secret > The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer

Which are the important things that this book tell us
Steven Kotler explores the theme of exceptional performance through studies, analysis, interviews and personal experiences, to discover the formula that leads to “do the impossible” and make it accessible to everyone. He moves from four assumptions:

  • the impossible is such because the road to reach it has not yet been found
  • this road, once found by some “pioneer”, can be transformed into a method
  • this method, rather than on behaviours, is based on biological correlates at the basis of them
  • since as human beings we all function biologically in the same way, we can all successfully apply the method

Is there a psychophysical, biological state that is at the basis of achieving exceptional results in every area of life, whether it is sport, art, or business? Kotler says yes, and identifies it in Flow: it is not new, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi already spoke about it in the 70s of the last century. What Kotler adds is, on the one hand, a solid neuroscientific basis that explains not only how flow works, but also how we can actively research and support it consciously to derive maximum benefit in an intentional way (the method, precisely). On the other hand, the fact that flow is certainly a necessary condition to achieve peak performance, but not sufficient: in fact, motivation, learning skills and creativity are also needed, skills that also nourish the flow and are strengthened with it, so that the results are truly excellent and lasting.

What is the biological formula for the impossible? The answer is flow

Since the impossible is always a difficult task, elite artists never rely on a single source of fuel to sustain them along the way. (…). On the physical level (…) elite artists always try to sleep and exercise and maintain proper hydration and nutrition. (…). Equally crucial, elite performers accumulate psychological fuel sources. They cultivate and align drivers as curiosity, passion and purpose. By using these mental energy sources, they provide on-demand access to all of lifes most powerful emotional fuels

If our goal is to stay in the challenge-skill sweet place to maximize the time we spend in the area, then we need to be constantly stretching ourselves to the limit of our capabilities. (…). Lifelong learning (…) is the foundation of a high-flow lifestyle”

… the bigger the dream, the less visible the path. That is to say, in the endless game of peak performance, motivation brings you into the game, learning allows you to continue to play, but creativity is the way to drive

In the stream, we no longer use brains, we use less. (…) The prefrontal cortex is a powerful place. As we have seen, it is home to many of our higher cognitive functions (…) and yet, in the stream, this part of the brain shuts down

Neurobiologically, the flow arises after our senses detect a serious increase in salience (…) the flow begins with the decision to react

Once the intrinsic drivers are aligned and the targets are stacked, everything else is planning (…) the biggest time sucks in this list are the need to start the day with 90 to 120 minutes of uninterrupted concentration devoted to your most difficult task and the need, at least once a week,  to spend two to six hours doing maximum flow activity

Structure and contents of the book
Motivation, learning, creativity and flow. To each of the four elements of impossible performance Kotler dedicates a section of his book: he describes them from a neuroscientific point of view, explains how to make our action particularly effective, and above all indicates the method to be followed to train them. The narrative is extremely analytical, goes into detail of the essential components of each dimension: it is therefore extremely complex, if not impractical, to make a summary, because it could omit elements that are important in the definition of the method. However, it seems interesting to isolate some points that bring something new to these issues.

– The first is the importance of purpose as a trigger to motivation and flow itself. Kotler refers to the evolutionary need of relationship and connection with others, and explains that having a purpose changes the brain: decreases the responsiveness of the amygdala, the volume of the medial temporal cortex and increases that of the right insular cortex. This results in less stress, increased resilience, deeper perception, general well-being, less tendency to mental rumination and more focus. All components of flow. In addition, the purpose is the basis for identifying significant objectives, that stimulate us to implement the real trigger of flow: the acceptance of the challenge presented by the context.

– The second is the urge to constantly take care of our physical and mental well-being. Kotler shows us how this is the basis to access the energy needed to ignite all the flow elements. Very concrete suggestions are given in the book, including sleeping at least seven/eight hours a day, exercise for at least one hour three times a week, devote daily mental training spaces with mindfulness, develop a positive inner dialogue and an attitude of gratitude.

– The third is the description of flow as a process, which needs to touch all its four dimensions to activate. It is therefore not possible to live in a perennial flow, but we can maximize the time in which we are in this state and, above all, create intentionally the conditions required for its emergence. At least two phases of this process are unpleasant: indeed it starts with a state of frustration related to the need to exit the comfort zone for facing new challenges. At this stage we need to learn to feel able enough to face the challenge, and to find the motivation to resist fatigue and difficulties that innovations bring. The ability to learn, motivation, grit are therefore indispensable. Even the last phase is tiring, because the exit from the flow involves fatigue and requires rest and activities that recharge batteries: walks, bland physical activities, readings. The second phase is that of relaxation: the mind needs to work at an unconscious level to digest what has learned in the first phase and feel ready to take up the challenge. So it is necessary to detach and devote oneself to something physical, even just taking a shower, or driving, something that occupies little of our thoughts and leave to mind the energy needed to develop creativity and learning. 

The state of flow, the third in the process, comes just when we think we have detached, and instead arrives a insight, a spike in attention that we choose to address, turning frustration into courage. For this state to be maximized you need to devote time without distractions, and avoid activating the voice of the internal critic: and here the developed mental skills are useful in learning, motivation and creativity. Particularly interesting are the parts in which are described the methods to train the different capacity: Kotler is extremely concrete and pragmatic, consistent with his idea that to get into flow you can just follow a check list. You arrive at the end of the book with a detailed Action Plan, which goes from steps needed to identify your purpose to the number and characteristics of books to read for to develop curiosity and learning skills; from the hours to dedicate every day to meditation, to gratitude, to exercise up to fear management techniques; from suggestions to tackle a problem with creativity to the instructions to write a clear goal. So, if we want to maximize our flow state, its all about making a list of things to do and… start putting it into practice!

Flowing in style and interspersed with numerous examples, the book is still dense for the great quantity of information it proposes and the analyticity with which it describes the different flow dimensions. It captures you for the ability to describe in simple terms how we work from a neurolobiological point of view, and for the concreteness of the operational indications that it proposes: at the same time, however, for the level of deepening it risks to make everyone perceive everything as very complex, and therefore difficult to act, thwarting the initial purpose. The activities proposed as preparatory to flow, which if taken one at a time are easily applicable, appear demanding when they are put in sequence, especially if compared to our typical days: Kotler suggests to spend two hours a day without interruptions and distractions to the activity we want to carry out in flow, to do one hour of physical exercise for at least three days to week, twenty minutes of mental rest, read 25 pages a day of books that talk about topics that e dont know, five minutes of goal setting, five minutes of gratitude practice… where find all these spaces in our already full agendas? Nevertheless, I think it is worth working on: without having to apply the entire proposed check list, I believe that each of us can find a couple of activities to be included in their routine that can actually change our approach to challenges and give us access to this state of grace.