Today's interview is a special preview with Steven Kotler, the creator of The Flow
Genome Project and author of The Rise of Superman. If you want to talk about
[something] human performance, this guy has taken it to the next level. And it's
something that everybody can achieve. The [something] virtual conference that I'll
be hosting will be at the end of March. Right now it's looking like March 27 to March
29, but it might end up actually being 4 or even 5 days because we've gotten so
much great content. And you're going to hear interviews with experts from various
fields. I've got over 25 of them. So this is just a preview of one of the ones you will
hear in the rest of the conference, but I just wanted to share this now because the
information is so cool. So here's the interview with Steven.
Interviewer: Now I'm going to be speaking with Steven Kotler, who is author and
director of research at the Flow Genome Project. So, Steven, thank you for taking
time to talk to me this morning.
Steven: My pleasure.
Interviewer: So let's get right into it. Tell everybody...what is flow?
Steven: Well, flow is the term that kind of the academically, scientifically, peripheral
term for an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform
out best. So in flow, attention becomes so focused on the task at hand that
everything else falls away. Action and awareness start to merge. Your sense of self,
your sense of self-consciousness vanishes completely. Time dilates, which means
sometimes it slows down, so you get that freeze-frame effect familiar to anybody
who has ever been in a car crash. Or it speeds up, and 5 hours will pass by like 5
minutes. And through out all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go
through the roof. We call this experience 'flow' because literally because that the
sensation conferred. In flow, every action, every decision leads seamlessly, fluidly to
the next. So it's like being swept away in the river of ultimate performance. When
people were doing the original research, not the original research because flow
research originates back about 150 years, kind of in the birth of contemporary
psychology and neuroscience and all that. Some of the very first experiments ever
run in psychology and neuroscience were actually run on flow and optimal
performance. But in the 60's and 70's, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was then
running the University of Chicago psychology department did one of the largest
global psychological studies ever about optimal performance. And when he was
interviewing people...he interviewed, I think, it was over 10,000 people. When they
were describing the experience, flow was the term that kept coming up. So, you
know, Abraham Maslow called this 'peak experience'. If you go back even further,
William James thought he was looking at 'mystical experiences'. So all these terms
had come up, had been created, and Csikszentmihalyi's 'flow' replaced them all. And
that's now the term that scientists prefer.
Interviewer: Okay. So there's a bunch of different concepts that go into that, right? It
sounds like it. There's various senses and experiences, and it's funny you mentioned
the car accident. When I was 12, I had a dirt biking accident. I did a jump and the
back tire somehow twisted off the jump. I remember, in very great detail, the bike
turning sideways in midair. And I even remember I reacted to it in some way, and I
hit the ground. The bike rolled over me. I was fine and I had some scars and bruises,
but that's the only time I've had where I really felt time, like, slow down for me.
Steven: Well, so the thing to know here is that flow exists on a spectrum. Most
people spend about 5% of their work life in flow and probably don't even know it.
So flow is like any other...think of it as an emotion. You can be angry, right? You're
mildly irate or you're murderously homicidal, right? It's still anger. Flow is the same
thing. We learned...and this was back in the 60's and 70's when Csikszentmihalyi did
his original research... he came up with 7 conditions. These are, you know,
experiences: time dilation, loss of self, concentration, etc. etc. that denote flow. You
can be in micro-flow when only a couple of these conditions show up. So really
common is time speeding up, right? You get sucked into a great conversation, you're
totally in the moment, and not aware that anything else is going on, and 5 hours
pass in 5 minutes. That's a really common experience. Deep flow, macro-flow, which
is the other end of the spectrum when all 7 of these conditions show up at once...
that is rare. There's a lot of things going on in the brain and in the body during flow
obviously. We've gotten really good at understanding this. It really has to do with
which parts of the brain are being recruited into the experience.
Interviewer: Okay. I definitely want to get into that. On a basic level, why is that a
good thing? Why do we want flow? Why do we want a conversation...not that we
don't want that. But why is that a good thing?
Steven: Okay, so the answer to this, and I want to start here: flow is optimal human
performance. So by its very nature, it is [hyper something at 4:40]. So I'm about to
give some of the reasons we want more flow. When people hear these for the first
time, they’re often shocked by the things that are coming out of my mouth. So, for
example, in flow...let's start kind of at a broad level. Researchers now believe flow
sits at the heart of almost every athletic championship, gold medal, world
championship that's ever been won. It accounts for major, major, major scientific
breakthroughs and significant progress in the arts. McKenzie and Company, the
business researchers, did a 10-year study of top executives in flow. They find top
executives are 5 times more productive in flow than out, so that is not 5%, 10%.
That is a 500% increase in productivity. It means you can go to work on Monday,
spend Monday in flow, take the rest of the week, and get as much done as your
steady state peers.
Steven: And we can talk about why all this happens later. Flow massively jacks up
learning as well. So in studies run by [DARPA at 5:44] on military snipers when they
introduce flow artificially, and we can talk about how that happens later. They found
snipers in flow learned 230% faster than normal. Advanced brain monitoring in
Carlsbad, California, a researcher named Chris Burke, who just did a TED Talk on
this. You can see her TED Talk. It's floating out there. They induced flow artificially.
This time, they used neuron-feedback, and they got 500% increases in learning. So
to put this in perspective: you've heard about the 10,000 hours needed for mastery.
Flow cuts it in half. Creativity. Creativity is, whether you're talking about 21st
century skills, which the list of all the skills our kids need to survive in today's
world, and this was created by 400 top researchers. Creativity tops the list. IBM just
did a global survey of the most important characteristic in a CEO. 1500 top
executives from all over the world responded that creativity was number 1. The
problem: we have no idea how to train up creativity. It's a black box. Flow massively,
massively amplifies creativity in a couple of ways that are worth pointing out. First
of all, this is where the numbers get a little perplexing and complicated. Australian
researchers just ran a study where they gave people a very complicated brainteaser.
40 people, nobody could solve it. Then they induced flow artificially and concretely
actually. 23 people solved the problem. In research done in my organization, The
Flow Genome Project, this is just a broad survey and it's a preliminary study, so
don't quote this as hard data. But we have been quantifying how much...because 23
people solved the problem out of 40 people. That's a weird working number, right?
We wanted to know what percentage creativity gets jacked up in flow. Our research
suggests 700%. People are 7 times as productive in flow. And the coolest part, and
this is really important. Teresa Amabile at Harvard discovered that it's not just
during the state that creativity gets jacked up. The extra creativity outlasts the state
itself, suggesting that flow trains the brain to be more creative, and we kind of
understand how that would work as well. So here's this skill that is fundamental
that nobody knows how to teach, and flow actually trains up the brain in creativity.
These are, by the way, just a couple of things. You have optimal performance.
Everything gets jacked up: physical abilities, mental abilities. So you're stronger in
flow. You're more courageous. Your muscles react faster. All that stuff physically.
You feel less pain in flow. Some studies: strength jacks up 15% depending. There's
reasons for that as well. So optimal performance. Everything goes through the roof.
There is literally, as far as anybody can tell, nothing you can do on earth to optimize
performance better than getting into flow.
Interviewer: Okay. So wow, first of all.
Steven: The numbers are gaudy and if you don't understand what's going on, we can
talk about the neurobiology and it starts to make sense. But you hear those
statistics, and it's just kind of mind-blowing.
Interviewer: Right. There's something there I want to really get to actually. But first
of all, just to visualize this, this is really making me think. I just want to give this
visual to people. The Spider-Man movie that was with Tobey Maguire, when he first
gets his powers. I don't know if you've seen this or not. The bully comes to get him
and there's a spitball flying at him, and he senses it. He moves out of the way. The
guy is about to punch him, and he does this backbend. All of those faculties sort of
come to life. I do realize that, sort of in hindsight, there have been times when I've
felt similar. Not to that level. But experiences such as that motorcycle accident.
Creativity is what I want to talk about for a second. So it's interesting that you say
that creativity is the number one trait that people are saying that they need. What
I've found, and I've had a lot of these conversations now, and I remember talking
about this specifically with one of the other interviewees. Creativity, I feel like, sort
of our natural state in a lot of ways. Like, we have to be creative. Not that it's innate,
but we have to be creative in most ways. I don't think that we were sort of
biologically designed to do financial forecasting or analytical stuff necessarily, and
that's something that needs to be trained. And I feel like that obfuscates our ability
to be creative in a lot of ways.
Steven: Well, okay, so the big problem with creativity is: under normal conditions,
when you're trying to problem solve, the brain will recruit very close neural
networks. So these are neurons located in the general vicinity of each other. This is
really great for logical problem solving. If you're trying to figure out what to get your
dad for Christmas or if you should take a new job or those kinds of things:
phenomenal. It's exactly what you want. Creativity, and we know this, is always the
product of novel information bumping into old ideas to create something utterly
new. So you need a number of things for this. You need: a high degree of novel
information coming in and you need the brain, by the way, to be open to taking this
information. So Daniel Conoman won a Nobel Prize talking about our cognitive bias,
including [confirmation or complication at 11:14] bias. However, [my information at
11:15] says that we believe what we already believe. And what this literally means
at a neurological level is that the brain is taking, studies vary, but it's like 400 billion
inputs a second. It's massive, massive, massive information. Consciousness, what
you're actually perceiving, they say is 2,000 [something at 11:35]. We don't know if
those are exact, but we do know that the reduction: 400 billion to 2,000? That's how
significant it is. So when we talk about confirmation bias, what we mean is: if you
don't already believe something, chances are the information coming in is going to
get disregarded, right? So you're not going to get that novel information. That's part
of the problem. The other problem is: to get the old ideas, you don't want to search
local networks, right? You want to search far flung networks. You're trying to come
up with something creative. Suddenly what your grandmother told you when you
were 5-years-old, that could play a difference. That could be the old idea that hooks
up with the new idea that creates something totally new. You need very
specific...that's called lateral thinking, by the way. You need very specific conditions
to get the brain to search the far databases. Those are the conditions that are
produced by flow. So flow does a number of things. It enhances your basic sensor
perceptions. You're taking in more information per second, so you have greater
access to novelty, greater chance. It lowers a lot of your fear thresholds, your inner
critic gets shut off, a lot of these things, so you're more open to that information.
You're less susceptible to confirmation bias. Simultaneously, neurochemically and
because of the brain waves involved in flow, you are searching later databases. And
your pattern recognition system, which is the ability to link ideas together, is also
jacked up. The neurochemicals that show up in flow lower signal to noise ratios in
the brain, so we notice more patterns. And they expand the database search by the
pattern recognition system, so it literally surrounds creativity and all of these other
component parts of creativity. Risk-taking is also another thing because you're going
to-- creativity in most definitions is the creation of something useful, which means
you have to present it to the world. And that requires risk taking and our ability to--
we're more courageous in flow for a lot of different reasons. So it basically
surrounds all aspects of creativity and elevates them. And I don't know of anything
else that does this.
Interviewer: Yeah, that's fascinating because I know that people tend to be more
creative when they're tired because they're less inhibited. So that's just one pieces
of that puzzle that you're talking about.
Steven: Yeah. So that's a brain wave thing. When you're waking consciousness, brain
is in beta waves: very fast, you know, very quick moving. And what happens in beta
is thoughts pop up and we attach to them. We get stuck on that thought. Close neural
networks again. When we start to drift off to sleep, when we get off to daydreaming,
that's alpha waves, right? Flow takes place on the borderline between alpha and
theta. Theta is only accessible during....you know, if you've got 20 years of
meditation training or you're in that hypnogogic state right before you're falling
asleep when [something at 14:23], that's where flow takes place. So the reason
you're talking about people being tired, in flow you're getting all those same brain
wave effects but you're not tired, right? So you're not low on resources. Your
resources are actually jacked up, so you have that same ability but amplified in
really specific ways.
Interviewer: So before we talk about how you could induce this, are there people
who are naturally inclined to experience greater levels of flow?
Steven: There are a number of different answers to that questions?
Interviewer: Are there environmental factors?
Steven: I kind of have to answer both of your questions at once. We now know that
there are 15 so-called flow triggers. These are preconditions that bring on more of
the state. There are 3 environmental triggers. There are 3 psychological triggers. So
external triggers, environmental triggers, internal triggers, psychological triggers.
There is a share formed of flow known as group flow. This is really common in start-
ups, right? Everybody gets into flow states together. You can accomplish
tremendous things in an afternoon. There are a lot of people, by the way, that thing
start-up success and failure… one of the major divisions..is how much flow a start-up
team can produce. There's data to back that up. But if you've ever seen a 4th quarter
comeback game of football, where a team can't do anything for the first 3 quarters,
and suddenly it looks like you're watching ballet and it's not even football because
everybody's so on the same page. And they know exactly where they're supposed to
be. That's always group flow in action.
Interviewer: Or I'm thinking, like, a seal regimen. A navy seal.
Steven: Absolutely. Absolutely. And in Rise of Superman, my new book that really
deals with all this stuff, I talk about the Red Bull Air force, which is a team of
skydivers who... if you saw the movie Transformers 3, they did all the base-jumping
sequences. Those were things that nobody had ever done before. Most of them were
considered impossible. They did, like, 11 of them together. The team talks about
being in group flow. One of the things that happens in group flow, and again we can
talk about why this happens, but there's almost a psychic connection. And a lot of
that has to do with sensory perception and pattern recognition, but in the Red Bull
Air force, they were flying so close to one another, they had to be able to read
emotion in the back of each other's shoes because that's what they were staring at.
They were in this triangle formation. And the pattern recognition system got trained
up so well that they could pull this off. So there are 10 social triggers that bring on
group flow. There's also 1 creative trigger. Now, that is where we are today. We also
know, for example, there are lots of different onramps into flow. So as an endurance
athlete, you can ride pain and exhaustion into flow. High-risk athletics is another
really, really big trigger. So there's high consequences, high-risk sport. But you can
take ride [something at 17:24] into the zone. There's a flow-based [altruism] base
known as helper's high that is the same thing. So you can come in any different way.
The people who are best at this in the world, and this is kind of where Rise of
Superman comes into play, you asked for example. And I should tell you this. This is
the most useful thing. If you look at action adventure sports: surfing, skiing, rock
climbing, etc., etc. as a data set, what you see over the past 30 years is something
incredible. You see near exponential growth in [something at 18:01] human
performance. That's performance when [something at 18:02]. Nothing like this has
ever happened before. Sports performance is slow, it's steady, it's linear. You plot it
on a graph. You get a curve that looks like this. You don't get the giant u-shape,
exponential shape. In other words: at no point in history does athletic performance
quintuple in a decade. That's exactly what's happening in action adventure sports.
Let me just give you one example. Surfing is a thousand year-old sport. From 400 AD
to 1996, the biggest wave anybody had ever surfed was 25 feet. We're not pushing
into waves over 100 feet, right? This kind of change is happening all across action
adventure sports. The reason why it's happening, and we can again go into greater
detail if you want... because of a number of things shifted back in the late 80's, early
90's, action sport athletes now live in a universe that is packed with all 15 of these
flow triggers. It's the most concentrated example of this we've yet seen. So these
athletes are getting into flow. And all of these things sort of happened by intuitive
necessity. The ground lifted so much in action sports that the upper levels just got so
crazy. If these people weren't getting into flow to perform, they were ending up in
the hospital or dead. So it was absolutely intuitive necessary, and they just drove in
this direction naturally, which is important. It means that we will intuitively push
ourselves in this direction if you can kind of listen to yourself. You can do it
Interviewer: That makes sense.
Steven: The reason these people got so much flow was because they surrounded
themselves with flow triggers. But it's also important to point out...it's worth saying.
This quote is in Rise of Superman. It was given to me by a man named Reese Jones'
who's one of the inventors of the Internet. That little blue wire in your phone line
that carries your DSL signal? That's his. So Reese has been around Silicon Valley for
freaking ever. One of the things he said to me was, "Look, if you look at what built
the high-tech industry: network design, circuit design, and software design... you
can't do any of these things really, really well without flow." So if you're looking for a
non-athletic example of what happens when people start pulling all these flow
triggers frequently, Silicon Valley is not a bad place to start.
Interviewer: Okay. Right. I can imagine, you know, a hacker getting deep into code
trying to get into an infrastructure of some sort...that makes sense. On the creative
side it makes sense too, of course. I still want to talk about how you induce it, but
what are those triggers? Can we go over what those triggers are?
Steven: Sure can. I'm going to take a 2-minute pause to get coffee and let in my dogs,
and then I'll be back.
Steven: So the 15 flow triggers. Let's just start with the environmental triggers,
which are what are utilized so well by the action adventure sports athletes. And
we'll talk about how to hack each of them if you don't want to risk your life like an
action sport athlete. So the first of them we talked about. It's high consequences,
right? This is really simple. Flow follows focus, so everything we're going to talk
about trigger-wise, these are all ways to catch your attention and hold your
attention, right? And we are hardwired biologically to do this in certain ways rather
than others, so flow triggers depend on those ways. High consequences obviously
catch our attention. We're mortal creatures. We don't like to die. We're going to pay
attention. The important thing about the high consequences is what you really want
is dopamine. The neurochemical dopamine shows up whenever we take a risk. So
under the hood, what you're trying to get is the brain to release dopamine. The good
news here is: risk releases dopamine, but it doesn't have to be physical risk. You can
hack physical risk. You can take emotional risk, social risk, creative risk, intellectual
risks. And it's all so different. If we're talking about a world-class surfer, they've got
to paddle into a 50-foot wave to trigger this. But if you're the shy guy, all you've got
to do is walk across the room and talk to the pretty gal to pull this trigger. It's a lot
simpler and it depends on who you are and what your risk level is. You asked
earlier, "Are their genetic preconditions that lead to this?" There are sensation
seekers. These are people who are born with low-functioning dopamine receptors
so they tend to produce more of it or seek it out. Those kinds of things could help
pulling this trigger, but there are other things that can help with other triggers. High
consequences is just one. The other 2 things that action adventure sports are
depending on so heavily: the first one is a rich environment. Rich environment is a
fancy way of saying lots of novelty, lots of unpredictability, and lots of complexity.
All 3, again, release dopamine. Dopamine is 1 of 5 neurochemicals released in flow,
but it's very fundamental to triggering the deeper forms of the state. So one of the
things that's happening with action adventure sport athletes is they're getting into
macro-flow states far more, and it's because of these 3 triggers: rich environment,
lots of novelty, lots of complexity, lots of unpredictability. All release dopamine. All
really catch and hold our attention. We've all seen this, by the way. Everyone who
has ever experienced awe where you see a beautiful sunset and you get so sucked in,
reality seems to pause for just a second. That's the front edge of a flow state. That's
beginning of a time dilation and the focus. It shows up in deeper flow experiences.
So we've all pulled this rich environment trigger in our daily lives. Go see an IMAX
movie. You can pull this trigger. It's pretty easy. The last one is deep embodiment.
This is going to be really familiar to you because you do yoga. Deep embodiment is a
really fancy way of saying, "We are paying attention to all of our senses and all of
our sensory streams at once." So it's not just out 5 sense. It's proprioception and
vestibular awareness. Balance and body position in space. We are paying attention
to all of these streams at once. Why do action adventure sports pull this trigger so
frequently? Because action adventure sports are packed with zero g's, multiple g's,
and polyaxle rotation, rotation around one's middle. We're gravity-bound creatures.
We don't tend to experience multiple g's, zero g's, and polyaxle rotation. So when
you do, it grabs your attention system and says, "Hey, wait a minute! You're doing
weird stuff. Pay attention here!" But you can train up the deep embodiment trigger
just simply through learning through doing. So, for example, [Montessori]
education... a lot of flow research has been run in Montessori schools because they
pull tremendous amounts of flow. In fact, a lot of people believe that the tremendous
success in Montessori education, the fact that Montessori kids tend to outperform all
other kids on any test you could possibly give them--
Interviewer: I didn't know that.
Steven: Yeah, there's now, in Silicon Valley, they talk about the Montessori mafia.
There are so many CEOs, the Google kids across the boards, who came out of
Montessori education. It goes on and on, but there was an article. I think it was in
The Wallstreet Journal called "The Montessori Mafia" that was really famous about
all this. Kevin [something], who's at the University of Utah in education research and
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when they went looking for really high flow environments,
one of the things they focused on was Montessori education. Why? Couple of
reasons: one) it's built around 90-minute learning periods of uninterrupted
concentration, so they give the kids a 90-minute deep dive into whatever they're
focused on. Uninterrupted concentration needed for flow. They also emphasize
learning for doing. They call Montessori education 'embodied education', so it pulls
that deep embodiment trigger. So you can do this any which way. Training yoga
trains up all your sensory systems in this way. There's a certain kind of Zen
meditation where you focus on all your sensory inputs. That trains this up. Even
doing something as simple as driving to work in unusual ways or eating your meal
with the wrong hand, it will just catch your attention and train up the system. The
idea is you want to do all these little, tiny tricks. These are not flow hacks. These are
just little tricks that will train up your ability to tap the deep embodiment trigger. So
you want to take a multi-pronged approach to it. We're not going to go too crazy
into the social triggers or the creative triggers because they're complicated. In the
book, Rise of Superman, it takes 50-60 pages to explain. But let's also jump into the
psychological triggers because these are also important. There are 3 psychological
triggers that matter to everybody. The first is known as the challenge skills
balanced. So flow requires massive amounts of attention. Remember when I said
that flow research goes all the way back to the 1870's? One of the first experiments
ever run was by a guy named Wilhelm Wundt, who was the godfather of
experimental psychology. The first experimental psychologist. One of his first
experiments, he was hired by a beer brewery in Germany to find out if there is a
perfect amount of bitterness in beer, right? What he discovered is it doesn't really
matter whether it's bitterness or pain or noise or sound or any other input, that
there is an area where we pay the most attention to it. So if you don't have enough of
a stimulus, you're below the threshold. You're bored. You're not paying attention. If
you have too much, you jump over into the fight or flight response and all you want
to do is run away from this stimulus. And there's this middle area, what they call the
Wilks Dodson Curve or now the flow channel. The flow channel exists between
anxiety and boredom when there's a perfect balance between challenge and skills.
What is that balance? We need the challenge to be slightly harder than the skills we
bring to the table. Actually, people have tried to quantify this and the general
thinking is that it's 4% harder. So whatever you're trying to do, you pay the most
attention when it is 4% harder than the skills you bring to the table. Now this is
really critical information for the people who are looking to trigger flow and the
reason is this: for super high achievers, guys such as yourself, you're going to blow
by 4% without even noticing. You’re going to go for 15% You're going to push
yourself so hard that you're coming out of the sweet spot for flow, and what you
really need to do is dial it back and become more consistent. Because what happens
when you go for 15%, you work really, really hard and usually get your butt kicked.
And then you scale it way back, below 4%, until you kind of get it up again. Then you
shoot past it. Most people don't go for that. People who are underachievers or, you
know, less inclined to take risk, 4% is difficult. The point to where you start to get
really uncomfortable. You're not comfortable at 4%. You are uneasy.
Interviewer: I'm sorry to interrupt, but what is 4% harder? Am I going to run 4%
Steven: Well, so let's take running. When I'm trying to use running to induce flow
when I'm running a couple of times a week... it depends on what season it is and
what sport I'm playing. Usually, I will either go 4% longer, so I'll add another
quarter mile in or I will try to lower my time. So if yesterday, I ran 9-minute miles,
today I'm going to try to run 8 minute and 50 second miles, right? Enough that I'm
uncomfortable, not something ridiculous. And, by the way, it is very hard to figure
out where that is and it individually differs. And it probably individually differs in
the activity. I've been skiing my whole life. It's much easier for me to go up 6%, 7%
harder in skiing and still be in that sweet spot because I've got more riding. I've got
a long history there. But maybe something I've never done before: maybe 1% or 2%,
so it varies, totally changes, and it's not fixed. This 4% is a back of the envelope
Interviewer: No, no. I think it's very interesting because you're making me think of,
like, in the movie Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger where he basically
says that the 12th rep is the one that matters. That's the one that makes the
Steven: By the way, I've spent a lot of years lifting weights because I weight 119
pounds when I came out of high school and I was the same height. So as an athlete, I
was breaking bones all the time. I had to put muscle around it. I found the exact
same thing. I found with lifting weight that you do 12 reps instead of 10 reps. I
added in a fourth set. Most people do 3 sets. I was doing a fourth of 5 reps. And I
agree. That was the difference maker because that was the one that pushed me into,
"I'm really uncomfortable, and this is really hard." So that's the challenge skills ratio.
The other 2 psychological triggers are immediate feedback and clear goals. And, by
the way, challenge skill ratio, immediate feedback, and clear goals... anybody who is
familiar with Expert Performance Theory, the work of Anders Ericcson, any of that
stuff... read Malcolm Gladwell's books... these are the same things. Csik set me high,
did the original research on flow. They have since been incredibly well validated in
Expert Performance Theory and are now kind of the foundation of Expert
Performance Theory, so it's the same thing. There are differences. The flow research
tells us that the experts have kind of screwed up a couple of things, and we can talk
about that. One of them is clean goals. Where this goes awry is most people don't
realize that you're hacking attention. They think, "Oh, it's Expert Performance
Theory. The goals have to be the emphasis. The emphasis is 'what am I going to
achieve?' because this is Expert Performance Theory." That's not the case. You're
trying to catch your brain's attention and hold it. Clear goals are important so you
know what you're doing. You don't have to wonder what to do next. You know
exactly what you're doing at any point, and you know what success looks like. So
most people screw this up by focusing on the goals. And the problem is: that pulls
attention out of the present. It pulls it into the future. We've all seen this happen
when a punter or field goal kicker missed the last second field goal. They've made it
a million times. It's a 30-yard ship shot, and yet the height of the moment, what
could happen, the goal, pulls them--
Interviewer: They choke. That's when they choke.
Steven: They choke, right? Oftentimes, the clear is more important than the goals.
Know exactly what it is that you're trying to achieve in the now. Forget so much the
big thing later. So that's a little tip on clear goals. Immediate feedback is kind of an
extension of this. We get the best performance when we get immediate feedback
from the environment. Why do action adventure sports athletes hack flow so easily?
Because "The mountain," as Paul Petzoldt once said, "provides immediate feedback."
You don't set that edge on a ski on the top of a [something at 12:56], you're going to
end up on a face-first death slide to the bottom, right? Doctors are a great example.
Doctors, as a general rule, get their skills declined over time after medial school, and
the only category of doctors where this doesn't happen is surgeons. Why? Because
you screw up in surgery, patient dies, that's immediate feedback. They get better
over time. Everybody else's skills decline over time. That's a scary thing to know but
it's really true. There's a reason why, by the way, 45% of the time when you go to
the doctor, they make a misdiagnosis. That's one of the reasons.
Interviewer: Well, that's also one of the reasons Western medicine is not
particularly good at treating chronic conditions, I would say.
Steven: I agree with that. I absolutely agree with that. This is a sense of those flow
triggers. I'm not going to go too deep into all the other ones. They take too much
time. They're in Rise of Superman in great, great detail.
Interviewer: Yeah, I want everyone to read it. Believe me.
Steven: The most important thing people need to know here is: these triggers are
available to anyone. And this is another key detail: flow is ubiquitous. When
Csikszentmihalyi sent me to his global study, this was one of the first findings
because he started out looking at experts. He looked at dancers and rock climbers
and surgeons and chess players, and of course he found lots of flow. And then he
went, "Okay, that's great. Those are the experts. We knew that." Abraham Maslow
proved the same thing back in the 40's. He found that flow is a commonality among
all highly successful people. We knew this. Then Csikszentmihalyi decided to expand
this study. He talked to Navajo sheepherders, Italian grape farmers, Japanese
teenage motorcycle gang members, elderly Korean women, Detroit assembly line
workers. All across the board, flow showed up. It was always the signature of perfect
performance and [sensations].
Interviewer: So I'm just curious. When you mentioned the Australian study with the
really hard problem and you said they crudely induced flow?
Steven: We talked a little bit about brain waves earlier, right? Let's talk about 2
other things that produce flow. We talked about neurochemicals. Flow is a very
complicated cocktail of neurochemicals. Norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin,
endorphins, and [something at 15:20] all show up in various points in the state.
Those 5 chemicals...these are the most potent reward chemicals the brain produces.
They all enhance performance, but these are all extremely addictive chemicals.
Cocaine is widely considered the most wildly addictive drug on earth. All that
happens when you snort cocaine is it causes the brain to release dopamine, right?
Endorphins are opiates: morphine, heroin. Except the most common endorphin in
the brain is 100 times more powerful that medical morphine. [Something at 15:55]
is the same psychoactive as THC, marijuana. Norepinephrine is speed. Serotonin is
ecstasy. You can't cocktail these drugs on the street. I mean, besides the fact that
you're going to end up dead or in a coma, that kind of thing, it doesn't work. Cocaine
will always swamp ecstasy. You won't get the effect. You'll only get the negatives.
Flow produces all of these things naturally, which is why the state is so addictive.
They call flow the source code of intrinsic motivation, meaning once an activity
starts producing flow, you are compelled to do more of this. We've also seen this in
action: surfers. Not known as the most responsible group of people on earth, yet if
it's overhead glassy tubes breaking off the point in Malibu, they’re out there at 4:30
in the morning getting into clammy wetsuits and freezing water to surf. We see this
all over. Coders who are living on Doritos and Diet Coke for 4 days at a time. We've
seen what this looks like, right?
Interviewer: Rock climbers climbing without a rope.
Steven: Rock climbers climbing without rope. So those are the neurochemicals.
That’s sort of what they do. The other thing, and this is the key thing that you need
to know to answer your question. The old idea that we've had for most of the 20th
century is that we only use a small portion of our brain, and so optimal performance
flow must be all of our brain firing at all cylinders. Turns out we had it exactly
backwards. Flow is caused by what is known as 'transient', meaning temporary
'hypo-frontality'. Hypo, the opposite of hyper, means to slow down or deactivate.
Frontality is quick shorthand for the prefrontal cortex, the portion of your brain
right behind your forehead that houses all of your higher cognitive function, your
executive function. So this portion of the brain shuts down in flow. Why does your
sense of self disappear in flow? Because the portion of your brain that generates the
sense of self shuts down in flow. So, for example, when your dorsal lateral prefrontal
cortex shuts down, that is the portion of the brain that handles self-monitoring and
impulse control. It's your inner critic. It shuts off in flow. We feel this as liberation.
One of the reasons creativity goes up so much in flow is because the portion of our
brain that's always judging ourselves and saying, "Oh, that's a bad idea. Don't do
that. Don't do that. Don't do that," is turned off. So we're more courageous. We're
more creative. Time. Why does time get wonky in flow? Because time is calculated in
the prefrontal cortex. Parts of it goes away. We can no longer separate past from
present future. We're plunged into what psychologists call 'the elongated nap'. So
how we induce flow artificially...right now there are 2 main ways people are playing
with. One is using neurofeedback. This is usually based on brain waves, right? So we
know flow is found on the borderline of alpha and theta, so we associate a tone with
alpha and theta. We associate another tone with beta, and things like that. And we
learned to just kind of aim towards the tone and move our brain waves in that
direction. So when I said they kind of crudely induced flow, in the Australian study,
they used transcraniomagnetic stimulation. They basically took a giant magnetic
post and knocked out the prefrontal cortex. So it is a very crude measure. It does not
trigger any of the neurochemical releases as far as we know, and it doesn't seem to
do anything brain waves. All it does is knock out the prefrontal cortex. So it's crude,
but it's effective. By the way, let me just pull back one level and explain while this is
happening. The prefrontal cortex shuts down because the brain has a fixed energy
button. It's always trying to conserve energy. It's a huge energy hog, right? It uses
20% of our energy but is only 2% of our body weight. Anything the brain can do to
conserve energy, it wants to do. So when we start paying more attention, as focus
goes up and attention takes huge amount of energy, the brain is saying, "How can I
save energy?" What it does is it switches from conscious process, the so-called
explicit system, which is slow and very energy-intensive, to subconscious
processing: implicit system, which is very, very, very fast and very, very energy
efficient. So that's what's going on in flow. It's actually an efficiency exchange. Flow
is interesting because we never really get to see the subconscious work unless we're
in flow. And people talk about being in flow, and they'll always talk about... and I'll
talk about this. As a write, I’ll sit down, get into a flow state, and I'll write 10 pages in
an hour. I'll be like, "Oh, my God. I don't remember writing it. It didn't even feel like I
did it." That's because my conscious eye really wasn't involved in the process
because my subconscious was driving the bus.
Interviewer: And I've experienced that. I don't consider myself to be a particularly
talented writer, but I have to do a lot of writing in what I do. I write for various
newspapers, blogs, my blog, and my book is coming out. I can only write after
9o'clock at night. I found that out about myself. And it's a weird thing. I know it so
well that if I found myself with a free hour now after this conversation of hours and I
had to write something and it's 10:30 in the morning, I wouldn't even attempt it.
Something clicks. 9o'clock and by 10'oclock, like you said, I've written 6 or 7 pages
and it's done.
Steven: So you bring up actually a really kind of critical point that is worth
mentioned further in terms of flow. My partner, Jamie Wheal, who is the executive
director of the Flow Genome Project, always says that a lot of what we need to know
about flow we learned in kindergarten. So what he means by that is your body has
natural cycles, natural rhythms, right? And when you are trying to hack attention,
hack flow, pay attention to them. You're what they call an owl, right? An extreme
owl. I'm an extreme lark. I'm the exact opposite. I get up at 3:30, 4o'clock in the
morning because I can write and pay the most attention at 3:30 in the morning until
about 8:30 in the morning. That's when I'm at my best, so that's when I do most of
my writing. And you've got to kind of figure out where your sweet spots are in all
Interviewer: Well, when I talk about that in my work as well, for me, I'm up at 4:30
on most mornings also, but I have 3 very young children. So that would not be an
optimal time, obviously, for me to do that. When I was doing Iron Man training, I
was on the bike at 4:15 in the morning and that was good. It's different things, but I
find it goes way beyond that. I have found, and I have no idea why this is, but I don't
do very well on the phone in the afternoon. Like, I'm not myself. I think I come off as
a little aggressive. Like, conversations on the phone with me don't go very well in
the afternoon, and I've noticed that they do much better in the morning. I'm much
more into it. I don't know why that is, but I think that's part of it.
Steven: I'll give you a flip example for me. As a general rule, the late afternoon
(1o'clock to 4o'clock), I feel like my energy is at my lowers. I don't really try to do
creative stuff there, but as an athlete, that is absolutely the sweet spot for flow. It
doesn't matter how revved up, fired up I am when I get to the hill in the morning to
ski or mountain bike or whatever I'm doing. I can work really hard to try to get into
flow before lunch... not going to happen. It always tends to happen in the afternoon,
and I think a lot of that is my fear level in the high-risk sport is high enough that I
need to exhaust my brain. So I need the whole morning of endurance stuff to bring
myself to the edge of flow. I have to exhaust all that stuff in myself to get myself to
kick into flow, which is totally the opposite of myself as a creative writer. It works
really well for me because I can do my writing in the morning and then do sports
stuff in the afternoon.
Interviewer: That's so interesting. We're just about out of time here now. This has
been so, so fascinating for me. So I thank you for sharing and simplifying this to
some extent. People have to read the book. It comes out in March, right?
Steven: March 4th.
Interviewer: March 4th. Okay, so by the time this airs, it will be out. People really
need to read it to find out what the rest of those triggers are.
Steven: Absolutely. And more, right? There’s a lot of flow stuff I'm not giving away.
Interviewer: So, Steven, thank you so much for your time. That was mind-boggling,
so thanks again.
Steven: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.