A Conversation with Steven Kotler on the Frontiers of Human Performance.

Steven Kotler

We are unbelievably complex machines, operated by impossibly complex computers – and throughout history, we’ve been constantly fascinated by the ever-increasing capabilities that our bodies and minds seem capable of.  Whether athletic, intellectual, creative or collective – every generation of humanity seems to deliver achievements that would otherwise seem impossible.

Steven Kotler is one of the world’s foremost experts on high performance.  He is a New York Times bestselling author, a multi award-winning journalist and Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective.  He is also at the bleeding-edge of research around how technology and innovation will be impacting the future of human performance, a topic he covers in his forthcoming book The Future is Faster Than you Think (Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler, 2020).

In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Steven to learn more about elite performance, his learnings from working with the world’s most elite performers, and how we can apply those learnings to our own lives.

Q:  How did you become so fascinated with elite performance?

[Steven Kotler]:  I first started working with athletes back in the 1990s, individuals who were taking on incredible challenges, things that had never been done and which were thought to be impossible.  Over and over again, they met the challenge – and won.

Back in the 1990s, action sports athletes were a rowdy, punk-rock, irreverent bunch of people without the advantages their peers have today.  The folks I knew came from broken homes, horrific childhoods, without money and with little education – and yet, here they were… out on a semi-regular basis, doing impossible things and redefining the limits of what was possible for our species.

I was obsessed with this – and here’s the thing… if you’re not an action sport athlete, and you spend all your time chasing action sport athletes around mountains and across oceans, you’re going to break things… I broke 82 bones and realized that if I didn’t take my obsession beyond action sports that I would kill myself… I took that question, ‘what does it take to achieve the impossible?’ and tried to find other domains where people were doing it.

Let’s be clear’ there’s nothing super surprising about this – history is literally littered with stories where people achieve the ‘impossible’ over and over again.  It’s not uncommon, I’m just fascinated by how it works – the neurobiology, the mechanisms we can apply to the lives.  It’s been my obsession for over 25 years to really break-apart and decode the neurobiology of peak performance.

Q: Do you believe human performance has limits?

[Steven Kotler]:  There are certain hard and fast limits based on the laws of physics that I’m not certain humans can get beyond, but anyone worth following in peak performance will tell you that 90% of human performance is mental.  The understanding of that mental aspect of the game is brand-new – perhaps 10-20 years old.  Psychology goes back a lot farther, but the level we’re playing at now is very new.

The work being done around the neuroscience of performance is creating an unprecedented rate of change; it’s honestly off the charts.

Q:  What is the link between our states of consciousness and performance?

[Steven Kotler]:  The deeper I got into peak performance, the more I realized the commonality between every domain I worked in.  Whenever the impossible became possible, whenever skills went through the roof, you saw a state of consciousness emerge that we now call flow.  It’s a state of consciousness where we feel and perform our best – and 150 years of flow-science tells us that it doesn’t matter what domain you’re in, whenever you see examples of peak performance, you see flow.  Back in the 1800s, William James wrote about flow, then Freud came along and moved psychology towards the fixing of pathological problems, which led to behaviourism.  It took over 100 years, until the late 1990s, when fMRI scans of meditation and so-called spiritual experiences showed us that our brains are designed to enter these states of consciousness.

If you look at the skills that are most important for thriving in this current century, you see things like motivation, engagement, productivity, collaboration, cooperation, creativity, learning and accelerated learning.  We also know that we have a hard time training people up in these things, and there’s a reason for that – we still keep trying to train people in skills rather than states of consciousness.  It is in these states that we allow the brain to evolve to solve the challenges it faces outside the realm of logical decision making where we’ve spent so much of our time.

The cat is firmly out of the bag on this one… Just as one example, 55% of American companies are rolling out mindfulness meditation programmes this year.  Firms like McKinsey are self-reporting that their people are 5x more productive in-flow than out of flow500% more productive.  That means you can work Monday in-flow and take the rest of the week off – and you’d still get as much done as your peers.  Work two days a week? You’re now 1000% more productive than the competition.

If you’re not doing this stuff already, just know that other companies are, and if you’re not engaging in these activities, you can’t keep up, you can’t compete.

Q:  How do peak performers build resilience?

[Steven Kotler]:  Back in the 1990s, the psychology of training was a clusterf***.  We weren’t good at it until we got to know our biology – and so from 2007-2011, as neurobiology caught up we really started to understand the triggers of flow, and understand that we can get into and out of these states of consciousness as needed.

You can train flow very easily, you can learn to get more of the state of flow in your life, but can you consistently live a high-flow lifestyle? That’s where problems occur, consistently showing up in the same places.  If you see the motivation triad of drive, grit and goals – you see resilience falling in there, under grit.   Most people in the real world tend to have some incredibly rewarding high-flow experience, but without solving the motivation, grit and resilience aspects of your mind it’s impossible to reach flow consistently.

Again, this is not newAbraham Maslow pointed out in the 1950s that flow is essentially what redeems the suffering of life.  It’s the psychological reward for mastery and without it, hard work can lead to burnout.  With flow? It’s sustainable.

Resilience is a lot more complicated than most people believe.  Our research shows that peak performers consistently train 5 or 6 different categories of resilience and grit skills simultaneously; and you need them to sustain peak performance.

Q:  How do you translate individual performance to team performance?

[Steven Kotler]:  Research shows that leaders in flow tend to put their teams in flow, it’s contagious.  We also see group flow with shared, collective team performance.

In education research, we also see the problems that can arise.  When teachers are in flow and students are not, and vice-versa, it causes a mismatch in ideas with one party leaving the other behind, causing demotivation and other challenges.

We’re still learning a lot about how to harness group flow, how to utilise it, what kind of teams to build, how best to construct those teams – but it’s important to note that every organisation is a living experiment, every organisation has its own personality and will require different solutions to get into flow state.

Q: What has been the impact of technology in augmenting peak performance?

[Steven Kotler]:  If you go back to the very first Olympics, there was blood doping.  They were drinking cocktails containing a whole variety of substances to get better performance.  We’ve been using technology to augment performance for as long as we can remember, but the pace of technological change is increasing – and so those performance limits are changing.

I work at the intersection of disruptive, accelerating technology and extending human capability.   Whenever you see the impossible become possible there is always the leverage of some disruptive, accelerating technology and learning that has occurred.  It’s also important to note that our brain is local and linear, and we live in a global and exponential world.  If you want to keep pace, you have to perform and think at speed and scale – and we’re not built for it.  Flow surrounds all the brain’s information processing machinery, and allows us to take in more information, process and pay attention to it, find faster connections, and build new ideas.  Flow is literally our leverage for keeping pace in a global, exponential world.

If you close your eyes and imagine the person you’re going to be in 10 years… think about what you’re wearing, what you’re doing…. When you do this activity, you are activating a part of your brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, right in the centre of your forehead.  When you think about other people this part of your brain deactivates.  When you think about who you’re going to be in 10 years, this area of your brain is totally deactivated – it’s treating the person you are going to become as a stranger.  This is why people have such a hard time getting prostate exams, staying on a diet, quitting smoking, because the person who is going to benefit the most from these things is literally not you.

Flow produces a watchtower effect in your brain.  It allows you to get higher-up over your life.  A lot of things de-clutter, you get way more perspective, and you can often see and project yourself in a more accurate fashion.

Technology is also giving our brains leverage.  We’re moving to a world where brain-computer interfaces are becoming real – where we are collaborating with computers and AI (not being replaced by them).

Q:  How do peak performers handle failure?

[Steven Kotler]:  You are going to fail, period – it’s a part of operating at a high level of performance.  You are going to fail over and over again, but hopefully you will fail upwards.  If you look at the best of the best, you can punch them in the mouth, they acknowledge it hurts, they sleep it off, and the next day they wake up and get back on it.

There is a difference between physical and mental failure.  When it comes to physical failure, this is where you reach a point where your body simply cannot continue; but I’m talking about the mental aspect.

Peak performers are able to really regulate the highs and lows well, it prevents the exhaustion of the body in a way that would make generating flow states very difficult.  Research tells us that there are enormous performance consequences linked to mood.  High performance requires a certain amount of confidence and optimism – when you know that, you don’t ride the highs too high, and you don’t take the lows too low.  You get better at failure.

High performance is- truly- a checklist.  It’s waking up, understanding how many things you can do that day to the best of your ability, getting those things done, allowing yourself time to exercise, eat, rest, engage in active recovery, get some social support, have some mindfulness and gratitude time.  It’s a checklist.  Following a checklist allows you to channel flow on a regular basis, and building in active recovery prevents burnout – that’s how you build great companies, that’s how you do the impossible in art, sport and technology.  Listen, I’ve had colossal failures, but I wake up the next morning get to that first item on my checklist and get on with it.  That’s what I do over and over again – you have to just keep producing.

Q: Can flow help us achieve more?

[Steven Kotler]: We train people to automatize grit – we call it the habit of ferocity; literally the ability to instinctively and automatically lean-in to any challenge before you even realise you’ve done it.  When you’ve had a really hard day, worked your ass off, and make huge, life changing impactful decisions and didn’t even realise you were doing that? …that’s ferocity.  That shows you’ve automated the kind of risk-taking, leaning-in and challenge adaptation you need to succeed.

You have to align your passion, purpose, curiosity, autonomy and mastery – all these things drive reward centres in our brains (without them, we can’t get far).  You need to get to the point where, when someone asks you how your week, month or year was – that you have accomplished so much, it feels insane.

[bios]Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning journalist. As the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, he is one of the world’s leading experts on high performance.

His most recent work, Stealing Fire, was a national bestseller and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It documents an underground revolution in peak performance that is rapidly going mainstream, fueling a trillion dollar economy and forcing us to rethink how we lead more satisfying, productive and meaningful lives.

This work was preceded by two books about the technology, Tomorrowland, which is about those maverick innovators who transformed science-fiction ideas into science fact technology, and, Bold, which was called a “visionary roadmap for change,” by president Bill Clinton and spent many months atop both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists.

His previous book, The Rise of Superman, was one of the most talked about books in 2013 and the first book in history to land on the New York Times bestseller lists in the sports, science, psychology, and business categories simultaneously. In Rise, Steven decodes the science of flow, an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.

Just as Rise explores the upper limits of individual possibility, his book, Abundance, explores the upper limits of societal possibility, breaking down four emerging forces that give humanity the potential to significantly raise global standards of living over the next 20 to 30 years. Abundance spent 10 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list and appeared on four prestigious “Best Book of the Year” lists.

A Small, Furry Prayer—Steven’s book about the relationship between humans and animals—was a national bestseller and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; West of Jesus, which examines the neurobiology of spiritual experience, was a Pen/West finalist; and his bestselling novel, The Angle Quickest For Flight, won the William L. Crawford IAFA Fantasy Award.

Steven’s work have been translated into over 40 languages and appeared in over 100 publications, including The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Wired and TIME. He also appears frequently on television and radio, and lectures widely on human performance, disruptive technology and radical innovation.

Steven is also the cofounder of Creating Equilibrium, a conference/concert/innovation accelerator focused on solving critical environmental challenges, and, alongside his wife, author Joy Nicholson, Steven is the cofounder of Rancho de Chihuahua, a hospice care/special needs care dog sanctuary in the mountains of Northern New Mexico.

He has a BA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA from Johns Hopkins University and, whenever possible, can be found hurling himself down mountains at high speeds.[/bios]

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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