Flowing Into the Future With Steven Kotler


“What does it take to do that which has never been done before?”

That’s the question New York Times best-selling author, journalist and founder of Flow Research Collective Steven Kotler seeks to answer.

During his successful career as a science and action-sports journalist, Kotler always marveled at the amount of human potential that manifested in seemingly impossible, even death-defying situations. Curious about these peaks in performance, Kotler was convinced that these athletic achievements he witnessed went beyond just pure physiological skill and invoked some neurological phenomenon.

“I was obsessed with what I was seeing in action-adventure sports where the athletes were consistently pushing the bounds of the impossible,” he says. “I sort of tracked the question, ‘What does it take to level up your game like never before, or shift the paradigm?’”

The high, the pocket, the forever box


Kotler realized that these athletes were tapping into what researchers call “flow,” or an optimal state of consciousness in which an individual feels and performs at his or her absolute best. This altered consciousness results in a hyper-focused state in which one’s attention is completely consumed by the task at hand.

“It’s those moments we’ve all experienced when you get so focused on the task at hand, so focused on what you’re doing, that everything else just vanishes,” Kotler says. “Action awareness will start to merge, your sense of self-consciousness just disappears completely, time passes strangely, and occasionally, it’ll slow down, [resulting in] a freeze-frame effect.”

First discussed by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (aka the godfather of flow), the study of flow has been expanded to include not only the peak performance in athletics but also across all aspects of life and industry. Jazz musicians call it being in the pocket. Runners refer to it as the runner’s high. Stand-up comics peg it as the forever box. It’s all flow.

Intrigued by the multifaceted ways flow can be optimized, Kotler dove headfirst into the science of flow and how to tap into it.

“I’ve become obsessed with decoding the neurobiology of flow,” he says, “figuring out what’s going on exactly in the brain and the body when we’re in this state of optimal performance, figuring out where it comes from, and figuring out how to use that knowledge to create more of it.”

Flow together


Flow can only happen when total focus is given to the present moment and a trigger drives complete attention to that moment. Individual flow experiences are broken down into roughly 12 triggers.

And although we think of the extreme athlete, the high-wire artist, the solitary jazz musician in flow state, flow doesn’t exist only as a solo venture. In fact, it’s frequently a shared group experience. Like individual flow, group flow has its own set of triggers that are all preconditioned to the present.

Kotler established the Flow Research Collective to study how multidisciplinary organizations can optimize flow and teach people how to “have their neurobiology work for them rather than against them.”

For example, when someone at a concert is sucked into the music and feels connected to the band and crowd or when a football team makes a spectacular fourth-quarter comeback—the moment a group is performing at its absolute best—is when they’ve entered into flow.

One of the best ways this happens is when there is a shared risk.

“Shared risk is really important. This can be physical risk, it can be psychological risk, it can be emotional risk,” Kotler says. And this can often be the most uncomfortable part. There’s a certain amount of stress and grit involved with reaching individual or group peak performance, and Kotler argues that “the first stage of a flow cycle is known as struggle. It is very unpleasant. You need a ton of grit, a ton of persistence.”

Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable


A struggle can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, but ultimately, translating risk or struggle to physical performance requires the group to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. When an instructor decides to have everyone in a Spin class sprint for two minutes, that’s a shared pain. For flow to occur, the individual or group has to push through a barrier, one that might seem insurmountable, in order to go beyond the norm. Beyond the possible.

But flow is not something that can be tapped into all the time, anytime. In fact, living in a constant state of flow is unlikely and occurs in cycles.

“You don’t get to live in a flow state because these states are high-energy states,” Kotler says. “They’re neurobiologically expensive to produce and require certain vitamins, minerals, foods, sunlight, etc. … so when you exhaust them, there’s a recovery period on the back end. So flow is actually a cycle.” For groups, a sustained flow state would create similar strain.

Triggering flow through self-awareness


And while research hasn’t discovered empirical evidence as to how one triggers and enters a flow cycle voluntarily, Kotler says that he’s found that it comes down to self-awareness. For the journalist, this means diving into his work as soon as he wakes up (the mind is naturally closer to the brain-wave state that triggers flow in this moment), visualizing the feeling of hyper-focus after having been in a flow, and expressing gratitude in the small wins of the day—which can even be as small as completing a workout.

“[W]orking out is so critical for peak performance: for mental peak performance, for cardio peak performance, for peak performance at work, in your relationships, in your life,” he asserts. “I’m training up grit and persistence and my ability to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Because if I can do it in the gym, when it’s just a workout, maybe I can do it during the day when it’s my job or my marriage or the stuff that really throws you sideways.”

Kotler states that practicing flow and reaching that high level of performance in everyday things (like working out) drives out fear and welcomes confidence into daily life. Yes, there is struggle. Yes, there is risk. But tapping into an individual and group’s potential through flow makes it that much easier to transform the impossible into the possible.

Video credit: Courtesy Flow Genome Project
Photo credit: Courtesy Steven Kotler; deepblue4you, iStock; Guy Kawasaki, Unsplash; Daria Nepriakhina, Unsplash