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Summary: The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler


A best-selling author and one of the world’s leading experts on peak performance, Steven Kotler says achieving what seems impossible might be easier than you think – if you work with your biology, not against it. In this inspiring book, Kotler shares how evolution shapes the factors which allow humans to perform at their best and what powerful internal motivators, rooted in the brain’s neurobiology, will pull you forward no matter what. This insightful, science-backed reading will intrigue everyone who wants to live a life of extraordinary performance and purpose.


  • Pushing the limits of impossible is the highest and the most meaningful goal to which you can aspire.
  • Neurobiology provides the answer to the formula of doing the impossible.
  • Let powerful intrinsic motivators, like curiosity, passion and purpose, drive you forward.
  • Determine three sets of goals, with different timescales.
  • Develop grit, so you can chase the impossible, long-term.
  • Learn how to learn and commit to being a lifelong learner.
  • Creativity gives you a competitive edge and makes you happier.
  • Task your subconscious mind with coming up with creative solutions.
  • Learn to get into a “flow” state – a deeply motivating and pleasurable experience.
  • You can’t be in flow all the time, but you can prolong the time you spend in this state.

Summary: The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler


Pushing the limits of impossible is the highest and the most meaningful goal to which you can aspire.

There are things no one knew were possible before someone accomplished them: capital “I” Impossible feats. Every person also has their own personal “impossibles”: the things that you consider outside the scope of your individual capabilities and possibilities – whether that’s escaping poverty or becoming a professional artist or athlete. The highest and most fulfilling goal you can aspire to in life is to push the boundaries of your personal “impossible.” Some people who persevere in their pursuit of personal impossibles, long-term, end up pushing the boundaries of what goals humanity deems to be achievable.

“Each of us, right here, right now, contains the possibility of extraordinary. Yet this extraordinary capability is an emergent property, one that only arises when we push ourselves toward the edge of our abilities.”

Using the term of philosopher James Carse, pushing the limits of impossible is “the infinite game,” akin to love and art. This game gives you ultimate fulfillment, despite the fact that it’s one you can’t win – the goal is just to continue playing.

Neurobiology provides the answer to the formula of impossible.

“Flow” is how you achieve the impossible. It’s a special state of mind wherein you feel and perform your best: those moments when you are completely engaged in a given activity, and time flies without your taking notice.

“Flow is to extreme innovation what oxygen is to breathing – simply the biology of how it gets done.”

Anyone can enter a flow state – what matters for peak performance, however, is a long-term commitment to the skills which the flow state helps boost: motivation, learning and creativity. These elements are vital to making the most of a flow state, but they also allow you to keep moving forward on your impossibles in moments when flow falters.

Let powerful intrinsic motivators, like curiosity, passion and purpose, drive you forward.

Peak performers carefully stack every factor that allows them to push forward, speedily, toward their goals. For example, they build physiological energy via the right nutrition, getting enough sleep and exercise. But they also accrue mental energy – the internal drive to succeed, which stems from your curiosity, passion and purpose. Extrinsic motivators, like money or status, work only until you meet your baseline needs. After that, you have to develop intrinsic motivation to keep pursuing impossible goals.

“As high-minded as something like ‘meaning and purpose’ might seem as a driver, this is actually evolution’s way of saying: Okay, you’ve got enough resources for yourself and your family. Now it’s time to help your tribe or your species get more.”

Curiosity, passion and purpose are not only the most powerful intrinsic drivers, evolution has designed them to work together. These motivators make your work feel more like play, despite the extreme effort involved. And because they release feel-good chemicals in the brain, they produce enthusiasm and excitement – both of which help make desired behaviors more or less automatic.

Research shows that many high performers start their careers by trying out different jobs and industries, looking for the perfect “fit.” When figuring out your path to impossible, you also have to aim for that “match quality”: a very tight link between your skills and interests and the work you do.

Make a list of the things you are curious about and hunt for points of intersection among those interests – this is where you will find opportunities to dive in deeply and bring ideas together in novel ways. Explore these intersections and devote some time to your passions daily, feeding your curiosity and internal drive.

Mastery and autonomy – feelings of competence and the ability to chart your own course – are two other powerful intrinsic motivators. Companies like 3M and Google, for example, direct their employees to spend 15-20% of their working time on self-driven passion projects. This rule generates feelings of autonomy, which, in turn, have led to hugely profitable innovations, such as Google Maps.

Determine three sets of goals, with different timescales.

Start your goal-setting with a “massively transformative purpose” (MTP): a goal you can devote your life to pursuing. Outline the major causes that you care about or serious problems that you would like to help solve. See if any of your passions intersect with these issues. You are seeking points of connection between passion and purpose: what you love to do and what the world needs.

Next, set up “high hard goals” (HHGs): sub-goals, also linked to your passions, which will allow you to move, incrementally, toward accomplishing your MTP. Each of your HHGs can take several years to accomplish.

Finally, establish “clear goals”: small steps, laid out in daily to-do lists, which help you make progress, each day, toward your HHGs and ultimately, your MTP.

Develop grit, so you can chase the impossible, long-term.

Grit is the ability to persist, to continue pursuing your goals, no matter what challenges or difficulties you face. And while it requires more fortitude and effort in the short-term, science shows that “grittier” people enjoy greater amounts of happiness, because the things they pursue connect more deeply with their intrinsic motivations.

“Less gritty people hunt happiness through pleasure, while grittier folks choose engagement. By consistently choosing engagement and triggering flow, the grittier folks are actually getting more happiness, not less.”

Here’s how you can develop grit:

  • Prioritize – Your willpower is not infinite and dwindles toward the evening; so start your day with the hardest and most important task.
  • Embrace a growth mind-set – Challenges and mistakes are a valuable way to learn.
  • Stay curious – Curiosity helps you stick with a problem long enough to solve it. The passion curiosity enables aids your acceptance of the frustration that is an organic part of the pursuit of any goal.
  • Take charge of your thoughts – Use encouraging self-talk to expand your perspective, do a daily gratitude ritual which reminds you of the good things in your life or take up meditation to curb stress.
  • Work with your fear rather than avoiding it – Many high-performers experience fear on a regular basis, but rather than succumb to those fears, they channel them into greater focus.
  • Embrace tough times – Don’t only work on your goals when you’re well-rested or otherwise at your best. Work during bad moments, too. You will, thus, incrementally develop the ability to be at your best even when tired or under pressure.
  • Find and address weaknesses – Identify your cognitive, physical, emotional weaknesses and slowly work on improving these areas.
  • Prioritize recovery time – Proactively avoiding burnout is an important part of grit. Make sure you get enough sleep and the right nutrition. Schedule downtime into your routine, and engage in therapeutic activities such as massages, meditation and walks in the woods.

Learn how to learn and commit to being a lifelong learner.

Peak performers place a high importance on learning. They learn how to learn in order to increase the efficiency of their efforts. Also, they work out “truth filters” that help them discern the most relevant information, which, in turn, aids in wise decision-making. When Elon Musk was debating founding a solar energy company, for example, he filtered out irrelevancies like what competition he might face and, instead, zeroed in on the materials costs of the batteries which store solar energy. Cheap parts meant he could focus on innovation, without worrying about high overhead.

“Learning to identify our core strengths – literally identifying those things we’re best at – then learning how to get even better at them, is fundamental to peak performance.”

Create your own filters for your goals. Figure out what skill and knowledge acquisition shortcuts you can use and when. But when it comes to areas connected to total mastery and your MTP, grind down and go all in.

“Books are the most radically condensed form of knowledge on the planet.”

Read books, which offer a far better return on investment on your time than blogs or educational videos. A blog post usually contains just a couple of insights. Books not only offer a greater number of valuable thoughts, that the author often accumulated over the course of years, they also boost empathy, sleep and intelligence.

Creativity gives you a competitive edge and makes you happier.

If motivation gets you into the infinite game and learning lets you continue to play, creativity helps you steer along your journey. Creativity is not just about coming up with new ideas; it’s about coming up with innovations which also provide value – that is, they are useful to other people.

“A creative career isn’t about climbing the mountain, it’s about always climbing the mountain.”

Moreover, what matters when chasing the impossible is “long-haul creativity.” You must commit to the work of creativity – which usually involves becoming proficient in the work which surrounds your creative endeavors, like marketing or website creation. You must also embrace frustration as part of the process, use momentum to your advantage (stop work at a high point, so you are excited to begin again the next day) and constantly reinvent yourself.

Task your subconscious mind with coming up with creative solutions.

Compared to the conscious mind, the subconscious is a much better problem-solver due to its ability to process more information.

“While the conscious mind can handle about seven bits of information at once, there appears to be no limit on how many ideas the subconscious can juggle.”

Try the “MacGyver method” that TV writer Lee Zlotoff designed. First, explain the problem you are struggling with, in writing, in as much detail as possible. Next, walk away from the problem to give your subconscious mind time to come up with the solutions. Do something engaging but not tiring, for example, washing dishes or taking a walk in the park. TV won’t do, since it makes your brain work too much. Then return to your notepad and start free writing. Put down anything that comes to your mind. After a short period of time, the solution to your problem will start spilling out on the page.

Learn to get into a “flow” state – a deeply motivating and pleasurable experience.

Provided certain conditions are met, humans can get into flow anywhere, doing anything. When you’re in a flow state, the world around you disappears. You become one with the thing you are focused upon. It’s one of the few times when your brain releases all six of the most powerful pleasure chemicals into your system. The state is so rewarding and distinct that psychologists consider it the biggest internal motivator of all.

“Evolution shaped the brain to perform at its best by getting into flow.”

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term flow, determined that those in this state enjoy absolute focus; oneness with the task at hand; a loss of self-consciousness; an “altered sense of time”; a deep sense of control; and feelings of intense pleasure and purpose.

Flow is a spectrum. You can get into a “microflow” where all six characteristics show up but not intensely, or a “macroflow” where its properties show up in full – an experience so powerful that it can seem almost transcendent.

For flow to occur, you need internal triggers: autonomy, the “triad” of curiosity, passion and purpose, absolute focus, well-defined goals, real-time feedback and the “challenge-skills balance”: when something is difficult, but not wholly beyond your skills. You also need external triggers: high stakes, and environments replete with novelty, unpredictability and complexity.

Creativity is another required trigger, as well as “deep embodiment”: an activity which forces you to use your body as well as your mind – planting a garden, rather than reading about doing so, for example.

Flow also happens within groups. Here, individual conditions for flow must be met, but in addition, you also need certain group flow triggers, including: focus, well-defined goals shared by all members, some sense of risk, clear communication, “close listening,” a degree of comfort with other group members and the task itself, and “equal participation” by all group members.

You can’t be in flow all the time, but you can prolong the time you spend in this state.

Flow follows a cycle: “struggle,” “release,” actual flow state, and “recovery.” During the struggle stage, you are over-filling your brain with information as you learn and master skills. This stage is full of frustration. The release stage occurs when you put your subconscious mind to work processing what you’ve learned. Step away from your work and engage in an unrelated activity, like hiking. The flow stage comes after that. Block out any distractions and avoid negative thinking. Amplify and prolong this state by introducing more flow triggers, by, for example, introducing something new into your environment.

The last stage – recovery – is crucial. This is when you recharge and allow your brain to bounce back from the exertions of the flow state. Sleep, good nutrition and sunlight are crucial, combined with healthy, yet restful activities, such as massages, stretching and meditation.

About the Author

Steven Kotler is a New York Times best-selling author of eleven books, an award-winning journalist and the executive director of the Flow Research Collective.


Sure, here is a brief review of the book The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler.

Book Summary

The Art of Impossible is a book about how to achieve peak performance. The book is written by Steven Kotler, a New York Times bestselling author and peak performance expert.

The book is divided into four parts:

  • The first part introduces the concept of peak performance and discusses the four key elements of peak performance: motivation, learning, creativity, and flow.
  • The second part explores the science of peak performance, drawing on research from neuroscience, psychology, and physiology.
  • The third part profiles some of the world’s greatest peak performers, from athletes to artists to entrepreneurs.
  • The fourth part provides practical advice on how to achieve peak performance in your own life.

Book Review

The Art of Impossible is a well-written and informative book that provides a comprehensive overview of the science of peak performance. Kotler does a good job of explaining the four key elements of peak performance and how they can be applied to achieve extraordinary results. The book is also full of inspiring stories of peak performers, which make it a motivating read.

One of the strengths of the book is its focus on the science of peak performance. Kotler draws on research from a variety of fields to explain how the brain and body work during peak performance. This makes the book more credible and helps readers understand the underlying principles of peak performance.

Another strength of the book is its practical advice. Kotler provides specific strategies that readers can use to improve their motivation, learning, creativity, and flow. These strategies are based on the latest research and are backed by real-world examples.

Overall, The Art of Impossible is an excellent book for anyone who is interested in learning more about peak performance. The book is well-written, informative, and motivating. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to achieve extraordinary results in their life.

My Thoughts

I found The Art of Impossible to be a valuable resource for anyone who is interested in achieving peak performance. Kotler does a good job of explaining the science of peak performance and how it can be applied to real-world situations. He also provides a lot of practical advice that readers can use to improve their own performance.

I particularly appreciated Kotler’s focus on the importance of motivation, learning, creativity, and flow. He argues that these four factors are essential for achieving peak performance, and he provides specific strategies for developing each of them.

Overall, I highly recommend The Art of Impossible to anyone who wants to achieve extraordinary results in their life. The book is well-written, informative, and motivating.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the book:

  • Peak performance is not about being perfect. It’s about being willing to take risks and push yourself beyond your limits.
  • The four key elements of peak performance are motivation, learning, creativity, and flow.
  • Motivation is the desire to achieve a goal. It can be driven by intrinsic factors, such as a love of challenge, or extrinsic factors, such as rewards or recognition.
  • Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge or skills. It can be facilitated by deliberate practice, feedback, and challenge.
  • Creativity is the ability to generate new ideas or solutions. It can be enhanced by taking risks, being open to new experiences, and connecting seemingly unrelated ideas.
  • Flow is a state of optimal experience where you are completely absorbed in the task at hand. It is characterized by a feeling of effortless concentration, enjoyment, and loss of self-consciousness.

If you are interested in achieving peak performance, I encourage you to read The Art of Impossible. It is a valuable resource that will help you understand the science of peak performance and develop the skills you need to achieve your goals.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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