The Inertia for Good Editor

The Inertia

Steven Kotler wrote my favorite book a little more than 15 years ago, West of Jesus. It’s not about Jesus. It’s kind of about surfing. Well, it’s mostly about surfing, but really it’s about the science behind man’s need to put spiritual-like belief into something like surfing. That inevitably led him down a rabbit hole of asking why and how humans create a belief in anything. So in that sense, yeah, it’s also about Jesus. I guess.

Anyway, after digging into surfing, science, and the origins of belief, Kotler has dedicated himself heavily to understanding human peak performance. More specifically, he’s become the first name most people think of when the subject of “flow” comes up — being “in the zone” or otherwise being so consumed by something that time seems to slow down, reactions become automatic, and so on. It’s obviously a useful zone to step into if you’re surfing.

“Often when I’m skiing in flow, I will get directions — right, left, do this, do that,” Kotler says as an example. “You either do what the voice is telling you to do or you tend to crash.”

But aside from recognizing and understanding flow, a lot of people are just as consumed by figuring out if flow states can be summoned on command. Do peak athletes have some deeper capacity for finding it, or are they somehow more attuned to entering flow state at will than the average person? In other words, how does a person enter flow state at all?

Kotler says it starts with confronting the challenge-skills balance — the point where the task at hand slightly exceeds our ability. And the reason for this is actually pretty simple: because we pay the most attention in those moments. Next up is recognizing “flow triggers,” of which researchers have identified 22. And complete concentration is the most basic of them all. Turning off phones. Ignoring email. No television or other background noises. Etc, etc.

“Flow only shows up when all of our attention is in the right gear, right now,” Kotler explains. Research shows that even a knock at the door while working on your computer, for example, can knock you out of flow and unable to get back into it.

But all this applies to mundane, daily tasks like working from home and hammering out a large task. How does flow apply to athletes? We don’t bring laptops into the lineup (although Apple watches aren’t too tough to find in the lineup nowadays). So shouldn’t flow just be easy to come across during every session, every run down the hill? Kotler more or less explains that it all depends on the person. Curiosity, purpose, the pursuit of mastery, and passion are all just a handful of things that trigger the dopamine response that leads us into flow. Yet no two people have to be passionate about the same thing, are driven by the same desire to master the same task, and so on.

So, can you command flow at will? In short, it depends on the relationship you have with the task at hand and just how much you’re pushing on the threshold of your ability level.


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