There are goals in life that seem very attainable. And then there are those which seem practically impossible — rising out of poverty and/or a traumatic childhood, becoming a bestselling writer, deadlifting 500 pounds. With impossible goals the odds seem long, and it isn’t clear how to get from point A to point B.
My guest today has spent decades figuring out the roadmap for making that journey. His name is Steven Kotler, he’s a peak performance expert, the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, and the author of numerous books, including his latest: The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. Today on the show, Steven talks about how he defines an impossible goal and then unpacks the formula for making the impossible, possible. That formula begins with harnessing the five big intrinsic motivators that will give you focus for free and which you need to activate in a certain sequence, and then moves through the six levels of grit which should be trained in a particular order as well. We discuss the importance of creativity and continual learning, and how to assess the ROI of your reading. Steven also explains how flow amplifies the process of achieving peak performance, and why you need to rediscover the primary flow activity from your childhood. At the end of our conversation, Steven shares some things you can begin doing today to start tackling your impossible goals.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How this book is a continuation of Steven’s work in The Rise of Superman
- What is the “impossible” anyway?
- Why flow is necessary but not sufficient for peak performance
- Why do so many people fail to live up to their potential?
- How biology scales, but personality doesn’t
- What is motivation and why does it matter?
- The five stages of motivation
- Why curiosity is so important to your success
- Why mastery is so effective
- The case for reading books
- What people can do right now to achieve the impossible in 2021
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- My first and second interviews with Steven
- Live Life at the Limits: How to Hack Your Flow
- Peak Performance — Elevate Your Game and Avoid Burnout
- Everything You Know About Passion Is Wrong
- Mastering Mindset
- The Importance of Developing a Growth Mindset
- Motivation Over Discipline
- The Motivation Myth
- What Marines Can Teach Us About the Skill of Motivation
- Gaining Mastery
- Learning How to Learn
Connect With Steven
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow other to enjoy it. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. There are goals in life that seem very attainable, and then there are goals which seem practically impossible; rising out of poverty, or overcoming a traumatic childhood, becoming a best-selling author, deadlifting 500 lbs. With impossible goals, the odds seem long, and it isn’t clear how to get from point A to point B. My guest today has spent decades figuring out the roadmap for making that journey. His name is Steven Kotler. He’s a peak performance expert, the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, and the author of numerous books, including his latest, The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.
Today on the show, Steven talks about how he defines an impossible goal, and then unpacks the formula for making the impossible possible. That formula begins with harnessing the five big intrinsic motivators that’ll give you focus for free, and which you need to activate in a certain sequence, and then moves through the six levels of grit that should be trained in a particular order as well. We discuss the importance of creativity and continual learning, and how to assess the ROI of your reading. Steven also explains how flow amplifies the process of achieving peak performance and why you need to rediscover the primary flow activity from your childhood. At the end of our conversation, Steven shares some things you begin doing today to start tackling your impossible goals. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/artofimpossible. Steven joins me now via ClearCast.io.
Alright, Steven Kotler, welcome back to the show.
Steven Kotler: It is good to be with you.
Brett McKay: So we had you on the show back in 2014. It’s been almost seven years when you… We talked to you about your book, The Rise of Superman, which is all about decoding the science of flow, which is this optimal state of attention that time slows down and you’re able to perform at peak performance. You got a new book out called The Art of the Impossible. How is this book, big picture, how is this book, your new one, Art of Impossible, a continuation of your thinking and research that you did in The Rise of Superman?
Steven Kotler: It’s a great question. So Art of Impossible is a peak performance primer, and one, the first thing that distinguishes it, unlike The Rise of Superman, which was built around stories, predominantly athletes accomplishing impossible feats using flow and other kind of cognitive peak performance skills to really overcome incredible odds and accomplish impossible feats; flow is one portion, it’s actually one-quarter of the full cognitive peak performance picture. And one of the things we learned in training… First of all, Art of Impossible is not a power-up. The Rise of Superman is by no means a how-to. It’s a story-telling book. It’s about flow, it’s got a ton of information, but it is not… You don’t come away going, “Oh, I immediately know step A, step B, step C, here’s how I apply this stuff in my life.”
And big picture, the truth of the matter is if your interest is in peak performance, flow is necessary, but not sufficient, and there’s other things that are also required. In fact, most of the sub-skills that are optimized in flow, motivation, grit, goal-setting skills, learning skills, creativity and problem-solving skills, if you don’t have a very solid foundation in these skills as well, it’s very difficult… Flow is an enormous uptick in performance, hundreds of percentiles above normal, but if you don’t have the skills, the actual skills that flow is gonna optimize, if they’re not laid in, you’re gonna have a problem sustaining the state, really using it for extended long-term peak performance. And of course, because there are a lot of times when flow just doesn’t show up, you’re not gonna have the requisite skills to keep going without flow.
So flow is necessary, but not sufficient. I wanted to do a full picture, this is the full suite, this is everything that is involved in cognitive peak performance. And it turns out, when you look at the full suite, when you look at the big picture, what you find out is, not surprisingly, it’s a sequence, it’s a system, it’s all of our biology, essentially. And peak performance is nothing more than getting our biology to work for us, rather than against us. And it turns out, when you look at all of those things, and especially from a neurobiological point of view, which is the work I do, you start to realize, “Oh, wow! These things work together in an order, in a sequence.” If you’re interested in really maximizing performance, these things are much more effective; you go farther faster and with less work if you’re doing all this stuff at once, rather than just trying to utilize flow, for example.
Brett McKay: So there’s a formula to doing the impossible.
Steven Kotler: Let’s define the impossible for your listeners and then…
Brett McKay: Yeah, what is the… What do you mean by the impossible? Yeah, is that… Yeah.
Steven Kotler: The answer is yes, but that sounds fricking absurd if I don’t define the impossible first. So my career has been spent studying people in all walks of life and all domains and all fields and all areas who have accomplished what you could call capital I Impossible. This is doing that which has never been done before, and these could be physical impossibles, four-minute miles. These could be intellectual impossibles, Einstein’s theory of relativities. These could be cultural impossibles, Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus. It doesn’t really matter ’cause across the board, you see the same things. But the book is meant to be applied by anybody who is interested in accomplishing what I have called small I impossible. Small I impossible is all that stuff that we truly believe is impossible for ourselves. There are lots of examples here. Rising out of poverty is a small I impossible; overcoming deep trauma, small I impossible; becoming world-class in whatever you do, that’s small I impossible.
When I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the blue-collar ’70s, and I wanted to be a writer from the time I was four or five years old, I didn’t know any writers, I didn’t know anybody who was a writer, I didn’t know how you became a writer. It was like I woke up one morning, I looked at my parents and said, “You know, today, I think I wanna be an elf. No, a dwarf. No, a hobbit. I’m gonna be a hobbit when I grow up.” It was roughly the same kind of career trajectory in terms of like how do you get from A to B. So that’s what I mean by small I impossible. It’s those things we believe are impossible for us where there is no clear path between point A where we are and point B where we wanna go, and statistically, little chances of success. That said, the book is applicable to anybody who is interested in increasing peak performance, but the actual system and sequence is designed for anybody interested in going after high, hard goals, and exceeding their limitations, exceeding their expectations, and really turning their biggest dreams into their most recent achievements. That’s what the focus is.
Brett McKay: Alright, so it’s the formula, then, to achieve both big I Impossible, small I impossible. But why do you think so many people fail to live up? Why don’t a lot of people figure out this formula on their own, like of achieving that small I impossible? Why do so many people fail to live up to their potential?
Steven Kotler: So here’s the real answer, as far as I can tell. When you talk to actual peak performers, and I know, I’m familiar with your show and your audience that you’ve got some hard chargers who listen to you on a regular basis. What happens when those folks read The Art of Impossible, and enough had at this point that I think I can speak learnedly about this, or a little bit learnedly, is most people go, “Oh, wow! I was doing about 60-65% of this stuff on my own, I didn’t even know it.” Or, “I did, I was doing intentionally, but I didn’t know it was a sequence, I didn’t know how it was designed to work,” and there are usually gaps in their game. And it varies, you know what I mean? For example, I did a lot of work, I’ve done a lot of work with the military and the US Special Forces and things like that, and their gaps tend to be around things like creative problem-solving and recovery, things that are not often part of the military structure. They’re starting to be, but they’re not there.
Other people, a lot of… Most normal people tend to come off ’cause they haven’t optimized all of the different quantities of intrinsic motivation, they don’t have all their intrinsic motivators pointing in the same direction, they don’t have… There are six levels of grit, it appears, and they all seem to be needed to be trained independently. You may have a couple of them, but you may have gaps in the chain, so a lot of it is that kind of stuff because as I said, peak performance is nothing more than getting our biology to work for us, rather than against us. It’s a limited suite of things, but we all have weaknesses. All of us have weaknesses some place, and that’s usually why we get derailed. It’s not the whole picture; it’s usually three or four elements in the big picture that are missing, and that once we dial them in and start to understand how these things work together and how to get them to work together, that usually tends to be the problem.
Brett McKay: Well, one thing you say in the book, you make a point about this idea that this is all about harnessing your innate biology that you already have. So I wanna go with this idea, assuming, what this all is about, what The Art of the Impossible is about is helping people harness their innate biological processes that allow them to perform at their peak. There’s something you say, you said that, “Biology scales, personality doesn’t.” What do you mean by that?
Steven Kotler: You’ve seen this a lot in peak performance. So unfortunately, fairly frequently in the world of… It’s less done in the world I’m in, which is really hardcore science-backed peak performance stuff, but you see it a lot more in coaching, and you see it all over self-help. People figure out what works for them, and they try to teach other people. “Hey, this worked for me, let me train you in it, let me build the system, let me build the company,” and invariably, the vast majority of what works for you is not gonna work for other people. And the reason is when you’re talking about peak performance, certain elements that are very foundational to how you should approach peak performance like, “Where are you on the introversion to extraversion scale?” or, “What are your risk tolerances?” These are things that are biologically hard-wired, at least to 50% if not more, depending on whose numbers you’re going by, and shaped by very early childhood experience. They’re more in the category of biological traits.
Now, we used to believe traits were totally immutable, you’re stuck. You’re born with whatever, like where you are on the Big Five Personality Index is you’re gonna stay there the rest of your life. We now know that’s not true. But as a general rule, if you wanna change a trait, if you’re very introverted and you wanna become very extroverted, it can take five to 10 years worth of work to do that. Now, somebody might be interested in doing that work, but if you give them a peak performance system, and they haven’t done that work, and they’re very introverted, and it was designed by an extrovert, they’re gonna crash and burn. Same thing with risk tolerance, the same thing with that seven or eight foundational keys in peak performance.
Biology, on the other hand, scales. When you go back… One way to think about this, it’s maybe a little easier, is when you talk about psychology, and most of the terms that you get out of coaching or self-help, if they’re scientific at all, they come out of psychology. Psychology is essentially a metaphor. So the simple example here is mindset. When most people in the world use the term mindset, they mean attitude towards life. When psychologists use mindset, they actually mean attitudes towards learning. And when neurobiologists use the term mindset, they are actually talking about something that happens in the thalamus in the brain with thalamic gating, basically how information that is entering the brain gets filtered and sort of top-down gating, which is also how information in the brain gets filtered. It’s a very specific thing taking place within very specific networks, and it means a very precise thing. The very precise thing that it means is what you need to get the reaction you’re looking for. You’re not gonna always get it when you’re hearing it psychologically. But when you take it down to mechanism, the basic biology, A plus B equals C kind of thing, you get reliable, repeatable results for anyone. It doesn’t matter who you are.
Which is why we train, at the Flow Research Collective, about 1000 people a month. And we’ve been doing this for a while at this point. That’s a very large sample size. And we can tell you we train everybody from the US Special Forces to Olympic and professional athletes, through soccer moms from Iowa and insurance brokers from Kansas. This, when you go down to biology, it works for everyone. When you try to stay at the level of the psychology, it’s often gonna exclude people. And when you come in from the level of personality, you will often have a disaster, you’ll just make turn… You’ll either won’t work for very long or you’ll create a big mess.
Brett McKay: Oh, let’s talk about this formula that goes down the biological level of peak performance. And the first part of this is motivation. And that’s another one of those words that gets thrown around a lot in the self-help community and psychology, where you gotta be motivated. And you’re like, “What is motivation? What exactly is… ”
Steven Kotler: What is motivation? Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What exactly… What is motivation like? What…
Steven Kotler: And why does it matter? Right. Okay.
Brett McKay: Right.
Steven Kotler: Well, I want motivation. And okay, but what is it and why does it matter? That’s the question you’re asking?
Brett McKay: Right.
Steven Kotler: So first of all, depending on who you talk to, but as a general, motivation is a psychological catch-all term for three or four, depending on how you wanna break them down, categories of skills. One, there’s external and internal or extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation are things we want that are outside of ourselves. Money, sex, fame. Those are all extrinsic motivators. Then there are intrinsic motivators. These are things that sort of motivate us automatically, and I’ll speak more to that in a second. Curiosity, mastery, autonomy, passion and purpose are the biggest five. There are others, but those are the big five. Simultaneously, when people talk about motivation, they’re also talking about grit. And as I mentioned before, there are actually six levels of grit skills, and peak performers need to train sort of all of them.
Now, we’re gonna start with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, that’s where the conversation starts. And why does motivation matter? It’s a great question, let’s start there. You have to actually back up one step and understand that when it comes to peak performance, real performance in the world, you have, as a human being, very few big levers to reach for. In any given situation, the two things that you really have is your focus, where do you put your attention and what do you choose to ignore; and the action you’re gonna take to accomplish whatever it is you’re doing. If you put action and attention on the same thing over and over and over again, you get a habit. And all the habit is, is it’s the action performed without the attention. You no longer have to focus on it ’cause you’ve learned how to do the thing and you can perform it unconsciously, which is great because when you can perform it unconsciously, the brain is much more efficient, it has greater processing speed, a lot of things that we need go up. So that’s the big picture.
When you talk about motivation, what you’re really talking about is those things… Remember, action and focus are about the two biggest things we can work with. There’s not a hell of a lot you can do on the action side other than keep doing the action over and over and over for years until you get better at it. Focus is your big lever. Motivation gives you focus for free. It’s a huge deal. Your brain is 2% of your body mass; it consumes, at rest, about 25% of your energy. That’s huge. When you’re actually doing something, it goes up from there. So if you can get focus for free, that’s a big deal, energetically, calorically, everything else. Think about curiosity, everything starts with curiosity. It’s the foundational human motivator, and it gives us a little bit of focus for free. When we’re curious about something, when you’re interested in what somebody is saying to you, it’s not hard to pay attention to them; it happens automatically. When you’re into a subject, reading a book is not hard; you’re psyched to read the book, you can’t wait to get back to the book, etcetera. But if you’re trying to page through something that’s really a textbook and you’re not into it, twice as much work.
And think about curiosity, neurobiologically, curiosity is literally a little bit of the neurochemical norepinephrine and a little bit of neurochemical dopamine. That’s all it is. Both of these are focusing… They do a lot of different things in the brain. They’re pleasure chemicals so they reward our curiosity. Curiosity feeds itself. What they mean is the chemicals that are produced by curiosity feel really, really good, and curiosity breeds curiosity breeds curiosity ’cause of these neurochemicals. These neurochemicals drive focus, that’s what we’re experiencing; and excitement, that’s the emotional side of it, but they also prime the brain for learning. So when we’re curious about something, it is much easier to retain that information for later. And it goes up from there. The secret with curiosity is passion is what follows curiosity. Passion is nothing more than the intersection of multiple curiosities plus playing at that intersection and producing a series of wins. That’s really the foundational ingredients in passion.
Neurobiologically, it’s the same cocktails. Instead of a little bit of norepinephrine and dopamine, you get a lot of norepinephrine and dopamine, in which case, think about… I’ll give you a simple example of passion. Think about romantic love, that is a passion. Romantic love, this is, by the way, not my work. This particular bit is Helen Fisher’s work at Rutgers on the cocktails underneath love. But romantic love is essentially a lot of norepinephrine and a lot of dopamine. When you were falling in love with somebody, we’ve all done that, we’ve all had the experience, think about how much attention you pay to that person. You can’t even stop thinking about them. That’s the big deal with passion, and it sorta goes from there. Passion, once we can take that passion and couple it to a purpose greater than ourselves, a cause outside of ourselves, that’s purpose. Once we have our purpose, what do you need next is obvious; you need the freedom, the autonomy to pursue that purpose.
And once you have the freedom and autonomy to pursue that purpose, you need the skills to pursue it well, aka mastery. Those are our big five in terms of motivators. That is the order that they are designed to be created and utilized and that they work best. And when they’re all pointed in the same direction, a lot of good things happen, including you get a ton of flow for a bunch of different reasons. But… So not only do you get all the benefits, focus for free, amplified learning, etcetera, etcetera. When everything’s pointed in the same direction, you also drop into flow far more easily, and flow amplifies motivation, productivity, creativity, learning, empathy, perception, a couple of other things. So it’s a big boost, and it’s a huge boost as well. So that’s what I mean by there’s an order and a sequence. And that’s just on the intrinsic motivation side.
Though I will say, the research does say that you wanna start with extrinsic motivation, you wanna start with external motivation, up until the point sort of your basic safety and security needs are met. If you’re still struggling to pay a little like make rent and pay your bills and feed yourself, it’s difficult to start cultivating curiosity. You can do it, but it’s hard ’cause you are… Your system is sort of red-lined. So what the research shows, and this is Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s research, we need, basically, to make enough money to cover our basic needs with a little left over for discretionary spending. And once we get to that point, extrinsic, external motivators to ourselves, while we still want those things, and they will still motivate us, they are not the best way to drive increased performance and productivity and creativity and those things. And in other words, once we get to basic needs level, we have to start allowing, letting in intrinsic motivators to consistently achieve peak performance.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s do a recap here. The big five intrinsic motivators that start you down the road to doing the impossible are: Be curious, and that gives you focus for free. After that, have a love or a passion. Then you wanna couple that passion with something outside of yourself. Work to get the autonomy to pursue that purpose. And then hone your skills, hone the mastery to achieve great things. And this is a specific sequence you want ordered the right way, pointing in the right direction. So if you’re following this sequence that you laid out, should someone who’s… Wants to write a book, for example, should they think, “Alright, I wanna write a book, so I should write something that I’m curious about, what I’m passionate about, what I’m interested in. And I’m not gonna worry about whether I’m gonna make a lot of money for me to get paid for it. And because I’m starting with my curiosity, those other intrinsic motivators will cascade down and build into peak performance.”
Steven Kotler: Yes. Yes is the answer to that question. Same thing with learning. So learning works the same way. And I’m not saying don’t write the book that’s gonna earn you money. I’m saying find a way to connect the thing that’s gonna earn you money, do stuff you are foundationally curious about, one. And two, I will make an argument that if you’re not foundationally curious about a subject and you’re gonna write a book and you think it’s gonna make you money, you’re wrong. It won’t work ’cause you’re competing with too many people like myself who are very, very good at this, who’ve been doing this a long time, and I know that my passion for a subject comes through in the text. And it’s very powerful to people who read it. People love it. It’s one of the reasons people like reading my books. And I think that’s true. It’s not just me, it’s across the boards. You wanna have that. That’s something that you have that’s your own that your competitors don’t have when it comes to writing a book.
Brett McKay: And you can apply this, too, to let’s say if you’re not thinking about writing a book or starting a business, but in your own job, you could apply these principles, too, instead of… Try to figure out some auto…
Steven Kotler: You have to. You have to. You have to.
Brett McKay: Yeah, figure some, yeah, figure some autonomy, yeah.
Steven Kotler: For example, mastery is the big one that most people miss in their jobs. Autonomy and mastery are really… A lot of people may not have jobs that are totally lined up with their passion or their purpose, those are different issues, but often, you can reframe… I used to do this all the time when I was a young journalist. I would have to sort of write to save my life because I was paying my bills as a freelance journalist, and I would have to produce tremendous amounts of copy about tons of subjects, including a lot of stuff that wasn’t the sexiest stuff in the world for me. But I would always find something in the subject that I was curious about, and I would also find something in the subject that if I… I would try to… Maybe I was writing an article. I remember one… [chuckle]
I remember one really great example, I pulled it off. I will never tell you where the article appeared. But I had to write an article on data caves. It was very early on, and I was writing about some of the earliest data caves. Now, data caves are kinda neat, but they’re not super neat to me, but I used the assignment to learn to write in the writing style of one of my favorite authors, and that’s what I did. So I found a way to… Yeah, I had to write about something that wasn’t super interesting to me, but I found something in the subject where I was like, “Oh, this thing is interesting to me. I’m cool about this, and I can definitely… That piques my interest. And I’m gonna try to write it in a style that advances my cause, my mastery cause.” It stretches me outside my normal skillset, etcetera, etcetera. So yeah, you can apply that stuff everywhere, and you have to. You absolutely have to ’cause it’s… Otherwise, you can’t just… You can’t generate enough energy for performing at your best. It just won’t work over time. You can fake it, obviously, for a little while, but not for a long time.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that mastery component, that’s something that motivated my dad throughout his career. I remember when I was 20 and I asked my dad, I was like, “Dad,” he was a Federal…
Steven Kotler: But what does your dad do?
Brett McKay: So he was a Federal game warden for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. And growing up, I saw he did the exact same thing every day. He had a season to his career. During the fall and winter, he was out checking duck hunters. But then he was just going to work every day, same time, writing reports, talking to people, investigating. And I remember asking, I was 20, I was like, “Dad, how do you do that? Every day, it’s like the same thing.” And he says like, “I just… What motivates me is I try to get better and better every day.” And I’m like, “Okay, that makes sense.” And that… He had a, he even had a fruitful… And he enjoyed his career, a fulfilling career.
Steven Kotler: Yeah, there are certain conditions… And later on in the book, I talk about recovery and things like that and thus, I talk about burnout. There is, if you have a passive-aggressive boss who is constantly moving the goal posts, get out from under. That’s just… There’s not a whole lot in that particular situation. That’s a, “I wanna figure out how to get a different job,” situation. But in almost every other situation, the path of mastery and reframing stuff so it aligns with fundamental goals and things like that is very effective. It’s a very effective way to get better. And any career, I always say… This is one of the hardest things I see for writers, for artists, I see it with coders. Anything where there’s a sort of a creative skill set at the core of what you do, what usually happens to people is in their 20s; 20s are when you get famous for what you can do, who you are. You get famous or well-known or you rise in your company, etcetera, etcetera, based on who you are. Once you get to a certain level, nobody cares who you are anymore. Now, you have to join a team and lift up the whole team.
So for me, it was super clear. I remember when I finally… I was roughly around 30 years old and I had sort of moved into the really, like a big leagues for writing, was working for the New York Times, Sunday Magazine, Wired, that level. And I was already… I had published a best-selling book. I was a known writer. I had published… Nobody cared. They wanted the best Wired magazine story I could write. Nobody wanted a great Steven Kotler story. And that’s the 30s in everybody’s career. You end up like you can only take yourself so far, you have to sorta hitch yourself to a company or a thing. And then they want you to be creative or work inside of their boxes for usually, that phase lasts about a decade. And you can either use it to move towards mastering your skills or not, you know what I mean? There’s not… There are ways around it, occasionally, I guess, but they’re rare in careers, and it’s a long sort of stop-over. And if you don’t figure that trick out, you’re gonna stall.
Brett McKay: Okay, so we’ve been talking about these intrinsic motivators, and these can… These are like, basically, free energy, in a sense. But you also talked about there’s this idea of grit. And it’s like, when I’m… But yeah, but most people… Yeah.
Steven Kotler: So yeah, let’s walk it all the way through for people ’cause… And I’ll do it quickly.
Brett McKay: Sure.
Steven Kotler: Once you have your five intrinsic motivators set up and pointing in the right direction, you have… Goals are next. You need three levels of goals in your life for peak performance. You need mission-level goals, what I call the massively transformative purpose. You need high, hard goals. And then you need clear goals. A mission-level is, let’s just stick with your book-writing example, “I wanna be the greatest writer in the history of the world.” That’s a mission-level goal. A high, hard goal is, “I wanna go get a degree in journalism. I want to write a book on chocolate. I wanna write a book on weight-lifting. I wanna,” take your pick. Those are high, hard goals. They’re one-to-five-year projects. And then you need your clear goals, your daily action plans. Now, there’s a specific sequence that clear goals should be set in, and there’s ways they should be set in. There’s a lot of formality that I go over in the book. We can skip over that. But once you’ve got… Motivation gets you into the game. Goals tell you where you’re going. And then you’re gonna need grit ’cause the motivation is gonna run out, and not all tasks are gonna produce flow. And there are, it appears there are six levels of grit that we need to train, and I suggest training them in a specific order, predominantly because training grit, while…
Human beings are incredibly, incredibly, incredibly gritty creatures. We’re far grittier than most people ever, ever assume. But we don’t often get there because there are these multiple levels of grit, and if you’re training them sort of out of sequence, it can be really demotivating. And grit sort of starts with persistence. And you wanna start with physical persistence. So the way that you wanna start training grit is if you’re working out in the gym, and you’re doing three sets of 10, make one of those instead of 11. And then you’re gonna make two of them instead of 11 the next time you go back to the gym, and maybe three. That sort of thing where you’re just pushing yourself a little farther than you normally go, and over a very long… Regularly. The thing with grit is it’s not just enough to push yourself; you have to do it reliably and repeatedly, so that the brain starts to trust that that new level of energy is actually possible for you.
Your body is a homeostatic organism. It likes to burn the same amount of energy all the time. So when we have to be grittier, we’re saying, “No, no, no, meet the next moment with more energy than normal.” That’s a big thing for the body, the body doesn’t like to do that. So we have to do that reliably and repeatedly over time so we start to trust ourselves. Once you have physical grit, you start working on mental grit. And ultimately, you’re going towards the grit to sort of control your thoughts and… ‘Cause you’re reigning in your negative thinking and a bunch of stuff like that. Then you need the grit to be your best when you’re at your worst. That’s another grit, and it can be… It needs to be trained independently.
Then once you’ve sorta started to layer that in, you can start working on the grit to train up your weaknesses. That’s a very demotivating… It’s very key to peak performance because everybody’s got weaknesses and in crisis situations, we will… The weaknesses are what’s gonna sink us. But they’re really hard to train because, well, there are weaknesses for very… They’re so not aligned with our curiosity of that. Those are the things that are totally outside of our motivation that we fricking hate. So you don’t wanna start working on your weaknesses until all your motivation is lined up and you’ve got other grit skills ’cause otherwise, it’ll crush all that earlier work you’ve done.
Then there’s also the grit to face your fear, which I think it’s foundational for peak performance, as I’m sure you know. Often, people start training it too early, it… Fear is phenomenal. Think about all the focus you get for free when you can start to use fear as a motivator, but you can’t start to really, really work with the stuff that terrifies you until you’ve established a bunch of other sort of grit skills. And then the last grit is actually the grit to recover. And I’m talking about active recovery protocols. And the issue here is peak performers… And when I say peak performers, I’m also talking about where, if you were… If you started with curiosity and you worked your way to this point in the sequence, you are kind of, you’re now approaching life with way more fuel, way more energy, and you’re starting to move into that category. Peak performers don’t like to take any time off. Time off feels like laziness. It feels like slowing down like, “Oh, my God! What am I doing? This is wrong. I shouldn’t be doing this.”
And that is also… When we work with… As I said earlier, I work with the military a lot. This is the… Recovery is often where they have their biggest problems. Also with a lot of professional athletes. They don’t actually recover enough for what it is that they’re doing. So I think of recovery as a grit skill. There’s specific ways to train recovery that are sort of covered in the book, but that’s the grit stack. And from there, you jump next into learning, but that takes us through the motivation triad of drive, grit and goals, is what we’ve covered so far, basically.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that grit of be your best at your worst, that one stood out to me for some reason, I don’t know why, but I’m thinking…
Steven Kotler: It stood out… Well, so this was a… It was a big wake up call for me, actually, ’cause I way writing on grit, I was working on grit, I was tracking the neuroscience of grit, and I was on the phone with Josh Waitzkin, brilliant peak performance mind. And Josh said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you’re missing the most important one that I work on,” and we started talking about it, and he was totally right. And I started training it myself and I was… It’s not particularly hard to train; it’s just incredibly unpleasant, but wow, is it the level of confidence… So much of peak performance is about confidence in a really subtle level; a lot of the grit skills. It’s not just about the grit that you’re building up, the ability to persist, but it’s the confidence that you get from the grit that maybe even be the bigger deal. And once you start training being your best when you’re at your worst, wow, does it calm you down in some previously high-stress situations, that’s for sure.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve incorporated this with my weight training. Some days, I’ll still train even when I’m tired because it’s just for the habit and I enjoy it, but also, there’s something about… You learn how to perform even when you’re not feeling the best.
Steven Kotler: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. That, and it’s super, super key. And I think, by the way, people who are athletes who have long histories in their life of athletics, sooner or later, you learn some of those skills ’cause athletics demands them. But if that wasn’t your path to wherever you are, you’re probably, you probably… There’s a gap or two there.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we’ve talked about motivation. Then the next thing that separates peak performers from the rest and doing the impossible is they continually learn. And you have this great section, and again, you’re picking up where your motivation left off, you wanna follow your curiosity. You make this really compelling case on continual learning, about reading books to learn instead of just reading blog posts or watching a YouTube video, which is most people, well, that’s what they wanna do when they wanna learn something. Why read books? And what’s your process for picking books on learning a new subject or learning more about a subject you’re already interested in?
Steven Kotler: So there’s two sides to this. Let me speak to learning for half a second from a bigger picture before we dive into this, only ’cause I just find it helpful. So flow is peak performance, we’ve cleared that up at the start. The more time you bend and flow, the farther you’re gonna get faster. Flow states have triggers, pre-conditions that lead to more flow. The most important one is known as the challenge/skills balance. Simple idea is this: Flow follows focus. It shows up when most of our attention, all of our attention is on the task at hand, when we’re totally focused on the thing that we’re doing, and we’re pushing our skills to the utmost, we’re using our skills to the utmost. This is the challenge/skills balance. We pay the most attention to the task at hand when the challenge and the task at hand slightly exceeds our skill sets, so you wanna sorta stretch, but not snap.
For that to happen, if you’re using your skills to the utmost, the most important thing you can do to maximize flow, you’re gonna be learning. That’s the only way you can use your skills to the utmost. It requires learning to onboard those skills, and then accelerated learning when you’re using them to the utmost. If you do not have solid learning skills, you’re going to have really sustained problems right at this spot. So you may have dialed in motivation, you may have set the proper goals, you may be gritty, but if you can’t learn, you can’t actually keep up with the acceleration the flow provides. And so one of the first question you gotta ask is: What the hell should I learn from? What are the best learning materials? And to answer that question, there’s a section, as you referred to it, as the ROI on reading, the return on investment. And what I do is I just point it out from an author’s point of view, the time investment and the information density that results in every kind of version of media that people might consume.
For example, a blog; I write a blog. Now, I write a blog, it’s 1200 words long, I’m gonna… It’s gonna take me two days. I’m gonna work on it for three or four hours on day one. I’m gonna read, I probably have read a bunch to get in there, but I’ll talk to a couple of experts, and I’ll write for about four hours. The next day, I’ll talk to another expert and I’ll write for about four more hours. So average reading speed is about 250 words a minute. Average blog is, let’s say this blog is 1000 words long. It’s gonna take you four minutes to read that. So I give you about eight hours of my life and my brain power, and you give me four minutes. That seems like a kinda cool trade. But then you go up to the level of a magazine article, say what I would write for Wired.
These articles are about 5000 words long. So they’re gonna take the average reader about 20 minutes. How long does it take me to write one? Well, for an article for Wired, I’m gonna do about a month’s worth of research on the frontend, then I’m gonna report the actual story. And that’s probably gonna take about three months. And then it’s probably gonna take two to three months for me to write it. And you’re gonna have the benefit of my editor, my… The publisher, and a fact-checker and probably a couple other people. So you’re gonna get four or five brains on the problem. Plus, instead of interviewing two people, for a magazine article, I’ll interview 25-30. So we get 35 people’s brains, roughly eight months of work, and it costs you 20 minutes. So clearly, a magazine article for information density, and for brainpower, it’s a much better return on investment, you’re getting so much more. A book, Art of Impossible… Impossible is a book based on 30 years of research.
It’s based on hundreds, if not thousands of interviews. It’s… The components of the book have appeared in dozens and dozens and dozens of publications, hundreds, if not thousands of people’s brainpower has gone into Art of Impossible, and it’s gonna take you about seven hours to read. You can get 30 years of my life for seven hours, you can get eight months of my life for 20 minutes, or you can get two days of my life for four minutes. That’s the ROI on reading. And listening to YouTube videos, podcasts, they’re maybe better than a blog, but they’re not nearly as dense as a magazine article, they’re somewhere in between, they’re not a particularly good investment either. So if you’re looking for learning, books are the densest form of information available on the planet. They’re just the most bang for your buck for your time. Books, books, as one of my first mentors used to say, “Books are where they keep the secrets.”
Brett McKay: And you also… You lay out this sequence you follow in picking out books to read, that I actually… I followed myself like when I’ve researched articles, I’ve done the exact same thing. And it’s basically you start off, you find a book that’s popular, the kind of book you’d find in an airport, read that it’s easy, and then you just get more and more dense, more difficult until you’re basically reading journal articles and science journals.
Steven Kotler: Yeah, ’cause you wanna like… A lot of learning, just how the brain learns, is about figuring out what is the vocabulary of a subject? What is the history, the chronology of a subject, the ordering of the ideas. Anything you’re trying to learn was a voyage of discovery for people. There’s somebody who had a question, somebody answered that question, led to another question, led to another. So like, that’s… You could consider that because the brain naturally… Our brains are natural storytellers, we link cause with effect automatically ’cause that’s survival. So historical narratives. This came first, this came second, this came third, we automatically understand. The brain knows how to do that, you don’t have to work as hard. And once you have the historical narrative, you have the big Christmas tree. And then you can start hanging ornaments. And the truth of the matter, as you know ’cause you’ve learned a bunch of difficult subjects, some colossal amount of the actual information in a subject, depending on the subject, but definitely over 40% in pretty much any subject, is contained in the language of the subject. And it’s not even a whole lot of language, it’s usually a lot less vocabulary than you actually think you need to learn.
So I always start there, like start with the most fun thing, follow your curiosity through the subject. And I think the most important thing for people to know is as you get into harder and harder books, people make this mistake, they think there’s a quiz later. And if they don’t understand something, they stop, and they re-read, and they take notes, and the blah blah blah, and all that stuff. And that’s actually… You’re fighting how your brain naturally learns. The best way to learn a subject is to follow your curiosity through the subject. Take notes around the things that naturally catch your attention. Because that naturally will produce a lot of norepinephrine, which primes the brain for learning, and you’ll have an easier time remembering it. Those are the things, so the big point for a lot of people is as you read your way through a subject, don’t get mad at yourself if you don’t understand everything. There’s no way you’re gonna understand everything. It’s a new subject. And don’t try and don’t get mad and don’t… Just keep going because learning is unconscious. Even if you’re lost, your brain is still picking up information. Just keep going.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we’ve talked about motivation. We talked about learning. The third component of peak performance is creativity. Tell us about that. What’s going on there?
Steven Kotler: Yes. Well, so simply put, everybody’s gonna get this really quickly, high, hard goals by definition on the point A, it’s a high, hard goal or a mission-level goal ’cause I don’t know how to get there. I don’t know how to get there. So if you don’t know how to get there, you need creativity, creative problem solving, because you need to steer. That’s what creativity is in the equation, learning… Motivation gets you in the game. Learning allows you to continue to play. Creativity is how you steer. And creativity is where things like learning and like motivation, these are invisible skills, they’re not visible things. And most of what is required for creativity is a shift in states of consciousness, less than a set of skills. So it’s tricky to learn how to think creatively and how to be more creative, but it’s foundational, both short-term in the moment, how am I creative now? And then what I call… I did some extensive research on long-haul creativity, what does it take to sustain creativity over a long career, which…
It’s interesting when I got interested in this question of long-haul creativity ’cause, it’s very not… It’s not studied very much. There’s a lot of stuff on how can I be more creative for the project I’m working on. Or I’m gonna spend the next 10 years of my life doing a podcast, how can I be creative doing this podcast? People think that way, but they don’t think, “Oh my God, I’m gonna have to reinvent myself and reinvent myself and reinvent myself.” And yet when you meet people, whatever the field, who have had really long careers… Most people have had to reinvent themselves, seven, eight times, and I think that’s… With technology today, I think that’s gonna speed up a little bit. And so, we’re gonna need to be able to… We’re gonna need that creativity and we’re gonna need to sustain that creativity, over the long haul, and there’s a whole different set of skills required for that, but that’s the creative component in the picture.
Brett McKay: And again, where does flow fit in all this? Does flow just kinda come in every now and then, to supercharge this stuff?
Steven Kotler: Well, flow shows up every step of the way, and so, for example, creativity… When I say the term ‘creativity,’ I’m actually technically talking about the definition of creativity, which is the creation and novel ideas that are useful, and when you break that apart, ’cause actually at a skillset level, that’s idea generation, problem identification, there’s actually tons of sub-steps in between, that also sort of go into this component. Now on the flow side, I will say creativity is a flow trigger, what I actually mean by that is, the experience of insider intuition, which is when the brain links two novel ideas together or a new idea with an old idea, to produce something startling and new, that experience of insight produces a little bit of dopamine. We’ve all had this experience, you’ve done a crossword puzzle, you get an answer right, that’s your brain that’s doing pattern recognition. And when you get an answer it, that little rush of pleasure, that’s dopamine.
It’s rewarding you finding a pattern, ’cause that’s good for survival, and interestingly, dopamine… Norepinephrine does this as well, but dopamine really does this, it tunes signal-to-noise ratios in the brain, which is a fancy way of saying, we find more patterns, when you notice more signal instead of noise, you find more patterns. So creativity triggers flow, and then flow triggers creativity, and it’s a positive feedback loop. So as you start to… And same thing with learning, we talked about the challenge/skills balance, so as you start to layer these things in more, all the curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy and mastery, not only are those our five intrinsic motivators, they’re also all flow triggers. So what you’re doing, as you’re moving along this thing, you’re layering in more and more flow triggers into your daily life, you’re going to get more flow as a result. So yes, flow is coming along much more reliably and repeatedly, as you move along, to amplify all your efforts on… Because flow is where we’re gonna go next, let’s just talk about that amplification, let me put some numbers on things, so people understand what we’re talking about, and these, I’ll try to give credit to, ’cause these are not all my numbers, this work was done by a lot of different people, and I’ll try to point you at who did the research.
For example, McKinsey studied top executives over the course of 10 years and they were looking at productivity, they were running around the world, and this is a self-reported number, so grain of salt a little bit, but they did a lot of work and they talked to a lot of people, and on average, top executives reported being 500% more productive in flow. That’s enormous, that means you go to work on Monday, you spend Monday in a flow state, you take Tuesday through Friday off and get as much done as everybody else, two days a week, you’re 1000% more productive than the competition. That’s flow’s impact on motivation and productivity. Learning, and this is work that was done predominantly by the Department of Defense, they find that soldiers in flow, for example, will learn 240% faster than normal. Other studies have taken that all the way as high as 500% faster than normal, but it sort of depends. Creativity, a lot of different people did work on this, will spike 400-700%, and then we see a bunch of additional things, creative cooperation, collaboration, empathy, environmental awareness, which is basically our ability to perceive the natural world and a whole bunch of physical skills, you get strength, you get stamina, and you also get fast-twitch muscle response, and it deadens the pain response.
So that’s the full sort of… That’s all the stuff that gets amplified in flow, and we could talk about why, if you want to, we understand the biology underneath that. But when you say, “Yes, you get more flow along the way,” that’s a big deal, that was the point of all this. It’s not a small thing. And because flow is directly tied to happiness, well-being, meaning and purpose, meaning, the more flow you get, the higher you… The more well-being, happiness, meaning and purpose and things like that, you get, it ends up being this incredibly positive, self-reinforcing cycle.
Brett McKay: Well, that was… You had this great section in the book, where… Throughout the book, you’ve been highlighting all this modern research, scientific research about how to perform at your peak, then you’ve found that 150 years ago, a German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, basically kinda talked about the same thing with his philosophy. How did you make that connection?
Steven Kotler: So, one… Well, I have a minor in philosophy, so this is something… Long time fascination. My chief scientist is also, before he was a neuro guy, is a philosophy major, he’s got a huge Nietzsche tattoo on his shoulder. We’re big Nietzsche fans at Flow Research Collective in general. But Nietzsche is important because, one, I said peak performance is nothing more than getting you biology to work for you, rather than against you, and it’s a limited set of skills, as we’ve been talking about. So Nietzsche was the first guy to come after Darwin. Darwin said, “Hey, the body evolves, and we gotta use science to study this,” and Nietzsche and a couple other people went, “Holy crap, mind evolves.” And Nietzsche was interested in peak performance. I’ve heard you’re familiar with the term, the Übermensch, the Superman, that was his whole project, how do we turn humans into supermen, or my favorite Nietzsche quote, which is, “Man is something that needs to be overcome. What have you done today, to overcome him?” and he wants to rise above our foundational nature in a sense, and Nietzsche came to a four-step process, and it’s the same freaking process we’ve been talking about.
His process starts with motivation, where I find an organizing idea for your life. In other words, get all your intrinsic motivators pointed in the same direction. He then goes into, suffering is mandatory ’cause you have to learn grit skills, and then learning and creativity come next. And then what do you use to turbo boost the whole goddamn thing? Flow. Only Nietzsche didn’t call it flow, he called it rausch, which is German for overflowing joy. So it’s the same formula, it hasn’t changed in 150 years, ’cause the biology is the same.
Brett McKay: Well, so we’ve been talking about the formula of big picture, but those who are… We’re starting a new year, like what are some things that people can do? A few suggestions that people can do on a daily or a weekly basis to start accomplishing that, and maybe the small I impossible in their life in 2021?
Steven Kotler: I mean, there’s a lot. What you end up finding is that peak performance is seven things you wanna do every day, and about six things you wanna do every week. There’s a bunch of onboarding processes, but what it comes down to is about seven daily practices and five to six weekly practices. Most of the daily practices are very short, five minutes here, five minutes there, 25 minutes here, and the biggest one is you gotta… This is where we’ll start, if you’re not sleeping seven, eight hours a night, forget about it, you just can’t do this work. The body needs seven to eight hours of sleep at night. There are people who think, “I can get by on less.” Go take some cognitive tests when you’re tired and see how you perform. They’re all over online. Just test your cognitive function when awake versus… A little tired versus a lot tired, you’ll be shocked. You’ll sleep seven, eight hours a night. It’s like, it’s fast enough. I’m gonna start there. And the second thing I’m gonna say after that, everybody has a primary flow activity. This is that thing you did as a child that just produced a ton of flow. I don’t care if it was staring at dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum, learning to dance to hip-hop, building model airplanes, doing gymnastics, skateboarding, whatever it was there was something that whenever you did it, it just sucked your brain in and you just totally dropped in, and it’s a very reliable source of flow in your life.
This primary flow activity usually gets set down by adults, as we get more responsible we stop doing our highest flow activities. And the two things that are important here, one, the more flow you get, the more flow you get. Flow is a focusing skill, it’s a kind of way of paying attention to the thing that you’re doing. So if I go skiing on Monday and drop into a flow state, and then go to work on Thursday, I’ve got a better chance of getting into flow, A. B, the massively heightened creativity you see in flow, 400-700%, this is Tricia Rodley’s work at Harvard, outlasts the flow state by a day, maybe two. So you will get more flow in general and more creativity simply for just doubling down on this activity, and the amount… And when you move into flow, it resets the nervous system. Meaning all the stress hormones in the body are flushed out of your system, they’re replaced by a lot of positive feel-good neurochemistry. If you are running hot, if you are anxious, if it has been a tough year and I don’t know anybody who got through 2020-2021 and it wasn’t a tough year, you know what I mean? You’re probably running hot, so you gotta relieve that anxiety. These are just the two simplest things that I think are really important.
I like to end my day by creating a clear goals list for the next day, huge list. Especially if we’re working from home, start with your hardest task and figure out how many things you can do in a day and be excellent at them. That’s how many items go on your clear goals list, and anything that’s gonna take energy. You gotta have a tough conversation with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or wife or husband, that goes on the list. You gotta walk the dog, that goes on… Anything that burns energy, that you gotta be present for goes on the list kind of thing. Clear goals list. End your day practicing some distraction management, meaning turn off anything that’s gonna distract you from your first high hardest task in the morning. And then clear goals list. Start with the hardest task, work to your easiest task, that follows the way our energy works throughout the day, etcetera, etcetera. Those are just a handful of quick tips, I can keep going.
Brett McKay: Well, people can find a ton more details on these practices and everything else we’ve talked about in your book. And there’s a lot of really interesting insights in it. We scratched the surface today. So where can people go to learn more about the book and the rest of your work?
Steven Kotler: First of all, you can go to theartofimpossible.com, which is kind of the web page for the book. By this way, if you wanna learn all the kind of ins and outs of the book, check out the blog section on that website, ’cause there’s tons of stuff up there. Stevenkotler.com will get you all things me, all the 13 other books, etcetera. And if you’re interested in flow stuff, flowresearchcollective.com. And one more thing I wanna… You asked, “What else can people do?” Besides your primary flow activity, if you go to flowblocker.com, www.flowblocker.com, we built a giant diagnostic at the Flow Research Collective. There are six major blockers of flow that most people…
And most people have one or two of them in their life but there’s usually one main one. And we just built a diagnostic and we’re giving it away for free, ’cause it’s really like, if you double down on your primary flow activity and you sort of take the flow blocker diagnostic, and remove the one thing that’s really sort of standing between you and more flow, those two things alone will start turning up the knob on flow. And literally like just creating a clear goals list at the end of the day, maybe a little bit of distraction management at the end of the day, so you’re kinda ready to dive into your next day, and getting seven to eight hours of sleep at night. There’s a bunch of other things in the book that you can kinda look at, but that’s a really simple basic playlist that anybody can start with and it’s sort of a fun playlist. You know what I mean?
Brett McKay: Right.
Steven Kotler: As opposed to some of the other stuff.
Brett McKay: Well, Steve, this has been a great conversation. Thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Steven Kotler: Thank you so much for your interest, I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Steven Kotler. He’s the author of the new book, The Art Of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Go pick up a copy today, it’s a great book to start 2021 off with. Also, you can find out more information about his work at his website, stevenkotler.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/artofimpossible, where you find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Check it on our website at theartofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives with thousands of articles written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “Manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android, iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us review on Apple podcast, or Stitcher, it helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only listen to AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.