Without realizing it, I have read several of Steven Kotler’s books including Stealing Fire and The Rise of Superman. They were unique in both the subject material as well as the orientation from which the information was presented. With his latest release, The Art of Impossible, it was clear that we shared similar interests. Perhaps this is a question of nurture as we grew up in the same part of the world, Cleveland, Ohio, and was part of the same social culture, the punk rock scene.
In Impossible, Kotler shares his journey from extreme sports journalist to flow expert, sharing what he’s found regarding the aptly named Flow State as well as its implications for humanity’s potential.
Kotler began as an adventure sports journalist, chasing skiers, skateboarders, skydivers, and snowboarders through the rough terrain where many of these sports take place. Over time, Kotler began to notice that what would be an impossible feat in the morning would be done and normalized by the evening. And over the course of months, records once thought to be unbreakable soon became baseline performance for participation. Kotler writes that in 1996, the biggest wave surfers dared to surf was twenty-five feet. These days it is commonplace for surfers to take on sixty-foot waves. Records such as these were broken all the time. The limits of the impossible were being obliterated.
Kotler began to wonder what was happening. Traditional sports (basketball, baseball, football) did not experience this same kind of exponential skill growth. He believed there was a formula, something at work that no one had put into words. He soon stumbled upon the mechanism at work, flow.
Motivation, Passion, and Goals
Kotler begins the book by looking at what makes us go. Motivation is rudimentarily broken down into two categories, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is driven by curiosity, passion, meaning, and purpose. Extrinsic motivators are exemplified by money, fame, and sex. Extrinsic motivators have historically been thought of as the more powerful of the two. But once our basic needs have been addressed and we feel safe and secure, extrinsic motivators seem to lose much of their once thought superior hold over us.
What is left is our intrinsic motivation, the fuel for our drive. Drive begins with curiosity and can become a passion if correctly nurtured. Passion is then followed by meaning and purpose. Finally, autonomy and mastery are added to complete the recipe.
Kotler points out the key to understanding the functioning of these ideas is in our biology. We all (essentially) are working with roughly the same tools biologically speaking. Personality, on the other hand, varies wildly and can’t be considered for any generally applicable scientific understanding. The ingredients to intrinsic motivation are all able to be understood through the neurochemicals involved for each. This “release” of neurochemicals is generally the same for us all, driving home the point that this is something available for all.
Impossible provides the “passion recipe”. First, make a list of 25 curiosities. Be specific. Once you’ve got your list, consider where there are intersections in the subject material. These intersections are potential passions. This pattern recognition will activate the neurochemical processes leading you towards your true passions and eventually purpose. Play in those intersections for twenty-five to thirty minutes per day. Once you’ve continued on this path for a while, get involved with a community aligned with your passion.
Once you’ve done the right amount of exploring here, you may be able to create what Peter Diamandis, Kotler’s coauthor for Bold, refers to as your Massively Transformative Purpose. Massive = Audaciously large. Transformative = bringing significant change. Purpose = The clear WHY.
In creating this MTP, you’ve set your first goal. It’s the goal of your lifetime, what you’ll spend your life working towards. Stemming from this idea, set High, Hard Goals. High, Hard Goals are goals that may take one to ten years to complete and feed directly into executing your MTP.
The book discusses the neurobiological and psychological underpinnings related to setting goals.
The Art of Impossible offers some ideas on learning. To begin, the importance of a growth mindset – as opposed to a fixed mindset – is stressed. A grow mindset is always interpreting information in a manner that provides growth, improvement, or a focus on the process.
Reading is suggested as a way to exponentiate learning. For example, Kotler reports that it took him fifteen years to write one of his books. Based on the average reading speed of an adult, it would take five hours of time to read his book. In the five hours of reading, you get what took Kotler fifteen years to acquire. In this way, it is much more efficient reading than doing the research yourself.
Kotler offers five steps to learn anything. First, when broaching a new subject, choose five books on the subject and read them without judging your learning. Next, “be the idiot”. Don’t be afraid to ask the stupid questions you may have on the topic. Third, explore the gaps. As you get your questions answered, you may notice related questions arise. With the “experts” entrenched in their specializations, they may not have the answers for the questions in these “gaps”. Fourth, always ask the next questions. Don’t be satisfied with what you find, continue to ask more questions. Seek to have your opinion changed. And finally, find the narrative. Turn what you’ve learned into a story and share it with one or two other people. This will help cement what your learnings.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly termed the experience of feeling your best and performing your best as flow. For this he is often called the “Father of Flow”. This state is characterized by six psychological events: complete concentration, a merger between action and awareness, the vanishing of our sense of self, altered perception of time, a powerful sense of control, and an experience referred to as autotelic or intensely and intrinsically rewarding.
Csikszentmihaly’s research suggests that the more flow one experienced, the more meaning and purpose one finds in his or her life.
There are twenty-two “proximal conditions for flow” or flow triggers. These include twelve individual flow triggers, and ten group triggers including, autonomy, curiosity/passion/purpose, complete concentration, clear goals, immediate feedback, the challenge-skill-balance, risk, a rich environment, deep embodiment, and creativity. Group or social flow triggers are creativity, complete concentration, shared-clear goals, shared-risk, close listening, good communication, blending egos, equal participation, familiarity, a sense of control, and always saying “yes, and…”.
There is a cycle related to the flow state. The initial stage is the struggle phase. The pre-frontal cortex is loaded with information to the point of overload and thus, we struggle. The second stage is Release. Once the brain, overloaded, causes enough frustration we let go and relax. This is where we take a walk, go for a drive, hike, or read. Taking your mind off the problem – the struggle – it may still be considered in the subconscious. The sudden realization of a solution to the struggle leads us to the third stage, Flow. In flow, we lose track of time, lost in the task at hand. We feel good and perform well in this state. The experience is rewarding in and of itself.
Flow is taxing on our brain chemistry. For this reason, the fourth and final stage, Recovery, is important. Sleep is important in recovery. Active recovery such as mindfulness, saunas, stretching, Epsom salt baths, ice baths, massage, and REST therapy are all important forms of active recovery. Alcohol and watching television are not examples of active recovery and consequently not suggested as a means of recovery.
Being fascinated with the idea of human potential – intellectually, physically, relationally – I am drawn to the promise of Flow. I recall being a young musician and explaining to my bandmates that I had to be in a certain “zone” to be able to perform. I was referring to Flow. Without it, I couldn’t perform the songs correctly. Difficult guitar arrangements and vocal lines just out of my range could only be achieved in FLOW (which was also the state that they were written in). My music career was dependent on this state!
With these ideas at my core, I am a true practitioner and aspiring teacher of FLOW. Through The Art of Impossible and Kotler’s Flow Research Collective, I have been able to apply the concepts from this book in my life. The result has been incredible. I’ve gone on record to say that it has been a more beneficial education than my MBA. I experience more meaning, a higher level of productivity, and a greater sense of well-being through increasing the presence of Flow in my life. The book is the shorthand on how to do this. The related course, Zero To Dangerous, offered by Kotler and FRC is more in depth.
Kotler has a really approachable writing style in Impossible. He can present the messages succinctly and passionately while still delivering a dense amount of information. On the other hand, there are no ‘throw away’ sentences in this book. So while it’s easy to read, it makes for good reference material to go back and revisit the ideas and concepts. If this book is not a best seller, it should be.
This book is a must read.