The Rise of Superman, by Steven Kotler

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This book examines the extreme limits of human performance, delving into the world of action-adventure athletes who are redefining what is possible. It tells of big wave surfing, extreme free skiing, skateboarding, free solo rock climbing, base jumping, kayaking impossible rivers, etc. Kotler also examines the neuroscience behind the state of flow, which he claims is what enables these superhuman feats.

Kotler’s thesis is that the state of flow enables athletes to react faster and tap into normally unreachable wells of intuition. As Kotler puts it

In all other activities, flow is the hallmark of high performance, but in situations where the slightest error could be fatal, then perfection is the only choice – and flow is the only guarantee of perfection. Thus, flow is the only way to survive in the fluid, life-threatening conditions of big waves, big rivers, and big mountains…as [skateboarder] Danny Way explains: “It’s either find the zone or suffer the consequences – there’s no other choice available.”

Kotler tells many awesome stories of people performing insane athletic feats (e.g. free-soloing (climbing alone without ropes) Yosemite’s Half Dome in 3 hours, or surfing 50 foot waves), which are fun just to stretch the mind of what is possible.

He then describes the science behind the flow state, what it does to our brain, and the triggers necessary to get into it, and asks us to take what these extreme athletes have learned and apply it to our everyday lives. One of the hallmarks of the flow state is to essentially turn off our prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain) and instead becoming more in the moment: “It’s an efficiency exchange. We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.” This makes a lot of sense to me – we’ve all had those moments in sport where we unexpectedly biff some easy action and when asked what happened, we say “I started thinking about it”, which means we had fallen out of flow.

The triggers that Kotler describes are useful to remember as well. He lists 4 types:

  • External triggers: Risk (triggering the fight-or-flight response and all the crazy neurochemicals one gets as a result), rich environment (“novelty, unpredictability, and complexity”), and deep embodiment (full-body awareness, paying attention to all of our sensory inputs to overwhelm the brain with sensory processing so it doesn’t have time to think).
  • Internal triggers: Clear goals that define immediate success (laser focus on what is next), immediate feedback (so we can course correct in real-time, and so that we can absorb the right technique into our unconscious), and consistently pushing your limits (aiming for challenges that are 4% greater than your skills)
  • Social triggers: being part of a community pushes us further than we would go alone. We learn new techniques from watching others. We also stretch our sense of what is possible – once we see one of our friends pull a crazy stunt, we believe we can do it, and belief turns into reality. The best example of this is Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile – for decades, running a mile in less than four minutes was considered impossible, but once Bannister did it, several others did it within a year.
  • Creative triggers: “Creativity triggers flow; then flow enhances creativity.” This ties into the social trigger with “creative one-upsmanship”

I really enjoyed this book as an exploration of what is possible, and of understanding better the keys to accessing the flow state. We’ll see if I can figure out how to apply those triggers more consistently to improve my own performance, both at work and in sports.

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