The Art of Impossible: the Playbook for Impractical People in 2021

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Mark Bidwell  [0:38]  

Hi, this is Mark Bidwell, welcome back to the OutsideVoices Podcast. This week’s guest is making his third appearance on the podcast, and I’ve been heavily influenced by his work. His name is Steven Kotler. He’s a New York Times bestselling author, an award winning journalist and the executive director of the Flow Research Collective. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on human performance. He’s the author of nine books, all of which have been bestsellers, including The Art of Impossible, which we’re talking about today, The Future is Faster Than You Think, Stealing Fire and The Rise of Superman, but both of those we’ve talked about in the past, Bold and Abundance. His work has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, translated into over 40 languages, and appeared in over 100 publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Atlantic Monthly, Time and the Harvard Business Review. He’s also the co-host of the Flow Research Collective Radio, a top 10 iTunes science podcast, and along with his wife, author,Joy Nicholson, he’s the co-founder of the Rancho de Chihuahua, a hospice and special needs dog sanctuary. And if he sounds like a remarkably productive person, listen to the podcast, because he puts a lot of that extraordinary productivity down to what he’s been doing for the last 30 years, and what he’s writing about in this book, The Art of Impossible. In this book, he refers to the work of some of our previous guests, people like Mike Gervais, Angela Duckworth, as well as talking about topics I’ve explored with people like Frans Johansson and Scott Page in previous episodes. And this interview could have run and run, there’s so much in the book to unpack, to reflect on, and most importantly, to take action on. If you are looking for, as he describes it, a practical playbook for impractical people, this is powerful, it’s relevant, it’s compelling, and it’s very practical stuff. Enjoy.

Mark Bidwell  [2:36]  

So Steven, wonderful to have you back on the show for the third time, to talk about your new book, The Art of Impossible, which I think is based on 30 years of experience. You describe this as a practical playbook for impractical people. Who is this book, actually, for?

Steven Kotler  [2:52]  

This book is really for anybody who wants to exceed their limitations, exceed their expectations, and take on big challenges. That said, that’s who the book is for. That’s what I mean by people with unreasonable expectations. This is a full suite peak performance primer. I think it’s actually the first time somebody’s used neuroscience to kind of say, hey, wait a minute, we’ve all seen pieces of this puzzle, and there’s great books on focus and great books on mindfulness, or gratitude, or habits or flow. And I’ve written some of those books, but they’re all pieces of a puzzle. This is the first time that I think you see the whole puzzle, and my point is, for anybody who’s interested in performance improvement, or improvements to quality of life, because they’re roughly the same thing scientifically, this book is incredibly useful, because I don’t think anybody’s yet managed to do this in kind of a how to form. Certainly, you know, the flow research collective, where we train people in this stuff, we train about a 1000 people a month, and have been doing this for a while. So not only is this 30 years of research into psychology and neuroscience, it’s been battle tested with close to 100,000 people. I don’t think that’s happened before. I think the book is useful for anyone, but I wrote it for my people. My people are those people with absolutely unreasonable expectations for their own lives. And actually, that phrase, unreasonable expectation, as much as I’d love to freaking take credit for it, because I think it’s wonderful, it actually belongs to a good friend of mine, Brian Ferguson, who’s a former White House staffer, but he also was a Navy Seal, and now works with high performance medical teams. And we were talking about commonalities among Navy Seals and US Special Forces. And he said, oh, one thing is they all have unreasonable expectations for their performance. And I went, oh my God, I think that’s almost every peak performer I know. At some point, you’re just somebody who wants to do something big. Everybody around you says no way, that’s impossible for you, and you go for it anyway and succeed. And that’s always sort of where that path of peak performance needs to start.

Mark Bidwell  [5:01]  

Yeah, it was fascinating because, as I went through it preparing for this, we’ve done probably 100 interviews on this podcast over time. We’ve had past guests, and some of the materials that you’re talking about, I’ve had those guests on. This echoes your point that there are lots of modules of this content, but you’ve pulled it all together. And I’m thinking Angela Duckworth who talks about grit, obviously, Michael Gervais, a guy called Frans Johansson, who coined the term intersection hunting in the context of corporate innovation. There’s also a guy called Scott Page, and I don’t know if any of these names resonate with you, but he’s at Santa Fe Institute, but he does a lot of work on using diversity of thinking and cognitive diversity,

Steven Kotler  [5:39]  

I know Scott’s work because the Santa Fe Institute puts on once a year, the strangest peak performance conference known to man, because it’s sponsored by Red Bull, and you get me or Anders Ericsson and the normal like, these are the peak performance experts, a lot of people are in professional sports, and then you’ll get the complexity scientists. And the last time I was there, I swear to God, a guy got up, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the theory of the random walk, and it’s basically an idea. He got up and basically made the argument that all professional sports was just a random walk, to like the coaching staff of all these professional sports, you basically saying, well you can’t train peak performance at all, because the physics says, ultimately, in the end, it’s around the block. It’s the craziest conference I’ve ever been to. It’s also maybe the loudest, the most screaming I’ve ever heard in one professional environment, which is that conference. It’s a blood sport, like science is always a blood sport and peak performance side just is a little more high strung.

Mark Bidwell  [6:40]  

In your last book, you talk a lot about Burning Man, that’s not an academic or professional environment per se, but that’s probably there as well. So let’s get into this. The other book which we talked about in the past, Rise of Superman, you took the examples from extreme sports and moved into other domains with this book. One question I had, often people, once they find a niche in their domain, in their circle of competence, they’re very nervous about coming out of that niche. You did that and explored lots of different areas, domains. How was it for you? And then let’s talk about what you learned from that process?

Steven Kotler  [7:12]  

So I’m not sure I’ve moved out of domain as much as you think, and let me explain what I mean by this. My whole career, for 30 years, as you pointed out, when we started, has essentially been spent studying those moments in time when the impossible became possible. And I did this in pretty much every demand imaginable, including action sports, but I did it in business in science and technology, and art and culture, whenever you see the impossible become possible, you see two things always. You see people learning how to leverage accelerating disruptive technology, you see people figuring out ways to expand and extend human capability. So I’ve written six books on the technology side of the equation, and six books on the peak performance, human capability side of the equation. It’s a weird thing to have expertise in, I will give you that. But where I started has always been a big trend, if there’s an odd thing out and you and I have spoken about this in the past as well, is that I’ve done a tremendous amount of work on the environment, and for animal rights issues and things like that, over the years. And so that’s the one where people are like, really? And to me,  my love of science, it all goes back to me being just an animal geek, I’m really fascinated with animals, their behaviour, evolution, where do animals come from, you know, all those kinds of questions were really core science questions to me. So in a sense, that was where my science education started back when I was five, six years old, or whatever. And what it produced was a foundation that allowed me to approach this bigger question. And whereas foundation, you can’t ask questions about animals without learning how to think about systems, because animals are part of an ecosystem. And so the ability to think systematically was something I learned very early on, it was actually not doing that. Most learning is very focused, itt’s micro to macro. And I’m a macro to micro thinker. I had a very hard time in school, because school is all about micro to macro, and I had to go the other way around. It wasn’t until I sort of like started really following the interest in animals into these bigger scientific frameworks, that I could start understanding all this stuff. Okay. And that approach led me to this question, what is taking you to the impossible?

Mark Bidwell  [9:26]  

I understand where you’re coming from now. But my point was, you made the point on a number of occasions about the importance of going outside your discipline, and the curiosity that takes you into different domains, if you like.

Steven Kotler  [9:37]  

So this is a very specific point that has to do with a couple things. You might have brought back into this with a couple more points?

Mark Bidwell  [9:46]  

Yeah, sure. Sure.

Steven Kotler  [9:47]  

So when we talk about doing the impossible, we talk about achieving these huge things, I want to be very, very clear that what science shows consistently is peak performance is nothing more than getting your biology to work for you, rather than against you. That’s a foundational idea. And it turns out, because the peak performance toolkit is shaped by biology, it’s a limited set of skills, your skill sets, but it’s a limited set of skills. They’re meant to be deployed in a sequence and in order. Let me just walk you through it, and then we’ll get to the last two, which answers your question. Peak performance always has to start with motivation, and usually, always starts with extrinsic motivation, things that are external for ourselves, because what the science shows is, if you can’t sort of pay your bills, and make your own basic safety and security, things aren’t taken care of as you know, you’ve just produced too much fear. It’s really difficult. You can perform at your best under those circumstances, but it’s really, really, really hard, you’re fighting your biology every step of the way. So you usually got to start there. But as soon as you start there, then you go into intrinsic motivators. And there’s five major ones, and they’re actually designed to work in a specific order and a specific sequence. Start with curiosity, the most basic motivator, curiosity can be where you find and this is starting to the question you’ve asked, intersection of multiple curiosities is how you produce passion. That’s literally the biological rushing passion, which is our second big, intrinsic motivator. We can talk about why these things are super important in a bit. From passion, once you have passion, the next step in the process is purpose, which is literally your passion attached to something that’s bigger than yourself. And this sounds very altruistic, it is, and that’s a huge benefit to the world. That said, it’s incredibly selfish from a biological point of view, when you turn passion into purpose, you get much more motivation. Internal fire adds fuel to your fire, once you have purpose, what do you need – the freedom or autonomy to pursue your purpose. Once you have that autonomy, what do you need next, you need mastery, the skills to pursue that purpose, it goes from there, on into goals, grit, next step is learning which sort of allows you to continue to play. Once you’re there, especially if you’re going towards big higher goals, you need creativity, how you steer. Especially if you’re interested in “impossible” goals, we can talk about what I mean by that term exactly in a minute. But by definition, these are things that are hard to wrap your head around, you need creativity to steer towards innovation, towards the impossible, all that stuff, and then you need flow to turbo boost the whole thing beyond all are reasonable expectations. So on the creativity slash flows enters this equation, flow states have triggers, preconditions that lead to more flow. Creativity, or literally insight, when you link two ideas together, that is a flow trigger. Flow, the state of optimal performance follows focus. So all flows triggers essentially drive attention to the present moment, when we have an insight we get the neurochemical dopamine. We’ve all felt dopamine, right? You do a crossword puzzle, get an answer, that little rush of pleasure? That’s the dopamine you’re getting from insight. It not only is a pleasure drug and a motivating drug and a focus drug, but it also helps us amplify pattern recognition, the brain’s ability to connect ideas together, which is foundational to all creativity.

Mark Bidwell  [13:15]  

That happens physiologically as well as intellectually.

Steven Kotler  [13:18]  

So this is the most important thing. Remember, I said peak performance is nothing more than getting your biology work for you rather than against you. What neurons do at the most basic level is pattern recognition, pattern matching engines. So we are all built to do this, like all of our brains do this, if you learn how to use them correctly. One of the problems with this particular mechanism in the modern world, whether you’re interested in more creativity, or more flow, and thus amplify creativity because of the flow, specialisation is what we do in the modern world, we get narrower and narrower in our focus, and that is really good for certain things, but creativity and that dopamine that is the fuel actually lights far flung connections between ideas. You get more dopamine when the sunset reminds you of your grandmother, well, maybe that’s an easy association, maybe you’ll get a little smile, but it’s not gonna boost creativity. But when the sunset reminds you of a weird physics equation that you learned in 10th grade, it’s a big gap, you get a lot of dopamine. And that dopamine is the fuel you want to drive flow, it’s also the fuel that’s going to drive creativity. So what I tell people is one of the ways to deal with this is, since we specialise, try to read 25 to 50 pages. Books are best, nonfiction books work best here, for a lot of reasons we probably don’t have time to cover, but nonfiction books work best here. I’d regularly read 25 to 50 pages outside my core discipline, but inside my curiosity range, if that makes sense every day. Because I’m feeding the pattern recognition system. I don’t have to worry about making the connections, because they happen automatically, my brain will do that work for me, provided I feed the system. System is designed to do this, but you’ve got to give it raw materials for it, and also remember that this system evolved back when we were hunter gatherers, people were walking around into new environments, we were getting a lot of novelty. We might be specialised hunters, but there was so much novelty in our world, this is when the system evolved. So you’re trying to use the system in the way it was designed to work evolutionarily to get maximum performance. And this little boost gets really funny, because it works really fast. Usually, after two to three or four days of doing this practice, your brain, you sort of fed it enough stuff, and it’s gonna start connecting stuff. And I always say just read something that, if as long as you’re curious about the subject, curiosity is a basic motivator, it also actually produces a little bit of dopamine and a little bit of these neurochemicals that enhance performance. As long as you’re reading something that you’re curious about, your brain is designed to go, Oh, this thing is curious, let’s connect it to this other thing that you were curious about automatically. Even better, because you’re basing it on stuff that you’re already motivated to learn, learn a lot faster, it makes learning super easy as well. So not only are you training up creativity and training up and amplifying flow, you’re also really helping yourself learn.

Mark Bidwell  [16:33]  

So these are the five,, I think you call them psychological fuel sources, which you stack, and there’s an order to them, as you say, it starts with curiosity, that brings focus, that brings energy, that takes you into passion, I think you say focus comes for free.

Steven Kotler  [16:48]  

Let’s talk about that for half a second, because it’s such a great point. We don’t have a lot of leverage to work with in the world of performance in general. We have our attention essentially, which is the gateway to everything we encounter. What am I paying attention to, what am I tuning out, and our actions. Our actions are mostly dictated by whatever it is that we’re going to do, meaning if I want to do X, it’s going to require X amount of energy. I mean, that’ll change over time as I get better and improve and whatever. But I’m an expert skier, every time I go skiing, it’s still going to take a skiing amount of energy, right? There’s no around that. So focus is where you can like, oh wait, I can get focus for less energy, and that’s where intrinsic motivators come in, when you have curiosity. So neurochemically, curiosity is literally just a little bit of dopamine and a little bit of norepinephrine, these two neuro, and what it gives you is focus for free. Think about how hard it is to pay attention to something you’re trying to read or watch or listen to, when your poor mind wanders. And the brain, to present your body mass is 25% of your energy at rest. So forget, we’re not even paying attention yet, we’re just at rest. So anything that gets you focus for free, which is a huge thing that we spend our energy on, curiosity, focus for free, you’re not burning all that energy, it’s happening as a pleasure in our neurochemistry. Passion, when I said literally, like curiosity turns into passion, you just pointed that out on the stack. What that literally means is if you find the intersection of multiple curiosities, 10 things you’re curious about, you’re going to get the norepinephrine and dopamine, all of them. Norepinephrine and dopamine turned up very loudly in the brain, that is the cocktail we call romantic love, the ultimate passion. Think about when you fell in love with somebody, you couldn’t stop paying attention to them. It was automatic, like not paying attention was the hard part. That’s a massive amount of focus for free. When you add purpose to it, purpose brings other people into the thing, and this is why I said purpose can be selfish. When you add other people to the equation, you get oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, these pro-social, pleasure based reward neural chemicals. What happens when you’re way more focused for free kind of thing. So this is essentially, all we’re doing is we’re stacking the biology, we’re stacking the neural chemistry, we’re stacking the motivators, and this is how the system is designed to work. Literally, we’re built to work in this direction, and if you will allow me one more point, not exactly in the book, but I think it’s still crucial, just short, when you don’t use the system the way it was designed, I like to say we’re all hardwired to go big. So let’s talk about depression and anxiety, which are the largest mental health plagues in the history of the world. One out of 10 adults is going to suffer depression this year, epidemic, huge levels, somebody kills themselves in America once every 12 minutes as a result, and it goes on and on. There are eight known major causes of depression. Two of them get a lot of work. Genetics – I can’t produce enough serotonin, I can’t produce a happy drug, or trauma, something horrible happened and I can’t get over. It turns out, first of all, those are misleading because no genetics alone cannot account for anxiety or depression, we know that. On very rare occasions where somebody can’t produce only neural chemistry. And trauma, statistically, most of the time, leads to what’s known as post traumatic growth, it’s a good thing and not a bad thing. So the versions of trauma that actually lead to anxiety and depression are a lot smaller than most people assume. The truth is the other six causes of depression are literally not using your biology the way it’s been designed to use, not trying to live up to your full potential. One major cause of depression right now is lack of meaningful work. This is one of the big six. What is the lack of meaningful work? It’s a job that I’m not curious about, like under the hood, what’s missing? Curiosity is missing, passion, no autonomy, no chance of mastery, and it doesn’t produce flow. Literally, if you don’t use your biology, the way you’re built for, you’re screwed. And by the way, nothing new here, nothing new under the sun. Abraham Maslow pointed this out, didn’t have the science underneath that, the neuroscience, but he said back in the 50s, whatever one can be, one must be. And he was getting at the exact same point.

Mark Bidwell  [21:30]  

So just backing a little bit, because there’s another really important point, certainly, for me, that came in the early part of the book. The main lesson from your work in peak performance sports, or peak performance generally, is that we’re all capable of much more than we think. And the key insight is that extraordinary capability is an emergent property. In other words, do the thing and you’ll have the power. The reason I’m so intrigued by this, I spoke to someone the other day, who’s a very successful entrepreneur, and she was a lawyer. And then next, literally, she decided to try to build a business with her brother, and they knew nothing about it. But they got out there, and they started and they work 12 hours a day doing market research. And it was a wonderful tale of getting into the weeds, and suddenly, it all started emerging, not the answers, but her passion for it grew, and it was an emergent property. Say a little bit more about that. I’m sure that a lot of people are listening and thinking, okay, that’s great for the 5% who are the Taipei changers.  

Steven Kotler  [22:24]  

Yeah, so first of all, I’m going back into this, I want to start with the actions for athletes because people hear Laird Hamilton surfing a 50 foot wave, and they think oh my god, that’s not me, this is not for me at all. And all that stuff is true. That’s what I started my career studying, and the 1990s an action adventure sports was the great era of impossible, right, we saw more impossible feats done in a decade than had been done in the history of the world. And all that begged explanation, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. What caught my attention was I was living in those worlds, I was living in Squaw Valley. It wasn’t just oh my god, these people are doing the unthinkable, it was the guy I would be drinking with in a bar on Friday night, would go out Saturday morning, and then do something that had never been done in all of recorded history, and nobody thought was ever going to be done. That’s a very different situation. And more so, action sports in the 1990s, this was like a home for wayward youth. All the people I knew, like the very people who were doing this, they all came from very little money. They had almost no education, they had, as a general rule, horrifically dark childhoods, bad childhood, really dark shit. And the community had lots of drinking, and lots of drugs. If you were to bet against it, the odds against this group of people succeeding in life was minuscule on paper, and yet, not only were they succeeding, they were literally reinventing what was possible for our species on a regular basis. So I didn’t start with the question of, oh my god, these athletes are doing the impossible, it was these athletes are doing the impossible. I’m a blue collar, like I come from Cleveland, Ohio, you know what I mean? I come from that kind of background, and so did these athletes. And when you grew up in the Midwest, and in Ohio, especially in the 70s, when I grew up, you’re not told that you can grow up to do the impossible. That’s not how it worked back then there at all. So that’s where I wanted to start. Those athletes plus everything else led me to the observation you came to, which is, we are all hardwired for extraordinary, but we have no idea, because human potential is invisible, especially to ourselves for a number of reasons. One, as you pointed out, it’s because our capability is an emergent property. This is an idea. It’s fitting that we started at the Santa Fe Institute, because it’s an idea that comes out of complexity science. And all it means is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What this really means in the context of performance, is we only can figure out what we’re capable of by stretching our skills to the utmost over and over and over and again. There are three or four subsets of ideas out here that are worth exploring. The first is that we can’t figure out what we’re capable of beforehand. This is not my work. This is David Epstein’s work more than anybody else and he wrote about it and range, but over and over and over what the science shows, and what David’s book points out so eloquently, is that we have no idea what we’re going to be good at, or what we’re going to like from the outside. And that means, even if you’re a professional athlete, let’s say you’re a skier, and I go up to you and say, hey, have you ever played jai alai or lacrosse? And they say no, and I say do you think you’ll like it or be any good at it? They literally can’t accurately answer the question. These are people who live in their body, and use their bodies professionally all the time. They can’t tell if I switch domains into a different sport, if I’m gonna like it or be good at it. So as a general, this applies to all of us, it’s the first thing. The second thing that is always worth remembering when talking about this stuff, and this is Laird Hamilton, the big wave surfer actually, was the first person I remember talking about this with, but he said, you know, people see me on 50 foot waves and they think, oh my God, that’s freaking impossible, I could never do that. That’s crazy. That’s insane. He’s like, what they forget is I’m 30 years old and have been surfing since I was four, and four year old Laird surfed three foot waves and five year old Laird, surfed five foot waves and seven year old… And so they miss, because progression is invisible, and so they see me on a 50 foot wave, and they, oh my god, that’s impossible. But last week, I surfed a 49 foot wave. So the difference to me is one foot. And that’s not impossible. That’s just the next step, so people don’t see progression, because that’s invisible. We can’t see our own capability. And disappointed Laird and I talked about that moment, too, and this is the biggest thing is, flow shows up when we use our skills to the outpost. There’s something known as a challenge to skills ratio, it’s the most important of flow’s triggers, and basically says, flow follows focus, so it shows up fast when all of our attention is in the right here, right now, you pay the most attention to the task at hand, when the challenge of the task slightly exceeds our skill set. So when we’re stretching our skills to the utmost, it is a precondition for flow. And unlike everything, most everything that we encounter in life, unless you’re dealing with life itself and biology, it’s linear. Technology, biology will grow exponentially, but our brains are hardwired for linear progressions, we have a linear bias, we don’t sort of see exponential growth, we can see those proportions. And when we think about peak performance, most people like in the self help world, for example, if you’re a self help guru, and you can get a client 5% increase in performance that sticks for three months, that’s a big deal. You got $100,000, $200,000 a year business there, blah, blah, it can stick for six months, you probably got a million dollar business. Flow isn’t a 5% anything. It augments motivation, productivity, creativity, learning, on and on, there’s a big long list. And just to give some simple numbers, McKinsey went out, and they talked to top executives about how much more productive they felt in flow. Mind you, this is self reported. They were like, dude, how much more productive are you in flow? So you know, give or take with a grain of salt. But they did it for a decade, and on average, the answer was 500%. more productive. That’s not out of line with other things you see in flow. We see learning rates, and this is research done by the US Department of Defense, among other people, spiked 240% to 500%. Creativity, this is work we did with scientists at USC, we’ve been at Harvard, University of Sydney in Australia, we see creativity spiked 400% to 700%. These are step functions worth change, and yet flow is invisible and the step functions that are coming. So not only we don’t know what we’re capable of, we don’t know what we’re gonna like, and we can’t see the fact that there’s a turbo boost built into this process over and over and over and over again, as you continue to stretch your skills to the utmost you’re going to get more and more flow as a result, and so there’s this massive turbo boost. That’s why it’s emergent. That’s why the whole is so much greater than the sum of these parts. All those things are invisible. And as a result, we see our limitations and our expectations, and we have no idea what we’re capable of.

Mark Bidwell  [29:16]  

Yeah, that theme, I don’t know whether you use the word in the book, but it was what you’re describing, was a compounding effect that over many, many years, it does go exponential.

Steven Kotler  [29:26]  

Yeah, I say the same thing in the book. This is another issue. I think when people approach peak performance, especially this stuff, they have two big issues. The first is they’re looking for something sexy. They want a shortcut, and they want it to be sexy. So they’re like, give me technology, give me a pill. It turns out, like I always tell people, if I’m being dramatic, and wear interesting glasses when I’m on stage, and I’m being dramatically like look. Over the course of my career as a journalist, I was shot at five different times. At no point when somebody was shooting, they’d be like, excuse me, sire will you put down that AK, while I ingest this substance so I can tilt my consciousness and dodge your bullets. That doesn’t happen. Or when the boss says, hey Mark, get the hell in here, I need that report due next week, but I need it now, and you gotta do it for me, my boss, her boss and her boss, and the fate of the universe depends on it. We’ve all had that situation or the much more familiar, honey, can I talk to you for a minute? When you hear honey, can I talk to you for a minute, you’re not like, Oh, hey, I got to get this EEG headset on, and train my brainwaves into a state of relaxation, so I can come there. That shit doesn’t happen in real life. So I like the psychological interventions, and the physiological ones because they always work. They work for everyone, because biology scales, designed by evolution, biology scales, but they’re not sexy, they’re not like, I tell people, okay, line up your intrinsic motivators, all these things, and yeah, those are the biggest levers in your toolkit, it’s hard to believe it. Most people want to think sexier, they want to shortcut, they don’t want to do that. And the worst part about all that is, while all these things work amazingly well, as you just pointed out, peak performance works like compound interest, when you stretch a little bit today, stretch a little bit tomorrow. And the real results don’t show up really for months and months and months, and then you just start seeing the beginning of them. And years into the process, you can’t believe how fast you can go. The example I always like to give people here, and I don’t mean this in an obnoxious way, I don’t know a better way to explain this, but over the past year, I have published a book, which is a huge process, I have written two more books, I am now about to launch a fourth book, I have started an eight figure business, gone from four employees to over 60 etc, etc. and done a handful of other things. And 10 years ago, any one of those things, forget five or six of them in a year, any one of those things, if I pull that shit off in a year or two, it’s a miracle. Thank God, oh my God, I managed to get this business out of the seven figures into the eight figures in two or three years. It’s a unicorn! And it’s not me, I’m not extraordinary, I always tell people, I don’t ever give these examples of if it works for me, anybody can use this stuff, because that’s actually bullshit. What works for me is almost guaranteed not to work for you because of biological reasons. That said, if I can do this, I wasn’t super smart, I wasn’t a naturally gifted athlete, I wasn’t naturally gifted at anything. I was born, my parents had a combined income of like $2,000, or some set shit. If I can go from A to B and to wherever I got to, I think it’s really possible for anybody. And that was the same thing I learned from the action sport athletes, I think the moral of the story again, and again, and I’m sure you’ve seen this in your own life, I’ve spent my entire life studying people who’ve taken on and succeeded in the impossible. I’ve met very few extraordinary people who started out extraordinary. One or two of the people I’ve met are like natural born geniuses where you’re like, Whoa, your brain does something my brain doesn’t do. Or they’re Kenyan runners, and they’ve got different muscle fibres than the rest of us literally. So okay, yes, there are those people. As a general rule, everybody who starts out ordinary. The people who’ve accomplished extraordinary things, they didn’t start out extraordinary, they learned how to do extraordinary things by leveraging their biology. The final thing I can say about this is, and peak performance meaning anybody who’s good in the world, at whatever it is that they’re doing, this could be a hobby, you could be a great stamp collector, I don’t care, your biology is the only toolkit you’ve got, so when you read The Art of Impossible, most people’s response is, oh, my God, I was doing X, Y, and Z, I didn’t know it had these three or four components. I didn’t know why. It’s a recognition feeling, it’s not oh, my god, this whole fucking thing is so strange to me. What is this blueprint? It’s, oh wow, I was doing like half of these things, I didn’t know there was a sequence, and an order and a process and a way. And that’s the experience of most people, I mean, it’s early days, I haven’t talked to that many people who’ve read the book yet. But that’s the overwhelming response I’ve heard, which is exciting to me.

Mark Bidwell  [34:34]  

It’s huge. There are some big blockers out there. One of them, I think, which I’d like to talk about is fear. Because fear does seem to be one of the things that we bump up against. And the wonderful example of Laird Hamilton, I felt fear every single day of my life. It’s natural. Can we talk a little bit more about that? There are some tried things that some people say you got to go move towards them, but let’s get into the details. What’s the practical advice for people who are afraid of public speaking, afraid of failing, afraid of breaking their arms?

Steven Kotler  [35:05]  

Couple of things in general. So fear, neurochemically, biologically is simply norepinephrine and cortisol, but it’s predominantly norepinephrine. Norepinephrine, we’ve been just talking about it as curiosity. So if I give you a little bit more of norepinephrine, it’s curiosity. If I turn it up a little bit more, it’s sort of a passion. If I crank it up more than that, you’ve got anxiety. It’s a little more complicated than this, but it’s a spectrum. In fact, there are a lot of mammals, cows for example, cannot feel curiosity and anxiety at the same moment. This is not my work. This is Temple Grandin’s work, she writes about animals and translation. Again, back to animals. She writes about it in her book Animals and Translation, cows can’t do it. They’re either anxious or curious, so when they’re doing animal welfare stuff at farms, if they’re doing something where they’re taking cows in to get something scary, people are nervous, they will find something to make them curious. And it can’t feel both at once. So one of the reasons you start this whole sequence with curiosity is it will naturally dampen down fear. The other thing is, you will come along the way and stack goals. So we don’t really, biologically live in the world. We don’t live in reality, we live in a reality shaped, this is complicated, we won’t go to science, but it’s predominantly shaped by our fears and our goals. And we don’t see the world, we see the world as filtered through the stuff that scares us, and the stuff we want one way or another. One of the easiest ways to, again, diminish fears is through a proper goal setting. There’s three tiers of proper goals that we need to set biologically. There may be more but three for sure. So there’s some natural fear panaceas built into the system. What I tell people is, yes, you’re going to absolutely have to confront your fears to achieve any of your really worthwhile goals. One, I also tell people, that they’re absolutely going to want to do it and they know they’re going to want to do it, and I just stop and remind them, think about all this stuff in your life that you’re proud of, the stuff that really made a difference in your life. I’m not talking about, and very few, when asked this question to people, I have never heard somebody say, oh, you know what, my uncle died and left me a million dollars in debt. That’s never what anybody says. They say, oh, there was this time I got a wild hair up my ass, said I was gonna run a marathon and I’d never run anything. Or I got a college degree and nobody in my family ever got a college degree. Or I figured out how to get paid doing what I love. Those kinds of things are the most rewarding, meaningful, that’s what makes life worth living, and we all know that. So if you look at your own history, your own history says, hey, wait a minute, when I go at the stuff that scares me, really amazing things happen. So first of all, in the order of the sequence of things, I don’t tell people to really start working with their fears until all of their intrinsic motivators are lined up, they’ve added goals into the equation, and started to train grit. There’s five or six different grit skills, depending on how you do this stack, peak performers all train. They still have to be trained differently, especially in the beginning. one of them is the grit to confront your fear. You mentioned Mike Gervais, he’s in the book talking about that, Mike’s very good on this topic. We know how to train people to confront their fears, and there’s no easy way, and this is where the thing that Laird Hamilton said I think matters so much. Most people, and I think this is very common with men, I don’t know how common with women, and I’m not going to speak for an entire sex, I was raised to believe that men have to be brave and courageous, and nobody told me that I thought courageous and brave meant I’m not gonna feel fear. That’s what I thought. That’s what I was looking for, and what actually that means and what Laird’s point was, courageous, brave means I feel the fear and I don’t care. I’m gonna do it anyways. The truth of the matter is, it feels awful, and it feels that awful for everyone, and it never really goes away. But you start to really like it, and the reason you start to really like it, among other things, is if you get good at this, what did we start with? Anything gives you focus for free, a huge bonus. Well think about all this stuff that scares you. How much attention we pay to that stuff, right? Can’t stop paying attention to the stuff that scares. So all the peak performers I know, after they get all this stuff going, will often, when peak performers are looking for the next challenge, the unreasonable expectations we started with, they’re always going to look for something that really scares them. Why? And they’re going to move in that direction, because you’re going to get a lot of energy and a lot of focus for free and they just know that you don’t take on huge fears all at once, you chunk it down, one step at a time, often. I will tell you this, you know, as a guy who really doesn’t like pain and has broken 82 bones along the way, the thing you’re afraid of, it’s always worse being afraid than the reality of your fear, across the board. I can think of some truly horrible things where probably the reality is worse. But those are the 1%, and 99% of it, as you pointed out, this is what you end up learning over and over and over again, and it is a cliche in a sense, but the reality of it is powerful, which is your greatest joys, your greatest ecstasies, your true happiness, meaning, wellbeing, all that stuff, lies directly on the other side is stuff that scares the shit out of you.

Mark Bidwell  [40:37]  

In the book, there are seven daily practices, some of which we’ve touched on already others we haven’t had time to. And then there’s six weekly practices. When we last spoke, you had three or four practices that give you flow in your life, which was to do with writing it was to do with looking after dogs. It had to do with animals, it had to do with mountain biking. I’ve taken that to heart as I said earlier on and redesigned my life. This stuff does work, it’s great. But I’ll leave it to people to read the book. So three questions that I just like to wrap up on. What have you changed your mind about recently?

Steven Kotler  [41:10]  

Oh, God, pick a day. I mean, seriously, pick a day. What have I changed my mind on recently? You’re looking for something that’s sort of big and sexy,

 

Mark Bidwell  [41:24]  

Whatever, whatever. This is Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner.

Steven Kotler  [41:28]  

I don’t know if I’ve changed my mind about this recently, I’ve been shocked by it. It surprised me, and I sort of changed my mind on it, which is one of the craziest things that nobody told me, you know, I’ve run big teams, I’ve helped start 22 companies, but I’ve never wanted to actually run a company myself. What’s amazing is, some large percentage of my staff have their dream job. They’re super interested in peak performance, they’re getting the chance to work with world class scientists, amazing clients, blah, blah, all that stuff. There’s a pleasure that comes from helping other people live on points that I didn’t know were there, on a much deeper, richer level than I kind of would have expected. I didn’t go looking for it. I was shocked by it, I’m thrilled by it. So really, I feel like, wow, I’m getting paid, and I’m getting this extra good feeling. So that one, big surprise that human emotion is something that shocks Steven. I don’t know if I’ve changed my mind on it, but it’s the biggest thing I can think about where I was just like, wow. The other thing that I will say is, my wife and I’ve been talking about this a lot lately, maybe you know this now that you’ve moved into the mountains, I’ve been experiencing this emotion I’d read theories about, but I think they call it contentment, satisfaction. It’s this weird thing, but I will say also, there’s another one that I was terrified. I think I was always terrified of contentment, because I was like, oh, you’re gonna lose your fire. It’s gonna cost you. You don’t want to be serene or at peace. And it turns out that’s not true at all, you actually have way more fire, it’s the exact opposite. So those are the two things I’ve been turned around on lately.

Mark Bidwell  [43:07]  

Secondly, where do you go to get fresh perspectives on the topics you’re working on?

Steven Kotler  [43:12]  

Well, meaning totally outside, like, where do I go for fresh, fresh? Yeah, I love the Long Now Foundation, Steward Brand. I always tell people, I’m like, look, TED talks are not how smart people talk. That’s theatre. That’s smart is theatre, if you want to actually see what smart looks like and sounds like, watch any of the Long Now Foundation talks. They’re all within my curiosity suite, but Steward Brand brings in people who are so, I mean, first of all, he just knows the most interesting, eclectic geniuses ever. So often I start there, and one of the bonuses of being a little more well known in the world, as it turns out, I can call just about anybody. I used to do it when I was a journalist from the New York Times, I called just about anybody and say, Hi, this is Steven Kotler with the blah, blah, and they would talk to me. And now it turns out, I don’t even need the New York Times anymore, they just talk to Steven Kotler, which is shocking. I basically troll the Long Now Foundation for interesting people I called.

Mark Bidwell  [44:15]  

And that’s 30 years of work to get to that point. Finally, are there any topics in particular that you’re really very curious about at the moment?

Steven Kotler  [44:21]  

So the next book, I’ve got another novel coming out, because in between the big thick nonfiction books, I like to write novels, because they are fun. The novel’s already done, so literally, as soon as I push through this book tour, I am writing a giant, Uncharted Wilderness of Human Peak Performance. The new book is on intuition. So I’ll be researching, what I think is the last uncharted wilderness of peak performance. And when I talk about intuition, what I mean by that is, we were talking earlier about hey, there’s your fears and your goals. The goal side of the equation, what is known as either the seeking system or the goal directed system is one of those dominant hoax systems in the brain. A lot of our brain is pointing in that direction, is used that way, and it’s the least understood of all these systems. A lot of people have worked on, like Daniel Kahneman, for example, they’ve worked on short term intuition. That’s really cool. It’s neat. And Daniel’s work is great, and Gary Klein, a lot of people have done some really neat work on that. And the neuroscience, which is what I’m interested in underneath it is great, and that hasn’t been elucidated. But that’s not what I’m super interested in. My focus, and you’ll like that immediately, most creatives, entrepreneurs, innovators, artists, whatever, the intuition that we rely on the most is not short, it’s what I call slow hunch intuition, it’s long term intuition. It’s goal direction over time, it’s, I’ll get an idea, I’ll go, wow, there’s a book at the intersection of neuroscience, spirituality and surfing. And 10 years later, I’ll be writing West of Jesus. And what is happening is the brain is steering you towards that thing over time of course. That’s the intuition that really drives innovation in companies, drives innovation in our life. Yes, we make a lot of intuitive decisions in our day to day lives, and you can get better at that, and there’s stuff to learn there, and there’s great work here, and I’ll talk about that, but it’s the slow hunch over time that I’m really fascinated by. And we’re starting to pull back the veil on, so there’s probably some science ahead of me, there’s some neuroscience experiments between here and there, at least in computational modeling of stuff. But that’s what I’m really excited about next.

 

Mark Bidwell  [46:45]  

You mentioned Bone Games in the book, which I need to read again. But there were some really good examples in there of people who made decisions based on intuition, which is probably 20 years of training that intuition until they made the right decision, so maybe you can blow the dust off some of those stories.

Steven Kotler  [47:05]  

But you pointed at the other one, why this ties so much in my work is, intuition, that Bone Games is about flow. So the question there is, why is intuition so loud and so accurate when we’re in flow? And that’s a puzzle. That’s a really interesting science puzzle to me. One of my longtime questions and 30 years of work took me here, and now I think I can start asking the question in a formal, reasonable way and not have a nonsensical answer.

Mark Bidwell  [47:38]  

Wonderful.

Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author, an award winning journalist and the executive director of the Flow Research Collective. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on human performance. He’s the author of nine bestselling books, including The Future is Faster Than You Think, Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman, and the most recent one, The Art of Impossible, which we are talking about in this episode. His work has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, translated into over 40 languages, and appeared in over 100 publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Atlantic Monthly, Time and the Harvard Business Review.

Steven is a remarkably productive person, and he puts a lot of that extraordinary productivity down to what he’s been doing for the last 30 years, and what he’s writing about in The Art of Impossible. In this book, he refers to the work of our previous guests Mike Gervais and Angela Duckworth, and talks about the topics that we’ve explored with Frans Johansson and Scott Page in previous episodes. Steven Kotler is making his third appearance on this podcast, and if you are looking for, as he describes it, a practical playbook for impractical people, this is another powerful, relevant, and compelling conversation about the results of his decades long research into peak performance.

What Is Covered:

  • The sequence of external and intrinsic motivators that produce peak performance
  • How extraordinary capability emerges in individuals
  • The compounding effect of long-term practice for achieving peak performance
  • Neurochemistry of fear and why peak performers set unrealistic expectations for themselves

Key Takeaways and Learnings:

  • Peak performance is getting your biology to work for you, rather than against you. It’s a limited set of skills shaped by biology, which are meant to be deployed in a sequence and in certain order.
  • Challenge to skills ratio is the most important of flow’s triggers. When the challenge of the task at hand slightly exceeds our skill set, when we are stretching our skills to the utmost, it is a precondition for flow.
  • Peak performers are always going to look for something that really scares them, because they are going to get a lot of energy and a lot of focus for free. But they don’t take on huge fears all at once. They chunk them down, one step at a time, and often.

Links and Resources Mentioned in This Episode:

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