"The data is clear. Flow is the very thing that makes us come alive."
After studying top action sports athletes for over a decade and conducting extensive research on human performance for over twenty years, Steven Kotler, the award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author of The Rise of Superman, has gained insights about the elusive state of consciousness (flow) that athletes use to perform at the highest of levels.
Getting in the zone has produced some of the world’s most incredible achievements, yet it still remains a mystery of sorts. The book shares the findings of Kotler’s work on flow through the incredible stories of athletes in the action sports world. Kotler examines a few people in particular, including big wave surfing legend Laird Hamilton, snowboarder Jeremy Jones, and the Red Bull Air Force/skateboarding legend Danny Way. “Researchers now believe flow (more commonly known as being/getting ‘in the zone’) sits at the heart of almost every athletic championship, underpins major scientific breakthroughs, and accounts for significant progress in the arts,” writes Kotler. These athletes have done the impossible time and time again and would not have been successful in their achievements if it weren’t for their ability to get into flow.
While the majority of us aren’t professional action sport athletes, there is a lot to learn from them, particularly about one’s ability to get into a flow state when we need to the most. The book is a great blend of interesting stories and interviews, as well as the latest research on the topic of human performance.
"Most people live in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger."
Let’s begin by defining terms. “Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best. It is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided that certain initial conditions are met.” Flow has been this elusive “thing” that we hear more and more about, and usually in the context of sports. Many say that the topic of flow came into mainstream awareness in the 90’s with Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls basketball dynasty.
Kolter studies action sports athletes, which happen to be among the easiest to monitor the effects of getting into and performing in a peak flow state.
The reason for this is because of the immediate feedback loops and consequences if they do not achieve their desired goal, i.e. a skateboarder who crashes hard on a ramp trick or Michael Jordan missing a shot at the buzzer to lose the game. Danny Way explains it like this: “it’s either find the zone or suffer the consequences—there’s no other choice available.”
If you’re like me, you’re thinking this is all really interesting, however I’m not Michael Jordan nor am I an extreme sports athlete, so how can flow impact me and how do I get into that state? While the consequences for us may not be as severe, there are some common conditions and triggers for entering a flow state which I’ll explain below.
Conditions for flow
"No one ever has a bad time in a flow state."
Kolter begins to explore the conditions for flow with a story about Laird Hamilton, the famous big wave surfer, and how he used his flow state to conquer riding the giant waves of Teahupoo.
“Within this experience,” Kolter explains, “we discover three of the more curious and basic properties of flow: the profound mental clarity provided by the state; the emotional detachment that tends to accompany this clarity; and a hint of automatic nature – how one right decision always leads to the next right decision.” When you’re in the zone, all of those experiences combine to help propel you to doing great things.
Kolter names the three characteristics that are considered the top conditions for flow, courtesy of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the godfather of flow:
- Clear goals
- Immediate feedback
- Challenge/skill ration
If you’re able to set up an environment that provides those three conditions, you are on your way to entering your peak flow state.
Two flow hacks
"And the average person–you and me–must be willing to fail, look foolish, and fall flat on our faces should we wish to enter this state."
Among the biggest flow hacks are environment and risk. If we aren’t in an environment where risk is present then we will not enter the flow state and get the benefits of accelerated performance. The author clearly states that the risk does not need to be physical risk. For example, if public speaking is something that scares you, by merely doing the act, the same triggers occur in your brain, taking you one step closer to entering the zone.
Another simple flow hack is humility. Kolter quotes Dr. James Olds, who says “when you’re arrogant and egotistical, you’re shutting out complexity, novelty and unpredictability to preserve a distorted self-image.” What Dr. Olds is saying here is that having humility allows us to be open and more receptive to the information coming in and at us so that we’re learning, reacting and staying in the zone.
“What the world needs most is Superman. What the worlds needs most is us.”
The Rise of Superman by Steven Kolter is such a fascinating read that helps to peel back the research and data behind entering your peak performance state. For many of us, flow is an elusive state, however, with the awareness and insight to put ourselves into the environments that get us into our flow state, we can all enter that phone booth and transform from Clark Kent to Superman.