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FLOW & PEAK PERFORMANCE

Steven Kotler
www.stevenkotler.com

Researchers define flow as an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we


feel our best and perform our best. Some of us know this state by other names
runners high or being in the zone or being unconsciousbut whatever the lingo, the
experience is unforgettable.
If youve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so involved in a work
project that all else is forgotten, then youve tasted this 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. All aspects of performance go through the roof.
We call this experience flow because that is the sensation conferred. In flow, every
action, each decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. Its high-speed
problem solving; its being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.
Without the flow state, explains skateboarding legend Danny Way, without that
enhanced focus, there would be no stepping up my gamethat state is the foundation
of stepping up the game.
150 years of research backs up such claims. A 10 year McKinsey study, for example,
found top executives are 5 timesi.e. 500 percentmore productive in flow. In studies
run by the U.S. military, snipers in flow learned between 200-500 percent faster than
normal. Creativity gets a 7x boost. And this list goes on.
Yet theres a rub. Flow might be the most desirable state on earth; its also the most
elusive. While seekers have spent centuries trying, no one has found a reliable way to
reproduce the experience, let alone with enough consistently to radically accelerate
performance. But this is not the case with action and adventure sports athletes.
In fact, so good have these athletes become at harnessing flow that, over the course of
the past 25 years, they have utilized the state to push the limits of the possible faster
and farther than ever before in history. In this evolutionary eye-blink, in sports like
surfing, skiing, skateboarding, rock
climbing, mountain biking, etc.,
athletes have achieved nearexponential growth in ultimate
human performancethats
performance when life or limb is on
the line.

When youre pushing the


limits of ultimate human
performance, the choice is
stark: its flow or die.

Thats staggering. Nothing like this has ever happened before. So the question is why is
it happening now?
The answer is simple. In all other activities flow is a luxury, but at the upper edges of
action/adventure sports, a fundamental necessity. The state is the only reason these
athletes are surviving the big mountains, big waves and big rivers. When youre pushing
the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: its flow or die.
Alongside the other researchers at the Flow Genome Project, I have spent the past 15
years working with these action and adventure sports athletes to figure out what
they're doing to harness flow so successfully and how to apply this information in all
domains in society.
And thats exactly what Im going to cover in this post

A Brief Introduction To Flow Hacking


Flow states have triggersi.e., pre-conditions that lead to more flow. There are 15 in
total and they fall into four categories--psychological, environmental, social and
creative. Well go into greater detail below, but there are two things to know right off the
bat.
First, flow follows focus. It is a state of total absorption. Thus, all 15 of these flow
triggers are ways of heightening and tightening attention.
Second, the reason todays action and adventure sports athletes are getting into flow
so successfully is because theyve built their lives around the state. Theyve packed
their lives with all 15 of these triggers.
Here they are and how to use them.

Environmental Triggers
Environmental triggersa.k.a. external triggers are qualities in the environment that
drive people deeper into the zone.
High Consequences is the first trigger. When theres danger lurking in the environment,
we dont need to concentrate extra hard to drive focus, the elevated risk levels do the
job for us. Since survival is fundamental to any organism, our brains first priority is to
scour all incoming information for any sign of a threat and focus intently upon it.
To hack the high consequence flow trigger, remember risk is always relative. While
some danger must be courted for flow, confrontations with mortality are not required.
In fact, even physical risk itself is optional. Take intellectual risks, social risks, creative
risks, emotional risks. A shy man need only cross the room to say hello to an attractive
woman to trigger this rush. In casual conversation, merely telling someone the truth
can serve the same purpose. To reach flow, explains Harvard psychiatrist New
Hallowell, one must be willing to take risks. The lover must lay bare his soul and risk
rejection and humiliation to enter this state. The athlete must be willing to risk physical
harm, even loss of life, to enter this state. The artist must be willing to be scorned and
despised by critics and the public and still push on. And the average personyou and
memust be willing to fail, look foolish, and fall flat on our faces should we wish to
enter this state.
A Rich Environment, the next environmental trigger, is a combination platter of novelty,
unpredictability and complexitythree elements that catch and hold our attention
much like risk. Novelty means both danger and opportunity. To our forbearers, a
strange scent in the wind could be prey or predator, but either way it paid to pay
attention. Unpredictability means we dont know what happens next, thus we pay extra

attention to what happens next. Complexity, when theres lots of salient information
coming at us at once, does more of the same.
Action and adventure athletes taste these experiences so often because nature is jam
packed with novelty, unpredictability and complexity. Rivers are living entities. Same
with the mountains and the waves. In places where anything can happen, a wandering
mind is a dangerous mind, thus rich environments automatically tighten focus and
drive flow.
And for those of us who want to take advantage of this fact, yet have no interest in
action and adventure sports? Simple: Seek out complexity, especially in nature. Go
stare at the night sky. Walk in the woods. If you cant find big nature, contemplate the
small. The reasons there are so many clichs about universes inside of dew drops is
because there are universes inside of dew drops. No dew to contemplate? Use
technology to induce awe: surf your city with Google Earth or go see an IMAX movie.
Deep Embodiment is a kind of total physical awareness. Fifty percent of our nerve
endings reside in our hands, feet, and face. We have five major senses. We also have
proprioception to detect our bodys position in space and vestibular awareness to help
us maintain our balance.
Action and adventure sports demand deep embodiment, says professional kayaker
Doug Ammons. Especially kayaking. Big rivers accelerate you in every direction at
once. This puts the vestibular system into overdrive. This isnt just your mind paying
more attentionsuddenly youre entire body is paying attention. When this happens, its
outside our conscious capabilities. There are no words. You are literally part of the
flow of the world.
If we want to pull the deep embodiment trigger in less extreme environments, then we
simply have to learn to pay attention to all these input streams in those environments.
This isnt hard. Zen walking meditation teaches an open-senses/all-senses awareness.
Balance and agility training (like playing hopscotch or running ladder drills) enhance
proprioception and vestibular awareness. Yoga, Tai Chi, and just about every martial art
blends both together. And if technology is more your speed, there are video games for
both Xboxs Kinect and Nintendos Wii that do the same.

Psychological Triggers
Psychological, or internal triggers, are conditions in our inner environment that create
more flow. Theyre psychological strategies for driving attention into the now.
Back in the 1970s, pioneering flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified clear
goals, immediate feedback, and the challenge/skills ratio, as the three most critical.
Lets take a closer look.
Clear Goals, our first triggers, tell us where and when to put our attention. When goals
are clear, the mind doesnt have to wonder about what to do and what to do nextit
already knows. Thus, concentration tightens, motivation heightens, and extraneous
information gets filtered out. Action and awareness start to merge, and were pulled
even deeper into now. Just as importantly, in the now, theres no past or future and a
lot less room for selfwhich are the three intruders most likely to yank us to the then.
This also tells us something about emphasis. When considering clear goals, most
have a tendency to skip over the adjective (clear) to get to the noun (goals). When told
to set clear goals, we immediately visualize ourselves on the Olympic podium, the
Academy Award stage, or Fortune 500 list, saying Ive been picturing this moment
since I was 15, and think thats the point.
But those podium moments can pull us out of the present. Even if success is seconds
away, its still a future event subject to hopes, fears and all sorts of now-crushing
distraction. Think of the long list of infamous sporting chokes: the dropped pass in the
final seconds of the Superbowl; the missed putt at the end of the Augusta Masters. In
those moments, the gravity of the goal pulled the participants out of the now; when,
ironically, the now was all they needed to win.

If creating more flow is the aim, then the emphasis falls on clear and not goals.
Clarity gives us certainty. We know what to do and where to focus our attention while
doing it. When goals are clear, meta-cognition is replaced by in-the-moment cognition,
and the self stays out of the picture.
Applying this idea in our daily life means breaking tasks into bite size chunks, and
setting goals accordingly. A writer, for example, is better off trying to pen three great
paragraphs at a time , rather than attempting one great chapter. Think challenging, yet
manageablejust enough stimulation to shortcut attention into the now, not enough
stress to pull you back out again.
Immediate Feedback, our next internal trigger, is another shortcut into the now. The term
refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect. As a focusing
mechanism, immediate feedback is something of an extension of clear goals. Clear
goals tell us what were doing; immediate feedback tells us how to do it better.
If we know how to improve performance in real time, the mind doesnt go off in search
of clues for betterment, we can keep ourselves fully present and fully focused and thus
much more likely to be in flow.
Of course, for action and adventure athletes, getting the feedback they need is
automatic. As National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) founder Paul Petzoldt once
said: In the mountains, feedback is instant. Same with the rivers, rocks and oceans. In
these environments, the laws of physics deliver instantaneous, unmediated feedback.
No judges, no scorecards, no review in the New York Times. Just cause and effect.
This built-in feedback is another reason extreme athletes have found flow so
frequently, but if were interested in pulling this trigger without help from the laws of
physics? No mystery here. Tighten feedback loops. Put mechanisms in place so
attention doesnt have to wander. Ask for more input. How much input? Well, forget
quarterly reviews. Think daily reviews. Studies have found that in professions with less
direct feedback loopsstock analysis, psychiatry and medicineeven the best get
worse over time. Surgeons, by contrast, are the only class of physician that improve the
longer theyre out of medical school. Why? Mess up on the table and someone dies.
Thats immediate feedback.

The Challenge/Skills Ratio the last of our internal flow triggers, is arguably the most
important. The idea behind this trigger is that attention is most engaged (i.e., in the
now), when theres a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our
ability to perform that task. If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the
challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention. Flow appears near the emotional
midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in whats scientists call the flow channel
the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch; not hard enough to make us
snap.
This sweet spot keeps attention locked in the present. When the challenge is firmly
within the boundaries of known skillsmeaning Ive done it before and am fairly certain
I can so again the outcome is predetermined. Were interested, not riveted. But when
we dont know whats going to happen next, we pay more attention to the next.
Uncertainty is our rocket ride into the now.

Social Triggers
There is also a collective version of a flow state known as group flow. This is what
happens when a bunch of people enter the zone together. If youve ever seen a fourth
quarter comeback in football, where everyone is always in the right place at the right
time and the result looks more like a well-choreographed modern dance than anything
that normally happens on the gridironwell thats group flow in action.

But its not just athletes who play this game. In fact, group flow is incredibly common in
startups. When the whole team is driving towards a singular purpose with incredible
speedagain, group flow in action.
Salim Ismail, former head of innovation at Yahoo turned Singularity University global
ambassador put it this way: Because entrepreneurship is about the non-stop
navigation of uncertainty, being in flow is a critical aspect of success. Flow states
allow an entrepreneur to stay open and alert to possibilities, which could exist in any
partnership, product insight or customer interaction. The more flow created by a
startup team, the higher the chance of success. In fact, if your startup team is not in a
near constant group flow state, you will not succeed. Peripheral vision gets lost and
insights don't follow.
So how to precipitate group flowthis is where social triggers come into play. These
triggers are ways to alter social conditions to produce more group flow. A number of
these social triggers are already familiar. The first three serious concentration; shared,
clear goals; good communication (i.e., lots of immediate feedback); are the collective
versions of the psychological triggers identified by Csikszentmihalyi.
Two more: equal participation and an element of risk (mental, physical, whatever), are
self-explanatory given what we already know about flow. The remaining five require a
little more information.
Familiarity, our next trigger, means the group has a common language, a shared
knowledge base and a communication style based on unspoken understandings. It
means everybody is always on the same page, and, when novel insights arise,
momentum is not lost due to the need for lengthy explanation.
Then theres blending egoswhich is kind of a collective version humility. When egos
have been blended, no ones hogging the spotlight and everyones thoroughly involved.
A sense of control combines autonomy (being free to do what you want) and
competence (being good at what you do). Its about getting to choose your own
challenges and having the necessary skills to sur- mount them.

Close listening occurs when were fully engaged in the here and now. In conversation,
this isnt about thinking about what witty thing to say next, or what cutting sarcasm
came last. Rather, its generating real time, unplanned responses to the dialogue as it
unfolds.
Always say yes, our final trigger, means interactions should be additive more than
argumentative. The goal here is the momentum, togetherness, and innovation that
comes from ceaselessly amplifying each others ideas and actions. Its a trigger based
on the first rule of improv comedy. If I open a sketch with, Hey, theres a blue elephant
in the bathroom, then No, theres not, is the wrong response. With the denial, the
scene goes nowhere. But if the reply is affirmative instead, Yeah, sorry, there was no
more space in the cereal cupboard well then that story goes someplace interesting.

Creative Triggers
Creativity
If you look under the hood of creativity, what you see is pattern recognitionthe brain's
ability to link new ideas togetherand risk-takingthe courage to bring those new
ideas into the world. Both of these experiences produce powerful neurochemical
reactions and the brain rides these reactions deeper into flow.
This means, for those of us who want more flow in our lives, we have to think different,
simple as that. Instead of tackling problems from familiar angles, go at them

backwards and sideways and with style. Go out of your way to stretch imagination.
Massively up the amount of novelty in your lifethe research shows that new
environments and experience are often the jumping off point for new ideas (more
opportunity for pattern recognition). Most importantly, make creativity a value and a
virtue.
This is exactly what action and adventure sports athletes did. Professional climber,
skier, photographer and filmmaker Jimmy Chin explains: When people think about
action and adventure sport athletes the first thingoften the only thingthey think
about is the physical risk involved. But Ive gotten to know and work with an extremely
diverse group of these athletesfrom new school freeskiers through grizzled 8,000meter-peak mountaineering veteransand Ive come to one conclusion about everyone,
myself included. The greatest athletes arent interested in the greatest risks. I mean,
sometimes theyre taken, sometimes not, but those physical risks are a by-product of a
much deeper desire to take creative risks. Dont be fooled by the danger. In action and
adventure sports, creativity is always the point.

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