In this episode of the AoM podcast, I talk to science journalist Steven Kotler about his new book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. In his book, Steven takes a look at the world of extreme athletes and discovers that these so-called adrenaline junkies are truly pushing the boundaries of human performance, and that it actually isn’t the adrenaline that’s driving their advances. Rather, it’s the concept of flow — an optimal state of attention that slows down time and makes life-or-death decision-making possible.
In The Rise of Superman, Steven gives examples of extreme athletes — like big wave surfers, solo rock climbers, and base jumpers — who are tapping into flow to do the seemingly impossible. What’s more, he shares research-backed ways that Average Joes can hack their own flow so that they can improve their performance across all facets of life and truly flourish.
- What exactly is flow?
- How flow changes our perception of time.
- How flow saved a base jumper from falling to his death.
- How you can “hack your flow” and become the best man you can be.
- And much more!
Listen to the podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now, I had seen about the past 20 years, extreme sports have become mainstream. So, I am talking skydiving, skateboarding, big wave surfing, base jumping, you name it. And while we often think of these guys who take part in these sports as adrenaline junkies, our guest today, Steven Kotler makes the case in his new book The Rise of Superman, that instead of adrenaline junkies these extreme athletes are actually flow junkies. Now, lot of you probably have heard of this concept of flow, it’s basically a psychological state that we get into whenever we perform at our best, feel at our best, whenever you are in the zone, that is flow, and in The Rise of Superman, Steven makes the case that these extreme athletes tap into flow to do amazing things. Basically push the envelope on human performance, surfing waves huge waves that never would have been thought of to be surfed 10 or 20 years, solo climbing rock faces that without ropes that shouldn’t be climbed, doing skateboard jumps that are just insane. So, it’s all thanks to flow, that’s what he makes the case in the book and what’s more he shows that these extreme athletes can teach us a lot about how to hack or optimize our own flow so we can improve our performance whether at work or just improve our well being in life because flow as research shows is one of the keys to sort of happiness to general well being and flourishing, so it’s interesting fascinating read, well researched. So, in the podcast, we are going to talk about flow, we are going to talk about these extreme athletes doing amazing things and we are going to talk about what you can do to optimize and hack your flow, so stay tuned. Steven Kotler, welcome to the Art of Manliness podcast.
Steven Kotler: Brett, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: All right, so your book is The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. In a nutshell, it’s about this elusive, mysterious, not so mysterious psychological concept of flow. And for our listeners who aren’t familiar with this concept, can you briefly explain what flow is.
Steven Kotler: Certainly, first of all, let me just put it in some historical context because the word flow is a little flimsy, but what we are talking about here is literally the product of a 150 years of really serious research, one of the most well researched neuropsychological phenomena you can think of is what we are talking about with flow. Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best and most people have some experience with flow. If you got lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so sucked into a work process that everything else is forgotten, you probably cater to the experience. In flow, what happens is our concentration gets so focused, laser focused, everything else just falls away, action awareness starts to emerge, our sense of self, our sense of self-consciousness vanish completely. Time dilates, which means it can slow down so that you can get that freeze frame effect like you have been in a car crash or can speed up so five hours can pass by like five minutes and if you are out all aspects of performance, mental and physical go through the roof. The reason we call the state ‘flow’ is because that’s the sensation conferred. In flow every action, every decision effortlessly, fluidly perfectly to the next, so one way I like to think about flow in short hand is its near perfect decision making.
Brett McKay: That’s a perfect way of describing it and I think all of us have experienced that one time or the other. I know I have where you are so engrossed in something, you look up and you are like Oh! my gosh, four hours have passed away but it only seemed like an hour. So, fantastic. How do you get involved in research and writing about flow? It is something you have always been interested in, because you not only have this book but you also have flow genome project where you are researching and educating about flow, so how did you get involved with this.
Steven Kotler: In actuality I write about flow in West of Jesus, I write about flow in A Small Furry Prayer. It has been kind of a project but what happened was in The Rise of Superman is two different kind of tracks coming together, but the flow work started when I was 30 years ago, I got Lyme disease and I spent the better portion of three years in bed and for anybody who doesn’t know what Lyme disease is it’s kind of the worst flu you have ever had across with paranoid schizophrenia. I was totally debilitated, couldn’t walk across the room and almost no cognitive function. No short term memory, no long term memory. I couldn’t read anymore because I couldn’t remember what had happened at the beginning of the sentence by the time I got to the end of it, and after three years of this the doctors pooled me up drugs because this is very early in Lyme disease history, so they didn’t really know what they were doing yet and my stomach lining started bleeding out, and that was it, I was done, there was nothing else anybody could do for me and I was going to kill myself because I was functional 10% of the time and that was it, all I was ever going to do was going to be a burden for my friends and my family from that point on and it was really a question of when, and not no longer ‘if.’
And around the time I had reached that conclusion, a friend of mine shows up at my house, I was living in LA at the time and she demands that we go surfing and it was a joke, and it was the funniest thing in the world.I couldn’t surf in years, I couldn’t walk across the room but she was a pain in the ass and would not leave and would not leave and would not leave and I was like, you know what?We can go surfing today because what’s the worse than can happen, and they really had to kind of help me to the car, they took me to Sunset beach which if you know anything about surfing it has the biggest beginner wave in the world.It was summer, the tide was out, so the waves were smaller and the heights were low, and they helped me out to the beach and they gave me a board the size of a Cadillac, the bigger the board the easier it is to catch a wave, the waves were maybe 2 feet, and 30 seconds later, a wave comes and I don’t know what happened, muscle memory took over, I am still not sure, but I spun the board around and paddled couple of times and I popped up, and I popped up into another dimension.Suddenly time had slowed down and my panoramic vision and my senses were incredibly heightened and the greatest part was I felt great, I felt fantastic, better than I have ever felt in my life as far as I could tell and I am having this kind of quasi mystical experience in a way that it felt so good and so powerful that I caught four more waves and five waves it just totally dissembled me.
That was the end of me, they drove me out and they put me in bed, and I couldn’t move for two weeks, people had to bring me food because I couldn’t actually make it to the kitchen just to make meals, and a couple of weeks, I could walk again literally went back to the beach and I did it again and over the course of six months, I went from about 10% functionality up to about 80% functionality and the only thing that was happening, was I going surfing and I was having very quasi weird mystical experiences in the waves.
So my first question was what the hell is going on. I am trained as a science writer and A, I don’t mystical experiences period, and B, surfing in this weird state as a cure for chronic autoimmune disease, none of it made any sense. So, originally it was a plus to figure out what the hell is going on with me and it was emphasized the fact that Lyme is only fatal if it gets into your brain and because I was having this quasi mystical experience that was so un-character for me, I thought I was losing my mind, I thought I was feeling better perhaps but it was just the disease going into remission while it worked its way in the brain and I was about to die. It was the beginning of a fairly crucial mission, what the hell is going on? And crucially just because we won’t come back to it later so people know couple of funny things about flow states is there is a profound cocktail of neurochemicals that produce this state, all these neurochemicals boost the immune system which is important, what’s really important is they also reset the nervous system.
When you snap into flow, all the kind of stress hormones, cortisone, norepinephrine leads the body and all the positive beneficial neurochemicals come in that are very calming, so it resets the nervous system and the autoimmune condition is essentially a nervous system gone freeze. So that was what I discovered, it also led directly into research on high performance, because once I started getting better with flow state, I started realizing states weren’t just making me feel better, they were massive amplifying performance and I wanted to know why. So, it was a series of questions based on that experience, but that’s what –
Brett McKay: Interesting. That interesting you talked about how you resets about your nervous system, it sounds a lot like some hallucinogenic and psychedelic drugs.
Steven Kotler: Understand that all – for example if you want to talk about LSD or mushrooms, or whatever that’s all serotonin. You start cocaine and all that happens is the brain releases a bunch of dopamine and blocks SSRI uptake and you do LSD or Ecstasy by the way and different pathways but that’s just the serotonin release. So, all the neurochemicals, every neurochemical has a drug. That’s why drugs work basically, the body has a natural version of the chemical endorphins or the body’s natural version of the heroin. So, flow interestingly cocktails a huge amount of these same chemicals that produce psychedelic experiences, so there is a lot there and for certain psychedelic research and a lot of stuff that has come out of psychedelic research has really helped us understand the neurochemistry of flow, because for a long time those were the only people working on these neurochemicals.
Brett McKay: All right, so your experience with surfing, I think led you to where, sort of the backdrop of your book and studying flow, because you focus on, would surprise me, instead of like weird subset of athletics is sort of the extreme athletes like big wave surfers, we are talking skydivers, base jumpers.
Steven Kotler: There is another story that folds in here and there is a reason I focused on extreme athletes.
Brett McKay: All right.
Steven Kotler: I guess the best place to start would be just like telling what the premise of The Rise of Superman is, right?
Brett McKay: Sure, yeah, do it.
Steven Kotler: So the core of idea of The Rise of Superman and this is sort of where it came to why did choose this – is if you look at action adventure sports, all this surfing, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, skydiving, etc, it’s a data set. You skip out of the glamour and aura, what do you see over past generation is nearly exponential growth and ultimate human performance and that’s performance where the life or limb is on the line which is the slowest growing category. Now sports performance slowly steadied governed by the law of evolution you plot it on a graph, you get a linear curve. At no point in history do you see performance quintuple in a decade, but that is exactly what’s been going on action and adventure sports, for example, surfing. Here is a 1000-year old sport and from 480 to1996, the biggest wave that anybody has ever surfed is 25 feet, Today it is over 100 feet. Snowboarding, 1990 the biggest gap anybody has ever jumped is the biggest gap was 40 feet end to end. These days it’s over 230 feet long. That’s not normal at all, that’s incredible radical.
So the question of The Rise of Superman is what the hell is going on and the answer is that these athletes have become the very best flow hackers in the history of the world. They have figured out how to produce the state absolutely reliably and they have to because at the level they are performing if they are not in flow, they are going to end up dead or in the hospital. So the premise of the heart of The Rise of Superman is we can look at these extreme athletes and use them as case studies and if we can kind of decode what these guys are doing to produce so much flow in their lives, we can apply that information across all domains in the society, that’s the core idea and that’s why I chose to focus on the athletes and I saw all this first hand just because I came up as a journalist covering a lot of action sports, I spent years of my career chasing pro-athletes around mountains and breaking almost 100 bones along the way but I kept seeing absolutely amazing things and you would be like Oh! my God, that’s impossible, they are defying laws of physics, I have never seen anything like that. This is got to be the end of it, there is no way, this is the limit, we hit the limit, there is no way we can progress more. I mean when we talk about this, the journalists who cover this and kept talking about how there is no way this can keep going and every year it just kept going and going and going, until finally I decided that I could look under the hood and sure enough found flow again.
Brett McKay: So, I guess it would make sense that these guys would need flow or would be I guess practitioners of flow because yeah, time dilation would come in handy when you are trying to figure out what’s the next step, because once false move could kill you.
Steven Kotler: Absolutely and we have got – you know, Dean Potter is – I tell you a story from Rise, Dean Potter, one of the world’s greatest climbers and base jumpers was in Mexico and he was base jumping into the center of swallows, it was this giant 1500 feet open air pit and on his last base jump something went wrong and his chute partially opened then it collapsed over his head. So, he was 500 feet up the deck, goes to open his parachute, it partially opened, it spins him into a wall, the chute drops over his head right before it drops, time had slowed down so much he has time to see an orange rope that they hung to the side of the wall, 300 feet up the deck where a photographer was taking photos and he grabbed the rope and managed to hang on and stop himself. So, he stopped himself 6feet above the ground but the only reason it took place was because the time was so slowed down, the whole story is a lot longer and there is many parts I am leaving out but without that time, and you are absolutely correct, none of it is possible.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that was one of the stories that really stuck out to me, there is so many examples, the ones that really were compelling to me was the solo climbing, people climbing these mountains that shouldn’t be climbed, at all but they are doing it by themselves and no ropes at all, and here is the question what compels these guys or people to do these thing? Is it because they want the feeling of flow or is it just wanting to do it because it’s there, what is it that’s driving these guys?
Steven Kotler: First of all, there are two answers here, part of it is there is a lot of – there is just normal human stuff that goes into that level of drive, right? That said, the experience of flow is so powerful that neurochemicals – just neurochemically go on more things that go on the brain during flow, they are all so incredibly enticing, but just neurochemically these are the five most patent feel good reward chemicals the brain can produce and there is no other time when the brain produces all five at once especially in these high concentrations, which is why psychologists talk about flow as these source code of intrinsic motivation. Once an experience starts producing flow it essentially becomes the most incredible experience on earth and we have all for example seen this in action in action sports. Surfers are guys who are not known as the most reliable group of people in the history of the world, yet if it’s overhead glassy tubes they are up at 4 o’clock in the morning at the beach in clammy cold wet suits out there like clockwork, no matter what. You are drawn to it. Once something produces flow they call it Autotelic which means an end in itself. It means people seek out the state often at great great great personal cost. What is amazing about flow and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi took a lot of foundation research into flow, he talks about this unlike other addictions that leads backwards flow because it always involves challenging skills and mastering new skills and taking these to a new level it needs flow, so it’s literally addiction to a better version of yourself.
The other thing that is worth talking about here is the more neurochemicals that show up during experience, the better chance that experience is retained is later. So, flow massively amplifies learning, right? In studies done by DARPA, it’s 230 to 500% in military snipers.
Brett McKay: Wow!
Steven Kotler: And that’s just one example, there are lot of other data from a lot of there kind of learning situations, always flow shows up and massively optimizes learning. So, not only are you kind of addicted to this better version of yourself and super motivated to get more flow, but you are also learning at a massively amplified rate along the way. So, when we talk about flow being in the extreme, it leads forwards, it’s kind of significant statement.
Brett McKay: Here is question, is there a genetic component to flow because what I mean by is I have no desire to base jump, all right, no desire in taking part in these action sports but since there are certain people who are just drawn to that naturally they love that, I am not like that, so I am curious with your research have you found that there are some people that can experience flow or tap into it more easily than others?
Steven Kotler: We have to go ahead a little bit because you kind of let on a really important kind of common misconception about flow. So, we are talking about with these extreme athletes, right? When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did an original research conducted what is now one of the largest global studies ever, flow is ubiquitous. It shows up everywhere, every person on earth in its original research, he found it everywhere from Detroit assembly line workers to Navajo sheep herders to elderly Korean women, Japanese teenager motor cycle gang members, neurosurgeons from New York, it goes on and on. So, flow shows up everywhere. We have now identified 15 triggers that bring on the state. These are pre-conditions that lead to more flow. Risk is one of those triggers but here is the really important point, it’s not just physical risk, you do need risk because risk triggers the release of dopamine and you need dopamine inside yourself into flow but you can replace the physical risk with emotional risk, creative risk and intellectual risk and it’s totally different for everybody. For Ian Walsh, big wave surfer he got to paddled into a 50 feet for it to catch his attention but for the shy guy all the guy has to do is cross the room to talk to the pretty girl and that’s enough and so it’s totally situational and there are 14 other triggers that have absolutely nothing to do with risk but the risk is a great way and the reason is really simple, right? Flow follows focused massively heightened attention, so anything that grabs and holds your attention is going to drive you into flow.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Steven Kotler: Risk just happens to be a great one for that.
Brett McKay: Here is another question, since we are a podcast geared primarily towards guys, generally do the way men and women tap into flow, do they differ or they are pretty much the same? I know you speak in generalities for this sort of thing but I am just curious in your research.
Steven Kotler: You are asking really great questions. The answer is we don’t really know. There is some information either way in terms of men and women and they are also – you talked about is there a genetic makeup for flow. You asked that question. It’s all the same kind of the question, whose, why, and what for. There are radical differences on that, for example, creative, myself as a writer, I can only write and write right into flow. There is an altruism based flow state known as Helper’s High discovered by Allan Luks, the founder of Big Brothers Big Sisters, so you can ride altruism literally into a flow state. They used to by the way think this was only hands-on volunteer for the Peace Corps working in a soup kitchen kind of altruism but now they have shown that it shows up even if you do something like being at a charity auction, that can be enough.
So, computer coders code their way into flow. Flow is so prevalent in video gaming that flow theory is the number one theory for explaining kind of the lure of the joystick, so it shows up everywhere. People like to get it in different ways, my wife and I co-run a dog sanctuary here in New Mexico. One of the reasons we do it is because my wife only gets into a flow state through her altruism and that’s how she gets access to it. I like both altruism and creativity and high risk sport. I like hurling my body down mountains in high speeds when I can. So, to me it’s all three but it really varies very much individually. We have a flow diagnostic at the flow genome project that we use kind of help people to determine what avenues they are best suited for riding into flow but it really differs and it probably differs by the sexes and we just haven’t looked deep enough under that hood yet.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that will be interesting into that. So, it seems like these athletes, these extreme athletes, they stumbled onto flow. I guess lot of them didn’t have like a language for it but now with these advances we made in cognitive and neuroscience, we are fashioning tools to help people tap into flow, trigger flow more easily or more effectively, how is that – what sort of things are going there to like help athletes, I know the military institutes and this as well, what are they doing to I guess help.
Steven Kotler: Besides the neurochemicals that we talked about, let’s talk about what else happens in flow, one of the things that happens to the brain in flow is your brain waves – the brain communicates in two different ways. Neuro electricity which is brain waves and neurochemistry which is what we talked about. The other thing you need to talk about is neuro anatomy because where things happen in the brain because that matters too because the brain is specialized location wise. So we talked about neuro chemistry, the brain waves, the baseline brain wave state for flow is on the borderline between alpha and theta. So, one of the things people are doing is using very simple neuro feedback training to drive people to alpha and theta, and what has happened is what’s great is it used to be if you want EEG devices, going into somebody’s office and having them basically tape these wet sensors to your scalp hundreds of them, you can do it but now they have gotten to the point than they have dry portable blue tooth enabled EEG sensors that can coming out, I believe actually they are probably out. There is a new technology called Brain Sport and it’s a dry sensor that’s wireless and it looks sort of like a crown, a crown in Star Trek, it’s really a cool looking device, but it’s a portable wireless brain training device that helps you train your brain waves and you use neuro feedback to drive people towards EEG.
What we are doing at the flow genome project is we are creating what we call flow dodos, and these are dedicated flow science research and training facilities and we are taking advantage of all this stuff, all these flow triggers. So, for example, we have a device, we have a 20-foot giant looping swing. So you literally stand on what looks like a snowboard. Your feet are strapped and your hands are on this thing, you can be spinning upside down 20 feet off the deck pulling 3.5 Gs on the bottom. These pools are risk triggers from the novelty triggers, some of the other flow triggers that high risk athletes get a lot of without any danger, on top of that the entire device is aligned in LED lights and you are wearing the brain sport technology I was just talking about. So you can literally, while you are pulling all these extreme triggers without the danger you are also simultaneously using neuro feedback to guide yourself for flow. So, we are sort of rigging the game by putting as many flow triggers as we can into the experience and giving you access to this cutting edge technology.
Another thing they are doing is flow, the large portions of the pre-frontal cortex turn off. I know that sounds weird, people think that flow must be all the avenues of the brain firing all at once. Turns out most of the pre-frontal cortex which houses your executive function, your morality, your will, your ability to complex thinking that’s all there, it turns off in flow. Essentially your conscious mind turns off your subconscious which is much much much faster and more energy efficient, takes over where a lot of the performance boosts come from and one of the other things, when we talk about the DARPA study, right, the military , one of the things they are doing is they are using transcranial magnetic stimulation to basically shoot big magnetic pulses into people’s brains and it knocks out their pre-frontal cortex and induces flow, a low grade flow state, and then they are training people from that point forward.
Brett McKay: That’s another thing, it sounds like Star Trek stuff.
Steven Kotler: You got to understand that I started working on flow pretty seriously full time in and around I would say ’99 and all the stuff, it was fantasy land. We sort of had some ideas what couple of neurochemicals were, we had no idea about these changes, the transient hyper frontalis, what the deactivation is, the pre-frontal cortex is called. We didn’t know about hat, we didn’t know right brain waves did, none of this stuff. All this stuff happened literally in 15 years and we have been looking under the hood of flow. The research dates back to 1871, so one of the very earliest experiments ever run in experimental psychology were run looking for this optimal state of performance, so it has been 150 years and it’s only in the past 10 years that we have been able to look under the hood and go, Oh! My God, Star Trek stuff from today is going to get even crazier tomorrow because all these technologies are on exponential growth curves.
Brett McKay: So, I mean I can see how this stuff is going to be very useful for athletes, but what about just average people. You made the argument in the book that flow turns us into super humans, but like for just Joe Blow who works at a desk job, what’s the benefit of tapping into this technology?
Steven Kotler: I mean for Joe Blow who works at a desk job according to McKinsey, the biggest business researchers around, they did a 10-year study and found top executives in flow reported being five times more productive than without flow, so that’s not 5% increase it’s a 500% increase, it means you could take, spend Monday at work take the rest of the week and get as much done as your steady state peers, so that’s one of the things that’s in the offing. You are talking about massively accelerated motivation. Think about right now the amount of people who sign up for gym memberships and never use them. There is this whole enterprise models built on the fact that people buy membership in January at health clubs and 7% of them are gone by February because the only drivers we are tapping into there are guilt and vanity and they are lousy motivational drivers. So, flow gives you to access to intrinsic motivation, you can’t help doing things that produce flow. So this means it shortens the path to mastery and it doesn’t matter if it’s athletics, if it’s business, if it’s being a creative, whatever your interest is if you can learn to get into flow state, you can shorten the path to mastery, in any workplace it’s massively amplified productivity and steady after steady flow also significantly enhances creativity. It does this for a lot of different reasons. The neurochemicals that show up in flow, not only do they enhance focus and heighten attention but they amplify pattern recognition, the ability to link ideas together and it also kind of expands the size of the database, search by the brain’s pattern recognition system so you have access to far flung ideas. It significantly jacks up creativity.
We don’t really have hard numbers on, we have weird studies like team of Australian researchers recently gave 40 people a really difficult brain teaser problem. Nobody could solve the problem. Then they induced flow artificially using transferring magnetic stimulation like we talked about before and 23 people could solve the problem. In preliminary surveys run the by flow genome project from our organization, most people report and this is really preliminary and so I am hesitant to say that, the average we are hearing is 700% increase in creativity, people on average say they are 7 times more in creative in flow and out of flow. At Harvard, a model figured out that people are not only more creative in flow but they are more creative the day after flow which suggests that flow not only makes them more creative in the moment they make you more creative over the long haul and actually train the brain up on creativity which is one of those incredibly rare hard things. Everybody these days believes creativity is probably the most important quality in business in the 21st century because the top of the 21st century skills that we want our kids to learn in schools, that are fundamental for surviving this century, but we really don’t know how to teach creativity very well but we do know how to create a state that massively amplifies your creativity and teaches you how to be more creative over the long haul.
I could go on and on and on. We have talked about health benefits, we have talked about learning creativity and motivation and this is really kind of the beginning of the conversation, you have to remember that this is literally the secret to optimal performance, right, that’s why they have that name and that’s why they talk about that, so anything you can think of doing better you can do better in flow. I think most importantly the last thing I am going to say when Csikszentmihalyi did his original research, he discovered literally and this has been extremely well validated for 30 years that the happiest people on earth are the people who have had the most flow in their lives. So, if you are looking for reason alone life satisfaction is a pretty good one.
Brett McKay: Very interesting. Are you were talking about that, I started thinking about sort of second order effects of people tapping into and wanting to hack their flow so to speak. I mean it seems like a lot of this technology and resources are going to be available to I don’t know how it explains but people who have the means to afford it, right. Have they talked about the sort of socioeconomic implications of hacking flow. So I can see lot of parents, wealthy parents getting their kids into a flow dojo and they are just already–the kids who are already pretty bright become even more bright, more optimal while parents who couldn’t afford that sort of thing their kids aren’t doing as well. Is that a problem or is it technology going to become so widely available that won’t be a problem.
Steven Kotler: Let’s go back to the question of flow triggers first, because you are technological hacks, that’s fine, all that stuff is great, right but the 15 flow triggers, you got 3 psychological, 3 environment, 10 social, and 1 creative, any one who could buy a copy of The Rise of Superman you can get the e-book for $5.99, you can get a free fly chair that breaks down all these 15 of these triggers, that’s available to anybody, right?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Steven Kotler: So, first and foremost the secrets aren’t that secret, they are out, anybody can do this thing. Action adventure sport athletes, I mean, I don’t know how much time you spend in ski times or surf towns or whatever these are not wealthy people. They found a way to become the best at hacking flow because they basically built their lives around these flow triggers. Anybody can do that, that doesn’t take any money. The access to technology, will it speed the course? Yes. All the stuff is on exponential price performance curves. So, to begin with it’s not super expensive right now but it’s radically coming down in price pretty soon. We are looking at the flow genome project for example to create an app that does all of it. It’s not anywhere close from a pipeline but five years from now, seven years from now, when research gets to the level that’s possible, that means that it’s going to be available for $1.99 in your phone, right?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Steven Kotler: So, there is the gap you are talking about is – you are talking about a real phenomenon but even just to digress for half a second because in Abundance we dealt with the same issue with biomedical technology. Biomedicine as a whole, biotechnology as a whole is advancing five times the speed of Mohr’s law. So, Mohr’s law says every 18 months the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles for the same price. That’s really fast. Biotechnology is five times faster. So, I hope that there is going to be a period of time where this stuff is more available for people with money but I think it is going to be very short. I sure hope it is. Our goal at the flow genome project is literally try to open source flow state research, we have come very very far but until we have an accurate map of how the psychology lays on the neurobiology and the physiology, what we call a heat map of flow, we are not going to know the best way forever to get to a flow state. So one of the things we are doing with the flow genome project is we are turning this quest for ultimate human performance into a giant open source citizen science project. Anybody can come and run experiments essentially under our care and move this forward. So we are doing the exact opposite, the flow genome project setup specifically to hack this stuff for everybody and give it away for free. So, hopefully what you are talking about isn’t a real issue.
Brett McKay: Very cool. There is so much more we could talk about but I know time is short. So, last question, what I would like to know is just asking the person I am talking to is sort of a quick how-to, like what people can take away from this and start implementing in their life. So, guys who are listening to this podcast, they are thinking, this is awesome, I want to learn how to learn faster, I want to experience the happiness, what can guys do today to start taking advantage of the benefits of flow?
Steven Kotler: So we kind of broke down our flow triggers. What I would rather say is read The Rise of Superman and figure out those flow triggers and let me lead people with something that most people don’t know, and I think that the single most important thing I can teach people about hacking flow. The information that most people find most useful over kind of 15 years of presenting this to people, this is the one thing that seems to make the most difference. Most people think flow is a binary, like a light switch. They are either in flow or you are not. Turns out that that’s not the case at all. It’s actually one stage in a four stage cycle and if you know how this cycle works, essentially you can maximize the amount of time you spend in flow and you can get through the really long hard dark periods between flow states faster. I think it’s most important I can teach people.
So, the first stage of the flow state is known as struggle, this is a loading phase. Flow happens when everything comes together perfectly in that perfect moment, the skills come together as a new skill. So, you still have to learn the skill. I am writer, the struggle phase means I am reading, I am researching, I am interviewing people, I am trying to figure out the structure of my books and articles. If I am an athlete I am learning a new skill, it’s all the grind. You just have to put it in, there is no substitute for it. You also have to know that flow on the cusp of flow it feels very unflowy, right. Struggle – it’s called struggle for a reason. It’s not pleasant, it doesn’t feel like flow it feels like absolutely exasperation, You are essentially taking your brain to the point at it which it feels like it’s about to explode when totally overloaded, then you have to take your mind off the problem.
Second state of the flow cycle is known as release, so you put in all this time to learn the new skill. Then you totally take your mind off, probably go for a walk, build paper airplane models, whatever you can do to take your mind completely off the subject, forget about it completely. What you are really doing is giving your brain the space to shift from conscious processing to subconscious processing to pass the problem over, and if you keep thinking about the problem, you can’t let it go and it won’t move that release triggers the flow state itself. This is the important thing. On the back side of the flow state, flow is a massive release of neurochemicals, you feel like superman, right? You are on top of the world, you are unstoppable and then it goes away and you feel worse than normal.
There is a big crash after the flow state. The high is gone, don’t feel like superman. All the brain’s pleasure chemicals are exhausting and the brain build them up again, so this state it’s really honestly the most important thing is to stay calm and kind of ignore it. I call it the hangover rule. When sort of you are hung over you ignore all the negative thoughts in your brain because you know you are hung over and tomorrow you are going to feel fine and you just wait, same thing here, and this is so critical because what’s happening in this phase, these four phases, that’s what memory learning and consolidation is taking place. If you get freaked out and stressed out there you block – neurobiologically you block the learning and worst of all, if you get stressed out of the spot, you have to move from this phase back into struggle to restart the whole cycle again and you get back into flow and if you are gripped because you are not in flow anymore and you want to get back there and you just had this huge high and it’s all gone and you are very depressed, you are not going to be up for this serious fight into struggle, so understanding that it’s a cycle, understanding where you are in the process is kind of the greatest thing I can tell anybody is trying to hack flow.
Brett McKay: Very good. Well, Steven, this has been a fascinating discussion, thank you so much of your time.
Steven Kotler: Thank you so much, this was really fun.
Brett McKay: Our guest Steven Kotler. Steven is the author of the book, The Rise of Superman Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance and right now it’s on pre-sale on Amazon.com. The book launches on March 4th, and if you go to The Rise of Superman.com/rise-rewards, you will find a bunch of promotional bonuses that Steven is offering for people who buy the book, so if you buy one book you get $65 worth of free bonuses which include exclusive access to some videos that he has produced at the flow genome project as well as access to his flow diagnostic tool and if you buy more than three books there is different levels. So, check it out, great stuff, and it’s a great read but definitely recommended.
Well, that wraps another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com and until next time stay manly.
Last updated: October 1, 2015