If you want to do more, learn more, and gain more, you might want to think like surfer.
Surfing is a 1,000-year-old sport, and 20 years ago the biggest wave ever ridden was 25 feet. Today surfers push into waves 100 feet tall. Or consider snowboarding: In 1992, the biggest gap ever cleared was 40 feet; today that jump is 230 feet.
What’s behind the insane progress in adventure sports? Flow, says Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.
“Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, when you feel and perform your best,” he says. “It’s the moment of total absorption. Time speeds up or slows down like a freeze-frame effect. Mental and physical ability go through roof, and the brain takes in more information per second, processing it more deeply.”
Sometimes called “being in the zone,” flow isn’t just an experience for record-breaking athletes. “It’s ubiquitous,” says Kotler. “Anybody anywhere can apply the triggers for any task. And the amount of time someone spends in flow has a massive and powerful correlation to life satisfaction.”
Kotler experienced the power of flow 17 years ago when he contracted Lyme disease and spent the better portion of three years in bed. “It was like having the worst flu crossed with paranoid schizophrenia,” he says. “I was functional about an hour a day. I couldn’t work. I was hallucinating. And I was going to kill myself because I felt like a burden.”
In the middle of what Kotler calls a “dark mess,” a friend showed up his door and demanded he go surfing with her. “Just to get her to shut up, I said, ‘Fuck it; help me to the car,’” he says. After about 30 seconds in the water, Kotler’s muscle memory kicked in, his senses heightened and he felt as if he had entered another dimension. He rode his first wave in years and then did it four more times. Out of the water, his life went back to its disabled state, so Kotler continued his trips to the beach, and over the course of six months went from 10% functionality to 80%.
“All I could think was, ‘What the hell is going on?’” he says. “More alarming to me was the fact that I’m trained as a science writer. I was having a quasi-mystical experience. I was pretty sure the [Lyme] disease had gone to my brain and that I was going to die at any moment.”
So, he embarked on quest to figure out what was happening and discovered 150 years of research on flow. “When a person is in a state of flow, all five potent neurochemicals massively amplify the immune system,” says Kotler.
“Stress-causing hormones are flushed out of body in flow, and the autoimmune and nervous systems go haywire. Flow brought me from seriously subpar back up to normal, and it can bring normal people to Superman.”
Flow is the most desirable state on earth, but it’s also the most elusive. The latest Gallup poll found that 71% of American workers are disengaged. “The average business person spends less than 5% of their day in flow. If you could increase that to 15%, overall workplace productivity would double,” says Kotler.
Adventure sports athletes are better at hacking the state of flow than anyone else in history, says Kotler, who focuses on this group in his book, identifying 17 flow triggers–three environmental, three internal, one creative, and 10 social. Athletes rely most on environmental triggers, says Kotler, and the same principles can be applied to business.
Here’s how you can hack into your state of flow to create incredible results:
Flow follows focus, and taking risks drives focus into the now. For adventure athletes, risk can be serious injury or even death, but in the workplace it doesn’t have to be as extreme.
“The brain can’t tell the difference between physical consequences and emotional risk,” says Kotler. “Taking social risks is the same as physical risks.” Speak up at meetings, share creative ideas, approach a stranger or tell the truth when it feels awkward.
“In Silicon Valley, the idea is to fail fast or fail forward,” he says. “If you’re not giving employees space to fail, you’re not giving them space to risk. Move fast and break things. Engage in rapid experimentation. High consequences will drive flow and you get further faster.”
The atmosphere around you can trigger flow, and Kotler says novelty, unpredictability, and complexity will get you there. “In surfing, no two waves are same,” he says.
In business, the idea is to get out of habits and routines. “Automatic pilot is efficient and routines save the brain energy, but it doesn’t put you into flow,” says Kotler. Instead, shake things up. Vary your route. Even brush your teeth with the wrong hand. Against-the-grain tricks will demand focus, says Kotler.
Pixar is a great example of a rich environment, says Kotler. Steve Jobs designed an atrium in the center of its offices, positioning the meeting rooms, cafeteria, mailboxes, and bathrooms around it.
“Steve Jobs artificially created the environmental conditions that massively upped the amount of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity in the environment because people across departments and disciplines started running into each other and having conversations,” says Kotler. “As a result, flow, innovation, and creativity went up.”
The final external flow trigger happens when you pay attention with all sensory streams, listening, looking, smelling, tasting, and touching. Action and adventure sports demand deep embodiment, says Kotler. A kayaker, for example, pays attention to the environment with his whole body, becoming literally part of the flow of the world, says Kotler.
Montessori education is another example, promoting learning through doing and engaging multiple sensory streams. You can emulate its effect in the business world through whole body experiences and mindfulness. Kotler says meditation, balance, and agility training, and even video games will get you there.
“Flow shows up when we’re stretching, pushing our skills to the max,” says Kotler. “It’s an uncomfortable place to be in the moment, but the payoff is a deeper life satisfaction.”