“The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” by Steven Kotler – Book Summary
The Rise of Superman is a book about flow written by Steven Kotler, a multiple NY Times bestselling author and co-founder of the Flow Research Collective.
The story of the book is simple: Over the past three decades, action and adventure sports athletes have “pushed human performance farther and faster than at any other point in the 150,000-year history of our species.” The feats accomplished by these surfers, skiers, snowboarders, skydivers, and skateboarders have completely redefined the limits of the possible.
Their secret? They have mastered the state known to researchers as flow, described by Kotler as “an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best.”
Accessing flow states on demand is why action and adventure sports athletes have broken record after record over the last decades. It’s also the reason they have survived their outlandish attempts: “Quite simply, the zone is the only reason these athletes are surviving the big mountains, big waves, and big rivers. When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die.”
Kotler spent years interviewing and learning from these top athletes. In The Rise of Superman, he shares not only their stories but also reveals everything he’s learned about flow states and how ordinary people like you and I can access them more frequently so that we, too, can radically increase our performance and happiness.
1. The Promise of Flow
“Most of us have at least passing familiarity with flow. If you’ve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so involved in a work project that all else is forgotten, then you’ve tasted the experience. In flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.”
“We call this experience flow because that is the sensation conferred. In flow, every action, each decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed problem solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.”
“Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best. It is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided that certain initial conditions are met. Everyone from assembly-line workers in Detroit to jazz musicians in Algeria to software designers in Mumbai rely on flow to drive performance and accelerate innovation. And it’s quite a driver. Researchers now believe flow sits at the heart of almost every athletic championship, underpins major scientific breakthroughs, and accounts for significant progress in the arts. World leaders have sung the praises of flow. Fortune 500 CEOs have built corporate philosophies around the state. From a quality-of-life perspective, psychologists have found that the people who have the most flow in their lives are the happiest people on earth.”
“Flow is the very thing that makes us come alive. It is the mystery. It is the point.”
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, during which we both feel our best and perform our best. It’s a state of rapt attention and total involvement. You get so focused and deeply engaged with an activity that everything else falls away. Time speeds up or slows down. Your sense of self vanishes. Your senses are heightened. Your performance goes through the roof.
The promise of flow, and why learning to access this state more consistently, is simple:
- We feel at our best – worries and negative thoughts subside and give rise to deep focus, effortless involvement, full engagement, a complete merging of awareness and action. Freed from concerns of the pesky little “me,” we feel ecstatic.
- We perform at our best – Kotler quotes studies showing increases in productivity of up to 500%, acceleration in skill acquisition of 200-500%, and boosts in creativity of up to 800%.
2. What is Flow, and What Does it Feel Like?
“…despite the ephemeral nature of the experience, so consistent are its various features that Csikszentmihalyi was able to sift through the data and isolate ten core components which demarcate the state.”
“Other researchers have since validated these ten categories and they stand as close to a working definition of flow as anyone has yet produced. Still, out of this total, three of the components — clear goals, immediate feedback, and the challenge/skill ratio (all of which we’ll explore in greater detail later) — are considered ‘conditions for flow.’ They do not actually describe the state itself. Moreover, flow exists on a continuum, so not all of the remaining seven elements need to be present at the same time. Csikszentmihalyi uses the terms microflow and macroflow to explain these variations. In microflow, only a few of his categories are fulfilled — say clear goals, concentration, and absorption, or what would happen if Laird Hamilton paddled out for an afternoon of mellow Malibu surf. Macroflow, on the other hand, is what occurs when all of Csikszentmihalyi’s conditions arrive at once — it’s the full Teahupoo.”
There are ten components to flow. The first three are conditions, the remaining seven characteristics of the state.
- Clear goals: Expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities. Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
- Direct and immediate feedback: Successes and failures are apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed.
- Balance between ability level and challenge: The activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.
- Concentration: A high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.
- A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness: The merging of action and awareness.
- Distorted sense of time: One’s subjective experience of time is altered.
- A sense of personal control over the situation.
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so action is effortlessness.
- A lack of awareness of bodily needs.
- Absorption: narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself.
Flow exists on a continuum of intensity, ranging from microflow to macroflow. In microflow, only a few of the seven characteristics are present and the experience is said to be less strong, meaning it doesn’t feel as good and doesn’t accelerate performance as much. In macroflow, all the elements are present and the experience is as ecstatic and high-performance as it gets.
3. Different Kinds and Varying Degrees of Flow
Flow comes in two types and in varying degrees. The types are individual and group flow. To describe a single person experiencing the state, we use the term “flow.” To describe a shared/collective experience of the state, we use the term “group flow.”
By varying degrees we mean that flow is a spectrum experience, not an on or off thing. As mentioned earlier, this goes from micro-flow (weak experience) to macro-flow (strong experience).
4. Flow Triggers
“… we can now turn our attention to the ‘conditions for flow’ — the circumstances that speed entrance into the state. Flow triggers is the term we’ll be using to describe these circumstances and, over the next four chapters, we’ll be examining four varieties: external triggers, internal triggers, social triggers, and creative triggers.”
Flow triggers are preconditions that lead to more flow. In essence, the more flow triggers a person utilizes or is exposed to, the more likely he or she is to enter a state of stronger flow. Kotler defines four types: external triggers, internal triggers, social triggers, and creative triggers.
5. External Triggers
“These are qualities in the environment that drive people deeper into the zone.”
External triggers are conditions in your environment. There are three triggers: 1) High consequences, meaning there is some sort of risk involved. 2) Rich environment, which includes novelty, unpredictability, and complexity. 3) Deep embodiment, which refers to an overload of the senses, a kind of full-body awareness.
Here is some more information on these triggers:
- High Consequences: “…when there’s danger lurking in the environment, we don’t have to rely on artificial forces like office design to drive attention. Merely by plying their trade in a ‘high consequence’ environment — with high consequence being the first of the external triggers we’ll be examining — extreme athletes rely on risk to drive focus, the requisite first step toward producing flow.”
- Rich Environment: “A rich environment, the next environmental trigger, is a combination platter of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity—three elements that catch and hold our attention much like risk. Novelty means both danger and opportunity. To our forbearers, a strange scent in the wind could be prey or predator, but either way it paid to pay attention. Unpredictability means we don’t know what happens next, thus we pay extra attention to what happens next. Complexity, when there’s lots of salient information coming at us at once, does more of the same.”
- Deep Embodiment: “Deep embodiment is a kind of full-body awareness. Humans have sensory inputs all over the place; 50 percent of our nerve endings are in our hands, feet, and face. We have as many neurons in the gut and heart as in the brain. We also have proprioception to detect position in space, and vestibular awareness for balance. Deep embodiment means paying attention to all of these sensory inputs at once.”
6. Internal Triggers
“Just as flow states have external triggers, conditions in the outer environment that create more flow, they also have internal triggers, conditions in our inner environment that create more flow. Internal triggers are psychological strategies that drive attention into the now.”
Kotler writes about three internal or psychological triggers: 1) Clear goals, which means having a clear target, knowing exactly what you’re doing. 2) Immediate feedback, such as your heart rate or cheers from a group of fans. 3) Balance between skills and challenge, so that you’re being stretched to the outer limits of your capabilities but not so far that you’re anxious and overwhelmed.
Here’s some more information:
- Clear Goals: “’Clear goals that define immediate success’ is how this first trigger is typically described. Generally, the thinking’s been that clear goals help identify our task (so we know what to do) and align that task with belief (so we know why we’re doing it).”
- Immediate Feedback: “Immediate feedback, our next internal trigger, is another shortcut into the now. The term refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect. The smaller the gap between input and output, the more we know how we’re doing and how to do it better. If we can’t course correct in real time, we start looking for clues to better performance — things we did in the past, things we’ve seen other people do, things that can pull us out of the moment. When feedback is immediate, the information we require is always close at hand. Attention doesn’t have to wander; the conscious mind need not get involved.”
- The Challenge/Skill Ratio: “And that brings us to the ‘challenge/skill ratio,’ the last of our internal flow triggers, and arguably the most important. The idea behind this trigger is that attention is most engaged (i.e., in the now) when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task. If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention. Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel — the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap.”
7. Social Triggers
“As of late, we’ve been tracking a trail of triggers. We’ve seen how to tune external triggers, altering environmental conditions to get more flow, and how to tweak internal triggers, altering psychological conditions to get more flow. But Sawyer also discovered that flow states have social triggers — ten in particular — which are ways to alter social conditions to produce more group flow.”
The social triggers are conditions of the social environment that produce more group flow. There’s a total of ten of them, some of which we already know: “The first three — serious concentration; shared, clear goals; good communication (i.e., lots of immediate feedback) — are the collective versions of individual preconditions identified by Csikszentmihalyi. Two more — equal participation and an element of risk (mental, physical, whatever) — are self-explanatory given what we already know about flow.”
The remaining five triggers are:
- Familiarity: “means the group has a common language, a shared knowledge base, and a communication style based on unspoken understandings. It means everybody is always on the same page, and, when novel insights arise, momentum is not lost due to the need for lengthy explanation.”
- Blending egos: “which is the collective version of the same sort of humility that allowed Doug Ammons to merge with the Stikine. When egos have been blended, no one’s hogging the spotlight and everyone’s thoroughly involved.”
- A sense of control: “combines autonomy (being free to do what you want) and competence (being good at what you do). It’s about getting to choose your own challenges and having the necessary skills to surmount them.”
- Close listening: “occurs when we’re fully engaged in the here and now. In conversation, this isn’t about thinking about what witty thing to say next, or what cutting sarcasm came last. Rather, it’s generating real-time, unplanned responses to the dialogue as it unfolds.”
- Always say yes: “means interactions should be additive more than argumentative. The goal here is the momentum, togetherness, and innovation that comes from ceaselessly amplifying each other’s ideas and actions. It’s a trigger based on the first rule of improv comedy. If I open a sketch with, ‘Hey, there’s a blue elephant in the bathroom,’ then ‘No, there’s not,’ is the wrong response. With the denial, the scene goes nowhere. But if the reply is affirmative instead — ‘Yeah, sorry, there was no more space in the cereal cupboard’ — well then that story goes someplace interesting.”
8. The Creative Trigger
“At a fundamental level, then, coming up with original, valuable ideas always requires risk-taking and pattern recognition — and this means dopamine. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical released whenever we take a risk or identify a pattern. We feel this inrush as excitement, engagement, and curiosity. But dopamine does more than just stimulate our emotions and increase our motivation — it also tightens focus, drives us into the now, and, thus, speeds entrance into flow. What all of this means is that the creative act (one that requires risk-taking and pattern recognition) is itself an exceptionally potent flow trigger.”
“If we put this all together, what we find is a powerful reciprocity: creativity triggers flow; then flow enhances creativity.”
There is only one creative trigger and that is the act of being creative itself. Being creative “is the process of developing original ideas that have value.” Whenever you’re doing that, you are pulling the creative trigger, and you’re making it more likely to enter a state of flow. Once you’re in a state of flow, your creativity gets a boost. It’s a reciprocal relationship.
9. The Flow Cycle
“There are two common misconceptions about flow. The first is that the state works like a light switch — on or off. You’re either in flow or out. Yet flow is not binary. The state is just one step in a four-part flow cycle. It’s impossible to experience flow without moving through this entire cycle. And this brings us to the second critical misconception: that flow always feels flowy.”
According to Kotler, flow is part of a four-part cycle. Here are the four phases of the cycle:
- Struggle: “Herbert Benson, the Harvard cardiologist who did much of the foundational research on this cycle, chose that name for a reason. Struggle is a loading phase: we are overloading the brain with information. ‘For a businessperson,’ writes Benson in his book The Breakout Principle, ‘this may be concentrated problem analysis or fact gathering. The serious athlete may engage in extensive and demanding physical training. The person on a spiritual quest may plunge into concentrated study … or intense prayer, meditation, or soul searching.’”
- Release: “To move out of struggle and into flow, you must first pass through this second stage. Release means to take your mind off the problem, to, as Benson says, ‘completely sever prior thought and emotional patterns.’ If you’ve been cramming for a test all day, go for a walk. If you’ve been trying to master double black-diamond ski slopes, take a few runs down the blues. If the innovation team has been pulling all-nighters for a week, send them out for dinner and a movie. The method is unimportant. The message is relaxation. The moment this occurs, another chemical change follows: nitric oxide floods the system. This endogenous gaseous signaling molecule causes stress hormones to decline and feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine and endorphins to rise in their place.”
- Flow: “the zone, the flow state itself, is the third stage in this cycle. Struggle gives way to release gives way to flow — hallelujah.”
- Recovery: Flow is an extremely expensive state for the body to produce and maintain. It requires a lot of energy and a lot of neurochemistry and both take a little while to replenish. This is some of what goes on in recovery. More important, memory consolidation is taking place. Information is moving from short-term holding into long-term storage. Here, to borrow the gamer’s phrase, we are ‘leveling up,’ or, as Benson prefers, ‘returning to a new normal.’ But just like struggle, recovery is another cycle step that doesn’t feel flowy.”
In my opinion, there are some big holes in this flow cycle model: Are we defining flow as the entire cycle? Or just as the third step? What’s the timeline and what are the lengths of each phase? Is struggle really always required? If I want to experience flow playing football, do I need to go through the struggle phase just initially, to build up a base level of skills? Or do I need to go through it every single time I’m playing football? Or is it both?
While we can’t go into an in-depth discussion here, the reason the flow cycle is useful is because it emphasizes the importance of struggle – if you want more flow, you’ll need to put in effort – and recovery – if you want more flow, make sure your energy levels are well cared for.
10. Flow and the Growth Mindset
“In 2007, to see if their suspicions were right, Dweck and Bentley recruited forty top drivers, then tested them on mindset before, during, and after every race of the season. The results were significant. They found that drivers with growth mindsets were able to enter flow more quickly and stay there no matter what went wrong during the race. Across the board, they were the winning drivers.”
You’ve probably heard of the growth mindset versus fixed mindset before. People with the former believe innate traits and talents are malleable; the latter believe they are fixed. Decades of research have shown that people with a growth mindset are happier, healthier, and more successful than those with a fixed mindset. And according to this 2007 research, they also experience more flow.
If you’re not familiar with Carol Dweck’s mindset research yet, do yourself a favor and read up on it. Dweck has a book on the topic, aptly titled Mindset.