company hit the goal 19 out of 21 years – and also held back, growing more slowly than the comparison company USSC more than half the time.

What I think this means for startups

I think there are two elements to the 20 Mile March: 1) figuring out the fundamentals of your business and 2) sticking with them and making steady, consistent progress.

Most startups are still figuring out the first part, which is why I focused on the empirical creativity section first. You’ve got to figure out a winning formula, but once you do, drive at it hard and consistently, avoiding the overreach but also doing everything in your power to keep forward momentum constant.

It’s difficult to get a current day example of this given how secretive companies are about the way they run, but I’ll point to two examples of companies being relentlessly and consistently focused on acheiving specific metrics:

Facebook: realized that growth was going to the be their path to success and built a growth team designed specifically to work on projects and features (like tweaking the signup flow) to push for growth.[5]

Amazon: in its 1997 letter to shareholders Bezos laid out his plan: win marketshare. [6] Amazon has consistently grown it’s revenues and its share of markets, (like the book and ebook publishing markets) to staggeringly heights. They are always trying to drive down prices and implement programs that make people buy more, even when it doesn’t make sense from a revenue/cost perspective (like Amazon Prime). Some analysts have indicated that Amazon could be running up to 1/3 of all ecommerce and growing.

At Ridejoy, we’re in it for the long haul. I’m very excited about our business but I know it’s going to take hard work, applied consistently over time to make it work. It took Airbnb 1,000 days before they became an “overnight success” and we’re also prepared for a long march.

Leading Above the Death Line – Why productive paranoia is critical for surviving and thriving

It turns out that 10x companies are not a cocky bunch. Yes, they work toward their 20 Mile March goals with steadfast resolve and they’re confident, but they’re also hypervigilant and aware of the countless number of things that could weaken or destroy everything they’ve built. Leading above the death line is not about completely avoiding any errors, but about making sure you have what it takes to recover and nothing wipes you out.

Specifically, the research found that:

  • Cash buffers: 10X companies held a 3-10X higher than average cash to assets and cash to liabilities ratio, and 80% had higher ratios vs the comparison companies
  • Made less risky decisions: 10x companies made fewer small, medium and high risk decisions compared to comparison companies
  • Deliberately slow or fast: 10x companies often didn’t make the first move and demonstrated a higher level of internal data gathering/analysis. But when they were sure it was the right move, they usually moved faster than comparison companies.

Some examples:

Microsoft Early on, Bill Gates established a rule that Microsoft should be able to go a full year without any revenue. Even in 2010, they are close: having around $40B in expenses and $36B in cash/cash equivalents. In 1991, MSFT stock dropped 11% when a “Nightmare Memo” written by Gates internally was leaked, listing a series of challenges and threats in competitors, technology, IP and customer support failures that could wallop the business. John Sculley of Apple in comparison, had a good year in 1998, doubling sales and net income in 2 years, so he went on a 9-week sabbatical. Not particularly paranoid.

Intel Andy Grove (former CEO of Intel) is the Godfather of Paranoia, having penned an management book called Only the Paranoid Survive discussing how to respond to “Strategic Inflection Points”. Intel of course famously dropped their memory chip business when it became exceedingly clear, after rigorous analysis, that they would not be able to compete with the Japanese and jumped directly full force into microprocessors.

What I think this means for startups:

This chapter immediately reminded me of Chris Dixon’s article “Always have 18 months of cash in the bank“. In re-reading Dixon’s article, I was struck by this line: “building/marketing/selling technology always takes longer than you think”. Basically, shit happens and you need to build a solid buffer for yourself (if you are running a VC-backed startup) to make sure you don’t have your back against the wall (ie your company’s death line).

Additionally, the point about the 10xers taking less big risks reminds me of Steve Blank’s point that startups focus on reducing risk wherever possible, whether that be invention or market risk.

Basically – always be thinking about what could kill you, do your best to prepare / build buffers for it and don’t feel obligated to take a risk unless you’re sure it’s the right decision. And always have a plan b.

Return on Luck: You won’t be lucky, so be good instead

Luck, the dirty word in all success/business/self-improvement literature. Perhaps some people and some companies just get lucky and our ability to draw useful lessons and conclusions from their success is just not possible. Collins and his team anticipated this and devoted an entire chapter to luck.

GBC applied a consistent methodology to both pairs of companies to analyze how luck played a role in their outcomes. About 230 luck events were categorized and studied, each meeting all three criteria of being unpredictable, independent of the actions of key players, and having significant good or bad implications for the business.

Examples of luck events include: Amgen isolating the gene for EPO, which it likened to “finding a sugar cube in a lake a mile wide/long/deep” or the New England Journal of Medicine publishing a paper that challenged the effectiveness of one of Genentech’s major drug products.

What they found: neither 10xers or comparison companies had substantially more good luck or bad luck events, nor did one giant piece of good luck carry a 10x company through all its success. Luck exists but it tends to even out the playing field. What matters is “Return on Luck” or how you take advantage of good luck and avoid choking.

More specific example:

AMD – In the mid 1990’s, AMD had a huge amount of good luck in their direction: computer makers were kind of sick of Intel’s dominance in chip making and wanted an alternative. A federal jury allowed AMD to make Intel chip clones, and thus earned record sales. Then IBM announced they were pulling a bunch of computers because of a flaw in the Pentium chips, forcing Intel through a $475 million recall process.

This is some insane great luck for AMD. People were preordering AMD’s K5 chip like crazy. And what happened?

They blew it. The project slipped months behind schedule and people started moving back to Intel. By the time AMD fixed their problems, Intel had released a new generation of chips, forcing AMD behind again. They weren’t disciplined about their hardware production and failed to build up the buffer to “throw money at the problem” and thus failed to take advantage of the good luck.

What I think this means for startups:

It’s true that many smart people believe luck plays a big role early on, but once you’ve hit some kind of scale, this fact matters a lot less. Yes, luck will play a role in your startup, but luck is not a strategy. Nor is it really something you should spend any time thinking about.

You can’t control luck, so just prepare for the worst by strengthening your team with exercise and strong relationships, and your business with cash, users and a consistently improving product. Then prepare to seize opportunities when they arise and never let go.

Final Thoughts

Steve Blank calls a startup “a temporary organization searching for a repeatable and scalable business model”. Some of the concepts here don’t translate when you’re running an early stage startup. But many of the ambitious entrepreneurs I know want to build their companies into spectacular, enduring businesses and I think it’s good to look down the road and learn what works.

I have a tendency, as I think many entrepreneurs do, of operating on gut instinct, playing things really up near the wire, and switching my focus when I get bored. Like a mosquito trying to score a sting as Paul Graham so eloquently put it in his essay on making wealth. [7]

However, as I consider my goals for Ridejoy – to be as successful as Airbnb/Dropbox/Foursquare and perhaps even Google/Apple/Amazon, I realize that what works when you’re two guys with a prototype does not when you’re hundreds of people with millions of users.

Crazy one-off bold moves, strokes of genius or disproportionately good luck aren’t the secret. Instead, it’s discipline, preparation and intelligent risk-taking. Less sexy perhaps, but backed by empirical data.

I’ll close with the final paragraph of Great by Choice, where Collins describes the moment where we are afraid, exhausted or tempted and have to make a choice:

We are not imprisoned by our circumstances. We are not imprisoned by the luck we get or the inherent unfairness of life. We are not imprisoned by crushing setbacks, self-inflicted mistakes or our past success. We are not imprisoned by the times in which we live, by the number of hours in a day or even the number of hours we’re granted in our very short lives. In the the end we can control only a tiny sliver of what happens to us. But even so, we are free to choose, free to become great.


Many thanks to Vicki Mach and Bilal Mahmood for reading earlier versions of this article.

Footnotes

[1] I think that if you’re trying to found-n-flip a business, most of these lessons do not apply. They’re specifically for founders/leaders who want to be a long lasting business success.

Additionally, I don’t want readers to come away with the idea that these are the *only* ways to become an enduring success. However, we have more evidence to suggest that these ways will work compared to many other approaches.

[2] Those books can be good if they are written by someone with a lot of humility and a great memory, but usually they gloss over the hard stuff / failures and focus too much on the author’s personal traits.

[3] It’s funny because everyone thinks of Apple as a success story, not as a mediocre comparison company. And it’s true, from 1997 to 2011, Apple stock grew nearly 6,700%. But GBC started researching in 2002 and so Apple’s stock was pretty crappy given these were the “lost years” when Jobs was off building NEXT and Pixar. However, Collins acknowledges that in the past decade, Apple is much more a model of a 10xer, and indeed has demonstrated the effectiveness of many of these practices.

[4] “More people now visit Apple’s 326 stores in a single quarter than the 60 million who visited Walt Disney Co.’s four biggest theme parks last year, according to data from Apple and the Themed Entertainment Association.” – Wall Street Journal, Secrets from Apple’s Genius Bar

[5] I tried really hard to find more specifics about Facebook’s growth team be could not – please let me know if you find anything (when it was created, how many people are in it, what they’ve done, etc)

[6] The quote specifically: “We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the longterm. This value will be a direct result of our ability to extend and solidify our current market leadership position.The stronger our market leadership, the more powerful our economic model.”

[7] “A startup is like a mosquito. A bear can absorb a hit and a crab is armored against one, but a mosquito is designed for one thing: to score. No energy is wasted on defense. The defense of mosquitos, as a species, is that there are a lot of them, but this is little consolation to the individual mosquito.”

Appendix A: Methodology

Collins’s takes business research to the next level. Here’s a breakdown of exactly how Great by Choice was written. Their research question: “Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?”. How they answered the question:

  • Picked industries that had a high number of random but powerful and dangerous events outside of the control of the companies in the industry.
  • Employed a matched-pair comparison in order to contrast what the winners did and the losers didn’t.
  • Studied companies that were small or young when they started their success, specifically ones that IPOed between 1971 and 1990.
  • Narrowed to companies that beat their industries by at least 10X over a 15 year or more period
  • Selected comparison companies that were in the same industry, and similar age/size to the 10X company, but with only average stock performance.
  • Poured through press clippings, historical documents, interviews with staff, annual reports, 10k’s etc
  • Both authors separately read all documents, each then wrote 70+ pg case reports on each company + matched comparison
  • Based on data + analysis, they extracted practices and behaviors that explain what the “10x companies” did that the comparison companies did not

This rigorous nearly decade long research study makes the conclusions of the book far more grounded in reality. While we cannot claim causality, the chances that the following behaviors are random/unrelated to success appear very low, especially when you consider that almost all the winners did them and almost all the losers did not.

How to Give Your Product Personality

Making a brand feel alive

There’s a really great post on Fred Wilson’s blog (AVC) about building a “Minimum Viable Personality“. Of course, this is a play on the concept “Minimum Viable Product” from the Lean Startup movement. Fittingly, the post is written by @FAKEGRIMLOCK, a Twitter handle with a lot of personality himself, in his signature tone: “resembling cliched caveman speech”.

(If haven’t read the post yet, you might want to go open it up in a new tab and read it before coming back here. If you’re short on time, the post can be summarized as:

MOST IMPORTANT STEP FOR BUILD PRODUCT IS BUILD PRODUCT.

SECOND MOST IMPORTANT IS BUILD PERSONALITY FOR PRODUCT.

NO HAVE PERSONALITY? PRODUCT BORING, NO ONE WANT.

I think it’s a great read on the importance of infusing personality into a product. But it’s not a particularly informative post – which is fine, because I think it was meant to inspire more than instruct. But there were probably some people who came away from the post with the same mindset as Hacker News user ghc:

I cannot begin to express how much this made me think. In preparation for my own launch coming up, I’m looking at it and wondering why I’ve spent so much time of Minimum Viable Product when the personality just won’t cut it. The guys at Hipmunk posted something to this affect a while ago, but it didn’t have the weight of this.

But how does one launch a product with a personality? As a developer, not a designer, I’m at a loss…

This is something I’m personally very interested in. How do you give a product personality? After some consideration, I think it boils down into at least four areas:

1) Theme / Brand

A product’s personality starts with it’s brand. What does this product represent? What does it stand for?

CODECADEMY

Codecademy believes that learning how to code should be interactive and engaging. When you hit the “get started” button, it literally pushes you into the console to start learning how to code.

This dedication to getting people to jump in & get comfortable with code is seen elsewhere – like it’s their blog and it’s about page. The entire site site has the personality of an enthusiastic and slightly “pushy” teacher who just knows you have so much potential and wants you to succeed. A great personality for a site that helps people learn how to code.

TURNTABLE.FM

In my mind, Turntable.fm‘s brand /  theme is around having an online dance party. You get to meet interesting people, certain parties / rooms are hard to get into because they’re so popular, and when you play a great song that the crowd likes, you get mad props in the form of DJ points. Also there always people dressed up like Gorillas.

Their product is jampacked with personality, but two things I want to point out:

Their Awesome / Lame meter:

Now this may seem like a straightforward thing, but think about what turntable.fm’s “song rating” feature would look like if it had no personality. Maybe an upvote/downvote thing. Or a 1-5 star rating. But that’d be pretty boring and crappy. Instead they have this fantastic meter, which looks like a piece of decible measuring audio equipment, which is more in line with their brand. And of course “Rock Out” and “Skip Song” are exactly the kinds of things you’d say at a real party.

Their Speakers

This is a minor point but I think this is so awesome – the speakers on Turntable.fm actually blur, the way a real speaker would shake at a party. That’s attention to detail and a product with personality.

2) Personal

Kind of obvious, but personality has to do with the people behind the product. There are many ways that a product can allow the interests and unique characteristics of its team permeate the product – here are just two examples.

isocket’s Dog Pricing

I gotta rep my former employer here. Most ad tech companies compete on price, number of features and/or how much money your account manager is willing to drop on “client entertainment”. isocket competes on innovation and a human touch.

One example of this is the pricing page. Me and Ryan Hupfer mocked this up as a joke using actual dogs from the office (at one point we had a Chiwawa, a Pug and a Corgie-Chow at the office). But our designer (Al Abut) ran with it and turned it into our page. How many pricing pages do you see that look like this? Customers, potential employees and investors LOVED it when we told them the page was based on the actual dogs in our office.

Personal Letters

This is definitely not a “scaleable” thing, but companies can really show off their personality by sending personal notes. Wufoo, the form (!) company did this (and lots of other personality-ish things) and inspired insane loyalty among its customers.

More recently, Fab.com‘s founder/ceo Jason Goldman has shown his willingness to put his personality out there and connect with their customers. This is almost certainly a positive sign for the company.

Writing letters not your thing? Check out AwesomenessReminders (which I’ve written about before). You could use their platform to delight your customers in an extremely personal way.

3) Surprise

One notable feature of personality is that it’s often unexpected in a good way. When you use some enterprise software to build widgets – you expect it to (mostly) work efficiently in building widgets, and nothing else. Products with personality surprise their users with something extra.

Mailchimp

I love you too, Mailchimp. I use it to power my email newsletters and I’m not alone in my love for that little monkey. Talk about spicing up a boring product/space – most people don’t wake up in the morning super pumped about sending emails. But using Mailchimp is a fun surprise everytime because when you login, you know the chimp is going to tell you something sweet.

Alternatively, Mailchimp will link to something interesting. Here’s an example of a link you might get from Mailchimp: a blowtorch made from bacon. Check out one of the top comments! People LOVE these links.

Blippy

404 pages show up when you click a broken link or non-existent page on a site. Hitting one of those is the worst. Most companies don’t put any effort into their 404 pages. Blippy saw it as an opportunity and has built what must be the most epically awesome 404 on the internet, with a 44 click sequence of events that you have to use to believe. Check it out.

4) Values

The final thought I want to leave you with is the idea that personality isn’t just something flippant or superficial. Your product’s personality can really demonstrate the value of your company – what your company believes in. Here are two examples:

Zappos

I see Zappos as fundamentally about empowerment. Empowering their customers to have a great shopping experience, and empowering their team to be the best they can be. They take core values seriously – so much so that they post values on the side of their shipping boxes. This is just one of a million ways that Zappos demonstrates it’s personality.

Google

The internet giant is surprisingly fun. Google does a lot of quirky interesting things but one thing that really shows off what they value and care about is their Google doodles. On certain days they will re-do the Google logo to commemorate something. Often it’s something science-y, nerdy or computer related – like the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man or the 25 anniversary of the Buckyball – it’s how Google recognizes the importance of innovation and engineering to their company.

Getting Your Groove Back

Or: How to regain confidence after you’ve lost it.

Photo by Pim Chu on Unsplash

Dear Friend,

How’s it going? Alright? You don’t look alright to me.

You look like you’re going through rough times. Like you’ve had a couple setbacks and now you’re not so sure of yourself. Like maybe you’ve lost your way.

I don’t see that swagger in your walk any more. No wink and grin that says “Watch what I’m about to do.”

And of course, your results.

Your work is dull. Mediocre. You’re going through the motions – putting in the hours but not really giving it your best. You’re playing scared. You’re watching your back instead of charging ahead. You’ve lowered both the expectations you’ve set for yourself, and for how others will treat you.

You look like you’ve given up on yourself.

But guess what? Even if you’re giving up on you, I’m not.

I believe in you. I believe in what you’re capable of. I believe in what you’ve done, where you’re going and who you will grow to become.

I’ve been there man – been in the dumps because I screwed up. Everyone was counting on me and I blew it. It sucked. Hard. I know things have been hard for you. But you gotta shake that off. Don’t let the bastards get you down you know?

I know, easier said that done, right?

But there are tangible ways of getting there. Like winning some small victories.

Set some little goals for yourself. Maybe it’s going for a 10 minute walk. Or finishing two chapters of the book each week. Or it’s coding up one tiny shippable change to the codebase.

Earn little wins and start remembering what success feels like.

Take some time everyday to feed your mind.

From now on your mental diet is cutting out junk food. Like Fox News. Or any news for that matter. No more bad economy crap. No more  getting into flame wars with trolls on Reddit.

Instead read about how Airbnb almost hung up the towel again and again before becoming a $1B company. See  Heather Dorniden fall flat on her face in a championship 600m race only to come back and win. Or how Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, many of them in solitary confinement before getting elected President of South Africa in their first ever multi-racial elections.

Or just order one of the many Chicken Soup for the Soul books off Amazon. Seriously! There’s a reason they’ve sold hundreds of millions of copies.

Our world is one of second chances, of comebacks and turn arounds. The more you fill yourself with the strength of others who have turned around, the sooner yours will be.

Next, find some people to support, encourage and push you.

I’ll always be there, but you might want to find other peers as well. People you respect and like. Work with them. Find ways to partner, help each other and build each other up.

Lean on your friends and family – you’ll be surprised at how willing they are to help. Coming back isn’t as hard when you have a team to rely on.

Finally, you’re going to have to rewire your brain a little bit.

Don’t worry, I promise it won’t hurt. When you lose confidence, you get scared. You hold back. You cut corners. You make half-hearted efforts.

But no more.

  • The next time you find yourself saying “I have to” instead say “I choose to”
  • Instead of saying “I’m not sure”, say “I’ll make the best choice possible”
  • Instead of “I’ll give it a shot”, “I’ll do whatever it takes to make things happen”

You can do all that right? Of course you can. You’re looking better already.

Remember that we’re all here for a very short time. No point in wasting it on feeling sorry for yourself and playing small. Find that fighting spirit and reclaim your place in the Universe – a fierce competitor who hustles, plays fair and won’t let you down.

Chin up man – and I’ll see you out there.

Strong Regards,
Jason

Taking Cold Showers

This post is about why you might want to start taking cold showers.

I’ve been doing it for over a month now and I really like it.

The seed was planted in my mind after reading an article about it on a blog called Getting Stronger. The thesis behind Getting Stronger is that rather than damaging you, that stress can, in the right conditions, make you stronger by forcing you to adapt and thrive under tougher conditions. It’s an interesting premise and one I can easily get behind.

By the way, I love taking really hot showers and hate being cold in general so when I first read the lines:

Want to experience the benefits of hormesis very directly? Take a cold shower! And don’t just try it once, make it a habit and take cold showers daily. I have been doing it daily for the past six months and am loving it!

I was like “This guy is nuts. Why on earth would you take a cold showers every day?” But then there was a little voice inside my head that said “Well, if you don’t want take cold showers and he likes them, then maybe he’s just tougher than you.” Then of course I’m like “No freaking way. I’m not afraid of a little cold water. Maybe the guy IS crazy, but you know what, you have to be a little crazy to win“. And so a few days later I pumped myself up enough to try taking one.

It sucked.

I was gasping for air the entire time, my skin felt freezing. I was shivering. I couldn’t think about anything except how cold it was. At one point I honestly wondered if this is what it was like to die in the freezing cold water after the Titanic sunk. Yes – it was that bad.

Eventually I had to turn the water to warm because I couldn’t stand it.

And then I noticed something interesting – the act of warming up felt really really good. Way better than just in a regular hot shower. It was like defrosting. And because I was all tightened up from the cold water, I was able to relax twice as much when the water got warm.

After that, taking a regular shower just was never the same.

If you do a Google search for cold showers, you’ll find all sorts of articles about why they’re good. They supposedly boost wakefulness, increase your metabolism, make your skin better, etc. I don’t know about all this – I think for a lot of these claims, the data is just not there.

What I do know is that I like cold showers because I am actively putting myself in an unpleasant and uncomfortable situation. Like Rejection Therapy, I am actively exposing myself to a stressor and thereby building up my tolerance for it.

As Sebastian Marshall says:

Give me strife and suffering. And once I have grown stronger, tempered, hardened by the strife, give me MORE.

Cold showers suck, but every time I do one, I grow stronger. I can feel my self-discipline increasing. To be successful as an entrepreneur, I know I will have to make hard decisions, do things that are uncomfortable and work under stressful conditions. Cold showers are like pushups for my self-discipline.

It also helps me temper my emotional responses to things. I no longer have the panicky feeling that a ton cold water on your skin gives you for more than a few seconds when I take my cold showers – I’ve trained myself to calm down and overcome this natural response. And I’ve noticed this ability to temper my response overlap into other areas of my life.

The other day I was in a bit of a rush in the morning and when emptying out my coffee filter, hit something and dumped wet coffee grinds all over the floor. I felt my heart rising to my chest and I started to get really pissed at myself for being so clumsy – but then instead of exploding and swearing profusely – I suddenly felt calmer. I realized that my body had recognized this growing outburst and applied the same tempering response that it uses to help me relax during my cold shower.

So you could say I’ve become a cold shower believer.

You should give it a try. You don’t have to end cold – I don’t. I start cold and after a few minutes, switch over to warm. (I tried finishing cold but after getting out, I was more than just uncomfortable – I felt hypothermic – not a good feeling.) Anyway, I think the key is steeling yourself for that moment when you’re standing in the shower and you switch it on, knowing that cold water is about to blast onto you. That’s how you get stronger and build your grit and determination. And that leads to more ass-kicking.

So give cold showers a try and let me know how it goes in the comments!

Edit – August 8th 2011

There was a heated discussion of this on Hacker News.

As an update, I’ve continued to take cold showers all through June and July. I keep it on cold for two minutes before warming up – every single time. And yes, because it is warmer, it sometimes is more refreshing than miserable, but if I take them late at night or early in the morning, I am still sometimes shivering to the point of shaking because it’s so cold. It’s been great and I don’t anticipate stopping anytime soon.

Edit – December 28th, 2014

I ended up taking cold showers regularly (almost every day) for about two years and I think it was a valuable experience. They get better over time — it is really the first 30 seconds that sucks the most. I’ll throw one in here and there when I feel like toughening up a little. Still recommend it!

How Gymnastics Taught Me to Buck Up, Get Tough and Crush Fear

Practical tips for overcoming your fears

Photo: Singapore 2010 Youth Olympics

This is a three part series on what gymnastics taught me about acquiring and mastering skillsovercoming fear and delivering clutch performances.

I think most gymnasts consider pain and fear our twin companions. I certainly did. Gymnastics requires that athletes constantly challenge themselves to do more, much more. Routines that were performed in the Olympics in 2000 are being done by 15 year-olds in 2011. To learn new skills, you have to put yourself in scary situations.

One of the most important characteristics of a great gymnast is the ability to overcome fear and do what needs to be done. The stakes are higher: if you mess up a layup or a serve, not much is going to happen If you mess up on a Kovacs (the skill pictured above and in the video below) you could hit your face or slam your chest into a metal bar. And trust me, that does not feel good.

Ultimately, fear is about a mismatch in your mind between what you are capable of and what the environment demands of you. So to reduce fear, you have to address each of the elements – the risk of the environment, your capabilities and your mindset.

Reduce Risk

Fear usually isn’t a bad thing. It’s your brains way of telling you that it thinks you are in danger – that you risking bodily harm. And when you’re just starting to learn a new skill – your brain is probably right!

So the key here is to reduce risk – both perceived and actual – and prevent that harm from befalling you.

– Getting Spotted – this is when your coach uses his hands to support, hold, push and pull you through the skill. You’re lacking the speed, agility or power to complete the move on your own, so he helps you with the last mile. See this video as an example.

– Protective Surfaces – a big part of your fear is that you’re going to eat it and slam into the equipment in the wrong way and hurt yourself. Often your coach or teammate can slide a mat, or somehow pad/soften the area that could otherwise really hurt. Of course this doesn’t always work.

(Video: Kovacs Crash. From the video info: “Me eating it hahahah it didnt hurt but it was pretty scary”. Turn down the sound .. there’s a loud rock song playing in the background)

Takeaway:

So if you’re scared of something – find ways to reduce your risk. Are you afraid to talk to pitch an investor? Start by pitching your rich uncle. He’s less intimidating and fewer bad things will happen if you “blow it”. If you’re scared to do your routine of jokes at Open Mic night at your local bar, start by doing a few jokes at your next house party. Find ways to simulate the thing you’re scared of, but in a place where you feel more comfortable / safe.

Increase Your Capacity

After reducing the danger of the external environment, the next step is to build up your own capacity – to both do the skill and to absorb the consequences of screwing it up.

Get Better: This is generally an issue of skill acquisition. Develop your fundamentals, break the skill down into parts, practice deliberately and visualize.

Get Tougher: Have you noticed that most gymnasts are ripped? Our muscles help us perform these crazy hard skills – and also protect us when we crash. Gymnasts are also very familiar with pain. When you know you can take a beating and bounce back then things become less scary.


Takeaway:

So if you are afraid of something, get better at it and build your tolerance for facing what it is you fear (rejection, pain, failure). Are you afraid of talking to women at bars? Practice. Get good at making interesting conversation with strangers. Do rejection therapy and toughen yourself up so that rejections don’t hurt you as much. Are you scared to ask your boss for a raise? Kick serious ass at work and make the raise a no brainer. Build up a savings account and a great reputation so when you tell him “More or I’m gone” you can mean it.

Step Up and Just Do It

The final thing I learned about overcoming fear is that you’ve got to step up and just do it. It works like this:

You do the drills. You practice with mats. You do the conditioning. You get spotted. And one day your coach steps back and says: “Ok, this one on your own.”

Even if you know you’re ready, you know you can do it and you know you can safely handle a mistake, you can still feel paralyzed with fear. One technique that works:

Have fun with it. Feel the fear, laugh, and then go do it.

Fear tightens you up. It makes you stiff. By taking the whole situation lightly and having fun with it, you get yourself limber, loose and flexible – and much more likely to make it, or recover from a setback. One person who laughs in the face of fear was Rico, a Stanford alumni.

In this video he has not been training gymnastics seriously for over 3 years and does a full twisting Kovacs and grabs with ONE HAND. This is nuts – no one does one arm grabs on purpose. He did it by accident the year before and then did it INTENTIONALLY that time. I was at this meet, it was incredible.

(Video: Kolman catch with one arm – Rico Andrade

Takeaway:

Once you’ve prepared adequately for the thing you’re afraid of, created an environment where the risk was controlled and built up your toughness and resilience so you can handle a mistake, then the only thing left to do is go for it. Man up. If you feel yourself tightening up, find something about the situation to laugh at. If you can see the situation as fun, exciting and interesting, you will no longer be afraid. Just go for it!


What Gymnastics Taught Me About Acquiring and Mastering Skills

How deliberate practice works in sports

This is a three part series on what gymnastics taught me about acquiring and mastering skillsovercoming fear and delivering clutch performances.

In 1996, Men’s Health published an article where they used some ridiculous mathematical formula using variables such as fitness, skill, pain, brains, etc to figure out the toughest sport in the world. And gymnastics came up number one. Here’s what they said:

Male gymnasts may wear tights, but they score perfect 10’s for fitness and athletic skills, and near-perfect marks for injury potential, mental toughness and difficult conditions. Let’s see you spin in circles on the high bar, release, do a few flips and grab the bar again. Extra toughness points were awarded for the guy who survived a full-speed, chest-first plunge into the horse and for the Japanese Olympic medalist who dismounted from the rings with a broken leg.

I started doing gymnastics when I was six years old and trained for over 16 years. At age 11 I started competing and placing in national competitions at the junior and later the senior levels. The highest I ever placed in a national senior men’s competition was 15th – I was never Olympic material, but I trained with many who were. Previously, I wrote about how I blew out my knee and came back to win a national championship – this post is specifically about what gymnastics has taught me about acquiring and mastering skills.

Gymnastics is the perfect sport to teach these lessons because it’s one of the most demanding activities that you can do. Gymnasts have to master a large number of complex skills that require high levels of technique, strength and guts – and I think that with the intelligent application of these lessons, you’ll be able to learn skills in a variety of areas faster and more effectively.

Ok, ’nuff said. Onto the lessons!

Acquiring and Mastering Skills

Deliberate practice.

I hope this is so obvious to you that you roll your eyes. But seriously – the only real way to get better at something is to do it over and over again. There is no substitute.

However, what Anders Ericsson found and what Malcom Gladwell popularized is right, the key is “deliberate practice“. This means being intently focused on every attempt and thinking carefully about how you can improve your performance on each turn. But in addition to practice, consider these other lessons:

Focus on the fundamentals.

A lot of gymnastics is doing the same thing over and over again. And most people don’t like doing that. After doing 50 cartwheels, you want to do something else. Ok, I can sort of do a back flip – can I add a twist now? But that mindset, of wanting to quickly progress is detrimental to acquiring new skills. The best gymnasts in the world have all spent countless hours honing on what we call “the basics”. Handstands. Core strength. Flexibility. Presentation (keeping your knees together, pointing your toes, etc). Swings on the high bar. Circles on the pommel horse.

These are the first skills you learn/develop as a gymnast. These are the skills that every advanced skill builds upon. And the best gymnasts would return again and again to work on their fundamentals. When I trained with athletes in China I noticed that up to age 13 or 14, Chinese gymnasts would often be “behind” many American gymnasts in terms of skill progression. But then a few years later, the same Chinese gymnasts would blow past the Americans because their fundamentals were so spot on that learning new skills became extremely easy while the Americans struggled to increase the difficulty of their skills.

Focus on improving your fundamentals in your areas of focus if you want to get good at what you do.

Break down the skill into pieces.

When learning a new skill, a gymnast and his coach will first break down the skill into various parts. For instance, to learn how to do a release move on the high bar like a tkachev (as shown in the video) you would break the skill down into parts.


(Featured: Paul Hamm, aged 18, at his first Olympics in 2000. He would go on to win Gold in the All-Ground in 2004. Incidentally, his coach spent a great deal of time honing his basics and he kind of exploded onto the scene a few years prior because of the exponential growth curve I mentioned earlier)

The Swing. Notice how the guy’s swing changes as he prepares for the release. We called it a “tap swing” and it would help him generate the power he would need to fly off the bar. We would get into bars where our hands where strapped to PVC pipes that swung around the high bar so you couldn’t fall off and practice the tap swing.

The Throw. See how he kicks his toes up hard and then throws the bar behind you. Again, back on the PVC pipe, we would practice the throw, while not actually letting go. But we’d understand the general motion and build the muscle memory so the two pieces became like second nature.

The Catch. So you get good enough at the swing and throw to the point where you can actually do the release. There’s still a matter of catching the bar. We would practice standing ontop of the high bar, jumping and catching the bar as if we were doing a release.

If you’re trying to learn something that’s complex, see how you might break it down into manageable piece and work each one separately before bringing it all together.

Visualization

Practicing gymnastics skills is tiring. If you get too tired, you will make a mistake and probably hurt yourself. You might do 6-12 repetitions of a skill a day before you have to move on to something else. Compare that to a basketball player who can do dozens of free throw shots in an hour.

Since you often don’t have time or energy to just practice the skill, visualization became very useful. By imagining yourself doing the skill, you got much of the benefit you’d get from actually doing it. This mental focus is also why deliberate practice is so important – if you just go through the motions, you don’t gain as much as if you carefully focus on what you’re doing. Visualization is deliberate practice in your head.

A study at Bishop University has shown that students who spent several weeks imaging themselves exercising certain muscles got nearly the same strength increase as those who actually lifted weights (24% vs 28%).

If you are trying to develop a skill and don’t have the time or equipment to practice it all the time, you can still get a lot value out of visualizing yourself doing it.

Part 3 (Finale): How I Blew Out My Knee and Came Back to Win a National Championship

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

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

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

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

hIDEO: 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…

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.

How I Blew Out My Knee and Came Back to Win a National Championship (Part 2 of 3)

This is the part two in a three-part series about the knee injury that changed my life and my road to an NCAA championship. In part one I talked about growing up as a gymnast, learning the Yurchenko double full, blowing out my knee and undergoing my first major surgery. Here’s what happened next.

PART ONE | PART TWO | PART THREE

1. Try to make me go to rehab

My 21st birthday. Got quite inebriated and still managed to make it all the way home and up a flight of stairs on crutches without stumbling even once.

I ended up having three knee surgeries just from the knee dislocation:

I had a great knee surgeon (professional soccer players would ask for him by name) but anyone who’s had surgery knows that physical therapy makes an ENORMOUS difference in your recovery. I was lucky enough to have an amazing physical therapist, Melissa was knowledgeable, compassionate and tough. I worked with her 3x a week for 90-120 mins at a time, for over 2 years – and it made a big difference in my outcome.

It’s amazing how fast your leg muscles atrophy after you stop walking. At first, I couldn’t even fire the quad muscle – so my sessions would focus on leg raises and using electrical stimulation to force muscle contractions. I pushed myself HARD and more often then not, would break a sweat with all the physical exertion. Melissa put me through a vast battery of exercises, from manual resistance to elastic band work to light weight resistance. And always TONS of icing.

SIDE NOTE: Being on crutches sucks – they are awkward and slow you down big time. I hated the limitations they placed on my day to day life and this intense hatred manifested in my becoming pretty much the fastest guy you’ve ever met on crutches. I modified my I could run short distances on crutches, crutch up stairs faster than most people walk stairs – I even crutched over 5 miles in a 24 hr period doing Relay for Life. (This turned out to be a bad idea and led to an infection and eventually a third surgery where they cleaned out my knee. But my point remains – I’m a very competent crutcher.)

At a young age, gymnasts are taught to visualize – to help them learn new skills and prepare themselves for competition. This technique has been shown to be almost as effective as actually training the skill because it drives cortical output signals which causes stronger muscle activation levels.

Knowing this, I visualized myself doing routine on every event, every day. Not just my old sets either, but the routines I wanted to do when I returned to competition – which included skills I had never even done before. Each day I would rehearse a mental meet in my head and feel myself performing new skills in sequences and in routines – at least twice all the way through.

Slowly but surely I made progress. With the help from Melissa, my family, my girlfriend Olivia (who went above & beyond the call of duty) and my teammates, I began to get better. I started walking. Then leg pressing. Then light jogging. Then jumping and landing. Eight months later, it looked like I might return to the gymnastics floor…

2. Back in the game

Snapped by a Stanford Daily photographer. My parents were so proud to see me in the paper =)

During the whole rehab process, I made sure to go into the gym everyday – even on days when I had two or more hours of physical therapy. I did as much strength conditioning as I could – pushups, pullups, weights when possible and lots of core (back, abs and obliques). I also spent time coaching the young guys, acting as a second pair of eyes. Why do all this? Simple:

1) I didn’t want my teammates thinking I was giving up, or even slacking just because I got hurt.
2) I didn’t want to get fat and out of shape.

This set up me up well when I was finally ready to start training again. First event to come back was the pommel horse. We’d slide big soft mats in every time I went and I had to either come off the horse in a controlled manner, or force myself to land on my back or stomach. I was able to get a lot of my skills back pretty quickly and my first meet post injury was exactly one year later – returning to the UC Berkeley arena to do pommels.

Eventually I started doing parallel bars again too, which was always my strongest event. Landings were scary but continued to do lots of leg conditioning to strengthen my knees. That season we had ranked number one in the preseason and held that number one ranking for the majority of the year. We trained very hard. We were very excited because the past two seasons we had gotten 3rd and we felt like this year we were going to make it all the way. In addition, NCAA Championships were to be held at Stanford University.

Winning was at the top of everyone’s minds. After every routine, after every meet, more often than not, someone would comment about NCAAs. “Make sure you stick it at NCAAs.”  “You better catch that release in Finals.” We were all very aware whatever happened during the season, we would have to nail it in finals to win the title.

As you might guess, this isn’t necessary the best approach to take.

3. Big men on campus

April of 2008: it was the beginning of Spring Quarter at Stanford. The weather was warming up, seniors were cruising towards their diplomas, girls were out in their skirts and sundresses – it was a wonderful time. Excitement was in the air. Every teammate had been cajoling their friends to come to NCAAs – which were held at Maples Pavillion – the arena where the Stanford Men’s Basketball team plays. We were going prime-time!

Stanford alumni from many class years had flown in to watch this meet. This WAS the year that Stanford would reclaim the championship. Since the glory years (’92, ’93, ’95) Stanford Men’s Gymnastics had come up empty handed and wasn’t really even close to winning at all until recently. Our class of five guys were very proud of ourselves – we came in, changed the game and were going to close the deal, right here on our home turf, and graduate as ultimate champions.

SIDE NOTE: In a typical meet, each team will have six guys doing routines on each event and get to “count” the score of four routines (the other two are discarded). The competition order is arranged in ascending order so that the guy who typically scores the highest goes last. However, the first person who goes first has a big responsibility to set the tone for the event. When a team nails the first routine in their line up – everyone else is emboldened to hit their sets too. I believe clutch performances build on each other (as do chokes).

The preliminaries on Day One went great. I was chosen to be the lead off guy on parallel bars. I nail it big time. The rest of the parallel bar line up does great. We take that momentum into the rest of the competition and eventually win our session. You can see my routine in the video above – one of my best performances ever.

Unfortunately it wouldn’t be enough.

4. Forty-five hundredths of a point

(A fan’s highlight of the competition. The last 10 seconds really shows how amped up the arena was. We could taste that victory!)

We won our session in Day 1 of NCAA’s by 4.55 points – a wide margin. But it was “New Life” scoring and tomorrow was a whole new meet. Day 2 would decide it all.

In mentally preparing myself for Day 2,I spent a lot of time saying- “Don’t do anything different. Just do it exactly as you did yesterday.” This is, in hindsight, terrible self talk. I had been having some issues with my Diamodov (which is the 2nd move in my routine, the one where I’m out on one arm) and you can see that it was a little bit off on the first day.

Again we started on the parallel bars and again I was first up. Instead of being aggressive and going for it on Day 2, I tried too hard to replicate the past. On my Diamodov, I was a little too far out on one arm. I couldn’t pull it back and ultimately fell off the bars.

Instant one point deduction.

Needless to say, this was not the start we were looking for. I was frustrated with myself, but tried not to let it show – instead, focusing on cheering for our next guy. The team performed decently throughout the rest of the meet, but there were a few more uncharacteristic falls by some of our best athletes (you can see one of them toward the beginning of the youtube video). We just weren’t getting after it.

We ended on vault – a very high scoring event. Our biggest opponent – Oklahoma – was on the rings – which is also a strong event for them. Oklahoma is in the lead, but we think we can catch them. We post a solid final score: 362.750 that puts us at the top of the leaderboard (again, watch the end of the video to see how exciting this all was).

The only thing left to do was to sit and wait as Oklahoma finished up their ring routines. Slowly their final score crept up – still, we held on to the lead. We watch in silence as Jonathan Horton (Yes, the kid I met back in Part One) closed the meet with a killer ring routine.

The score was announced: 16.1 – the highest scoring ring routine of the entire meet. The leaderboard flickers and BAM – the names swap. The final score:

  • Oklahoma: 363.200
  • Stanford: 362.750

It was a surreal moment.

We walked in the number one ranked team in the nation to the biggest, loudest, most supportive crowd most of us have ever, or will ever, face. We walked out devastated, having forfeited the NCAA title for lack of 0.45 pts.

But it was in this moment of pain that we forged the strength to finally take the title.


PART THREE (the finale!) will come out later this week, but in the meantime I wanted to share something with you:

How I Blew Out My Knee and Came Back to Win a National Championship

Today (January 19th) is the four year anniversary of the knee injury that changed my life. Most people I know have heard bits and pieces, and finally I’m putting the whole thing together in one place. This story is for every anyone (athlete or not) who’s struggled with an injury – yeah it sucks big time, but do ALL your physical therapy and be unreasonably optimistic. Things can and will get better.

The Synopsis

On January 19th, 2007, while competing for Stanford Men’s Gymnastics at the UC Berkeley, I suffered a total knee dislocation while performing a double-twisting Yurchenko. My ACL, PCL, MCL, LCL and meniscus were instantly torn. It hurt a lot.

I underwent multiple surgeries, required the use of crutches for months and spent a couple hundred hour in physical therapy. One year later, I was back in the arena as an active competitor. In my final season, I was elected a team captain and helped lead our team to win the 2009 NCAA Team Championship – our first victory in over 14 years.

It was at once the worst thing, and the best thing to ever happen to me. The permanent damage has kept me from enjoying many normal physical activities – but the experience overall has helped me develop an inner strength that cannot be measured.

This is my story.

1. Get ’em while they’re young

Hanging out with some of my gymnastics summer campers.

You really need to start doing Gymnastics at a young age in order to train your body and your mind properly so I’m glad I started classes early. I was about six years old.

My mom is a gymnastics coach so I was in the gym all the time, but she didn’t want me involved in the sport at first. Her training in China was grueling and tough – she didn’t want such a hard life for her only son. Before my injury I would laugh when she expressed this sentiment. Here in America, we do sports for fun!

Now I just nod and say “it was worth it”.

I sucked as a kid and in the off chance I placed at a meet, it was 5th or 6th. But I loved it and worked it. When I turned 10, something happened and I started improving a lot faster. I jumped a level, and participated in the Future Stars program, which was created by USA Gymnastics to identify young talent.

I ended up earning a place on the “Junior Development Team” which meant I got to go to a camp in Colorado Springs. I trained with other “Future Stars” like Jonathan Horton (2008 Beijing Olympic team member) and got to see how US National team members trained. It was at this time that I realized “Man, not only is gymnastics a lot of fun, but I could actually become really good someday!”

On a side note – if you can provide children opportunities to legitimately experience that feeling, you are doing them a huge favor.

Of course it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

2. Getting hurt isn’t necessarily a bad thing

I think injuries are a healthy part of participation in sports. I think it’s important for kids to suffer some kind of minor injury when they are young. Break arm, twist an ankle, sprain a shoulder. Kids recover quickly and it teaches them about enduring pain, understanding safety and valuing their health and mobility.

Gymnastics is a sport that lends itself to injury. You are engaged in a ton of flipping and twisting and putting your body into positions that are quite unnatural. (This gymnastics blooper reel is illustrative of what can go wrong). You make sure to take as many precautions as you can and prepare yourself physically and mentally as much as possible – but at some point, you’ve just got to freaking go for it.

Over 16 years of gymnastics, I’ve personally:

  • broken an ankle
  • dislocated multiple fingers
  • landed directly on my neck multiple times (including after a botched one-and-a-half flipping dismount off the high bar)
  • straddled the parallel bars right onto my you-know-whats
  • split my forehead skin open with my shin (got a Harry Potter-esque scar out of it!)
  • endured countless bruises, scrapes, blisters and rips

I think gymnasts have a very special relationship with pain because we experience such a high amount of it on a day to day basis.

For example, I knew guys that would pop 4-6 ibuprofen pills *everyday* just to manage normal training pain. My shins looked like a battlefield from all the times I had smashed them into the wood on the pommel. It was not uncommon for me to step into the shower and wince at some part of my body that I had scraped during practice and was not even aware of until it started burning from the water. (“Oh! I guess I must have scraped myself over there).

But all of that was just a warmup for what was to come.

3. The year of the double twisting Yurchenko

When I was preparing to graduate high school, a teammate gave me a clock that counted down to 2008. It was to remind me of the time left until the next Olympics – which was a goal of mine. I had done fairly well my freshman year and had even reached a number 9 ranking in the all-around at one point for the entire NCAA. Pretty cool. Sophomore year was also a good year – I had gotten stronger, more consistent and learned some new skills. But I was worried about plateauing. I needed to take it to the next level.

Junior year was supposed to be my blow out year. Well … I certainy blew out something.

The summer between my sophomore and junior year I was training a new vault. For several years, I had been competing a Yurchenko 1.5 Twist (this is a round off onto the board, back handspring onto the horse into about one and a half flips … with one and a half twists). Something clicked that summer and after a lot of drills and a lot of false starts, I was finally able to add another half twist – making it a Double Twisting Yurchenko.

This was a big deal to me because I’ve never been considered an “explosive” athlete and I felt like I had made a breakthrough. This was one of the many signs for me that 2007 would be a big year for me and I was excited to compete the Yurchenko.

Little did I know I’d only do it twice in competition, ever.

4. “Felt good in warmups – I should be fine”

I remember being annoyed because my coach wouldn’t let me spike my hair into a faux-hawk. He thought it looked unprofessional – but of course I thought I looked stupid with my hair down and ungelled. You can see my hair in this video of my pommel horse routine (the vaulting horse is in the background).

Warm ups went fine. I think I completed one double twisting Yurchenko and it felt alright. Not great but good enough.

The thing about vault is that you typically train onto lower and softer landing surfaces than the actual competition. We practice our vaults on mats that are stacked on a big soft “resi-pit” or “whale mat” as we sometimes called it. We’d try to made the landing harder when doing mock-competitions, but it is still worlds away from having two 8-inch mats ontop of basketball floor as your landing surface.

This was our first official meet of the season and I wanted to perform well and of course BEAT CAL. (Incidentally, the Cal team has always been a bunch of outstanding guys – very cool people who are fun to hang out with outside of the competition floor).

Pommels came first, then floor then vault. I remember feeling the sweat evaporating off my hands. Unlike on other events, pre-meet jitters were a good thing for vault – they gave you the additional oomph you needed to go big.

The moment comes. I salute the judge.

The run down the runway felt fine. It was only after the round off and punch did I feel a little concerned. My “block” off the horse wasn’t as strong as I would have liked. I remember thinking “Ooh, this one is going to be a little rough on the landing”.

There was never any question in the air about finishing the skill though. Gymnasts are taught early on to never “balk” on a skill, especially if it’s in a meet. You’re more likely to be injured if you freak out in the middle than if you stay with a skill even if you’re not feeling great about it. No backing out – I was all in.

And like in poker, sometimes going all in doesn’t work out for the best.

5. And here comes the snap

Not everyone feels comfortable watching the video. I’ve watched it at least 50 times at this point but it’s still pretty intense.

It happened really fast. I landed and my left knee gave in. It simply collapsed. I instantly start screaming at the top of my lungs from the massive pain that came on instantly. When I ran out of breath, I inhaled quickly and let loose another gut-wrenching scream.

The pain dialed back from 11 to like an 8. After dispelling all that air, I was able to get a bit of handle on myself, and just rolled around on the mat swearing. Coaches and trainers from both my team and the Cal team come rushing over. I grab a hold of the Cal team trainer’s meaty hand and act like I’m trying to crush it like putty. I knew then that my season was probably over.

As noted earlier, I’ve dislocated several fingers. Your joint feels really tight when it’s dislocated – and while painful, popping the joint back into place feels much better (for obvious, anatomical reasons). I remember wanting to kick my leg straight to “relocate” my knee, but then also thinking this would probably be a bad idea. What ended up happening was since everything was torn, my knee kind of just sagged back into place since nothing was really holding it together besides my hamstring, my patellar tendon and some skin.

Eventually, I hobble off on a pair of crutches, my knee wrapped in tons of ice bags. I make a point of staying to watch the rest of the meet and even eating pizza with the guys before going home. It turned out my vault score still beat every one of the Cal guys who all fall / botch their landings (though without the horrific injuries to boot).

6. Going under

You usually feel pretty lousy after surgery. The best part is that you get breakfast, lunch AND dinner in bed. The worst part is struggling to accurately pee into a container.

You usually feel pretty lousy after surgery. The best part is that you get breakfast, lunch AND dinner in bed. The worst part is struggling to accurately pee into a container.

Our team physician, Dr. Garza, was typically the jokester. While a busy man, he always has time to make fun of your haircut or your non-rigorous major. So when he walked in with a somber look, I knew things were bad.
“We’re going to have to do two different surgeries to repair your knee. There has been major damage to all four ligaments. You see all this dark space here? That’s where your ligaments are supposed to be. Instead there’s nothing.”

Of course the clincher: “We’ll likely need multiple surgeries to repair the damage. You should seriously consider if you want to be doing gymnastics when this is over.

Sometimes people ask if I regret doing gymnastics, or regret learning the double-twisting Yurchenko. My answer of course is never. I knew my injury was a fluke – my coach had done his best to prepare me but sometimes things just happen. I had worked hard to prepare myself and sure, having stronger leg muscles could have helped – but I blame no one for what happened. My focus was not on the past, but on the future.

For whatever reason – am overly optimistic, read too many comeback stories, thought Dr. Garza was talking about worst-case scenarios – I never seriously doubted that I would come back to gymnastics. It felt like life had just bashed me in the face: all I wanted to do was spit my bloody tooth out and say, “That the best you got? Watch this.” To be honest, the millions of little inconveniences was the worst part of the injury – never the big stuff.

Going into surgery is kind of scary. The worst part is the waiting. You get there super early in the morning (or at least I did because they wanted to do my surgeries first), change into that stupid gown and just lie there forever. It’s chilly, you’re sleep deprived, hungry and pretty much alone.

Eventually the anesthesiologist comes over, sets up your IV, and starts you off with some “warmup” stuff. It feels funky going into your bloodstream and your body starts to feel a little tingly. As everyone finally gets ready, they wheel your gurney over to the operating room. You’re feeling decently woozy at this point but you still recognize your surgeon, even with his mask on. He says some nondescript upbeat words to you and goes back to preparing. You’re moved off the gurney and onto the operating table.

For a brief moment, you are just lying there, listening to all the beeping noises, watching all kinds of surgical assistants buzz around you. Then the anethesiologist adds something to your drip and your head starts to feel heavy.

It’s hard not to make comparisons between going under for an operation, and death. I knew that I had a very high likelihood of coming out fine on the other side, but there’s always that nagging concern in the back of your mind. I always tried to make the most of those final moments and ask myself: “If I never woke up from this, can I be satisfied with what I’ve accomplished? Have I made the world a better place? Will my friends and family know that I cared about them and tried to do right by them?”

Fortunately (or perhaps, through deliberate decisions I’ve made on how to live), the answers to those questions was always “Yes.” But there was never much time to ponder as an oxygen mask would soon come over my mouth and I’d breathe in its cold, weird-tasting air. By the second breath I’d be out.

When I woke up, the real work would begin.


Click here to read PART TWO.