It’s not so much the sense of doubt and trepidation I remember, but more the awareness I had of those nervous energies dissipating. I had skied before but never on a run this big… never this fast. As we picked up momentum I remember a sense of elevated confidence as I ached for more speed. I looked up to see the city lights expanding far to the horizon and became enveloped in an overwhelming sense of awe. At this point, my hands were still clutching my dad’s ski pole that he held between his legs like a safety bar, but I knew that it was no longer necessary. I let go and for the first time in my life, I felt it. So began my love affair with sliding on snow in the mountains.
I was two years old, give or take. My birthday is mid-winter and the exact date of the experience was insignificant compared to the feeling that it sparked. It’s a feeling that I have now been chasing (and, thankfully, achieving) for over 30 years. As I recounted this memory in front of two ladies I just met, I was mesmerized by my mind’s ability to reenact the event with such vivid detail. I recited this memory in response to instructions to recall a time in my childhood in which I experienced flow.
Flow has different interpretations, but we all can intuitively relate. Some call it “In the Zone”, “Zenning Out”, or even “High on Life”. However you identify it, by now you likely have several images in your head from your own experience. We all experience times where finite moments expand beyond comprehension and your awareness is so fixated on the present that you reach your highest potential. It’s a state of being where anything is possible; and swells the boundaries of human capability to incomprehensible horizons.
Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal are so fascinated with the flow state that they dedicated their careers to dissecting its characteristics and revealing their findings to the world. In establishing Flow Genome Project they have cultivated a following of passionate athletes, artists, thinkers, and doers around the world who are committed to unraveling the secrets to ultimate human performance. This past week saw a few dozen of these cohorts—myself included— coalescing at Powder Mountain in Utah to experience practical application of the flow state in the mountains.
Why the mountains? I’m glad you asked. To me, they are the clearest reminder that our planet is in fact alive. What better way to enter flow than through immersion into some of Earth’s most fascinating forces? No two days are alike in the mountains. Subtle changes in the wind or temperature, among many other variables, can mean the difference between pure elation and utter frustration.”We get instant feedback in the mountains,” Wheal remarks, “and that lets us learn faster – and kid ourselves less.”
Steven Kotler wrote about this in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. The bestselling book explores various action sports athletes’ ability to harness the flow state. Kotler argues that these athletes have no choice but to enter flow; either reach that state or die. While risk is certainly a quick trigger to access that superhuman state, it is not the only way. Kotler spoke of deep embodiment of your surroundings: essentially becoming one with the ever-changing environment around you. This is true not only in the mountains, but in the ocean and many other environments where we can dispel the separation between ourselves and our surroundings.
To get to that state takes training and practice, but Kotler taught us methods to get there faster. One was “creatively interpreting the terrain.” In doing so you become an active player in the scene, putting your own mark on the terrain that surrounds you. Most people do this already, and as such they get into that state in question; and this workshop created a framework to replicate that more easily, with a motivated group to cheer you along.
The workshop, appropriately and phonetically titled “Flow and Snow”, was a four-day catapult into the flow state through various means. Powder Mountain in Utah served as an ideal venue with expansive terrain both in and out of bounds, and state of the art redesigned lodges to reconvene at for in-depth learning, comedy, and even dancing. Pro skiers Lynsey Dyer, Langely McNeal, and Julian Carr were part of the experience, working with attendees to really dial down the mechanics of skiing to allow a faster induction into that flow state. But this wasn’t a one-way exchange of information. In fact, I learned just as much from the various attendees as I did from the headlining guests and speakers. Included were bankers, lawyers, real estate barons, olympic athletes, even a guy who had just quit his job last week and commenced a vision quest to decide the next steps. Each person had a unique story, and everyone showed up to really dive into understanding their own performance in all aspects of life. Amazing things happen with that much energy toward collective intention. It’s the only way we as a species seem to be able to move forward, and events like these provide the kinetic energy necessary to send these ideas into a higher orbit.
Putting it into Practice
My own experience was a bit unique as I wasn’t sure which hat to wear. Was I to sit back and observe, allowing the event to take place around me and report about it later through words and images? That’s usually how I roll when covering these things. But this mountain environment makes me come alive better than anything else. The memory of skiing between my dad’s legs reminded me how deep my infatuation is in my life. So I assumed a role of service; helping out wherever I could and forgoing the backcountry pow lines for the in-bounds groomers. In doing so I was able to help a fellow snowboarder progress his riding ability by putting complex biomechanics into simple concepts. As a result, I found a new way of attaining flow: sharing the experience of learning activities and emotions that give you the greatest challenge and joy.
Everyone is different; it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to figure that out. But we are all similar in that our minds and bodies work best when pushed beyond our comfort zone. In doing so we tune into the present in a way that allows us to progress—not only as individuals, but as a species. So whatever your triggers are, seek them out. Your perception of time will expand, your experiences will feel more rich and impassioned, and relationships will take on a whole new significance. There is much more than that to understand about flow; but that will start you down the right course.
For more information on realizing flow states in everyday life, check out the Flow Genome Project and preorder Wheal and Kotler’s new book Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy Seals, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.