Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 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, 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.
Progression. It is a sexy word, often thrown around to show that athletes are taking steps to advance their sport. It has to do with ensuring a continued evolution. However, the root of progression in every craft — whether earning to jump your mountain bike, knit a hat, or play “Helter Skelter” on the guitar — is the struggle.
The Struggle, as it is called in academia on the topic of learning and flow science, is where the patterning of new actions occur. It is often physically and always mentally an arduous and painstaking process. Think when things are just not working out; you can visualize it happening and you feel that it is within your grasp but the execution falls short again and again until… it doesn’t. All of the sudden, it clicks. You finally put it down — the trick, the run, the line. You somehow ascend from wallowing in the deepest depths of despair to walking on a new, higher ground. You feel an unmistakable high. What was once onerous is now effortless. You are in flow.
Flow states have garnered a lot of attention as of late thanks in large part to Steven Kotler. Who is Kotler? He is a skier, a surfer, a mountain biker; a New York Times Best Selling author; the head of an animal sanctuary in Taos, New Mexico; and co-founder of the Flow Genome project. He recently brought the science of flow states into the mainstream, employing action sports as the medium to depict how truly powerful flow can be in stretching the limits of human potential, citing exponential growth in the progression of in nearly all action sports which not only rely on flow for proficiency but in many circumstances for the survival of the athletes who dwell in the upper fringe of their respective sport.
Kotler’s book The Rise of Superman: Decoding The Science of Ultimate Human Performance delves deep into these feats as seen through action and adventure sports giants, those who are changing the the game on a regular basis. The Travis Rices, and Danny Ways, or Alex Honnolds.
I spoke with Kotler about flow science and the practical application of the knowledge as it applies to action sports, specifically skiing and snowboarding. We started our conversation discussing the struggle phase of a flow state. It is the first of four stages that one must go through in order to get into a flow state — it is, effectively, the doorway to flow.
JP Schlick: For those readers who may not be familiar with the science how would you describe a flow state?
Steven Kotler: Researchers talk about flow as the source code of intrinsic motivation, once an experience starts producing flow we will go out of our way to get more of it, so it is one of the definitions of passion, if you look under the hood of passionate people, those people are passionate about things that produce flow.
Flow is this big dump of neurochemicals, shorthand for learning is the more neurochemicals that show up during an experience the better chance it has of moving from short term holding to long term storage. Learning studies done by the US Military show that learning is amplified 200-500% in flow which shows that flow can cut Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,00 hours in half.
Flow is important, no doubt, but if you want to master anything you will have to become very familiar with the struggle phase, otherwise the process will be long and not so enjoyable and will likely lead to an abandonment of the craft. But what if you’re good and you want to be great? What if you have a hard time getting into that space? What if the struggle seems endless and progression so far off?
There were years as a skier where I didn’t progress at all and I could rarely get into flow and a lot of it was that I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know how the cycles of flow states worked and all that other stuff. Those were really frustrating years, but you just put one foot in front of the other you just keep going.
Kotler spent the formative years of his career as a journalist covering the Freeski revolution, chasing would be legends around Squaw Valley, among them was Shane McConkey. You would think being in the company of greatness would rub off and Kotler would be launching naked spread eagles off the top of Main Chute in no time, unfortunately it’s not so easy.
I spent my life as an action sports journalist covering skiers and I was never as good as them. They were skiing all day long I was writing. So when I would go out and ski with these guys I would have this image of what they looked like and I would have this image of what I should look like skiing with them and that is how I negotiated my way down the hill, trying to match this made-up image in my head. What that was doing was keeping my prefrontal cortex hyper-engaged so I could never get into flow. One day I realized, “you know, nobody else is really looking at me.” The only thing the guys I skied with cared about is are you fast enough, can you keep up, that’s the only metric anybody seems to care about. So I went “okay, forget how it looks. The only thing I care about is speed.” As soon as I switched my focus to speed it essentially pulled the deep embodiment trigger—speed is a very deeply embodied feeling. I shifted it, and suddenly I was paying attention to something that was actually a flow trigger and I went from getting into flow maybe three times a season to getting into it every time I went skiing. You kind of have to be an action sports journalist to know what I mean, but you know what I mean, you have skied with super pro athletes and you have this way of comparing yourself to them in your head it’s totally the wrong metric and it’s keeping the prefrontal cortex engaged and it’s fucking you up.
The prefrontal cortex, as Kotler explains in Rise, is part of the brain that is “the heart of our higher cognitive abilities. It is the place we collect data, problem solve, plan ahead, assess risk, evaluate rewards, analyze thoughts, suppress urges, learn from experience, make moral decisions and give rise to your normal sense of self.” All important stuff for a normal, functioning person but this type of engagement in all of these processes is actually a hindrance to getting into flow—we want decision making to happen without our consciously processing it. When certain parts of the prefrontal cortex shut off “creativity becomes more free-flowing, risk taking becomes less frightening.” However getting to this point where you can regularly disengage so you can progress takes practice and is often very unpleasant.
We spend a lot of time at the flow genome project teaching people to struggle better, some of it is really the basics of learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable. One of the problems with our very cushy lives is that we are not comfortable being uncomfortable and the struggle phase for flow is very very frustrating. There is no way around it and you just have to go with that frustration, you have to realize that frustration is good it means your on the right track. A lot of people get frustrated because they think they‘re off the track, they are actually on the right track. thats a big part of it. For all this stuff you have to learn how to hold your mud.
For Kotler chasing around the best in the sport might not have been the best way to push himself and improve his skills. As he explains in Rise you must be realistic about your abilities and try to push skills forward in 4% increments. That may mean just tweaking a grab a bit more or pointing it from two feet higher than the last hit, it might not seem like much but over time it adds up and helps to prevent catastrophe.
This is really important, especially because we are talking to a community of athletes. The flow trigger and challenge skill sweet spot it’s like a 4% grade. You need to stay in your challenge skill sweet spot and advance a little bit at a time, you go slow to go fast and in action sports communities it requires checking your ego at the door. You have to prove it to yourself and nobody else because when you try to prove it to other people your gonna pull yourself out of that sweet spot and your gonna fuck yourself up, your gonna end up wrecking yourself loosing the season to an injury just because you were trying to keep up rather than progressing at your own pace.
While having a strong crew is important in fostering a flow rich environment (you often talk about group flow as extremely powerful) is it best to go out with people who are relatively close in ability? Will too much disparity in skill prevent getting into flow and hinder progression?
I discovered personally, and this varies for everybody, but for me I have found that I learn best when I am the second or third best athlete in the posse. That’s just how I am, I don’t want to be the best because I want somebody I to chase who’s going to really push me but if I’m at the back of the pack, which is where I was for years years at Squaw running around with Kreitler, McKitrick, and McConkey, it is fucking embarrassing, it was a different sport, what they were doing still looked like magic to me so I couldn’t figure out how to go from a to b; there was nobody out there I could show off for, I was the worst guy out there. I remember when Sarah Burke taught me how to huck cliffs and she was maybe twelve at the time.”
As Kotler notes in Rise there is a “critical misconception: that flow always feels flowy.” The flow state itself is only one stage out of the four and it is impossible to achieve flow without going through each step before and after. That means getting through the struggle phase on a regular basis and embracing the negative feelings that accompany this preliminary stage is necessary for skill acquisition, and ultimately performing at the highest level.
People ask me all the time, “you’ve written six books you’ve done all this stuff, what are you proudest of?” and the funny thing is I’m proudest of my skiing, and it’s not that I’m amazing — I’m still no where near it — but I’m 47 years old and I am finally skiing like I wanted to ski when I was 25. I’ve never stopped progressing and I am finally at the lower end of where I wanted to be when I was chasing people around Squaw, it took a long damn time but I finally got there.
Check back in for Parts 2 through 4, scheduled to appear on The Inertia Mountain.