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May 16, 2014

The Entrepreneurial Mindset

MedNexus is currently on the second iteration of its platform, and we have received our fair share of cynicism and rejection along the way. Most of it has helped refine our value proposition - and also brought us to unbelievable lows, where all hope seemed gone.

It is inevitable that investors, market veterans, and even customers will at one point or another shut you down. But your job as en entrepreneur is to take their advice, and take no heed to their skepticism.
The establishment is full of "experts" who will look for reasons why it can't be done. But your job as an entrepreneur is to get busy finding ways to make it work, knowing that maybe, not in 1 month or in 3 months, but in 6 months you will eventually prove them wrong.
The establishment will look at your competitors as an excuse to give up. But your job as an entrepreneur is to try to change the world, not worry about what company X or Y is doing. There will ALWAYS be competition.

There's a reason those people are with the herd and not standing where you are. Innovation takes a certain philosophical mindset, a burning desire to change the status quo, which gives you the mental resiliency to move mountains (and trust me, starting a company is as close to that as it gets). I like to think of myself as an optimist-realist: I try to be pragmatic in the short and medium term, navigating the daily challenges thrown my way and keeping my eyes open for cues from the market. But more importantly an unflinching optimist in the long term, which allows me to get up in the morning and keep forging ahead, even when nothing seems to be going right.

Dec 11, 2013

The Importance of Talent

Arguably, one of the most crucial, if not the most crucial decision you have to make as a start-up founder is choosing who you surround yourself with. And knowing how to hire is one of the most difficult parts of the job.

Traditionally, companies emphasize first-order competency in their hiring process. They look at the specific experience and skills you have. Are you good with Excel; can you code in Javascript; are you familiar with Healthcare; have you brought a product to market? Although these big companies will claim to look for "smart people" with "potential", their main imperative is to fill in a specific position with a specific candidate. They are not looking for the best, and why should they? They just need someone who can fill the role with minimal risk and friction. Eric Paley encapsulates this concept well in The Curve of Talent. "The large company corporate world is filled with C players. [...] C performers struggle to competently fill their role, but are somewhat productive with sufficient coaching. [...] Large companies thrive on inertia and the core job description of a large company employee is to keep that inertia going and do nothing to screw it up.

As much as this type of thinking works for large companies, it can lead to costly mistakes for start-ups. Start-ups are constantly on the edge of failure and cannot afford to have reasonably competent individuals at their core - people who deliver only the bare minimum. The truism "If there's any doubt, there's no doubt." is particularly applicable here. What they need are individuals with strong second-order competency - those who can learn quickly, adapt and roll with the punches without losing their resolve.
If you think about return on investment as a curve over time, you will realize that those with simply experience have a higher Y-intercept - they are more valuable at the time of hiring, but their competency is "maxed out". On the contrary, a candidate with greater potential but less relevant experience has a steeper curve - he starts lower but will, not too far down the line, become far more valuable to the company.

Don't hire based on Y-intercept.

(Taken from Professor Ousterhout's class at Stanford).

These individuals are much harder to find, because their potential is not written black on white on their resume. These are hires you can only appraise by sitting down and engaging with, rather than putting them through a formulaic interview process. Not only that, they are very selective about who they choose to work with. So keep looking for that candidate that will give your team a boost, and don't settle.

The compounding return on hiring decisions doesn't only apply to your core team, but all the people who are involved in helping your venture in some shape or form: lawyers, accountants, contractors and even advisers. In these situations, the better options are often the pricier ones, but well worth the cost. Their increased competency and better decision-making will have an outsized effect on the fate of your start-up.
Unless you can't afford it, you are better off with a lawyer who is twice is expensive if you think they are at least twice as good as your other options. Even more so for a top-notch developer who can get the job done 10x as fast and take your product to the next level. A caveat to my point is that the more expensive options are not always the best ones - as with everything you buy, the price tag is reflective of quality only to a certain degree, the rest is up to your better judgement.

The bottom line is, you should always be selective about who you work with, even if that means taking a little longer to find the right person.


Jun 11, 2013

Market vs. Technological Risk

We've observed the proliferation of social, mobile and gaming start-ups in the last few years, and how some of them managed to hit the 'lottery ticket' and make large exits, while most others crash and burn. It is my opinion that most start-ups in those spaces are doomed to failure due to the intense competitiveness of those markets. Or at the very least unable to build a long term business model by focusing purely on user growth.


A better way of understanding the current problem in the start-up ecosystem is to think about market risk vs. technological risk. The risk involved in creating a new company is inevitably a mixture of those two, and it is interesting to think about where on the spectrum a given start-up will fall.

Many of the over-valued and 'pump and dump' start-ups in the social, e-commerce and mobile space are faced with the challenge of extreme market risk. Although they are not necessarily tackling a difficult problem from a technological standpoint, the intense competition with other similar start-ups and uncertainty when it comes to user adoption and monetization make them highly volatile. And their outcome is less in the hands of the founders, thus the label of 'lottery ticket'.
The only ones that succeed are those that manage to create their own specific market (ex: Twitter) or brand themselves exceptionally (ex: Zappos). 
For that reason, many start-up will often try to label themselves as unique or different, and narrow their market, despite that not being the case. They will tell intersection stories: LinkedIn ∩ Artists ∩ Online Gallery. Peter Thiel has a good example of this type of start-up:
"Starting a new South Indian food restaurant on Castro Street ... is, a hard way to make money. It’s a big, competitive market. But when you focus on your one or two differentiating factors, it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s not."
There is a rush to get into the 'trendy' markets and get a product off the ground quickly, pivot as many times as necessary and get accelerated ad nauseum, losing sight of any real long term goal. Even though the initial execution might be easier, at the end of the day the same amount of sweat and tears is involved than with an ambitious, long-term focused idea.


Contrast that with major tech companies like Google or Apple. During their inception, most of the risk involved coming up with the right technology to address the market needs, and pulling it off. They were not worried about how unique their market is, how many users they need to get in order to get to the next stage of funding, or how they will monetize, because their product was fundamentally novel, useful and difficult to pull off. They are shielding themselves from a hyper-competitive market with a high barrier to entry.
An extreme example of technological risk is SpaceX. The market risk is virtually nonexistent - they will find clients if they can create a relatively cheap and reliable rocket - but getting there involves considerable effort and risk.
Tackling difficult and concrete problems reduces the importance of market risk (albeit not completely, since product/market fit is always paramount) and puts more emphasis on the type of risk that founders have control over: addressing specific customer needs, improving the quality of the product.
As Paul Grahams says:
"That scariness makes ambitious ideas doubly valuable. In addition to their intrinsic value, they're like undervalued stocks in the sense that there's less demand for them among founders. If you pick an ambitious idea, you'll have less competition, because everyone else will have been frightened off by the challenges involved."


I believe that if more start-ups where tackling difficult problems, rather than going for what is 'trendy' and easily executable, we would not be in a climate of market risk and facing the Series A crunch that we are facing today.

Feb 26, 2013

Wait, so why are we doing this?

The question of 'why' is perhaps the most interesting in the context of start-up creation. There are obvious and easy explanations as to what would motivate someone to grind long hours and endure the emotional pain of getting a new venture off the ground. I am talking about financial reward and social recognition.
Upon closer inspection, these are actually very poor motivators for creating a company. The numbers show that the return on time spent is quite low, given that your odds of success - a high growth company with a valuation upwards of several million - are probably around 1 in 100. The above average scenario of a few million dollar exit would probably represent a few hundred thousand payout for the founders, due to equity dilution from successive rounds of financing. If you do the math in terms of a yearly salary, we are probably looking at a reasonably well paid entry-level job.
Of course this analysis only holds for your average entrepreneurs. If you are a Steve Jobs or a Jeff Bezos, your odds of success might be a lot closer to 50%, in which case the financial reward is very tangible.
What about fame? There is no doubt that on some level everyone has the desire to bask in the glory of their achievements. It is human nature. However the desire for fame is short-lasting fuel for an entrepreneur; soon enough things will get hard, failure will seem likely, and the only thread keeping you going will be a deep commitment to the vision and the product. You can read TechCrunch and feel a sudden rush of desire to become an 'overnight successes'. But truth is, by the time these hot start-ups actually make it to the big stage, their trajectory seems more like a painstaking marathon than an overnight success.

As much as the desire to stand out and be recognized as an original is compelling, I believe the main motivation for all great innovators is the desire to change society. It sounds obvious at first, but in fact (in my opinion) very few people are fundamentally motivated by innovation and discovery in the same way that it consumes entrepreneurs (and scientists). Just like a researcher will stay up all night solving a minute problem in order to reach that state of 'truth', a entrepreneur will do the same to implement a puzzle piece of their vision.
When I see photos of SpaceX successfully docking the Space Station, or Google Driverless cars, I get chills and it reminds me of why the schlep of creating a start-up is all worthwhile. There is an incredible driving force in creation and innovation, one that transcends day to day life and aspirations. This is especially true in a society where 'incrementalism' and complacency is the norm.

The other major factor for me (and I think many entrepreneurs) is independence and empowerment. There nothing quite like the ability to call the shots and implement your own vision from the top down. I have always disliked authority, because I consistently end up being in disagreement with the implicit rules of societal dogma and red tape of corporate management. The desire for innovation is also an expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo.
I am in a constant state of questioning, whether it concerns social phenomena:
- Why do people hold on so tightly to aspects of 'traditional values' and religion that are irrational and counter-productive to society? 
- Why are people so easily swayed by the vicariousness of reality TV and pop culture press?

... technology:
- How could this packaging be better engineered?
- Why would I use poor legacy software when there are far better alternatives?
- While access to information was the major challenge of the 20th century, is information processing and curation that of the 21st?

... or processes in place:
- Why is the US rail system still so poor?
- Why does x, y, z require so much paperwork?
- Why are companies so bent on having the work day start at 9am?

I realized the only way I could get answers to these questions, or some control over the processes that govern professional life, was to take my career into my own hands and figure out which problems I want to solve and how. In that way entrepreneurship becomes less of a job and more of a vocation, even a lifestyle.

This sums up what I believe drives entrepreneurship on a fundamental level, based on my observations and self-evaluation. Beyond that, I expect every entrepreneur has their own driving force(s) shaped from their respective life experiences.

- Nathanael

Feb 1, 2013

The Nature of Successful Start-ups

This is a widely discussed question in the start-up community, and one with no straightforward answer. And for good reason, otherwise entrepreneurship wouldn't be so hard, and the success rate wouldn't be so low! Start-ups follow the reverse of the Anna Karenina principle: all successful companies are different, since they figured out how to solve a problem in their unique ways; but all failed companies do so for the same reasons. This also explains why it is hard to define deterministic factors of success; at best, they are probabilistic. There is no magic sauce, or as Thiel puts it, success is not a statistically measurable event, since every example is unique and you can't analyze a sample size of 1.


According to Paul Graham, successful founders "live in the future and build what seems interesting". For Peter Thiel, it's about uncovering secrets, finding problems that everyone else has overlooked.
Let me preamble by defining what I mean by success, in negative terms: I do not mean a start-up that exits on a 2M acquisition; I also do not mean a start-up that derives just enough revenue to keep the lights on.  Start-up success follows a power law: a few companies make it huge, and the rest form the tail end of the distribution. For that reason, the average return of a start-up is much more noteworthy than the median one, since most start-ups are doomed to failure or anorexic growth.

So what ARE positive predictors? One approach to answering this difficult question, and by no means the best one, is to look at a start-up along five dimensions:

1. Team
2. Problem-solving
3. Timing
4. Difficulty/Barrier to entry
5. Defined market

Necessary factors

A strong team

Creating a start-up is a challenging, iterative process. There are so many ways your execution can go wrong, whether it be the business model is not valid, the product does not meet expectations or there is internal conflict within the team. Having a team composed of talented, motivated individuals who get along with each other will guarantee that no matter what change of plans occur, you will find a way to iterate and jump back into the game. Most highly regarded incubators, angels and VCs pay close attention to the team and consider it the most important factor in whether they should invest. Some go as far as to say, it doesn't matter if the company changes it's business model completely, as long as there is a superstar team leading it. Make sure your team is well integrated (otherwise communication problems arise which can lead to implosion) and composed of A players.

Problem Solving

This seems like a reasonably easy concept to understand, but many start-ups fail to address this basic requirement: create a product/service that solves people's problem. In other words, create something people NEED, rather than creating something people may want. How many consumer apps have been DOA (dead on arrival) because they attempt to address a superfluous issue or commoditized area (games, social)?
The most natural way that entrepreneurs discover that need is by noticing it themselves in their daily life. They look to solve a problem they themselves encountered, which provides some evidence that the problem does indeed exist. 
At the end of the day, the majority of customers will only pay for what they need, and this is especially true in an environment where most platforms operate on a 'free trial' or 'freemium' model.

Timing

This is probably the most tricky aspect of start-up creation. If you consider innovation as a series of successive waves, your job as an entrepreneur is to catch that wave.
If you attempt too early, you may not have the (hardware and software) tools necessary to implement your vision, or the consumers may not be ready to use it (it is too 'avant-garde'). It is not so important to be the first mover into a market as it is to be the last mover. Facebook is a perfect illustration of this phenomena. The product itself was not novel - Friendster had come and gone years before - but the combination of right timing and a focus on a niche user base (colleges) propelled Facebook into massive growth. In 2005, every college student had a laptop and access to internet, making user adoption inherently viral.
The more obvious way to fail is to come into a market too late. I believe this is what is happening with social/mobile start-ups right now: the market is so saturated, the odds are stacked against you from the get-go. You will have a very hard time displacing the major players.

Other important (but not necessary) factors

Difficulty

PayPal, Google, Apple, SpaceX... All these are examples of companies that tackled difficult problems and did not shy away in the face of complexity in order to establish themselves as the leader in their field. The issue with many start-ups these days is that they want to solve easy problems or develop simple platforms - not simple in the sense of the implementation, as every product should strive for simplicity, but rather simple in the amount of effort required to get it off the ground - exposing themselves to cutthroat competition and extreme time-sensitivity to roll out their product. Sure, you could attempt to build the new gold standard in social or task management apps, but considering thousands of engineers could beat you to it at any moment, you are setting yourself up for an uphill battle.
Rather, you should probably aim to solve a difficult problem, become an expert in it and put a great deal of distance between you and any potential copycats. A very good take on this issue is Graham's short on 'Schlep Blindness'.
Approaching a challenging problem will not only put a high barrier to entry for any other start-ups vying to break into your market, but it will also make the learning process more worthwhile.

Defined market

Many start-ups like to pose themselves as the intersection of multiple markets, with no clear delineation of their relevant market. They try to narrow their market and tell intersection stories: "my company is LinkedIn meets designers meets online fashion". This sounds like a great concept in theory, but will this company be truly competing in a niche market? Or is it actually competing against LinkedIn and all online retail websites out there? Founders must be careful to think about their relevant market and indirect competitors even if their business model seems unique - otherwise, they may end up creating a product nobody will use.

- Nathanael

Dec 29, 2012

Are there real methods to increase productivity?

This is quite a hot topic these days, since our workdays are effectively becoming shortened by the non-stop distractions of social media and communications. Let me explore three methods which in my mind can have a real impact on your day to day productivity:

1) Sleep

This is a rather controversial one, since many hardcore 'workaholics' will argue it is a luxury more than a need. How many comments have I read saying "Sleep is for losers" and "You can sleep when you're dead", etc. Or just looking at the way the financial services impose a 100-hour week lifestyle on their employees, effectively leaving them with hardly any time to sleep or recover from the work day. While I applaud the desire to be more productive - I am a big fan of maximizing your time - there is something deeply irrational and foolish about this thought movement. Sleep is a remarkably poor understood aspect of human biology. The fact that I had to learn about sleep through a Psychology class, and not a Biology one, illustrates quite well how the science of sleep has been relegated to a second-order priority. But what we do understand well, from numerous studies, is that sleep deprivation leads a depreciation in cognitive ability. Among the mental effects are (but not limited to) a reduction in working memory (which is crucial, if you have read some of Kevin's earlier posts on N-back training), logical reasoning, decision-making (so called 'executive function') and mood (depression/anxiety). Now I don't need to tell you why this has an adverse effect on productivity. What these anti-sleep advocates don't understand can be explained with simple economics: those extra hours spent working when you could be sleeping or meditating come at a great marginal cost. If you work 90 hours a week at 60%, you are in fact getting less done AND in lesser quality than if you worked 70 hours a week at 90% alertness.

The most vicious aspect of sleep deprivation is that your brain adjusts to your new steady state of chronic fatigue and fools you into thinking you are just as productive as before, when in fact, you are not. Just try a simple experiment: give yourself an adequate night of sleep every day for a week (~ 7 hours), and then observe how you perform comparatively after returning to a sleep deprived schedule. Perhaps that will help you see with your own eyes the impact of chronic fatigue on productivity.

2) Exercise

This is probably the most obvious and discussed one. Almost everyone has experienced the refreshing sense of calm and focus that one gets after a good workout. The best is to get it done early in the day, before going to the office, so you can reap the mental benefits fully while at work. My personal favorite is swimming, as it offers a unique combination of vigorous exercise and relaxation.

3) 'Focus booster' or Pomodoros

This is an interesting approach. The theory is, rather than trying to power through your work day and let your stream of thought be broken by the non-stop distractions of the workplace, give yourself stretches of time without any outside (or inside) interference to focus on a specific task.
Again, I feel the need to debunk another thought movement based on superficial understanding of science and how the brain works: multitasking. Cognitive research shows that, for the great majority of individuals, attempting to tackle multiple tasks at the same time results in a loss of quality in each of those individual tasks, and can even prolong the amount of time required to accomplish them. The brain is fundamentally a SERIAL processor, meaning that we are only designed to focus our attention on one object at a time, whether this be a conversation, an email or a block of code. The notion of multitasking is a misleading one because in reality your brain is shifting its attention from one object to another in quick succession, disrupting your focus every time, rather than actually processing all streams of information in parallel.

With that said, I find the approach of setting periods of time aside for dedicated attention on a single task quite useful. Some will argue they do not need the structure of dedicated time and can sustain attention on a single task at hand effortlessly. Good for them. But for the majority of us, we do not have the capacity or the luxury (due to the amount of responsibilities to keep track of or physical distractions) to operate in such fashion. For these people, I recommend setting up a timer similar to that advocated by the 'Pomodoro' movement, or just simply blocking out time for a task and abiding to it. Once the allotted time is up, you can give yourself a short break (~5 mins) to relax and internalize that you have been working on. Then onto the next block, either on the same task or a different one!

The only question left is how long should one dedicate to a single session, or in other words, how long can the brain focus on a single task before experiencing diminishing returns? While there is no clear answer, the magic number seems to lie somewhere between 25 to 45 minutes. I think this number can vary depending on the individual, his mental state (hungry, tired, etc.) and the type of task at hand (very challenging or not). If I were to draw an approximate graph depicting productivity vs. time spent, it would look as follows:


 The point being, obviously, to maximize the area under the curve.


To conclude, I will say that these are subjective and by no means scientifically exact methods, but they are empirically based and in my opinion quite useful approaches to tackling the ongoing challenge of productivity.

- Nathanael

Oct 25, 2012

Perception of Time & Aging

Have you felt like your childhood is a long and dragged out sequence of memories, while the last few years of your life seem to have zipped by?
"Time flies", "life is short". These maxims are in my mind figurative ways of expressing the same and only cognitive phenomena: your perception of time gets faster as you get older.

Let me illustrate this phenomena with a basic example.
Say you travel a route for the first time. Your perception of time will be really slow since you are being bombarded with new stimuli and sensations; trying to remember the path you took; being aware of your surroundings, all of these contribute to a perception of slowness. How many times do you find yourself thinking "That took forever!".
But say you take that same route for the 3rd, 4th or nth time. Your impression of that journey will often seem much shorter. You will get lost in thought and suddenly you have already arrived.
I've seen this happen to me numerous times, whether it be a subway ride, a long walk, or a commute by car.

This example can be taken and expanded at the level of our existence. In effect, as you get older, the new sensations and stimuli become far and few between, since your knowledge of the world is wider. Most objects and experiences are no longer new and mysterious to you - you glance at them and disregard them just as quickly. You settle into a routine, which is only rarely broken by the arrival of new experiences. Working is of course the main causal factor behind that routine - but beyond the structural constraints of employment, your day to day becomes routine because most objects and experiences you encounter are already familiar.

In fact, I think a major reason why in this age, active professionals feel the urge to cram as much work and activities into their day as possible, is a fundamental anxiety with respect to this phenomena. They are compelled to fit in as many discrete experiences and objects in order to generate a sense of comfort: that time is NOT escaping from them, that all their brain cycles are being used as much as possible.

Perhaps that is one way of curing this existential anxiety. I think another way, and a better alternative, would be to seek out new experiences and learn whenever you have the chance to extract ourselves from the flight of time that occurs in the known world. Beyond the well-established contribution to increased brain elasticity and creativity, I believe this will contribute to psychological well-being.

- Nathanael

Oct 13, 2012

How to Maximize Your Lumosity Performance


This is a comprehensive guide that will help you to maximize your Lumosity performance. The strategies, tactics, and observations here come from my experience reaching the 99th percentile overall, as well as in each individual category.

Screenshot of raw scores, percentiles, and detailed training history.

In addition to the applied aspects of this guide, I will make some observations and speculations that came to mind. I am not formally trained in psychology, neurology, nor medicine, so I defer to  professionals that may read this guide if I state anything incorrectly concerning the efficacy of brain training tools to enhance cognitive performance in general.

Comprehensive and all-inclusive guidance will be provided ranging from general and strategic to specific and tactical and will be structured as follows.
  • General
    Ideas that are related to issues that are more meta-game, long-term, and lifestyle.
  • Category
    There will be strategies and observations about each category before diving into the more game-specific tactics.
    • Speed
    • Memory
    • Attention
    • Flexibility
    • Problem Solving




General

1. Frequency and Duration of Training

Various sources, including those in the official Lumosity website, state that the ideal training intensity is 15-30 minutes per day every 1-3 days.  My training regimen was abnormal in that I put in sessions averaging 1-2 hours each day over the course of 2.5 weeks. As with any task, I believe it is self-evident that more practice will result in faster Brain Performance Index (BPI) increases. 

I would say that anyone who wants to improve quickly would be advised to front-load intense training of 1-2 hours per day for a few days until marginal gains start to decrease dramatically, and then go into a more leisurely regimen long-term.

2. Focus of Training

Frequency and duration of training needs to be harnessed well for the fastest improvements. Not so much 'practice makes perfect,' but rather 'well-structured and planned practice makes perfect.' I would say that the rate that BPI increases would be much slower if you were to do a single trial of a game chosen at random before randomly choosing another.

I advise the vast majority of games should be played for five or more trials at a time before moving onto a different game.  There are some exceptions to this, due to the length and nature of the games.  For example, each single trial of Penguin Pursuit, Familiar Faces, Birdwatching, Eagle Eye, or Raindrops are relatively long and therefore may be viewed as be equivalent to two or three trials of other games:

As for grouping your five-trial sets, I would say that switching categories for each five-trial set is a good idea. Let me note that there's no solid evidence that this method is the best, just that it was the method that worked well for me.

3. Stress and Anticipation

Almost all these games are stressful, especially if you're emotionally invested in improving your performance.  The major source of stress comes from time pressure, which permeates almost every game even if speed is not explicitly a component. It's necessary to be mindful of your stress and attempt to reduce by all means, for example, by sitting in a comfortable position and make sure all bodily functions do not interfere with your training.  Means that you shouldn't be training if hungry, tired, anxious, sleep, and so on since the quality of your training will suffer and those hours may not be as impactful towards your improvement.

On many games, especially those with a high speed component, excessive anticipation can be seductive, but you may end up getting crushed suddenly and then hit by a string of cascading errors.  Be mindful that you should be anticipating as minimally as possible.  There is always an anticipation component, the tough part is to be mindful that you want the right amount, not too little or too much.  Excessive anticipation will most likely lead to lower scores, and furthermore if you achieve a high score on account of anticipation, it's really just a reflection of that anticipation-induced positive variance.

5. Flow and Focus

In  Csikszentmihalyi excellent book Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes the state of flow as that zone where challenges meet ability.  If challenges are too great relative to your ability, for example, you have to memorize 15 tiles in Memory Match, are on Level 21 of Penguin Pursuit, or Raindrops fill your screen, you tend to be stressed.  On the other hand, if you are still in the early stages of these games, you tend to get bored. Strive to get into that flow zone whenever possible.
May mean doing a few more trials in a game you feel you are making steady progress or consciously relaxing yourself once you feel the difficulty crank up in the games.

A crucial barrier to reaching flow are the stray thoughts you may have while completing a game. These thoughts take up the limited information processing and consciousness at your command.  The three main types of things that induce these performance degrading stray thoughts are: busy environment that may distract you, rumination of something in your past (especially recently), and most importantly, constant thinking of how well you are currently doing.

Try to make a conscious pact with yourself to focus as much as you can with the task at hand.  If you do it right, you reach that blissful flow state and you tend to perform at the upper end of your abilities.


7. Healthy Lifestyle
Even if the impact of cognitive training is large, it should be viewed as rounding out the last few percentages of a healthy lifestyle that includes eating well, sleeping well, supplementation, and exercise.

For total brain training, it's much more likely than not that exercise is the ultimate brain trainer as it induces physical changes. In fact, many studies have proven definitively that cardiovascular exercise increase the rate of neurogenesis.  An accessible primer is the following article in the New York Times, 'Lobes of Steel.'
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/sports/playmagazine/0819play-brain.html


8. Neuroplasticity and Patience
Much scientific evidence has shown that the brain is highly plastic, but it may require a period of rest and sleep in order to solidify the neuronal physiological changes such as new synaptic connections.  I've found it true and almost magical that I can return to the same game after a good night's sleep and achieve a new Personal Best Score with what feels like much less effort than I put into the training the day before.  So it's very important to train hard, but also to relax and give yourself time for your new neuronal pathways and connections to strengthen.


9. Caffeine
I find that performance across the board improves dramatically with caffeine.  Not much else to say except that if you want the highest possible scores, a moderate amount of caffeine is required.  I suppose drugs such as Adderall would be excellent too, but a comprehensive discussion of various nootropics are beyond the scope of this guide.



Category: Speed
The games in the speed category may be viewed as simply the control of stress and anticipation.  If you can control these two issues, you will improve immediately. The tasks are simple, it's just a matter of doing them.


Speed Match

  • Strive for at least 5 trials back-to-back whenever you train.
  • Strive to play this game somewhere in the middle of your training session.  If it's your first game, you may not be adequately warmed up. Furthermore, leaving this for when you're 1 or 2 hours into a session is a bad idea too since you'll be tired.
  • The short sound after each particular shape is useful, but the extended sound is distracting.  Experiment with turning off sound.
  • Important: Do not anticipate!


Penguin Pursuit


  • Try not to rest in between rounds so that you don't lose your momentum in between rounds.
  • This may be a good game to start a training session.
  • Do not focus on the other penguin, often during straightaways you can easily catch up since your penguin is usually much faster - at least until after stage 20.



Spatial Speed Match


  • Same guidelines as for Speed Match
  • In general, the short sound after each response is very useful for clearing your attention for the next one and this may be more beneficial than the distraction inherent in the long sound.  This effect seems not to occur in the Speed Match game, although it seems like it should.
  • Important and worth repeating: Do not anticipate!



Rotation Matrix


  • This is by far the hardest game I've encountered, so if you are trying to get a high BPI in the Speed, you can more than make up for the deficiencies in this game in the other games.  I suspect that many people have difficulty.
  • In general, this seems to be more suited for the Flexibility category.
  • Refer to the guidelines in Memory Match.


Category: Memory
Long-term memory is associated with crystallized intelligence, which is the accumulation of knowledge, skills, and facts over a long period of time. In contrast, short-term memory or working memory is viewed as the crucial bottleneck for thinking well. Some even go so far to assert that working memory can be used as a proxy for general intelligence. A very good primer on working memory and IQ is given on this very informative webpage.
http://www.gwern.net/DNB%20FAQ

This category in Lumosity is primarily focused on short-term memory, with some games that have a non-trivial long-term memory component such as Familiar Faces.  Much of the advice here is repetitive, since many of these games are only tiny variations on a few core memory games.



Memory Matrix



  • Chunking is very important and effectively reduces the number of tiles you need to remember. Basically, try to group squares into a pattern and then unpack it for the response phase.
  • If there are squares in corners, try to chunk corners together.
  • Try to envision the pieces as Tetris shapes when possible.


Familiar Faces



  • This game is difficult to get ramped-up on initially, but easy to score high once you get the hang of it so just be patient.
  • The meter above each person should help you focus and anticipate people with items coming up.  In general, learning what to forget and what to not focus on is just as important as what to remember and to focus on.  Practically, those with full meters you can simply forget and use your limited attention and memory to focus on those who just arrived.
  • Auditory cues greatly aid in remembering.  Try saying out the items and remembering the spatial locations.
  • If you already have three items in memory and there's a fourth one added, it's often easier to take care of the fourth one first, then move back to the items you have queued up.
  • You can envision personalities, professions, or voices for each of the people/
  • Try to notice all aspects of people, no matter how small, in order to remember the person holistically.  For example, the cartoon Kirk has a British flag, so try to think of him speaking to you in a British arc-sent.
  • As you get familiar with the "known unknowns" such as the limited food selection, it'll free up that part of memory into your long-term memory and it'll require less attention to encode it temporarily.
  • If overwhelmed by stimuli, try to encode foods and people into first letter or first two letters.  For example, Mary, David, Charles, and Julius could simply be respectively M, D, C, J.


Memory Match



  • This 1-2-back game is a bit tough to get use to, so as always, don't get discouraged and have patience by giving yourself many training trials.  I suggest doing this in sets of 10 if possible.
  • There are two particular patterns that you should look for that will greatly improve your speed, strings of: alternating and repeated symbols.  These free up the working memory and processing required to visualize the two hidden symbols and you just have to realize when you are in the midst of a sequence.
  • The tiles with the Chinese letters are much tougher than the color-rich symbols, so expect lower scores on these if you don't know Chinese.



Follow That Frog



  • I find that thinking of a line following the frog is useful so that you have another cue to support your memory.
  • Draw line paths into shapes.
  • This game is still in Beta as of mid-October 2012.



Pinball Recall


  • Chunking is the key to all the memory games, but especially important here.  Try to form patterns with the bumpers whenever you can to relieve yourself of the memory burden.
  • If a path seems too easy, especially at the higher levels, it is.  Therefore, take a bit more time to think if it seems a bit too easy.  
  • Be mindful of the density of bumpers and focus a bit more attention there.


Monster Garden



  • Yet another exercise in chunking - try to form patterns of monsters.
  • Use the auditory clues.




Name Tag



  • Just a standard memory card game.
  • Consider all the tips in the Familar Faces game.



 Rhyme Workout




  • Interestingly, you can maximize your score by simply focusing on 1-back without ever increasing the difficulty to two back.  Any deficiencies in this game can be made up by all the other memory games.  Of course, this is a good strategy only if your only intention is to maximize your Lumosity score.




Face Memory Workout



  • Essentially all guidelines in Memory Match apply.
  • Our brains are wired up to recognize even nuanced differences in facial features, so using gender and race will be useful here.




Memory Match Overload



  • I found this to be one of the hardest games in Lumosity, on par with Rotation Matrix.  Therefore, it can be neglected at first while you are building up your facility in the memory category with the other games.
  • Try to encode the fruit into colors or the first letters of the colors.




Moneycomb



  • Form geometrical shapes to chunk locations of the coins.
  • Try to use the different color of some of the hexagons as landmark.
  • Mistakes and guessing are not disastrous, you only get penalized a small amount.



Memory Lane



  • This is one of the most difficult, but cooler games in the Memory category.  I find that 3-back is virtually impossible with two stimuli, even more difficult than the 3-back in Memory Match Overload where only one stimulus (the fruit) is considered.
  • Don't be afraid to stay at the same level to get more experience, even if you have passed the requirements to move up to higher levels.


Category: Attention

In general, it is useful to move slightly back from the monitor so that all stimuli are clustered more towards the center of your vision and awareness.

Attention is by far the toughest category for me as I'm an strong intuitive type under MBTI theory.  Because this category may actually be a good discriminant of sensors vs. intuitives it may be worthy of a scientific study, for example, trying to ascertain whether differentially lower BPIs for a given person in Attention while high in Memory may be correlated with intuitive types.




Eagle Eye





  • The main issue is simply to relax since stressing out here will be detrimental to performance.
  • Try to play this game only when refreshed, never late at night or at the end of a training session.
  • Move a bit away from the monitor and try to focus as hard as you can in anticipation of the stimuli.




Lost in Migration



  • A good game to play right before or after Speed Match or Spatial Speed Match.
  • Caffeine will definitely improve performance here.
  • Relax.




Birdwatching



  • All guidelines in Eagle Eye apply here.
  • It may feel unfair that you miss a long string of birds in a row.  This is a drawback of this game and Eagle Eye, so perhaps Lumosity might want to increase the hit radius and assign a wider range of points.
  • Your score will drift upwards the more you play since you will start to learn the names of birds.




Observation Tower



  • If you've reached your limits by focusing just on the dot, perhaps you can start slightly above it and sweep to slightly below it.  There should be plenty of time for this.
  • Lean a bit back from the monitor to get a bigger field of view.
  • You can use logic since you the numbers are sequentially ordered.




Space Junk



  • At lower stages, you can try to actually count the number of objects.  However, at higher stages you just have to choose based on intuition.
  • Higher stages rarely involve less than 7 pieces of junk, and if they do, it's easy to count these.
  • There's no other way around it but choosing based on your intuition-based feeling since there's so much that flashes by so qiuckly at the higher stages.  Luckily, your intuition is pretty good at discerning a lot from a little.




Playing Koi



  • You should never have to keep track of (N+1)/2 Koi at any one time.  After you are finished feeding the first (N+1)/2 Koi, shift your attention to the rest of the unfed Koi.
  • Group Koi together when possible and form geometrical shapes with the relevant Koi at the vertices.
  • Try to be extra mindful when your tracked Koi float underneath the Lily pad, since more than 2 Koi can disappear completely.  In which case, you simply have to use the direction they were swimming before getting obscured.




Top Chimp



  • Try to ignore the competition against the chimps, since it means absolutely nothing.
  • All guidelines for the Observation Tower apply here.


Category: Flexibility

I find that playing games in this category tend to get me the most wired up and are the least boring - they're actually fun to play!

I found the games in this category are the most amenable to improvement.  Many times I would play a game and achieve Personal Best scores on consecutive days without feeling I put forth much effort.  This could be anecdotal evidence that's specific to me, so would be interested in what others have experienced.



Word Bubbles Rising





  • The main challenge is to run through the typically 4-8 different ways you can change the form of a word to make it: plural, adverb, past tense, a noun from verb (run to runner), etc. 
  • The secondary challenge is to run through the ways to change the word form tactically so that you add or subtract one or two letters.
  • I find that starting with longer words is more useful since typing fast under time pressure near the end is easier with short words




Brain Shift



  • There's a fine line to straddle as you get up in speed between going with your feeling (that's usually well-developed, but only after many trials) and taking the time to check.  I would say that I want 90% certainty if I'm going very quickly and that usually serves the purpose.
  • Try to respond at equal intervals so that each selection is as standardized as possible.
  • Simply relax and try not to worry too much about the outcome.  With trials and rest, results will come.



Color Match



  • The main trick is to focus on the left word so that you can see only the color of the right word out of the corner of your eye and therefore do not read it unintentionally.



Word Bubbles



  • All guidelines for Word Bubbles Rising apply here.
  • This game has more space to take in longer words before the slots exhaust, so your score will benefit more from longer words here than in Word Bubbles Rising.  On the other hand, you want to maximize all the word lengths, so be mindful that you are not expending so much time at the longer words.
  • Press the down arrow key, followed by the up arrow key for long words so that you can change their forms very quickly without all the time wasted typing in the same letters again. Unfortunately, this method does not exist for Word Bubbles Rising, only for Word Bubbles.



Disillusion



  • Verbalize to yourself "Vertical X" (where X is the rule) continuously.
  • Try to only hit the edge pieces when starting training on this game and try not to worry about any fancy double or triple clearings - those can come later.




Route to Sprout



  • Many patterns repeat, so your score will almost certainly get better.
  • As you start, don't be too obsessive about finding an optimal route as a decent one.




Disconnection



  • This is essentially Disillusion, so all guidelines from there apply here.




Brain Shift Overdrive



  • Slow down and relax, put in a lot of trials, and you will get better gradually, almost magically.
  • If you feel yourself stressing out, give yourself a similar half second or full second for before every response to standardize the timing.

Category: Problem Solving

The Problem Solving Category is mostly simple math with two games that are logic-based.  The Storm games might probably be better classified as speed, since they aren't actually problem solving anything difficult, but rather not freaking out as you get overwhelmed by too much under time pressure.  As with all the other sections, the key is simply to relax.




Raindrops with Storms: Addition, Multiplication, Subtraction, Division







  • The orange drops in Raindrops can clear the screen come by periodically and are very important to get the highest scores. If you feel like you are getting overwhelmed, be extra vigilant for the orange ones.
  • Using the numeric keypad on the keyboard is the only real way to get very high scores, so take some time to get familiar with that.  I use my laptop's keypad with low and hard-to-distinguish numbers, so I am sure that my scores would increase drastically if I used the keypad attached to full-sized keyboard that would provide better haptic feedback.
  • Addition and multiplication tend to be easier cognitive tasks than subtraction and division, so if you are stuck for that half second (an eternity in Raindrops time), try to think of what you can add to the lower number or multiply the lower number by to get the upper number.




Chalkboard Challenge



  • Try to look at both sides quickly to get a general sense of what computations are needed - there will often be shortcuts such as a number that's both divided and multiplied by the same number.. 
  • It is too slow to fully calculate one side, then fully calculate the other side, and then compare, so try to avoid full calculations whenever possible.
  • Usually the side that gets above 30 is the larger side.
  • Near the end when the expressions are very complex anad you have almost no time left, you might simply want to guess.




Word Sort



  • This game is not timed, so you simply not rushing will yield better results.
  • Choices do not come at random.  If the choice is 3 letter word, then the odds of 3 letter words coming out increase significantly.  Same goes for all sorts of other categories.
  • Make a complete list of the different dimensions and remember what they are so you are more primed to be aware of them.



By the Rules

  • This is a logic problem that is completely solved.  I quickly created the grid above, which I will explain.
  • There are six dimensions with three values each:
    • Fill = {empty, gradient, full}
    • Color = {red, green, blue}
    • Shape = {circle, triangle, square}
    • Background = {horizontal, diagonal, vertical}
    • Border = {dotted, wide, and solid}
    • Number = {1, 2, 3}
  • Colors of grid
    • Green = Follows the Rule
    • Red = Does Not Follow The Rule
  • Using this structure, we apply the following logical rules to determine both the relevant dimension and the specific value.
    • If more than one value in a dimension is accepted, then that is not a relevant dimension.
    • If only one value in a dimension is accepted, than that could possibly be the relevant dimension and value.
    • If one value in a dimension is rejected, then that could still be the relevant dimension, but not that value.
    • If two values in a dimension are rejected, then that could still be the relevant dimension, but not those two values.
    • If all three values in a dimension are rejected, then that cannot be the relevant dimension.
    • There can be degeneracies, for example, one value is accepted in each of k potentially relevant dimensions.  In this case, you can guess with 1/k probability of correctness.
  • The rules above may be slightly overconstrained or underconstrained, a deeper analysis would need to be done to determine what the minimal constraining set of rules are.  However, these guidelines are enough to at least come very close to maxing out the score attainable in this game.
- Kevin

Oct 3, 2012

Opportunity Cost

Great thinkers and innovators see the opportunity cost of how they spend their time, not how they make their money. These people understand how precious of a resource time is, shy away from an average life to pursue greater goals with the time that is imparted to them. These are also the type of people who will turn away from conventional careers, the prospect of short-term wealth and material pleasure to pursue their long-term goals. Often to the point of putting themselves through difficult living conditions. Think of Nicolai Tesla, living off Nabisco crackers and forgoing a normal existence in order to revolutionize electrical engineering. Steve Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford well illustrates this state of mind. At the risk of sounding like another Jobs groupie, I would like to share with you an excerpt from his speech:


“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

When pondering about your career, consider this: perhaps the long-term opportunity cost of wasting time is much more important than the short-term opportunity cost of not making more money. Are you willing to spend the time you have in a non-engaging entry-level job for moderate monetary compensation, when you could be maximizing your personal growth elsewhere?

- Nathanael