“Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best. It is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided that certain initial conditions are met. Everyone from assembly-line workers in Detroit to jazz musicians in Algeria to software designers in Mumbai rely on flow to drive performance and accelerate innovation.” – Steven Kotler (all quotes in bold are by Steven Kotler)
Flow is the feeling of being totally immersed in what you are doing. “In flow, every action, each decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed problem solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.”
According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ned Hallowell: “Everything you do, you do better in flow, from baking a chocolate cake to planning a vacation to solving a differential equation to writing a business plan to playing tennis to making love. Flow is the doorway to the ‘more’ most of us seek. Rather than telling ourselves to get used to it, that’s all there is, instead learn how to enter into flow. There you will find, in manageable doses, all the ‘more’ you need.”
Table of Contents
This thrill-a-minute book offers tales of impossible feats, otherworldly achievements, white-knuckle drama and agonizing tragedy. Writing in adventure-novel style, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Kotler opens a window into the world of extreme sports, where athletes surf 100-foot waves, free-fall from the stratosphere and fly through narrow canyons in flimsy wing suits. Kotler’s scientifically based examination of extreme athletic performance offers insight into achieving better performance at work. Though Kotler doesn’t always draw completely convincing parallels between extreme athletics and improved work performance, We recommend his chronicle to adventure lovers, the ambitious and anyone interested in cognitive science.
- Everyone can learn about performance from extreme athletes.
- They demonstrate superhuman feats backed by practice, skills, dedication as well as mental control.
- You possess a beneath-the-surface, but accessible, level of consciousness that can improve your performance enormously.
- Most people never discover this other consciousness – a state of “flow” in which focus, skills and decisions sharpen to near-perfection.
- Flow frees you from thinking and lets you simply do.
- To survive, extreme athletes must master flow.
- The quick shortcut to flow is to take risk.
- In order to achieve flow, “the challenge of the task at hand must slightly exceed your skill level.”
- “Group flow” happens in the presence of mild risk, challenge or mutual goals.
- “Learning new skills in flow can cut the path to mastery in half.”
How to Experience More Flow at Work (4 flow triggers)
Clear goal with high consequences
First, you need to know exactly what you are trying to do (know the pass-fail requirements) and why you are doing it (clear goal). Your goals should always be just beyond your current skill level, forcing you to operate in the space between boredom and anxiety.
Then you need to put something on the line and heighten your attention (consequence). As human beings, our fear of social consequences is similar to our fear of death (when we lived in tribes, being alienated meant surviving as an outcast alone in the wild). Therefore, you don’t need to put your life on the line to experience high consequence, just give people your word and stick to it (public accountability).
Rich sensory experience
Being mindful of your five senses and experiencing rich sensory input that is complex and novel will trigger flow. The more complex and unpredictable the experience, the deeper the flow state.
“If you’ve ever stood before a vast canyon and felt awe—well, awe is a state of total absorption and the front end of flow. When sucked in by the incomprehensible complexity of geologic timescales and epic beauty, reality pauses, if only for a moment. And in this moment, we taste the pinpoint focus, loss of self-consciousness, and time dilation that are deep zone companions.” In the context of work: tea/coffee = taste + smell, music = auditory, novel space = sight, and typing/sketching = tactile.
When your experience includes an immediate cycle of action-reaction-improvement, you’ll have a better chance of experiencing flow. “The smaller the gap between input and output, the more we know how we’re doing and how to do it better. If we can’t course correct in real time, we start looking for clues to better performance— things we did in the past, things we’ve seen other people do, things that can pull us out of the moment. “ In the context of your work, externalize thoughts so you can immediately improve upon them – sketch out ideas, type out sentences, draw on the whiteboard.
Say “Yes! And…”
Whatever comes up, accept it and add to it.
“Interactions should be additive more than argumentative. The goal here is the momentum, togetherness, and innovation that comes from ceaselessly amplifying each other’s ideas and actions. It’s a trigger based on the first rule of improv comedy. If I open a sketch with, “Hey, there’s a blue elephant in the bathroom,” then “No, there’s not”…the scene goes nowhere. But if the reply is affirmative instead—“Yeah, sorry, there was no more space in the cereal cupboard”—well then that story goes someplace interesting.”
Faster, Higher, Stronger
Elite athletes achieve remarkable feats in traditional sports. In 1996, for example, Kerri Strug secured Olympic gold for the US women’s gymnastics team under intense pressure in the final event of the competition. She won by performing a difficult vault ending in a perfect, “stuck” landing on an ankle she had sprained on her previous attempt.
“Flow is more than optimal state of consciousness – one where we feel our best and perform our best – it also appears to be the only practical answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? Flow is what makes life worth living.”
Unlike Strug, skateboarder Danny Way is an “action-adventure sports athlete.” He became the first person to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard and placed second at the 2004 X games. He did both on a twice-broken ankle under conditions that make most contact sports look like games of checkers. Such extreme athletes push the envelope in action-adventure sports. Athletes who engage in “BASE jumping” and or wing-suit flying know they are risking death. People involved in these sports enter “the zone,” a mental and emotional state where time slows and a sense of serenity obscures danger.
Getting in the Zone
In the zone, you achieve a different form of consciousness. If you’ve been in a life-threatening situation, perhaps you’ve experienced this consciousness. Time slows down. The things you see and the way you think expand. You take in everything, consider dozens of options and choose the right course of action to save yourself. Your performance skyrockets. Nothing else matches the feeling, and many grow addicted to it.
“The zone, quite literally, is the shortest path toward Superman.”
However, “there are 22 known gateways into flow” and risk is only one of them. In the 1960s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who gave the name “flow” to this feeling, began his quest to understand human motivation. He earned fame and a following thanks to his discovery of the components that he believes add up to happiness – the feeling of sustaining or peak experiences, or flow. Today, companies and pro sports teams experiment to find new ways to create flow and drive peak performance.
“Flow carries within it delicious possibility. In the state, we are aligned with our core passion and, because of flow’s incredible impact on performance, expressing that passion to the utmost.”
In the world of dangerous sports, athletes must find their flow state in their sport or face great peril. These daring athletes push the limits of human performance not just at work or on pro football fields or tennis courts, but in the mountains and on the “megaramps” of adventure sports. Extreme sports provide insight into flow: sublime concentration, suspended time and the ability to make correct, split-second decisions and to execute them. But athletes don’t own flow. Anyone can experience flow, achieve it more frequently and attain higher levels of performance.
A Blissful State
Practice and diligence only take you so far. Many people practice long hours under expert instruction for decades and fall short of achieving elite status in their field. Only a few rise to the top. The extra element has less to do with innate talent than with how the brain functions. The brain has explicit and implicit systems. The explicit is conscious; the implicit is subconscious.
“Certainly, risk is needed for flow, but if you don’t want to take physical risks, take mental risks. Take social risks. Emotional risks. Creative risks. Especially creative risks.”
Most people get hung up somewhere in that process, while a rare few enter a state in which they can control each stage, causing bursts of creativity and insight that produce unheard-of solutions. Elite athletes and many others operate mostly using their automatic, right brains. They don’t think; they act according to “refined high-speed pattern recognition,” an ability they gained through controlling their consciousness.
“Action and adventure athletes have used flow to push performance faster and farther than any group in history, so their triumphs can become our teachers.”
Regular visitors to the zone and the state of flow describe a “Voice” that tells them what to do next and “is never wrong.” Everyone has this Voice, but most people don’t hear it, and even fewer listen to it. Your intuitive voice is always with you, and in times of crisis it has no competition. When you face death, the chatter in your brain stops. Then, the Voice comes through loud and clear, and you listen to save yourself. Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which processes all higher-level thoughts, shuts down. Flow frees you from thinking and lets you simply do.
“Emotionally, we feel dopamine as engagement, excitement, creativity, and the desire to investigate and make meaning of the world.”
In a crisis, the brain takes energy away from higher thinking processes and uses it for intuition instead. It essentially stops all questioning and takes command. People who experience this effect often feel immense relief because they’re freed from making decisions. Without the constraints of the doubting prefrontal cortex, you’re free to innovate, imagine, create and dare greatly.
During these fleeting periods of intense focus, your advanced brain activity stops so completely – in the “hypofrontality” process – that you lose your sense of self. Science has proven that “the part of the brain that divides the self from others can turn off, causing us to feel as if we’re ‘one with everything’.” Drugs or long periods of expert meditation can create this state, but jumping off a mountain in free fall gets you there instantly, and the feeling lingers for hours.
“Intuition is a permanent feature of standard brain function – meaning the Voice is always communicating with us – yet we can rarely hear it.”
Through repeated exposure, the brain’s neocortex remembers many complex patterns. The brain stores these patterns in bundles, so when you see or hear something familiar, your brain retrieves the bundle and you go on autopilot for the rest. Each bundle contains complex information, yet all you have to do is recognize the first sign of the bundle to set the whole thing in motion. Chemicals in your brain enable pattern recognition, which lets your intuition kick in.
“Flow’s Mighty Cocktail”
“Neurochemicals are part of the formula that produces flow.” When an existential threat confronts you, your brain releases dopamine, which creates urgency and excitement. Norepinephrine floods your system, to focus you and sharpen your skills. Endorphins kick in next to block pain and replace it with pleasure, followed by anandamide, which kills pain and promotes lateral thinking.
“In flow, we are our resourceful, imaginative, ingenious best.”
As your flow state recedes, serotonin takes over, lengthening the extraordinary feelings long enough for the experience to sear into your brain, which improves your performance next time. This incredibly powerful combination of chemicals makes you superhuman until it wears off. It enables a person to survive surfing a 100-foot wave, and may explain things like a basketball player hitting 10 three-pointers in a row.
“A quick shorthand for learning is the more emotionally powerful an experience, the more chance the details of that experience get moved from short-term storage into long-term memory.”
Chemical reactions during flow feel fantastic, but don’t confuse them with an adrenaline rush. To the “flow junky,” adrenaline means fear, an unwelcome emotion during flow, but an essential one in triggering it. Rejecting the strong impulse to flee from danger requires a smooth transition to flow. Having doubt results in an incomplete transition. Extreme athletes work to control stress and fear. They build “situational awareness,” so they can reject doubt, stay calm and ease into a flow state, where pattern recognition takes charge as sensations heighten and time slows. To the extent that the Voice takes over, the athlete makes the right decisions without conscious thought.
Getting to Flow
Flow is remarkably easy to train. Getting into flow takes an understanding of the flow triggers and the flow cycle. Scientists, teachers, business leaders, technologists all master flow…so do baseball, basketball, and football players. “Many action and adventure sport athletes did not follow the traditional paths to mastery.”
“If flow underpins optimal performance, then knowing the causes of flow – both where it comes from and why it comes – can help us achieve optimal performance more frequently.”
In flow, people don’t need their mothers to nag them into practicing; they want to practice. But practice describes it poorly. Instead, action is fun; “instant gratification” fuels success and rapid learning. In flow, intense, emotional experiences burn lessons into the brain. And, learning occurs much faster. However, research shows that most people find flow by doing knowledge work, much more than by participating in extreme sports.
“High-risk activity can profoundly alter consciousness and significantly enhance mental abilities.”
To achieve flow, you don’t have to jump off a cliff in a wing suit or brave a raft trip over whitewater rapids. Running, hiking, playing video games and even surfing the web can induce flow. “Risk is a great trigger for flow, but you can replace physical risk with social, emotional or intellectual risk.”
Degrees of Flow
To increase your chances of inducing flow, look for the unusual and break your routines. Encourage flow by setting clear, bite-size goals, not vague, long-term ones. A writer might set out to write a few paragraphs, rather than trying to finish a chapter. Set challenging microgoals that pull you into “the now” and crowd out distractions. String together your microgoals to achieve bigger ones, but don’t let the enormity of the bigger goal overwhelm or distract you. Find ways to get or give faster feedback. Don’t settle for quarterly performance reviews; seek daily feedback at least. Set your “challenge/skill ratio” correctly.
“The point is not that the impossible is possible for these athletes alone – if we diligently apply the lessons detailed herein – it’s actually possible for all of us.”
If the challenge is too great, stress hinders your performance. Too little challenge causes loss of focus. If you know you can do something easily, your mind wanders. With the right level of challenge, dopamine releases in your brain because you face uncertainty, which your brain reads as a possible danger. These chemicals create clarity and focus and the ability to recognize patterns. To achieve your challenge “sweet spot,” increase task difficulty by precisely 4% each time. How do you determine 4%? You have to know yourself well. It takes practice to know how far to push yourself to trigger the flow process and not generate more stress.
The Flow Cycle
All flow depends on a four-stage cycle:
- “Struggle” – The flow process starts with great effort. This stage involves work and frustration as you move through a problem.
- “Release” – Break away from the challenge. Take a stroll, or go see a movie. This releases nitric oxides that flood your brain, reduce stress and make you feel good, allowing a state of flow to follow.
- “Flow” – The fight leads to the release, which leads to the flow state.
- “Recovery” – Come out of flow into this state, in which your mind and body recuperate from an intense use of energy and a bath of neurochemicals. Store your memories. You won’t have the strength for a new struggle unless you take time to recover from the previous flow cycle.
The most dependable, nonextreme path to flow involves other people. When groups trigger flow, higher performance results. Just as jumping off a cliff can induce flow, “social triggers” at work do the same. Get your group to focus on clear, common goals and ensure continuous feedback. Encourage balanced participation and include a dose of risk. Develop a “common language” and a shared understanding of the goals, ensure freedom for individuals to innovate within the group and make the process collective so that egos disappear. Recruit people of comparable skill levels to avoid the strong carrying the weak or growing bored – either brings flows to a standstill. Encourage improvisation, which requires that everyone listen intently to build on one another’s ideas rather than refute them.
The Downside of Flow
Once basic human needs are met, “autonomy, mastery and purpose” are the three strongest human motivators – and flow produces all of them. Flow relies on powerful evolutionary drivers and potent “feel good neurochemistry” – this can be addictive.
“Flow…doesn’t just increase our decision-making abilities – it increases our creative decision-making abilities. Dramatically.”
Inevitably, pursuit of “passion and purpose” costs the pursuer. For those who quit the pursuit, leaving the rush of flow to settle into an ordinary existence causes traumas of its own – a combat soldier’s difficulty adjusting to civilian life, for example. Too often, these individuals replace the natural rush with drugs, dangerous sex and other harmful substitutes.
Today’s audiences are seeing the first generation of engineered extreme athletes. What science learned about the neuroscience and neurochemistry of peak performance and the techniques to master flow could portend an evolutionary advance. From killer waves to the office, everyone benefits.
About the Author
Steven Kotler is the co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project. He is a best-selling author whose other books include: West of Jesus, A Small Furry Prayer, Tomorrowland, Bold and Abundance.
“The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” by Steven Kotler is an exhilarating exploration of the concept of flow and its transformative effects on human performance. Kotler delves into the realm of extreme sports and showcases how athletes in these high-risk fields achieve extraordinary feats by tapping into a state of optimal consciousness known as flow.
Kotler begins by introducing the concept of flow, which is a state of complete immersion and focus experienced by individuals when they are fully engaged in an activity. He explains that during flow, individuals enter a heightened state of awareness where time seems to slow down, self-consciousness fades away, and performance becomes effortless. Flow is not limited to extreme athletes but can be experienced by anyone, from musicians and artists to business professionals and everyday individuals.
The book draws upon numerous interviews, scientific research, and real-life examples to support its claims. Kotler interviews a wide range of extreme athletes, including surfers, rock climbers, and snowboarders, who describe their experiences of flow and how it has propelled them to achieve extraordinary feats. These firsthand accounts are combined with insights from neurobiology, psychology, and other disciplines to provide a comprehensive understanding of the science behind flow.
One of the book’s strengths lies in its ability to make complex scientific concepts accessible to a general audience. Kotler breaks down the neurochemical and psychological mechanisms underlying flow, explaining how the brain and body work together to facilitate this heightened state of performance. He also explores the potential applications of flow in various domains, such as education, creativity, and business, highlighting the potential benefits of incorporating flow into different aspects of our lives.
“The Rise of Superman” is not just a book about extreme sports or athletic achievement; it is a captivating exploration of human potential and the nature of optimal experience. Kotler argues that flow is not limited to a select few but is a state that can be cultivated and accessed by anyone willing to pursue their passions and push the boundaries of their abilities. The book serves as an inspiring guide for individuals seeking to unlock their full potential and tap into the extraordinary capabilities of the human mind.
However, one potential criticism of the book is that it heavily focuses on extreme sports, which may limit its appeal to readers who are not specifically interested in that domain. While Kotler does touch upon other areas where flow can be applied, such as art and business, these sections feel somewhat overshadowed by the emphasis on extreme athletes. Additionally, some readers may find the repetitive nature of the examples and anecdotes somewhat tiresome, as similar themes and stories are revisited throughout the book.
In conclusion, “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” is an enthralling exploration of flow and its profound impact on human performance. Steven Kotler successfully weaves together scientific research, personal narratives, and practical insights to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of this transformative state of consciousness. Whether you are an athlete, artist, or entrepreneur, this book offers valuable insights and inspiration for unlocking your full potential and achieving optimal performance in any field.