The Rise of Superman

Flow levels and entry points

Rise of Superman is about flow and action sports athletes. They achieve high levels of flow with regularity not seen in other fields. Steven Kotler explains how we can apply theirl techniques to reach flow in normal day to day work.

Why would you want to, anyway? For one, flow signals activities that go a long way toward happiness1.

In fact, when Csikszentmihalyi dove deeper into the data, he discovered that the happiest people on earth, the ones who felt their lives had the most meaning, were those who had the most peak experiences.

I’ve had after-dinner programming sessions where I look up and all of a sudden it’s 2am. Getting into flow at a desk takes a combination of things: a distraction-free workspace, headphones to block out noise, an interesting problem to work on, and on and on. Sometimes you get in flow, sometimes you end up scrolling through Twitter.

You can try that hit or miss approach or you can jump off a cliff with a wing suit on.

Different methods will get you to different levels of flow. I’m not planning on jumping off even a jungle gym anytime soon. What else can I try? It might just take picking a ball up.

Kotler points to traditional sports and includes a quote from Bill Russell:

“My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.”

You don’t have to be on the Cetics, either. This made me think of times when I’ve been in flow in the past few years. A pretty reliable method was playing basketball—poorly. Luckily there are plenty of other people at the same skill level.

When you’re running around the court you’re not usually consciously stopping and thinking about where on the court you need to go. Unless you’re setting a play up. Which is rare because, again, I don’t play at a high enough level.

I did a group rowing class recently would say I was in flow for parts of it. Particularly the end when it was timed for distance. At one point, the instructor was speaking to me directly and it took me about 15 seconds to realize she was even standing right next to me.

Being around a team or other people working toward the same goal helps you at least gets you out of your own head. I imagine this is part of why group cardio classes are popular.

Flow is worth searching for. I’ll start with looking for it at a local gym before jumping off ledges.

  1. I’ll probably read one of Csikszentmihalyi’s books next. His name pops up everywhere when learning about performance and happiness. ↩︎

Flow and Animal Chin

I heard about this book through The Joe Rogan Experience #873, where Steven Kotler was a guest. Rogan talked about playing pool and mentions a term called "stroke". Being in the zone. You're hitting shot after shot without thinking about it.

Once you realize you're in stroke, you're knocked out of it.

If you think about flow you'll get knocked out of it. Which could be frustrating if you're chasing flow. Especially trying to achieve flow at a desk. There's less physical activity to keep your focus away from deliberate thoughts.

In Sick in the Head, Kotler writes about The Search for Animal Chin, a 1987 skateboarding film with a bunch of legends. People were able to see the top level of the sport and practice the tricks on their own. One of the first steps to doing something is knowing it's possible in the first place.

Skate videos through the 80s and 90s let people see what was possible. Now it's a little easier to see top level performers.

Any smartphone or tablet computer opens these same possibilities up to everyone. Want some Animal Chin in your own life? Join an online community. Watch videos. Read stuff. Get smarter. Try stuff. Get into flow. Use flow to do something amazing. Post videos. Teach others how you did it. And repeat. That’s what action and adventure athletes did, that’s one of the main reasons they went so far so fast.

One of the chapters talks about Danny Way jumping over The Great Wall of China. Just a few taps and you can see it online.

If you're learning anything, YouTube probably has something useful to watch. When I was learning to draw1, I searched for artists drawing at comic conventions.

Some things don't make as much sense to watch in process, like writing2. But you can watch interviews with writers. Even long form ones from book tours. One of my favorites is a discussion between George RR Martin and Stephen King. I wrote more about it in an earlier post.

The internet connects so many people. You can see top performers and you can teach people out there who you're further along than. Take advantage of it.

While you're at it, check out Animal Chin in its entirety. No need to ask your buddy to mail a VHS tape across the country.

  1. I still am learning to draw, so I'll get back to this. ↩︎
  2. A couple years ago, James Somers made Draftback to replay Google Docs revision history. This did of what skateboard videos did. I watched some of it and an immediate takeaway was seeing him use a TK in place of someone's name. I learned it in seconds and still do that to this day. Using placeholders helps a lot for staying in the same context, which in turn helps you stay in flow. ↩︎

Flow junkes

Action sports are often marketed with adrenaline up front. The athletes are adrenaline junkies, living in a rushed state. The Rise of Superman explains that it’s far from the truth:

But they are all flow junkies—the difference is critical. And chemical. The fight-or-flight response—a.k.a. the adrenaline rush—cocktails adrenaline, cortisol (the stress hormone), and norepinephrine. It’s an extreme stress response. The brain switches to reactive survival autopilot. Options are limited to three: fight, flee, or freeze. Flow is the opposite: a creative problem-solving state, options wide open.

It reminds me of Alex Honnold, likely the best free climber in the world. The 60 Minutes feature “The Ascent of Alex Honnold” has footage of one of his climbs with another climbing expert explaining what’s going on. It’s methodical. The climbs can take hours. Honnold says that if he’s feeling that fight or flight response then something’s wrong.

Instead, he’s in flow. You can be in that state for long periods of time. If you enter a flow state doing sports can it help in other aspects of your life? Maybe:

People report feeling extraordinarily creative the day after a flow state, suggesting that time spent in the zone trains the brain to consistently think outside the box.

That’s not entirely scientific but I’ll take it.

If you can get into a flow state then you can learn to ride that wave for some time after.

I don’t have a wing suit and a cliff handy every day, so I’ve been interested in other ways to get into flow states. Team sports and group fitness classes seem to be a step in the right direction. Sitting still might help also.

High level meditators can achieve brain wave activity similar to a creative session in a flow state. “High level” means many years of practice. Someday it’d be nice to have a flow switch. In the meantime, I’ll continue working on the hodgepodge recipe of workouts, meditation, and standing on one leg in just this particular way. Whatever it takes, flow is worth it.