There are times when the work is easy. When it’s 3am and there is a connected feeling, when ideas flow effortlessly. When the inner critic who otherwise stunts creativity gets gagged, bound and shoved into a dark closet. And then there are the opposite times. When the feeling of being “blocked” or stunted creatively is powerfully frustrating and the inner critic rages supreme – where nothing of value seems to find its way to the surface.
Whether trying to break a creative block or sustain a creative flow, we have been searching for a secret on this topic for centuries. And unless you’re completely new to this blog, you’ll know that unleashing the creative potential in everyone is a lifelong mission of mine – both personally and at scale (ala creativeLIVE). I’ve given some talks on how I believe creativity is the new literacy and anything we can do to further creative forces – I’m all for it.
Today, however, I’d like we’re on the verge of something great. Getting unstuck using science. In this upcoming book The Rise of Superman (Amazon link here), author and personal friend of mine Steven Kotler breaks down the science of this state of mind, the science of ultimate human performance (called “Flow”)
YOU know what flow feels like. You’ve felt it creatively when amazing ideas flow like water, in life when everything is just right, or perhaps in sports where you’re “in the zone”. THAT’S flow. So what actually happens in our brains when we achieve this feeling of effortless creative energy? You might be surprised to find that there is a sequence and a science behind this “zone” of flow that you we can actually tap into with regularity, and in Rise of Superman, Kotler sets out to decode exactly this. He’s been releasing a series of trailers and interviews with artists (me!) and elite athletes (Dean Potter, Travis Rice, Danny Way, others) and has uncovered some common threads to their own experiences with Flow.
For all our benefit, I reached out to Kotler with a few questions about Flow and his upcoming book. The interview below is our back and forth…Enjoy.
CJ: How did you come to the idea of flow?
There’s two answers here. The first is this is not my idea. Flow research dates back to the 1870s. There’s 150 years of really hard work that has gone into this topic. Thousands and thousands of researchers have worked on it. I just stumbled into that lineage. The story of how that happened is told in my second book (West of Jesus), but the very short answer is that flow states saved my life. Literally. I spent 3 years in bed with Lyme disease and the doctors had given up on me. No one knew if I would ever get better, but for complicated medical reasons they had pulled me off drugs—so there was literally nothing anyone else could do for me.
But it was a series of flow states that brought me back to health. It was radical and rapid. I went from like 10 percent functionality back to about 80 percent in under six months. I wanted to understand how this was possible. I mean, on the surface, it seemed crazy. An altered state of consciousness beats back a chronic autoimmune condition—like how the hell does that work. So, some 15 years ago, I decided to find out. That’s where all this started for me.
CJ: Where does the term “flow” come from, and is there actually a definition of flow?
The technical definition of flow is “an optimal state of consciousness where we perform our best and feel our best.” But the reason these states as called “flow” is because of the sensation conferred. When you’re in flow, every action, every decision, leads fluidly, seamlessly to the next. In other words, flow feels flowy.
CJ: Is flow on a progressive scale, or are you either in or out of flow? My own experiences say it feels like a scale…a progression, but what does your research tell us?
When University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did his groundbreaking research on flow, he discovered there are seven different attributes to the state. This is essentially a checklist of things experienced in flow: intense concentration on the task at hand, the merger of action and awareness, the loss of a sense of self, the distortion of time, etc. And flow is progressive. It exists on a spectrum that is sort of like emotions. With anger, you can be mildly irate or deeply homicidal. The same is true for flow. When only a few of these categories show up, we’re in a state of “micro-flow.” When all ten show up at once, we’re in “macro-flow.”
[To go deep on the 7 Stages, how to get there, and what that unlocks, pickup the book here.]
CJ: Your book connects some very diverse terrain: action-sports, creativity, business, and neuroscience. How did you realize that flow crossed between them all – what’s the thread?
This wasn’t actually my realization. Very, very early flow researchers (back in the 1870s) believed they were looking at an experience brought on by high risk behavior (the action sports category), but, in the 1940, famed psychologist Abraham Maslow discovered the flow experiences are a commonality shared by all successful people. Then, when Csikszentmihalyi got involved in the 1960s and 70s, he discovered the state is ubiquitous. Everyone everywhere has access to flow. So flow applies in pretty much every domain. But this isn’t a business secret. Companies like Toyota, Microsoft, and Patagonia have flow woven into their corporate philosophies. A lot of the really innovative things that companies like Google and Facebook do to manage their knowledge workers comes down to flow science. Flow is everywhere in business—it’s just that most people are unaware of it.
Here’s a 3 minute video interview of yours truly and Steve Kotler about flow and creativity. You’ve felt it before, but you wanna get back there again, don’t you?
CJ: I’ve read the advance copy of the book. I’ve sat for interviews w you, etc. The book is really focused on action sports, but flow is certainly present in so many other areas – ie the creative process — as well. Tell me about that.
Flow is arguably as well-linked to creativity as it is to athletics. As a writer, I would be absolutely unable to function without flow. Every idea I’ve ever had for a book has come out of a flow state. Every article I’ve ever written that has won awards was written in a flow state. To put this in scientific terms, in recent years we’ve begun to look under the hood of creativity. We now know that the three key mental functions that produce the most creativity are mental risk-taking, pattern recognition (our ability to link ideas together) and the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system. Flow massively amplifies all three functions. It jacks up our ability to take risk by making us feel less fear. It amps up pattern recognition and expands the size of the database the pattern recognition can search. This is why studies have shown people are far more creative in flow. It’s a huge boost. In work done at the Flow Genome Project, we found that most people report being 7x more creative in flow—that’s a 700 percent boost in creativity. More importantly, at Harvard, Teresa Amiable discovered that not only are people more creative in flow, they report being more creative in the days after a flow state. Thus flow doesn’t just amplify creativity in the moment, it literally trains the brain to think more creatively over the long haul.
CJ: One of the core arguments of your book is that the chemistry and function of the brain actually change during flow. How does portions of the brain shutting down help me be more creative?
Flow is causes by profound changes in neurobiology including something known as “transient hypofrontality.” Transient means temporary. “Hypo” is the opposite of “”hyper,” it means to slow down or deactivate. And frontality is show for the pre-frontal cortex—i.e., the part of your brain in charge of higher cognitive functions—shut off. One of the areas deactivated by flow is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part houses your inner critic—that relentless, defeatist nag that is always part of waking consciousness. When the inner critic shuts off, we feel this as tremendous freedom, as liberation. This is fantastic for creatives. It means the portion of the brain that is always judging creative ideas—shooting them down before they get off the ground—is turned off. This allows you to move from idea to idea far faster.
CJ: You have compared the chemicals released in your brain during flow to some of the most addictive drugs in the world. Does this mean that people have similar feelings in flow that they might experience on drugs?
That’s a really interesting and complicated question. Flow cocktails five of the most powerful neurochemicals the body can produce and each of these neurochemicals have a drug analogue. For example, when you snort cocaine. All the drug does is cause the brain to release copious amounts of the neurochemical dopamine. Well, dopamine is released in flow. So are norepinephrine (speed), anandamide (marijuana), endorphins (heroin) and serotonin (ecstasy). You actually couldn’t produce this cocktail with drugs. Trying to take all those drugs at once and you’re going to end up drooling or dead. But the brain does it naturally. So yes, being in flow is an altered state, just like being on drugs. Does flow feel like any one of these drugs—not exactly. It actually feels a lot better. Moreover, while being addicted to drugs can lead backwards, being addicted to flow—because the state requires meeting challenges and learning new skills—leads forwards.
CJ: In your book and communications, you talk about this concept of “flow hacking,” or doing things to help trigger a flow state. Do you mean that people can create flow in their own lives?
For certain. Flow has 15 triggers—that is, pre-conditions that lead to more flow. Anyone can pull these triggers.
CJ: Besides jumping off a cliff on skis, what’s one trick you might use to help you get into flow?
As I said before, flow has 15 triggers and risk—or what we call “high consequences”—is only one of them. But even here, within the high consequence trigger, their possibility. For example, sure, you can jump off a cliff and take a physical risk. But you can also use emotional risk, social risk, creative risk—it doesn’t matter. It’s also very individual. A shy guy needs only to cross a room to talk to a pretty gal to pull this trigger.
But the most important thing to know is that flow follows focus. This is why people recommend always following your passion if you’re chasing flow. Why? Because our brain pays way more attention to stuff we’re passionate about. Put differently, a lot of what we call “flow hacking” is really ways of tricking the brain into paying more attention to the here and now.
CJ: I understand that you do a lot of consulting with business leaders on how to facilitate more flow in their workers.
Yes, I have done a fair bit of this work. My partner in the Flow Genome Project, Jamie Wheal, has done far, far more. The flow triggers we’ve been talking about are really accessible—it is not hard to design businesses around them.
CJ: Now that the book is releasing, you’re going to continue to work on flow research through the Flow Genome Project. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The Flow Genome Project is an international, trans-disciplinary organization dedicated to decoding flow. As you pointed out above, we do a bit of consulting, but our core focus is to seriously advance flow state research. We’re also in the process of building Flow Dojos—dedicated flow research and training facilities. But the most important thing to know is this is an open source project. The goal is to hack ultimate human performance. This is relevant to everyone—who doesn’t want to be able to perform at their best. Thus, we want everyone involved. Go to our website, sign up for Flow Hacker Nation, and get involved.