“Flow is the doorway to more that most of us seek” – Dr Ned Hallowell Harvard Medical School
There is a state of being where focus on a task makes everything else fall away. That is the state of flow and it’s often elusive however in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, Steven Kotler deconstructs flow and along the way provides us a roadmap for getting into the flow state more consistently.
Of all the things these athletes have accomplished, nothing is more impressive than their mastery of the state known to researchers as flow. Most of us have at least passing familiarity with flow. If you’ve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so involved in a work project that all else is forgotten, then you’ve tasted the experience. In flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.
For the average person being in flow means greater happiness. For the artist or entreprenuer it means greater access to the subconscious and a much wider range of creative expression. Want to experience a greater range of your creative wonder? Learn how to drop into the state of flow more consistently.
Kotler starts the conversation with peak performance athletes because they have to get into a state of flow or risk death. Since these athletes don’t have the luxury of not getting into the state of flow, they provide a window of consistently getting into a state where the impossible becomes possible.
When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die.
It’s extreme and not for everyone however peak performance athletes have moved the boundary of possible consistently further and in doing so taught the rest of us along the way how to do the same.
Rise of Superman: Super Athletes and Flow
if we can figure out exactly what these athletes are doing to reliably reproduce this state, then we can apply this knowledge across the additional domains of self and society…if we can master flow, there are no limits to what we can accomplish. We are our own revolution…The great civil rights leader Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs most is more people who have come alive.”
We are our own revolution are words to live by. By getting into the state of flow we live more consistently at the edge of who we are, our brains literally come alive. Kotler talks about the chemicals produced by the brain when in the state of flow and how much the brain alive with activity. As our mental state changes so does what’s possible.
It’s not just about extreme athletes, it’s about what happens when the boundaries of what we are doing and what happens in our mind break down. When we rely less on thought and more on being at the same time we are doing. It’s like a state of ongoing meditation except you aren’t sitting on a matt, you are moving through the stillness of thought, letting go of the mind, and allowing reality to be fully experienced while in motion.
There are some who think a lot like performance athletes do in which case they are always pushing.
This is why the challenge/ skill ratio is so important. If we want to achieve the kinds of accelerated performance we’re seeing in action and adventure sports, then it’s 4 percent plus 4 percent plus 4 percent, day after day, week after week, months into years into careers. This is the road to real magic. Follow this path long enough, and not only does impossible becomes possible, it becomes what’s next— like eating breakfast, like another a day at the office.
You may not be pushing and measuring to go 4 percent plus and that’s ok. It’s an ongoing understanding of your mind and body and play has just an important if not more important role.
You have to train your body to prepare for the state, you have to train your mind to prepare for the state. You have to know yourself, and your limits, know exactly what you’re afraid of and exactly how hard to push past it. That’s serious work. But get it right and not only does it become easier to find flow once, it becomes easier to find it again and again…
What’s painfully ironic here is that flow is a radical and alternative path to mastery only because we have decided that play— an activity fundamental to survival, tied to the greatest neurochemical rewards the brain can produce, and flat out necessary for achieving peak performance, creative brilliance, and overall life satisfaction— is a waste of time for adults. If we are hunting the highest version of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way round. Unless we invert this equation, much of our capacity for intrinsic motivation starts to shut down.
Letting yourself play with ideas to the point of risking judgement from your peers has a similar risk as the ultimate athlete going through class 5 rapids. The difference is the athlete doesn’t have a choice, you do. When you take that risk, you push beyond in the name of playing with what’s possible for you and in some cases for the culture (depending on your audience). Knowing this do you play it safe? Or do you come alive to see how far the rabbit hole goes?
The Stages of Flow
Understanding the stages of flow means it’s easier to successfully navigate and consciously achieve. The first state is struggle.
Our problems seem unsolvable, our effort unsustainable, and the whole situation feels as far from flow as one could get. How we handle these negative feelings is critical. In struggle, we’re using the conscious mind to identify patterns, then repeating those patterns enough times that they become chunks. Until that happens, we are awkward and uncomfortable. To move through struggle takes a leap of faith that the effort will really result in skill acquisition. By definition, this demands a growth mindset.
Next stage is release:
The next stage in the cycle is “release.” To move out of struggle and into flow, you must first pass through this second stage. Release means to take your mind off the problem, to, as Benson says, “completely sever prior thought and emotional patterns.” If you’ve been cramming for a test all day, go for a walk. If you’ve been trying to master double black-diamond ski slopes, take a few runs down the blues. If the innovation team has been pulling all-nighters for a week, send them out for dinner and a movie. The method is unimportant. The message is relaxation.
Then the flow state and a bit of recovery:
the flow state itself, is the third stage in this cycle. Struggle gives way to release gives way to flow— hallelujah. Afterward, we move into the fourth and final step in the cycle: “recovery.” Flow is an extremely expensive state for the body to produce and maintain. It requires a lot of energy and a lot of neurochemistry and both take a little while to replenish.
Recovery is usually one to be glossed over but shouldn’t as it’s just as critical to the cycle as any other:
In today’s world, rarely do we give ourselves permission to recover; rarely does anyone else. Finish one project and there are always a dozen more deadlines to be met. In fact, in most of our lives, the reward for having a high-flow experience and pulling off something challenging at work is usually more work, more responsibilities, and less time to meet them all. Yet if we want to flow from cycle to cycle, we need to take full advantage of recovery to regroup and recharge. In short, on this path, you have to go slow to go fast.
The Dark Side of Flow
Live the life of passion and nothing else will do which has an all or nothing cost. Ordinary reality doesn’t have the same full color as when in the state of flow.
Flow forces you to evaluate life through a different lens. It gives you reason to live— but live this way long enough and those reasons become more important than dying. This is what the self-help books don’t tell you. Fully alive and deeply committed is a risky business. Once you strip away the platitudes, a life of passion and purpose will always cost, as T. S. Eliot reminds us, “Not less than everything.”
The lack then if you can’t be there is too much for some.
In Christian mystical traditions, once you’ve experienced the grace of God, the ‘dark night of the soul’ describes the incredible pain of its absence. The same is true for flow. An enormous gap sits between the ecstasy of the zone and the all-too-familiar daily toil waiting for us on the other end. If you’ve glimpsed this state, but can’t get back there— that lack can become unbearable.”
The Gray Areas
Living within the boundaries of rules is safer than living in the gray areas. It’s within the grey areas where life actually gets more color.
In esoteric terms, flow’s tendency toward disruption is the reason it could be considered a “left-hand path.” A “right-hand path” is a path of orthodoxy. It’s cut, dry, and filled with “thou shalt nots.” On a right-hand path, we follow the rules and do what we’re told and no questions asked. This may sound dull, but right-hand paths have a very long history of keeping us safe. A “left-hand path,” meanwhile, is an ecstatic path and mostly gray. It’s little guidance and less security. Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, warned that a left-hand path is best never begun, and once begun, must absolutely be finished.
Kotler, Steven (2014-03-04). The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance (p. 164). New Harvest. Kindle Edition.
The feeling of oneness that comes from being in a state of flow:
Rice is talking about the experience of oneness that arrives in deep flow. “At the root of all fear is separation” he says. “That’s especially true for mortal fears. But in flow, that’s gone completely. It’s the most comforting truth— that there’s no separation, no death.
Kotler, Steven (2014-03-04). The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance (p. 167). New Harvest. Kindle Edition.
Pretty soon, we accept this new reality and shift our paradigm further and this engages imagination. We start imagining the impossible as possible. What does impossible feel like, sound like, look like. And then we start to be able to see ourselves doing the impossible— that’s the secret. There is an extremely tight link between our visual system and our physiology: once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly.”
Kotler, Steven (2014-03-04). The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance (p. 175). New Harvest. Kindle Edition.
The question of can you do something takes on a renewed meaning, the type of meaning you might have when you were younger. Can you do this? I don’t know, let’s give it a try. Letting go of all the impossible and visualizing actually doing it, not just saying oh yeah this might happen but really knowing it by seeing it done in your mind opens up for it to happen.
It’s not doing the impossible, it’s moving the boundaries of the possible further out.