[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:12.0] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 2 million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the Self-Help for Smart People Podcast Network.
In this episode, we discuss how the possible becomes possible. We look at how to create paradigm-shifting breakthroughs, dig into the science and research at the frontier of peak human performance to understand what's at the core of nearly every gold medal and world championship; the powerful concept of flow. How do we create flow in our lives? How can we use it as a tool to become 400% more creative or learn skills 200% faster? We dig into this and much more with our guest, Steven Kotler.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how to make better decisions under conditions of uncertainty. We look at the worst call in the history of football, discussed examples from life, business, and even high-stakes poker to understand how to make the best possible decision in a world filled with unknowns.
What exactly is a good decision? Is that different from a good outcome? We look at this key question and uncover the wisdom hidden in the reality that these two things might be completely different. All of these and much more with our previous guest, Annie Duke.
Now, for our interview with Steven.
[0:03:01.3] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show, Steven Kotler. Steven is a New York Times best-selling author, award-winning journalist and the cofounder and director of research of the Flow Genome Project. His most recent work, Stealing Fire, was a national bestseller and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His work has been translated in over 40 languages and appeared in over 100 publications including the New York Times, The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and much more.
Steven, welcome to The Science of Success.
[0:03:28.9] SK: Matt, thanks for having me.
[0:03:29.8] MB: Well, we’ve very excited to have you on the show today. As I was kind of telling you in the preshow conversation, I’m a big fan of your work and I’ve been reading your books for a number of years. So it's great to have you on the show and kind of dig into some of the stuff you've been working on recently.
[0:03:42.8] SK: Thank you. It’s really nice you say.
[0:03:44.3] MB: So I want to start out with one of the ideas that you've written and talked about and I find really interesting, which is this kind of notion of creating paradigm-shifting breakthroughs. What exactly does that mean and how did you kind of come to the place of sort of thinking about those?
[0:04:00.6] SK: At sort of at the center of the work I do has always been a kind of a singular question, which is; what does it take to do the impossible? What I mean by that is what does it take to achieve paradigm-shifting breakthroughs, or huge kind of levels up and in-game, and this is cross domains, right? I was interested in sports, in science, in technology, in business, wherever people are taking on huge and significant challenges. That’s sort of where you find me, and usually what you see is whenever you see the impossible becoming possible, in my experience you see one of two things interacting, right? You see people leveraging and taking advantage of disruptive technology and you see people finding ways to extend human capability. So I tend to play at the intersection of those two things.
[0:04:50.2] MB: So I want to dig into that a little bit more. When you talk about this kind of idea of making the impossible become possible, and I know you’ve studied in many cases kind of worked alongside these people, like extreme athletes and really peak performers. Are these lessons that can actually be applied to sort of individual normal people or do they only really work for kind of extreme athletes and astronauts and these kind of top people?
[0:05:16.0] SK: Two-part answer, all right? I’m going to give you the user-friendly part one is, yes, of course. I mean, that's one of the amazing lessons of this kind of work. Bold, essentially – Abundance is a book about people solving impossible challenges in the world with technology. Bold is a book for how anybody can solve those challenges in the world of technology and build business around the ideas and such. Bold is the application of that stuff.
Rise of Superman looks at action, adventure sports athletes who are extending the bounds of physical possibility, redefining kind of the physical limits of those species, and it kind of breaks down a little of how. I think Steel and Fire gives you much more of the application of that in ordinary lives. It takes an out of action sports, takes my research on flow, and talks about how it’s showing up everywhere from business, to technology, entrepreneurship, and so forth. So I think that the part one of this answer is, yes, of course.
I think part two is peak performers have their ferocious about peak performance, and I always say if you're interested in this stuff and you want to know what are the three things you can do Monday morning, you're applying the wrong game. You’re not actually interested in peak performance. Because the truth of the matter is it's three things on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, repeat, week after week, year after year for a career. That's what you see with peak performers. You have to have that level of hunger. You have to have that level of motivation and drive.
So the answer is, yeah, anybody can do this stuff. The tools and the techniques, the technologies are available to everyone at this point. They’ve absolutely been democratized across the boards. The question is; does the individual actually want this? You actually want to tackle those kind of challenges? You're going to suffer enormously along the way, but you probably can get it done.
[0:07:20.3] MB: I want to dig in to this a little bit more. When you talk about kind of – You talked about the two components that make the impossible possible, which is technologies, or disruptive technology and extending human capacity. I want to look at specifically on the side of extending human capacity and some of the work and the research that you've done at that, at kind of the Flow Genome Project. What does that mean and how do you sort of think about extending human capacity?
[0:07:44.0] SK: The Flow Genome Project, we study the peak performance stake, known as flow, and we’re a research and training organization. What we’re interested in is how can we use flow to massively level up performance? That’s essentially the heart of the work we do. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, flow has a lot of synonyms, runner's high, being in the zone, being unconscious. It’s technically defined as an optimal state of performance when we feel our best and we perform our best.
More specifically, it refers to any of those moments of rapid attention and total absorption. It’s so focused on the task at hand that everything else just seems to disappear. Action awareness will kind of merge together, your sense of self will vanish, time passes strangely. It will slow down. Sometimes you get a freeze-frame effect, memories from a car crash. More frequently, it speeds up and you get so engrossed in what you're doing five hours passes by in like five minutes. Throughout all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof. So whenever you see the impossible become possible, you’re seeing people leveraging flow to make that happen.
[0:08:55.9] MB: And I want to get into and spend some time talking about kind of what creates flow and how we can cultivate it in our lives. But before we dig into that, I want to understand a little bit more about sort of what happens when somebody's in a flow state and maybe some of the results that you've seen around how being in flow can create kind of a massive impact on performance, productivity, etc.
[0:09:17.1] SK: Great question. So flow – Let me put it in sort of a historical context for you. Flow science is pretty old. It stretches back about 150 years, to the late 1870s. That’s when the first studies on flow were actually done.
So the idea that an altered state of consciousness, which is what flow technically is, could impact performance substantially is very real. It gets sort of this great leap forward in the 1960s and 70s because of a man named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s so often described as the godfather of flow psychology.
He taught us five things about flow that are really critical that I reach now, and the first one sort of answers your question, which is he discovered that flow is definable. The state has eight core characteristics, and I mentioned some of them before. It starts off with complete concentration in the present moment, the vanishing of self, time passing strange, which is technically called time dilation, and so forth.
So because it’s definable, it is also measurable. We have really good psychometric instruments. We don't have physiological flow detectors at this point, though my organization, the Flow Genome Project, is working on that, but we are getting to the point that we really trust the cycle of go metrics. So we can measure it off of these core characteristics.
Csikszentmihalyi also discovered that the state is universal. So it shows up in anyone, anywhere, provided certain initial conditions are met. He also figured out that it's a spectrum experience. So you can be in a state of micro flow, and this happens to most people all the time. You ask for more of a description of the state.
So micro flow is when only couple of flow’s characteristics show up at once, or maybe more of them show up that they’ve dialed down on low. So for example, you sit down to write that quickie email, and you look up an hour later and you've written an essay, right? Creative brilliance is just flown out of you for the past hour. Your focus was really intense. You were focused there. Maybe you sort of forgot bodily functions. You had to go to the bathroom and you didn't notice until you sort of pop back up. You felt it had a tremendous amount of control over your writing. One idea flowed into the next, into the next, into the next, which is by the way where flow's name comes from. That experience of every decision and every action flowing seamlessly and effortlessly from last is where we get the name of the state, and it was Csikszentmihalyi nemed it for that reason.
Then you can have macro flow, which is when all the characteristics show up at once, and for a really long time, I mean the first seven years of flow research, people thought they were having mystical experiences, because then you were having – Time was slowing down and people are often having all kinds of like intuition was so loud and like the ideas that were flowing forth were so creative that it really felt like a force greater than yourself was sort of in control, and that's a macro flow state.
It wasn't until Abraham Maslow did research on it in the 50s, and he found flow was common among all successful people, and everybody in his study group was an atheist. So suddenly, Oh, wait a minute. This isn’t a mystical experience reserved for spiritual and religious people. This is open to anybody interested in success,” and that sort of where that that went away, but kind of spectrum experience of it has made it really sort of hard to diagnose over the years.
Did that answer your question?
[0:12:47.1] MB: Yeah, I think that's great. I have sort of a follow up to that, but before we dig into that, I have almost sort of a medic question for you. As somebody who studied flow really deeply for years and years and years and obviously dedicated a tremendous amount of time and energy to it, we actually have an upcoming interview with Mihai Csikszentmihalyi. I'd be curious, what would you want to ask him?
[0:13:07.5] SK: We’ve been in contact over the years, and in fact we are – The Flow Genome Project is now teamed up with a researcher in his lab and we’re building a flow and addiction study. We want to look at the similarities and differences between flow and addiction.
Sort of ask him some of the stuff that I’ve wanted to ask him. If I had a chance, I've heard lately that he's been talking more about the relationship between the default mode network and flow. This gets more into the neurobiology of flow. So I would have questions around that and some of his new thinking there.
We have a couple of spots that his ideas don't agree with our ideas, and some of the is work that we’ve been testing and studying and trying to get more clarification on, and I might bring those things up. But they’re not going to make sense until I tell you more about flow.
[0:13:58.3] MB: Fair enough. Well, then let's get back into it. I'm curious the kind of impact, the importance of flow in terms of some of the results you've seen in the data, the research, etc.
[0:14:07.3] SK: Oh, yeah. That was the second half of your question, which I failed to answer. My bad. All right. Csikszentmihalyi does his big work in the 60s and 70s, and suddenly we know that flow is universal, it’s definable, it’s measurable, it’s all of these, and it’s well established at this point, that flow is performance, and this is one that sort of Csikszentmihalyi’s last finding and starts to get at your question.
His last finding and maybe his most important finding is that flow appeared to be the source code of not just kind of a peak performance, but the source code for overall well-being and life satisfaction and meaning, and this is one of the things that showed up. He conducted what was then one of the largest studies ever done in optimal side. This is what he discovered, is that the people who score off the charts for overall life satisfaction and meaning and such are the people who have the most flow I their lives.
So that was kind of the first look at, “Oh, wow! This stuff is really important.” Then people started to ask the question, “Well, if this is optimal performance, how optimal? What are we actually talking about? What does that look like? Can you measure it?”
What we now know is in sports, pretty much every gold-medal or world championship that’s been won, flow stayed in his heart. Flow is responsible for major progress in the arts, major breakthroughs in science, technology, business. We have really compelling work done by McKinsey. They did it 10 year study looking at looking at flow and business and top executives reported being five times more productive in flow than out of flow. So that’s 500% more productive. That means you could go to work on Monday, spend Monday in a flow state. Take Tuesday through Friday off and get as much done as everybody else. Huge increase in productivity.
We are now starting to get much clearer as we get better at kind of understanding where flow comes from. We’re starting to be able to kind of break apart productivity and we’re now seeing flow, for example, and I can explain why. All these will make more sense if I explain the neurobiology with flow has a huge boost on motivation, huge impact on creativity. Studies are showing a 400 to 700% boost in creativity when you're in flow. We found that that heightened creativity, [inaudible 0:16:17.5] worked at Harvard outlast the flow state by a day, sometimes two.
We’ve found – This is research done by advanced brain monitoring junction with The Department of Defense, that soldiers and radar operators in flow, for example, learn target acquisition skills 230% faster than normal.
So huge step functions worth of change in flow, and we’re seeing this across the board. I mentioned in our preshow conversation that we just did some interesting work on creativity and flow, and I can't talk too much about it before it’s published. One of the things we looked at is, as I mentioned, there were these 400 to 700% increases in creativity and we went, “Oh, that's amazing! Can that actually be true? What do we really mean by creativity?”
So we borrowed some ideas from – We did sort of a meta-analysis of creativity and psychology and how do you measure it and settled on five subcategories for the process component of creativity, which is the act of creating, not the product, not the outcome, nothing like that, but just the act of creating itself. We looked at everything from like problem formation, through idea generation, pattern recognition and so forth. We were using a Likert scale. So 50% boost is the most we could measure on our scale, but it was all 40%, 50% boost in all these subcategories in creativity.
So when you start peeling back the hood, underneath creativity, you will also see these kinds of boosts. You just got to think about it in terms of your audience for a second. Motivation, creativity and learning are the three sides that are so-called high-performance triangle. They’re the foundational skills we need for thriving in the 21st-century. So huge impact on performance both at an elite level and at a normal level.
[0:18:11.0] MB: So we like to dig into the science on this show. Let's get into a little bit of the neurobiology and how that sort of flow states impact things like learning and motivation and creativity.
[0:18:20.9] SK: So when you ask questions like that, you usually want to know four things. I'm not going to fill you in on all four, but I just want to tell you that we’re leaving some stuff out. But you want to start with neurooanatomy. Where in the brain something is taking place? Flow is interesting, because the old idea of ultimate performance was that – You probably know this. You’ve heard this. It’s 10% brain method. It’s, “Hey, you're only using a small portion of your brain under normal conditions. So performance, a.k.a. flow, must be the full brain on overdrive.”
It turns out we had it totally, completely backward. In flow, we’re actually not using more of the brain. We’re using less of it. What happens is what's known as – I’s technically known as transient hypofrontality, transient means temporary. Hypo, H-Y-P-O is the opposite of hyper. It means to slowdown, deactivate. Frontality is the prefrontal cortex. Part of your brain that’s right behind your forehead.
Prefrontal cortex is really a powerful part of your brain. It does a lot of good things for you. Complex logical decision-making, long-term planning, sense of morality, sense of will. All these things are important. But in flow, this whole portion of the brain gets shut down and it's technically an efficiency exchange. The brain burns a lot of energy. It’s always looking for ways to conserve, and as your need for intense concentration in the present moment goes up, more attention, right? The brain starts shutting down noncritical areas to maximize attention. As a result, you get a lot of flow’s core characteristics.
So for example, why does time pass so strangely in flow? Time is actually calculated all over the prefrontal cortex. It’s sort of a network effect. Like any networks, node start to shut down. The network starts to collapse. In flow, what happens is we lose the ability to separate past, from present, from future. Instead we’re plugged into what researchers call the deep now, sort of an internal present. Same thing happens to your sense of self. Self is actually a bunch of different structures in the prefrontal cortex. Couple of other parts of the brain as well.
Again, as the prefrontal cortex starts to shut down, your sense of self disappears. A huge impact on performance. When part of your brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, one part of the prefrontal cortex shuts down, that’s where your inner critic lives, so that nagging, always on, defeat this voice in your head. When you move into flow, that voice disappear. It goes silent. As a result, we experience this emotionally, first of all, is liberationist, is freedom, right? We are literally getting out of our way, but what we see on the backside is creativity goes way up, because you’re no longer doubting all of your need ideas.
Risk-taking goes way up. So bringing those need ideas out into the world, for example, which is a risk that you have to take goes up. So that's what we’re seeing in terms of neural anatomy. A slightly larger version of that, we see networks. You've probably heard of the default mode network by now. This is one of the network systems that also governs your inner critic, and a lot of meditative practice is knock it out, turn it off. Same thing happens in flow. Your default mode network gets very, very, very quiet in flow.
We have shifts in brainwave function that I'm not going to talk about, and then we have profound changes in neurochemistry, which is the last thing I’m going to talk about, and this is really where you see a lot of the performance boosts that you asked about earlier. So in flow, most of – We get a big dump of five of the most potent neurochemicals the brain can produce. This is dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, anandamide and endorphins. Flow appears the only time we get all five of these at once. What really happens is as you move into flow, stress hormones are flushed out of your system and they’re replaced with these big five neurochemicals.
All five of them do a bunch of different things. They’re all performance-enhancing chemicals. On a physical, they’ll increase muscle reaction time, they’ll deaden our sensitivity pain, strength will go up, those sorts of things. Cognitively, they’re much more interesting, and I want to not break them down sort of in terms of motivation, learning and creativity, the three things I hit upon earlier.
So all five of these chemicals are pleasure chemicals. They’re pleasure drugs. They’re the World War of drugs. Rarely do you get all five at once. Just to put this in context, romantic love, which many people identify as one of the greatest feelings on earth is mostly dopamine and norepinephrine. Two out of the five chemicals that you’re getting in flow. So flow is this huge burst of feel good neurochemistry. It makes it one of if not the most addictive experience on earth. Psychologist hate that term. So they call it the source code of intrinsic motivation. But when McKinsey found that 500% boost in motivation was the shift in neurochemistry that made it possible.
Same thing happens with learning. Which shorthand for how learning works in the brain. The more neurochemicals that show up during an experience, the better chance that experience will be tagged as important and saved for later, transferred into long-term holding. So the more neurochemicals that show up, the better learning outcomes you get. Flow is an enormous dump of neurochemistry, which explains this 270% boost in learning that DARPA discovered. What it suggests is that that’s fabled 10,000 hours to master. The research shows that flow can significantly reduce them.
Creativity, same thing. So what a lot of these neurochemicals do is they surround the creative process, and what I mean by that is creativity is recommendatory. What happens when your brain takes in a bunch of new information, combines it with older ideas and uses the results to produce something startlingly new.
Flow boosts all – And these neurochemicals boost all the brain's information processing systems. So we take in more data per second, information acquisition goes up. We pay more attention to the data. Salience goes up. We find faster connections between that incoming data and our older ideas, so pattern recognition goes up. We find faster connections between that incoming information and far flung disparate outside the box ideas. So what’s called lateral thinking goes up.
Then on the backend, when you’re able to take that idea and make it public, risk-taking goes up. So the neurochemistry that shows up in flow surrounds the creative process, which is why you're getting this big boost in creativity.
So that’s the quick and dirty, very quick and dirty rundown of kind of the neurobiology of flow. Let’s also point out that this is its early days. I mean, neuroscience is accelerating exponentially. We’re seeing all kinds of breakthroughs, but there are still holes in this research we can drive a bus through. We know a ton more than we did more than we did 20 years ago, but we’ve got massive amounts of questions. So everything I just said is true until it's no longer true. We’re moving very quickly. So no longer cure could be around the corner.
[0:25:33.1] MB: That's fasting, and that was a great kind of dive into the science, and I like the way you sort of broke everything out. That was really, really instructive. I'm curious, and this is kind of something maybe more from your sort of personal experience or maybe you’ve seen something in the research on this, but how did you sort of think about, I guess, sort of flow states that arise from what I would call kind of fun or extracurricular activities versus flow states within sort of work and productivity.
Can we get kind of - and this kind of comes back to addiction - can we get kind of addicted to a flow state arising from something like video games or something like that? Versus flow from being in the zone when you're kind of executing in project or something.
[0:26:11.6] SK: It’s a great question. Yes. To answers to your question, and I’ll start the first one, is that flow is a tool. It can be used for good. It can be used for ill. Soldiers fighting battles are in flow states. Terrorists and terrorist training camps are often in flow states. Kids playing video games are in flow states. You at work, really focused on an engineering project, an architectural project, a writing assignment, take your pick, are in a flow state. It’s across-the-board, and you are absolutely correct. Anything that produces flow is really sticky. When they want to know how popular is a videogame going to be, how much is it going to sell. One of the main metrics they try to measure is how much flow it produces. The most successful videogames in the world are the ones the produce the most flow, because huge, addictive neurochemistry.
Csikszentmihalyi I speaks about this really in an interesting fashion, and this sort of gets us to the second part of this, which is anybody that can access this stuff because flow states have triggers. This is what we’ve learned over the past sort of 10 years, and Csikszentmihalyi discovered that flow is universal provided certain initial conditions are met. So those flow triggers are those initial conditions.
One of the most important is what's known as the challenge skills balance. All these triggers do is drive attention into the present moment. They amp up attention, and some of the neurochemicals that we’re talking about are primarily focusing drugs, norepinephrine and dopamine. That’s primarily what they do cognitively. They help us pay attention, and that's their function.
Besides being pleasure drugs, they’re focusing drugs. So that's what all of these triggers do. They drive our attention. Now, most important is the challenge skills balance as I mentioned, which says that we pay the most attention in the present moment when the challenge of the task at hand slightly exceeds our skillset. So you're always pushing hard on your skills when you’re flow. This is a constant.
As a result, Csikszentmihalyi pointed out that flow is addictive. But unlike other addictions, gambling, video games, take your pick, that can lead backwards in life and slow down your progress. Flow, because you’re constantly leveling up your skillset, is an addiction that leads forward into the future. But make no mistake, it still an addiction. When we deal with action, adventure sports athletes who are transitioning out of risking their life for a living into, “I want to have a family and do something else.” They’re coming down from an addiction and you have to sort of deal with it that way. Same problem with special operators returning from war, same issues.
[0:29:03.4] MB: This week's episode is brought to you by our partners at Brilliant. Brilliant is a math and science enrichment learning tool. You can learn concepts by solving fascinating, challenging problems. Brilliant explores probability, computer science, machine learning, the physics of everyday life, complex algebra and much more. They do this with addictive interactive experiences that are enjoyed by over 5 million students, professionals and enthusiasts around the world.
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[0:31:09.9] MB: I want to dig now into some of these triggers and how we can kind of create flow states in our own lives. Let's start with kind of the challenge skills balance as you talked about. For example, what if we have some work that we want to get into a flow state on, but perhaps either the challenge is too great, or the challenges is sort of too small. How do we adjust that dial to kind of trigger flow?
[0:31:30.1] SK: I’m actually going to back you up one step. Everything else is moot, unless we talk about complete concentration, which is the fundamental kind of – Challenge skills is the most important flow trigger, but you can't build a house without complete concentration. The reason I mentioned that is when I go into companies, the first thing I tell them is, “If you can hang a sign on your door that's says, Fuck off. I'm flowing,” you can't do this work.
What the research shows is to really maximize flow and the productivity you get from flow. You need like 90 to 120 minute periods of uninterrupted concentration. That means that no open office plans. That means if you’re functioning under a regime that demands messages be returned in 15 minutes and emails in half an hour, you’ve got a problem and you need to kind of talk to your boss and shift that stuff around a little bit, or you need to carve out time before work or after work to focus on this stuff. That’s the place you have to start, otherwise you just can't build it.
From there, I want to get to your question, which is how you tune the challenge skills balance. Here I want to talk about kind of the most useful piece of non-research research there has been on flow, and here's what I mean. A bunch of years ago, Csikszentmihalyi was talking to a Google mathematician and they were trying to figure out, “Can we measure the ratio between challenge and skills? Can we put a number on it?”
They almost arbitrarily just sort of decided on 4%, that the sweet spot was if your challenge could be 4% greater than your skills, you are in the right zone. We took this idea into the flow genome project and working primarily initially with athletes and then a little bit with artist. We’ve been studying it. It’s totally arbitrary. What 4% for you is is different for me and it's different on every day. Your 4% on a day that you got up great night sleep and ate great food the day before, versus I stayed up all night and I feasted on Twinkies, different. It varies on a day-to-day basis.
What I like about using that number, and this is I think where it becomes practical, is 4% for people who are little shyer, meeker, maybe a little bit of an underachiever sometimes, is tricky because it's outside your comfort zone. How do you know when you're getting close to the right spot? You're uncomfortable. It doesn't feel good anymore. It's a really good way just to know where you are with this.
For peak performers, that we have the other – The flip side of this problems is peak performers are going to bite off challenges that are 30%, 4, % 50% greater than their skillset without even noticing. Do it all the time. As a result, it is going to put too much fear into the equation. You’ll get too much norepinephrine and cortisol in system and it ends up blocking flow. So you’re going to lock yourself out of the state of peak performance. You’d really need to tackle those kinds of challenges.
If you are the kind of person who bites off huge challenges, one, make sure you chunk them into smaller and smaller sub-challenges, smaller goals and smaller roles until they’re in that, “Oh, well. I'm slightly uncomfortable here, but I'm not overwhelmed,” spot, then you're on the right spot to maximize focus
and maximize flow.
[0:35:03.1] MB: That’s extremely helpful, and I think I'm definitely somebody who kind of falls into that bucket of frequently biting off problems that are too large for myself. So I’ll be applying that technique for certain –
[0:35:13.2] SK: Yeah, we all have been saying at the Flow Genome Project, which is when it comes to this stuff, you got to go slow to go fast. Let me give you a different example of this in a different workplace environments. So, Patagonia, the outdoor retailer, always tops the list of best place to work in America. One of the reasons is their very high flow environment. They were sort of built around so much of Csikszentmihalyi earlier ideas back in the 90s, and they have one main corporate rule established by Yvon Chouinard, who’s the CEO. He calls it, “Let my people go surfing.”
So Patagonia, obviously a lot of outdoor athletes who work there, and that's one of the reasons you’d want to work there. Their headquarters, it’s in Ventura County. It’s right on the Pacific Ocean. So they have a rule, which is, “Whenever the waves are breaking, it doesn't matter what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter if you're on deadline. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a project that was due yesterday. You can go surfing.”
The reason is, surfing is packed with flow triggers, really high flow environment. We’ll talk more about what those triggers are in a second. But packed with flow triggers. So if you go out, you go surfing for an hour and you come back and you’re 500% more productive, who cares that you just wasted an hour?
You’re now really, really, really hyper productive.
It doesn't look like peak performance. In an organization, or anybody could be like, “I’m on deadline, but I’m going surfing. See you.” That doesn’t look like an organization dedicated to peak performance, to productivity, to the bottom line or any of those things. But it’s actually an organization that's totally dialed in for that stuff, because you’d got to go slow to go fast with this stuff and you got to prioritize flow.
[0:36:49.0] MB: So how do those flow states kind of carry over, or I guess how long? So if you go surfing for an hour or you do some sort of – I guess what we’re talking about earlier, sort of a fun activity to trigger flow, how long will you be kind of reaping the harvest of that flow trigger?
[0:37:05.4] SK: So there’s three different answers to this. One is that flow is essentially a focusing skill. So first of all, by training up while you're surfing, you’re training up flow in the office, because you’re training the brain to think in a particular way basically, to shift consciousness in a particular way. So that in itself spills over.
In terms of actual time in the flow state, that is an open and unanswered question. What we've seen for the research I mentioned earlier, we know, right? Because [inaudible 0:37:37.2] did the work, that the heightened creativity will outlast flow state by a couple of days. That sticks around for a little while.
The really, “I'm in flow. My consciousness feels altered,” experience, it varies, but an hour and a half is usually – That’s sort of the maximum kind of zone that most people stay in. This has to do with the fact that these neurochemicals, they’re easy for the brain to produce, but they've got raw materials and it takes a certain amount of time to produce them from scratch. Sometimes you need sunlight, and sometimes you need vitamins and minerals. So once you're through those things, there’s a down period. There’s a cycle. Flow isn’t an always on thing. You can't live in flow. There’s a four-stage process. The frontend of the process is a struggle phase. It doesn't feel like flow, and then you move into flow and then there’s a recovery phase on the backend. You have to move through the whole cycle before you can really start a flow state.
That said, you can get access to the heightened learning, the heightened creativity, those things. They linger for a little while. The creativity seems to linger for longer than, I would guess, the heightened bits of learning and the motivation. But the honest answers, we don't really know on that one.
In some flow states, there is altruism based flow state known as helper’s high. It was discovered by [inaudible 0:38:55.2] who founded Big Brother Big Sister. He discovered that that seems to lasted two days on average, which is really interesting and really strange. That maybe from a promote research perspective, we think that's because it's got – It may have a oxytocin involved and maybe more endorphins than other flows states. We don't really know, but those are the things we’re looking at. By we, I mean the entire research community. So there's no real immediate answer to your question, but usually 90 minutes is kind of what you work with as a core flow state, and then the afterglow usually a couple, two, three hours at a high level.
[0:39:31.5] MB: Yeah, that makes sense. I was just curious, because I’m trying to think about how to sort of concretely apply these principles to my own productivity.
[0:39:38.1] SK: Yeah. Let me give you a tip here. A place where most people screw up, and this is the difference between people who had a lot of experience with flow, especially with deeper flow states, versus people who are new to these ideas. One of the things that people who are new to these ideas do is they will take that accelerated – That amplified creativity and they will ride to the very bitter end. If their brain’s pattern recognition system is all fired up and they're coming up with new ideas, and new ideas, and new ideas, they're going to keep working until is totally exhausted. That actually makes it more difficult to really jump into flow the next time. You want to take yourself almost to the end and then you want to sort of call it mandatory quits before you’re totally exhausted. Because otherwise the recovery period is going to have to be more extensive than you want.
[0:40:32.6] MB: Let’s say you do sort of a 90-minute burst of flow. How long should your recovery period be before you try to reenter?
[0:40:38.1] SK: Again, it depends. If you're in a really deep flow state, a lot of physical activity, you're really exhausted in the body. That may be it for your day, right? You may get one big flows state, and it may be a day, two, three before you sort of get back in. If it's a low-grade focused attention flow state, you can pop out, and usually if you have some kind of recovery protocol. For example, I wake up at 4 AM. Start my day. I usually start by working on whatever book I'm writing. I usually work from about 4 AM to 7:30 or so. Then I hike my dogs for an hour and eat some breakfast. Then I can come back to work. I can't really get in an another flow state just then. I'm still sort of like dithering around, but I break for lunch, take a short nap and then I' can usually get back into flow in the afternoon.
[0:41:28.9] MB: Got it. Yeah, that makes sense.
[0:41:30.5] SK: And everybody's different by the way. You’re going to – naps are good. Food is good. Resetting your consciousness is really important. Meaning, like take your mind off the problem, right? If I’ve been writing all morning, I don’t want to immediately jump to another writing task. I want to garden for an hour, go for a walk or do something to shift my consciousness a bit, meditation, whatever.
[0:41:53.3] MB: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. I mean, I think one of the themes that we’ve seen kind of repeatedly on the show is the importance of rest and recovery to peak performance in general, and then obviously kind of specifically around the creation and maintenance of flow states.
[0:42:07.6] SK: Yeah. I always talk about it as one of the need for recovery. I talk about in terms of like a grit skill. I think for peak performers, it is so hard to shut it down, that grit is required for recovery. So I think active recovery protocols are really important. One of flow states, for example, if you end your day and your recovery protocol is, “I’m going to watch television and drink a beer,” you're not actually doing your body any good. Television doesn't shift the brain waves out of sort of a high beta for long enough for you to recover, and alcohol is really not your friend in that process. One or two drinks doesn't really matter, but if you go over that, you're going to mess with your REM sleep, and you have to sleep seven to eight hours a night is what the research shows most of us need.
There are outliers, but that's really – That’s sort of baseline, and you have to have an active – An active recovery, by the way, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a term that talks about – It means like a restorative yoga practice. A long sauna, meditation, hot baths, massages, those sorts of things. You need a daily active recovery protocol if you’re going to do. You’re really going to have a high flow lifestyle.
[0:43:28.3] MB: I’d like to take kind of a change in direction and talk a little bit about one of the other topics that I know you’ve spoken and written about that I find really fascinating and kind of aligns with some of the recent research you’ve been doing around, as I think you called it in a recent Google talk, the intersection of sort of flow states and the science of spirituality.
[0:43:45.9] SK: I started out looking as much the science of spirituality, because it wasn't entirely clear that flow wasn't a spiritual experience, right? Those two ideas started out together. When early research, for example, William James, who did a lot of the foundational work on flow back at the turn-of-the-century, the first American psychologist, philosopher wrote the first psychology textbook. Back then, he was looking at flow as a mystical experience. He was studying the same thing.
They split apart in the 20th century. Freud sort of really, really was a hard-core atheist. Didn't think psychology had any place kind of working in that world, and the rest of science will agree. So there was sort of a hundred year detour. Then these ideas come back together around the turn of the 21st-century neurobiological.
What we started to discover is that when you look under the hood of flow, so the same neurochemical, neurobiological, neuroanatomical shifts, changes that we talked about earlier in flow, they show up across a bevy of experiences. Deep profound meditation, trance state, out of body experiences, near death experiences, mystical states, speaking in tongues, things like that, psychedelic states, states of awe. All of these things neurobiological are very, very, very similar. They’re similar on the inside and they produce similar effects on the outside. All of these experiences is self disappears. Time vanishes. We feel a huge boost in motivation and the feeling of being moved by forces greater than our control, put it in slightly more mystical terms, spiritual terms.
Then we see a massive amplification in the information we have access to. This shows up across the boards in all of these experiences. So we sort of took a hundred year detour around these ideas and they’re coming back together now. Where they get really exciting is you have more tools to solve problems with.
For example, I mentioned in our preshow conversation that another study we’re running at the Flow Genome Project is in conjunction with researchers at Imperial College in London, and what they've done at Imperial College in London is they’ve done – In David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris’s lab, they’ve done all the foundational research, FMRI research, on psychedelics. So they’ve looked at MDMA, psilocybin, iowaska, DMT, acid.
So when I say flow shares characteristics with psychedelic states, this is the reason we know that, and we've teamed up to do a sort of comparison contrast study, and one of the reasons – And this is very downstream from where we’re going and we’re not there yet, is right now we’ve been looking at psychedelics for their healing capacity. They’re phenomenal for PTSD. There’s new work on anxiety, on depression, on addiction, those sorts of things.
But there’s a lot of people who have noticed that the same thing that helps get you from subpar back to zero can help you go from zero up to Superman with psychedelic’s creativity is very old research. This research going back in the 60s that shows huge boost in creativity and psychedelics. We see the same thing in flow. So one of the simple questions you sort of from a performance standpoint you'd want to ask is, “Hey, I’ve got a creative problem. I need to solve. What’s the best thing? Should I aim for a flow state here? Is micro-dosing with psychedelics, will that get it done? What about a heroic dose of psychedelic? Is that better? What kind of creative project works best with which treatment?” Those sorts of questions are things we are starting to be able to ask and answer now. That’s the results – Psychedelics may not sound like the intersection of spirituality to you, but there’s research going back to the 60s, The Good Friday experiment most famously, that show that psychedelic experiences are indistinguishable from spiritual experiences.
[0:48:06.5] MB: I think you also kind of previously talked about in line with that same theme this idea of sort of the unity experience and the experience of sort of being one with everything and how there's a sort of a biological component behind that.
[0:48:19.6] SK: Okay. So this was my toe-hold into flow research. I said earlier, when I started this, it was really unclear, and the reason was surfers and flow, which was the first population I ever studied often report becoming one with the ocean. I was one with the two, and it’s really common. It happens all the time. Surfers didn't really like to talk about it because everybody would think they were nuts. You go into a shrink's office in 1995, 6, 7 and say, “Doc. Hey, man, I had this experience. I feel one with everything,” you are getting sent to a psych ward. That's what's happening.
But then Andy Newberg, who’s a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, decides he wants to study this phenomenon. The reason he wants to study it is it’s so common. Oneness with everything has been called the perennial philosophy. It's in every mystical tradition on earth and it was there long before there was mass communication.
So he figured it's got a point to something real, something biological. So he did brain scans of Buddhists and Franciscan nuns when they were experiencing moments of so-called unity, oneness with everything. He found that a portion of the brain known as the right parietal lobe gets very, very quiet.
So earlier I said that in flow, the prefrontal cortex shuts down. In deeper and deeper flow states, when attention gives really focused, that will start moving deeper into the brain. One of the places that gets impacted is the right parietal lobe. This portion of the brain does a bunch of stuff, but it basically is a navigation system and it helps us draw a boundary that says, “This is where you end and the rest of the world begins." And this is sort of important if you want to walk through a crowded room. You sort of need a sense of like, “My shoulder is here,” and people who have brain damage to this portion of the brain, they can't sit down on a couch, because they’re not quite sure where does my leg end and the couch begin?
This portion of the brain when it shuts down completely in deep flow states, or in meditative experiences, or trance states or whatever, you can no longer separate itself from others. The brain conclude – It has to conclude that in this particular moment in time you’re one with everything.
By the way, we’ve had this experience, right? If you played a racket sport, for example, and gotten really good at it, you get to a point where you can't feel your racket in your hand. It feels like an extension of your hand or your car. The pedals feel like an extension of your feet and you can feel the tires through your feet. This is common with racecar drivers. It’s because this boundary of self is flexible. We can move it around. Blind people feel the sidewalk to the tip of the cane. It’s because this boundary is extendable.
[0:51:01.5] MB: I think one of the most interesting kind of takeaways from some of that research is this idea that in some sense, the brain is sort of creating the experience of being separate from everything else. When you take that away, it's almost like the oneness has been there the entire time.
[0:51:18.6] SK: Well, I’ve have written about this. This is where things get complicated, because at every level of the spectrum, scientifically, at every level of scale, you see oneness. If you reduce human beings to the quantum level, obviously, we got the same basic ingredients. That's true. But even if you look at just what you consider you, which is the stuff inside your skin, we know there's enough foreign bacteria in your body that essentially you're on from your elbow to your fingers is foreign bacteria. Most of it is in your micro biome, and we know that the micro biome control can impact our emotional state, for example, and our cognition, our ability to think about problems and such, and our consciousness.
So our experience to the world, we experience it as I am Steven Kotler, a single unit. I'm just me. But the truth of the matter is it’s a cooperative experience. My version of the world is me, my micro biome, the viruses in my body. It’s all creating this experience. So sort of at every level of the scale, going all the way up to the cosmic, we are star dusts. We all got our star in the birth of stars. We’re made up of molecules that we’re spewed out of stars. At every level of scale, we are one, right? We have a discreet experience of consciousness while we’re inside our body, but on certain levels at least, something of an illusion. But that shouldn’t be a surprise. Current thinking on reality, right? We don't live in reality. The brain takes in a shit ton of information. It filters down something, hunting for like the most familiar pattern it can find. The minute it finds that pattern, it guesses about what is in reality based on our prior experience, which is why babies experience the world very differently from teenagers and adults.
There's book after book after book in neuroscience for 25 years has talked about how we create kind of reality as we go along. The question gets a lot more nuanced and subtle when you start peeling it back, and it just gets really weird. I have no idea what the right or wrong answer is, and I don’t, by the way, think this is proof or not proof of any kind of metaphysical anything. I just think it's the facts of the case and they’re peculiar.
[0:53:45.8] MB: It’s a fascinating mystery, and I just wanted to kind of touch on that, because I think it's one of the most interesting things that you work on and have talked about. So I wanted to share some of those really kind of unique ideas with the listeners. I know we’re running out of time here. To kind of wrap up our conversation, for listeners who want to concretely kind of implement what we've talked about in one way or another today, what would be sort of a first kind of action step or piece of homework that you would give them?
[0:54:10.7] SK: Yeah, the first place. I would tell you to go is the website for the Flow Genome Project. If you go to the landing page, you’ll see something that says, “Take the quiz.” That quiz – And I hate that language, and we’re changing the website. But it’s an older version of it that I don't love. But that quiz is actually our flow profile, which has become the largest study ever conducted in optimal psych. All it is is a diagnostic, and it's taken flow’s 20 triggers and broken them into four categories, sort of clumped them in their most familiar clumps. All it says is if you’re this kind of person, you are likely going to find more flow in this direction. That is a great next step.
You can also, if you want to take things a step further, if you go to my website, stevenkotler.com, sign up for my email newsletter. A, you'll get lots of information. B, you’ll get a 90-page peak performance primer that has a complete breakdown of flow and all of flow’s triggers in it. So those would be my two next steps.
[0:55:09.4] MB: Perfect, and I think you kind of touched on this already, but for listeners who want to find you, who want to learn more, I'm assuming those are kind of the place that you would have them go.
[0:55:17.5] SK: Yes, stevenkotler.com, flowgenomeproject.com, or you can find me on social media. Twitter is Steven_Kotler.
[0:55:26.6] MB: Well, Steven. Thank you so much for coming on the show, fascinating conversation. As I said, I've been a fan of your work for a long time and it was great to kind of dig into all of these really exciting ideas.
[0:55:36.7] SK: Thanks for having me. It’s been a lot of fun.
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