Editor’s Note: This is Part 4 of a four-part series on the phases of flow states. In it, Contributing Editor JP Schlick speaks with The Rise of Superman author Steven Kotler and professional climber Cedar Wright, discussing both the theory behind these states, as well as the applicable and thereby relatable takeaways from experiences of both weekend warriors and tightly tuned professionals.
Flow, as far as our brains are concerned, is a drug. And for all of its benefits, deeply embodied flow (and its absence) is as capable of producing deep despair as it is euphoria.
“Flow is an alternative path towards mastery, but, like any path, not without its pitfalls. There is a serious darkside to flow,” writes Steven Kotler in his seminal book on flow states in action sports The Rise of Superman. “Flow involves tinkering with primal biology: addictive neurochemistry, potent psychology, and hardwired evolutionary behaviors. Seriously, what could go wrong?”
Thinking about the flow experience as a pendulum is perhaps most appropriate — in swinging to the highest of highs, it must also swing back. In fact, there is a difficult truth in the label “adrenaline junkies.”
According to Flow Genome Project director Jamie Wheal, flow has the ability to produce “bliss junkies… people who think the magical ease of the flow state is the goal. When they confront the difficulty of the day to day, they’d rather reach for a pill or a new lover or another meditation retreat than get down to hard work.” But even with hard work, the state can be elusive. Setbacks ranging from bad weather to injuries to navigating the job market after a career in adventure seeking; each setback is more than capable of lending to depression, anxiety, and even a lost sense of meaning in the world.
“I think that a lot of extreme sport athletes would probably be drug addicts if they weren’t doing what they do,” says professional climber and filmmaker Cedar Wright. “Certain people just need this certain level of intensity and need to be on the outer limits to feel happy and to feel fulfilled. A lot of people are happy just to have a safe and mundane and normal existence — that’s totally fulfilling for them. Then there are these people who really need to be at the extremes, to be pushing their minds and bodies in order to be happy. When they can’t, it gets tough.”
While simply getting back into the “flow” seems like an easy solution when we are feeling that urge, there’s a catch: following every great flow experience, we push the threshold for what truly excites us a little higher.
“Continuously pushing on the challenge-skill ratio means it’s scary here, and it’s going to get scarier,” writes Kotler. “Sooner or later, if we stay on this path long enough, pushing past one’s comfort zone is going to require exceeding traditional margins for safety.”
In an ideal situation, these risks are managed by the professionals undertaking them. But the majority of the athletes that have lost their lives in recent years have almost all been the best at their sport.
In the most recent tragedy on a long list of action sport casualties, Dean Potter and Graham Hunt died after attempting a wingsuit flight from Taft Point, a 7,500 foot headland that over looks the Yosemite Valley. Potter, whose career of edge dwelling is well documented in Rise, was calculated and made it a point to take the necessary precautions with all of his dare-devilish acts. Unfortunately, the margin for error in activities like base jumping is so small that even the slightest miscalculation can have disastrous consequences.
“The problem with wingsuit proximity flying is it’s a sport that gets more dangerous the better you get, essentially,” explains Wright, a close friend of Potter’s. “The better you get, the closer you want to fly to things. Everything’s happening at 120 miles an hour and there’s just no room for error. In climbing you can make an error or mistake and it doesn’t have to be catastrophic. It could even be inconsequential in a sense. You made a mistake but then you corrected the mistake.”
And while proximity wingsuit flying isn’t without these aforementioned inherent dangers, the underlying motivation in these sorts of pursuits is flow. After you have climbed the most daunting peaks in the world without the safety of rope and climbing gear and you have then free-based from those same peaks, what’s left?
“I actually think Dean was starting to mellow out in some ways,” says Wright. “In Dean’s case maybe it was just his BASE jumping addiction was just fatal. I think the BASE jumping is almost too much of mainline of adrenaline to your system in a lot of ways. I think someone like Dean is a unique case. He was definitely addicted to that being at the very, very edge of things and pushing right to where you’re staring death in the eye. I personally have never been like that. I have a higher comfort for risk than your average person, for sure, but at the same time I have a desire to be an old man.”
While there is a personal variation in our appetite for excitement, there are experiences on the back-end of a flow state that are shared across the board with nearly every athlete. Even after experiencing the blissful state of flow, there can be almost an immediate sense of loss once it is all over.
“In climbing we call it the ‘post send’ or ‘the post climb depression,'” continues Wright, “and it’s a real thing, especially when you really stay obsessed and work super hard for something for a long time and then you do it. At first there’s this moment of rapture and just being totally stoked. That quickly dissipates and you’re like, ‘Huh.’ Now you’ve lost that thing that was driving you forward, you lost that thing that you were obsessed over. There’s that moment of emptiness and almost depression that can follow a really hard climb or something that was really meaningful to you. That’s a real thing in climbing for a lot of people.”
As the late Dean Potter described in Rise: “When I feel that really draining side of not being able to enter the flow, it’s horrible. I feel helpless, lethargic, restless, disturbed. The positive here is I hate that feeling so much it makes me more focused. I take all the necessary steps to get out of it as soon as I can. Sometimes, though, I end up sunk in really bad place. True depression, trapped for quite sometime. At those times, doing anything hurts so much, I can only do what truly inspires me.”
Recognizing this pattern is perhaps the best way to navigate the doldrums that follow flow. The “post send” is, at some level, best treated as the morning after a night of serious partying: not giving the low anymore credit than it deserves, and certainly not attributing it to a new norm — it’s just part of the game.
“These states are some of the most addictive states on earth and they are very hard to deal with, you get the huge highs of a flow state and suddenly its gone all the feel good neurochemicals have exhausted themselves,” explains Kotler. “They take a little while to replenish. You need nutrition, you need sunlight, you need rest. You were super up now your super down. And I always say, ‘when your super down the hangover rule applies.’ When your hungover your brain says all kinds of negative stuff. When I’m hungover, I’m stupid I’m ugly I’m clumsy I am everything else you could possibly imagine, but I’m smart enough meaning I have been hungover enough to know — ‘okay I am hungover I don’t have to listen to that voice in my head, today I am going to watch football, who cares, I will wait until tomorrow.’ You can’t take yourself personally in that low. In both the front-end of a flow state and the back-end of a flow state you just have to grit your way through it, and I think action sports is great training for that.”
The full nature of our relationship with flow states is still largely unknown. We do know that individuals who regularly get into the state are typically among the happiest people on Earth, but at the extremes — past the artists, musicians, engineers, writers, poets, and filmmakers — stand the athletes who are no longer satisfied with what the general population would consider “extreme.” It is unclear whether individuals with a certain constitution and chemical make up naturally gravitate towards action and adventure sports or whether exposure to the sports in our developmental years may fundamentally alter our chemistry, rewiring us for thrill seeking. The most likely scenario is some combination of the two, nature and nurture combing to create uniquely risk tolerant population.
The second problem with regularly pursuing a flow experience is going from that routine to not being able to pursue new heights every day. It can make us depressed and even the idea of having to resign our days to being behind a desk can make the strongest stoic tremble. But flow is largely dependent on our perception, and thinking that something is not stimulating and not worth your your time is a sure fire way to lock yourself out of the state.
“When people transition from, say, a professional career to the harsh realities of having to work nine to five, that can be really difficult,” explains Wright. “But on the other side of it, there’s no substitute for really hard work; and most great climbs, especially first ascents, were achieved through a lot of hard work — and that does transfer over. I have seen people take that obsession for climbing and for pushing themselves and for having high level achievement and then applying that into their careers later in life and having successful businesses or being very successful in other aspects of their life.”
The term “autotelic” refers to actives that are, in a sense, self-contained. Rather than undertaking an activity for some perceived future benefit, an autotelic experience is something that is undertaken because the act of engaging in the activity is itself rewarding. Thus, perfecting your skills mountain biking — learning to hit bigger jumps and ride steeper more technical lines — is an autotelic experience as long as the thrill and challenge of shredding down the hill is the reason for hitting the trails in the first place. But if the goal is to increase your skills in hopes of getting good enough to one day get sponsored and get free bikes, or even a paycheck, then the activity ceases to be autotelic and the odds of experiencing flow drops off dramatically.
The same holds true for competition. As Flow author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes: “the challenges of competition can be stimulating and enjoyable. But when beating the opponent takes precedence in the mind over performing as well as possible, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.”
If we are to flourish, it requires forming an autotelic persona and perspective towards all activities in our daily lives.
“So much of what we ordinarily do has no value in itself, and we do it only because we have to do it, or because we expect some future benefit from it,” writes Csikzentmihalyi. “When an experience is intrinsically rewarding it is justified in the present instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain.”
It is not the activity that determines the potential for flow it is largely our perception of that activity and the level of focus we are willing to commit to it. It is up to us to bring flow to all aspects of our lives.
“To many people activities like working or raising children provide more flow than playing a game or painting a picture, because these individuals have learned to perceive opportunities in such mundane tasks that other do not see,” explains Csikzentmihalyi, offering a comforting sentiment for those of who have dedicated our lives to thrill seeking at one time or another and are now feeling shackled to the whims and woes of a society that has come to devalue flow inducing activities at an increasing rate over the years.
“How many people have stopped playing guitar, writing poetry, or painting water colors — activities packed with flow triggers — because these are also activities that do not squarely fit into culturally acceptable responsibility categories like ‘career’ or ‘children’?” asks Kotler. “If we are hunting the highest versions of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way around.”
Flow has the ability to make us masters of our own lives and of our happiness but it also has the ability to drag us to very dark and desperate places if we let it. It requires a deep sense of self knowledge and the skills to evaluate what is a genuine personality trait and what is a result of us not getting our flow fix. We should get out on the hills and into the water as much as we can. But if not being in the mountains every day leaves us miserable, it may be time to reassess our approach to the day to day. Ultimately, we should not allow ourselves to be held captive to certain “extreme” actives to feel alive. Instead, we should learn to seek out flow in everything that we do.
Photo and trailer courtesy of Cedar Wright is from he and Alex Honnold’s Sufferfest excursions. Buy Sufferfest 1 & 2 on Vimeo on Demand.
Don’t forget to catch up with the Flow States series, Parts 1, 2, and 3: