Human Performance | May 8, 2014
Going With the Flow

Steven Kotler explains to Performance how adventure athletes have hijacked a mental state that seemingly redefines “where – if anywhere – our limits lie.”

“Over the past three decades, an unlikely collection of men and women have pushed human performance farther and faster than at any other point in the 150,000-year history of our species,” Kotler explains in his recent book The Rise of Superman. “But here’s the stranger part: this unprecedented flowering of human potential has taken place in plain sight, occasionally with millions of people watching – yet almost no one has noticed.”

The collection of men and women come from a field that – if you wound the clock back a decade or three – would likely struggle to be considered athletes by the average person on the street. Yet they are consistently pushing the boundaries of what their bodies are capable of. He’s talking about adventure athletes – daredevil skateboarders and big-wave surfers – and he’s convinced that what they’re doing has huge ramifications for human performance.

He’s talking about flow.


Flow originates from the studies of psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who, in his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, defined astate of complete absorption with an activity that creates an optimal state of ‘intrinsic motivation’. Later studies from the likes of Dr Andrew Newberg have linked it with experiences as diverse as the meditative states of Buddhist monks to a student finally casting all distractions aside and writing an outstanding essay. Csikszentmihalyi himself describes it as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake… every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

It’s that last thought that, Kotler finds gets athletes excited. “Every athlete I’ve spoken to, once they’ve gotten their head around the science, gets massively excited. Your average person hears about flow and goes ‘that’s how I felt that one time’. An athlete goes ‘I know how to use that’. They realise that what centuries ago we’d have considered a spiritual experience we now know is biology. And biology is hackable.”

Flow caused a stir in the sporting community when it first emerged – Jimmy Johnson, the former Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys, even credited Csikszentmihalyi with helping them win the 1993 Super Bowl. But the way athletes like Danny Way and Travis Rice have upped what’s deemed possible on a skateboard or a snowboard – making continuous, instantaneous, life-or-death decisions for extended periods of time – have convinced Kotler that flow remains the key to the next breakthrough in human performance. And he wants to prove it.

Personal experience

When I was 30, I got Lyme disease and spent three years in bed. My functionality was reduced to about 10 per cent. One day a friend of mine dragged me to the beach to go surfing. They had to do everything – help me to the car, help me to the line-up. Everything.

“But when a wave came, my memory took over. I popped up, and all of a sudden time slowed, my senses felt heightened and I felt great. I was driven home exhausted and had to have food brought to me for 15 days, but on the 16th day, I went surfing again. And I had the same sensation.

“I was incredulous. I’m a science writer. I don’t have mystical experiences. I wanted to know was what was happening to me – how could I go from 10 per cent functionality to about 85 per cent? Investigating that led me to flow which – among all the other things it does, like distort our sense of time and help us access our skills – produces chemicals that amplify the immune system, which explains how it helped me get back to normal even though at one point I was about as low as you could go.

“And the more I learned about it, the more I saw that flow was taking normal people and turning them into Superman.”

Lessons learned

Doug Ammons is a favourite example of Kotler’s. Ammons holds “is a classical guitarist, black belt in karate, successful businessman, acclaimed author, respected philosopher and, without question, one of the most revered kayakers in history,” and – through harnessing flow – completed the only successful solo expedition along the Stikine River, the canyon of which comes with “25 ‘Holy Mother of God’ rapids, hundreds of smaller tortures and a reputation as the Mount Everest of expedition kayaking.”

Athletes like Ammons “cheat [their way into the] process with fundamental biology,” says Kotler. “Evolution hardwired humans to pay attention to certain stimuli more than others and, as these athletes have discovered, nothing catches our attention quite like danger.” But Kotler’s certain that while adventure athletes are beating the system to access flow more often than perhaps any other group on the planet, they’re not alone in making use of the state, citing noted biophysicist Reese Jones, who explains: ”All of the basic activities that led to today’s high-tech revolution – circuit design, software design and network design – require laser focused attention and produce flow, and doing any of these tasks well is just not possible without the state.”

Or, as Kotler puts it to Performance: “If you’re looking for a non-athletic example of the kind of revolution that occurs when a group of people begin harnessing flow on a regular basis, Silicon Valley is not a bad place to start.”

As success stories go, that’s a big one. And it begs a question.

What next?

“The guys I talked to, the likes of Danny Way and Laird Hamilton, have almost found a way to bottle lightning,” Kotler explains. “They’ve been experiencing flow for years, and part of what they’ve focused in on is that the key to flow is not to treat an athlete like a machine, like an engine. It’s about the athlete as a person trying to achieve greatness in all aspects of their life.

“But we’ve only scratched the surface. The science has had to catch up for us to back up what these guys have learned through trial and error– the tech wasn’t there to study it. Now it is, and more than ever it’s shown us that those hippie statements like ‘I was at one with my surroundings’ isn’t nonsense, it’s the closest we can get to expressing what’s going on – the work of Newberg has shown us that our brains are reacting to these situations to produce that effect – their biology is making them feel that way.”

And that’s where Kotler’s brainchild, the Flow Genome Project comes in, because the capabilities seemingly afforded by flow are nowhere near to being fully explored. Co-founded by Kotler and Jamie Wheal, the project aims to map the genome of flow by 2020 and make that knowledge freely available. There’s even talk of flow dojos – research and performance centres where those interested can learn to broaden their horizons.

“We’re trying to put together a common language,” adds Kotler. “We’re speaking to anyone that can help give us a heat map of flow – what it actually physically looks like in terms of brain activity. That means laying psychology on top of biology on top of physiology, but that’s the grail – the answer to how we have people around the world doing seemingly impossible things.

“When I was growing up, doing a 360 was the big trick in skiing. Now it’s not even an entry-level skill. The only way guys are pulling off these incredible stunts is by being in flow, and we’re now able to do more than scratch the surface of what that means. I feel like I have a ringside seat at the greatest show on Earth because we’re starting to decode the miraculous. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

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