Flow is the new holy grail for productivity. If you knew you could be 500% more productive? If you could be 600% more creative? If you could cut learning times in half? That is the result of flow, and Steven Kotler is a flow master.
I am a huge fan of Steven Kotler. His books about flow (“The rise of superman” and “Stealing fire”) are superb. I love “Tomorrowland”, and I think the books he writes with Peter Diamandis are excellent too.
The Art of Impossible
Hence “The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer”. Impossible has a formula. A flow workbook. He broke down flow. No matter how mind-bendingly improbable a trick looked on the front end, there is always an understandable logic on the back end. The impossible always had a formula, and you can learn that formula. Very little is impossible with ten years’ practice. The book tries to decode the foundational neurobiology and unearth the mechanisms. The biological formula for the impossible is flow.
Flow’s impact on both our physical and our mental abilities is considerable. On the physical side, strength, endurance, and muscle reaction times all significantly increase while our sense of pain, exertion, and exhaustion all significantly decrease. Yet, the bigger impacts are cognitive. Motivation and productivity, creativity and innovation, learning and memory, empathy and environmental awareness, and cooperation and collaboration all skyrocket—in some studies as high as 500% above baseline. It’s tautological. Flow is to extreme innovation what oxygen is to breathing—simply the biology of how it gets done. Flow may be the biggest neurochemical cocktail of all. The state appears to blend all six of the brain’s major pleasure chemicals and may be one of the few times you get all six at once.
Nietzsche’s first step toward superman: find your passion and purpose, what he called “an organizing idea.” Nietzsche was also very clear about the next step: learn to suffer. Peak performance demands grit, and suffering, the philosopher maintained, was the fastest way to acquire that skill. This takes us to Nietzsche’s step three: learning and creativity. Nietzsche’s word was rausch, a word originally coined by Johann Goethe that translates to “the acceleration of movement leading to a flowing joy.”
Shift in brain function
Flow is like static meditation. Ecstatic meditation creates a profound shift in brain function. It comes down to extreme focus, which ecstatic meditation requires, which, in turn, requires a ton of energy. But the brain has a fixed energy budget, which means it’s always trying to conserve. During ecstatic meditation, to provide the extra energy required by that extreme focus, the brain performs an efficiency exchange. It shuts down noncritical structures and repurposes that energy for attention. At that moment, the brain concludes, it has to conclude, that you are one with everything. In flow, we’re not using more of the brain, we’re using less. The term for this is “transient hypofrontality.” When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex goes quiet, those guesses are cut off at the source. The result is liberation. We act without hesitation. Creativity becomes more free-flowing, risk-taking becomes less frightening, and the combination lets us flow at a far faster clip.
States of flow
You can be in a low-grade “microflow” state on one end of this spectrum or a full-blown “macroflow” state on the other. You also have group flow. That is why some companies measure the collective flow score. Flow is a four-stage cycle, struggle, release, flow and recovery. The state has six core psychological characteristics, and if all six show up, we call that experience flow. Here’s the list:
- Complete concentration: Engagement, enjoyment, and total absorption in the right here, right now.
- The merger of action and awareness: You can no longer distinguish the self from the thing that the self is doing.
- Our sense of self vanishes.
- An altered sense of time: Technically, “time dilation.”
- The paradox of control: We have a powerful sense of control over the situation.
- Autotelic experience: The experience is intensely and intrinsically rewarding or, in technical parlance, “autotelic”—meaning the activity is its own reward.
You can train flow
Pulling off the impossible—or, for that matter, significantly levelling up your own game—absolutely requires flow, but it also requires training up many of the same skills that flow amplifies: motivation, learning, and creativity. The philosopher James Carse uses the terms “finite games” and “infinite games” to describe the main ways we live and play here on Earth. A finite game is just that—finite. In infinite games, the field of play is mutable, the number of participants keeps changing, and the only goal is to keep on playing. Art, science, and love are infinite games. Most important: so is peak performance.
We are playing the wrong game
The human individual usually lives far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum. The reason we’re not living up to our potential is that we’re not in the habit of living up to our potential. We’ve automatized the wrong processes. We’re playing the wrong game. And it’s bad. We are all capable of so much more than we know. The only real way to discover if you are capable of pulling off the impossible—whatever that is for you—is by attempting to pull off the impossible.
Motivation, drive, curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy and mastery are what get you into this game; learning is what helps you continue to play; creativity is how you steer, and flow is how you turbo-boost the results beyond all rational standards and reasonable expectations.
Things to do
- Start by writing down twenty-five things you’re curious about. And by curious, all I mean is that if you had a spare weekend, you’d be interested in reading a couple of books on the topic,
- Make a list of your skills, whatever they may be. Mostly, it’s not the skills themselves that matter. It’s the fact that you learned them in the first place that you’re trying to recognize. Be very specific. Unearth invisible skills.
- Engage in regular exercise
- Control your thoughts. High performance is 90% mental. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to
- Be grateful. A daily gratitude practice alters the brain’s negativity bias. Write down ten things you’re grateful for, and each time you write an item down, really take the time to feel that gratitude.
- Develop a regular fear practice. Fear drives attention. This is huge. Something that normally requires a ton of energy now happens automatically. Along similar lines, all-powerful emotions heighten mnemonic retention and fear, perhaps most of all. The goal is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. The unpleasant sensation remains, but our relationship to that sensation. For peak performers, fear becomes a directional arrow. Unless the thing in front of them is a dire and immediate threat to be avoided, the best of the best will often head in the direction that scares them most. To reach flow, one must be willing to take risks.
- Train your weaknesses. We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.
- Ask for feedback.
- Read. Books pay performance dividends. Studies find that they improve long-term concentration, reduce stress, and stave off cognitive decline. Reading has also been shown to improve empathy, sleep, and intelligence.
- Make room for non-time and no one. Have large blocks of time set aside for focused concentration on one particular task. Flow follows focus.
- Say no. Peak performers routinely turn down opportunities, even fantastic ones, if those opportunities reduce autonomy.
- Pay attention.
- Creativity and the pursuit of mastery should be built into everything you do.
Curiosity and obsession
Figure out what you would die for, then live for it.” But really live for it—weeks, months, years. The ultimate goal may be to “get obsessed, stay obsessed,” but the journey begins with “get curious, stay curious.” Curiosity turns into passion, passion into purpose, and purpose into patient profit—that’s the safest way to play this game. But how to make sure you stay in the game long enough to achieve your purpose.
Combine that with autonomy. When we’re steering our own ship, we’re more focused, productive, optimistic, resilient, creative, and healthy. The art of flow demands the art of autonomy.Since 2004, Google has tapped autonomy as a driver with their “20 Percent Time,” wherein Google engineers get to spend 20% of their time pursuing projects of their own creation. They borrowed it from 3M, whose own “15 Percent Rule” dates back to 1948. For a company with a research budget of over $1 billion, allowing employees the freedom to experiment with 15% of that amounts to an annual $150 million bet on autonomy. As with Google, the products that have emerged from 3M’s 15 Percent Rule have more than covered this bet. It’s for this same reason that today Facebook, LinkedIn, Apple, and dozens of other companies have instituted autonomy programs of their own.
Over two thousand years ago, the philosopher Aristotle noticed that setting goals—that is, the establishment of a desired outcome or target—was one of the primary motivators of human behaviour. Latham and Locke found that setting goals increased performance and productivity by 11 to 25 per cent. What does this look like in the real world? A daily “to-do” lists. Impossible is always a checklist. Do every item on your checklist today, do every item on your checklist tomorrow, and repeat. This is how clear goals become high, hard achievements, which become milestones on the way to massively transformative purposes.
Yet, there’s no hiding from the truth. Even if you’re winning your days and making noticeable progress toward your goals, the need to endlessly repeat this process demands persistence. And resilience, grit., zeal, capacity for hard labour, willpower, self-control, mindset and perseverance. If flow is our reward for perseverance, because flow is such a gargantuan reward, we’re willing to tolerate a lot of pain along the way. But it’s still a lot of pain.
Contrary to popular opinion, creativity is almost always the by-product of passionate hard work and not the other way around. To paraphrase neuroscientist Liane Gabora: “Creativity is paradoxically about pulling something out of the brain that was never put into it.” Peak performance is also a checklist. It’s the fortitude to get up every day and complete every goal on that checklist and repeat. Frustration is a fundamental step in the creative process. The author got a chance to sit down and talk to Robinson, one of the first things he asked about was the necessary ingredients for long-haul creativity. “Frustration,” was his response.
Combine this with triggers: novelty, unpredictability, and complexity. Novelty is one of our brain’s favourite experiences. Unpredictability means that we don’t know what happens next. Complexity shows up when we force the brain to expand its perceptual capacity, for example, when we stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplate the question of geological time, or when we gaze up at the night sky and realize that a great many of those singular points of light are actually galaxies. A trip into nature will do the trick. Natural environments have high concentrations of novelty, complexity, and unpredictability. We are all susceptible to flow’s triggers, as these elements things that evolution deemed exceptionally crucial to survival, meaning they’re the things to which our brain automatically pays attention. And to really cultivate flow in your life, build these triggers into every facet of your life.
Train risk, seek out novelty, tighten feedback loops, keep the pattern recognition system stocked with information, so the creativity trigger is always close at hand, play “always say yes” games in your personal relationships, practice ego blending in every conversation you fall into, and on and on.
The ultimate conclusion is that flow is hard work. Routine, perseverance, mastery. There is no short cut. No inspiration (or flow) without transpiration. Combine this book with reading “Inner engineering, a yogi’s guide to joy“. Same aim, different approach.