Achieving The Rise Of Flow: An Interview With Steven Kotler

Ted Ligety

Two years before he stood on the Sochi Olympics podium with a gold medal around his neck, alpine skier Ted Ligety took a trip to Alaska.  There was no qualifying race or Team USA training session, but rather a heli-skiing trek in the Chugach Mountains with a film crew from Warren Miller Entertainment.  

The risk level was high, even for one of the best skiers in the world.  But that's what keeps the best on the knife's edge balance of skill and fear.  To survive requires being in the state of Flow.

"The Flow State is a place where the impossible becomes possible, where time slows down and a perfect moment becomes attainable," Director Max Bervy said    . "This film reveals what it is like to be completely immersed in the present ... completely immersed in the snow, in the mountains, and in the enjoyment of winter."

After a great performance, many athletes have described a feeling of being “in the zone.” In this state, they feel invincible, as if the game slowed down, the crowd noise fell silent and they achieved an incredible focus on their mission. What is this Superman-like state and how can players enter it when they most need it?

Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler, New York Times best-selling author and co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project, has spent over a decade studying Flow as experienced by dozens of unconventional action-adventure athletes. Unconventional in their live-in-the-moment, who-needs-10,000-hours attitudes, these athletes, including snowboarders, surfers and rock climbers, test the limits of their abilities with laser focus.  Anything less and their lives may be in danger.

Released last week, Kotler's new book, "The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance", breaks down the science of Flow and how each of us can learn to use it in our everyday life.

During a recent conversation, Steven and I discussed what all of this means for the future of athlete development.

Steven, congratulations on the release of your new book, The Rise of Superman.  Can you tell us a little about it and how you chose the title?

Steven Kotler: Thanks Dan, much appreciated. The book is about how action and adventure sports athletes have harnessed the peak performance state known as “flow” (being in the zone, runner’s high, etc.) to drive athletic progression faster and farther than at any other point in history. It’s truly remarkable. In the past 25 years, these athletes have achieved nearly exponential growth in ultimate human performance—that’s performance when life or limb is on the line. Thus, part of the “Superman” in the title refers to this astounding level of progression.

More importantly, flow science has advanced leaps and bounds in the past few decades. So we can use these athletes as case studies— we can figure out what they’re doing to harness this state so successfully and apply this knowledge across all domains in society. In that sense, The Rise of Superman could also be called The Rise of Everyone—meaning it’s a book about what might be possible for all of us.

Many athletes and coaches have heard something about Flow and “being in the zone”, but what is the most misunderstood component of it?

SK: There are a lot of misconceptions. One of the biggest is that flow can only be harnessed by top athletes. Not true at all. Flow is ubiquitous. It shows up anywhere, in anyone, provided certain initial conditions are met. So while researchers have found that flow underpins most gold medals and world championships, they also know it accounts for significant progress in the arts, science and business. In a ten year study by McKinsey, for example, top executives reported being 5 times more productive in flow.

Equally important is the fact that flow is no longer a black box of subjective experience. The science of flow stretches back a long time—almost 150 years—but most people have only heard about the first 130 years, where we were working out the psychology of the state. A lot has happened since then. Advances in brain imaging technologies like fMRI and EEG have allowed us to peak under the hood—we have begun to decode the neurobiology of flow. 

Describing the disconnect between the ubiquitous 10,000 hour theory of expert development and the life paths of many action sports athletes, you take us through the Moms, Musicians and Marshmallows conundrum.  David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, would argue that genetics plays a significant role in gaining mastery while Dr. Angela Duckworth would argue having “grit” or resilience with long-term commitment is the path to success.  How do those ideas mesh with flow?

SK: It’s a great question. For certain, both genetics and grit play a role in flow. On the genetics side, certain people may be born more predisposed to the state. Some people are born with the ability to focus more intently than others—ADHD is the extreme example here. Since flow always follow focus, this could be a big advantage. Flow also has lots of different on-ramps. Some people get into flow through athletic activity, or coding software, or through altruism, or creativity—the list goes on. Genetics may shape which on-ramp individuals prefer. That said, regardless of genetics, the science also shows that flow is ubiquitous. The state shows up in anyone, anywhere, provided certain initial conditions are met. In other words, we are all hardwired—biologically—for this experience.

On the grit side, we know from Carol Dweck’s work that grit requires a growth mindset which correlates with flow. In a really cool study of race car drivers over a race season, Dweck discovered that the winning drivers all had growth mindsets and experienced the most flow. To put this in slightly different terms, we know that flow requires people to constantly stretch their abilities and raise the challenge level. This means that anyone who is experiencing flow on a regular basis is constantly pushing themselves—and this would be totally impossible without grit.

Basketball players often know when a shot is going in from the split second it leaves their hand.  From your review of neuroscientist Leslie Sherlin’s research with EEG to measure an athlete’s decision making state, what would that player’s brain waves tell us about his feeling of certainty at that moment? 

SK:  In flow, we shift from the fast-moving beta wave of normal waking consciousness down to the far slower borderline between alpha and theta. Alpha is day-dreaming mode—when we slip from idea to idea without much internal resistance. Theta, meanwhile, only shows up during REM or just before we fall asleep, in that hypnogogic gap where ideas combine in truly radical ways. This helps us move through the decision-making process fluidly. It’s the difference between a ball player catching and shooting instinctively and one pausing a second between the catch and the shoot—letting the conscious mind intrude on an instinctive action—and the shot clangs off the backboard. What Sherlin’s research shows is that great athletes can hold themselves in this alpha/theta border, just exerting total control over their brains.

But the sense of certainty your talking about actually results from neurochemistry. In flow, among other neurochemicals, the brain releases dopamine and norepinephrine—both of which heighten focus and enhance pattern recognition. It’s this heightened pattern recognition that let’s a basketball player know a shot’s going in before the ball leaves their hand.

The Rise of Superman

How can Flow be integrated into our current youth team sports culture of structured practices and games?

SK: We now know that there are 17 “flow triggers”—these are preconditions that lead to more flow. Essentially, since flow follows focus all of these triggers are ways of driving attention into the now. The easiest way to create more flow in the lives of our children is to pack their activities with these triggers. This isn’t a new idea, by the way. Montessori education has been show to be an incredibly high flow environment built around a number of key flow triggers. Since we know that flow accelerates learning (in studies run by the military snipers in flow learned 230 percent faster than normal), this helps explain why Montessori kids usually outperform regularly educated kids on everything from academics to social skills.

Can you tell us more about the Flow Genome Project’s initiative and its goals?

SK: The goal at the Flow Genome Project is to help advance flow science and culture. We want to drive the research forward. We want to make flow a reliable, repeatable experience that anyone can access whenever they need.

Finally, can you give us a personal testimonial of how Flow has contributed to your success as a writer?

SK: I became a writer because of flow. Being creative with language drives me into this state. I chased that addiction into a career. And, in my career, flow has been a major subject in three of my books, but it’s also been the secret behind my success. My best articles, the best passages in my books, arguably the reason my books are bestsellers—it’s all stuff that was written in flow.  Which is funny, because one of the things that distinguishes flow is the feeling that someone else is driving the bus. I write something in a flow state and I’m not sure how it happened. Even though I understand the science, it still feels like magic. There are just huge chunks of my books that feel like they were written by someone else.

Steven, thank you very much and good luck with the book!