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Steven Kotler on Flow and Neurobiology

By January 21, 2021 January 31st, 2021 One Comment

Today Mark is talking to Steven Kotler  (kotler.steven) prolific author and expert on the state of flow. Among his many books, he is the co-author of Stealing Fire and his most recent book is The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer, just released yesterday. He is also one of the co-founders of the Flow Genome Project and the founder of the Flow Research Collective.

Hear how:

  • Flow is the optimal state of consciousness—six core characteristics emerge for us to feel and perform our best
  • There is early-stage passion and late-stage passion—your passion and purpose are earned over time
  • The time of crisis is the time for you to double-down on your primary flow activity

Listen in for a better understanding of how you can unlock your flow and live in an optimal experience during these VUCA times.

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Hey folks. This is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining me today.

We are going to have a fascinating conversation with Steven Kotler, one of my favorite authors and breakthrough artists to help us all perform at our peak and tap that peak potential – operating in flow state author of “Stealing Fire.” An outstanding book that you need to read if you haven’t.

Before we get into Steven and our conversation, I just wanted to mention that the California government willing – we are planning to have our SEAL-fit events in March as well as our Unbeatable Mind experience in March…

Now we’re expecting to have some challenges with it – so be patient. We are planning on using all testing protocols and making sure everyone’s safe. And that we have a safe event.

But who knows? They might just flat out make it illegal for us to do it. So just stand by on that.

But right now, it’s all systems go. And if the Unbeatable Mind experience has a similar fate, then we will definitely be doing a virtual Unbeatable Mind experience that we did in September, and it was a phenomenal event, really. It’s quite profound to see everyone in the tribe experiencing virtually, what we’re doing live.

And then the live event we will have a very small team of our tip of the spear members there participating in all the immersive, embodied training of the Unbeatable Mind operating system.

So check out if you’re interested in getting out of the house and doing something challenging in March. I appreciate that.

So like I said, Steven – I first met Steven a few years ago – actually, I think I’ve interviewed you a few times – a couple times, right? And also your partner in The Flow Genome Project – Jamie Wheal. You had The Flow Genome Project.

And I remember missing an opportunity to go skiing with you and a bunch of peak performers up at Eden, Utah… at powder mountain. And really pushing the envelope with this idea of flow.

And now you’ve gone beyond that – you’re still working on that project because it’s a never-ending bastion of opportunity and research.

But you’ve gone beyond that, to really look at what we were just talking beforehand. Kind of the rest of the story. And that flow is just one side of performance.

And your new book – which comes out as we’re recording this today – is called “The Art of Impossible.” Super-stoked.

So can you give us – without getting into all the nitty, gritty detail right away about some of your discoveries – just a little bit of the back story on what you learned with flow, Flow Genome Project, Stealing Fire… some of the biggest “aha” moments.

And then also what was missing that led you this current trajectory.

Steven: So Mark one thing – Flow Genome Project – old project, left it a bunch of years ago… started The Flow Research Collective. Focused really predominantly on the neurobiology of flow. Jamie was doing a lot of other things with Flow Genome Project that weren’t really what I was doing. So I left and have been working with The Flow Research Collective – which I started.

And sort of this book came out of work I did with The Flow Genome Project and with The Collective. And it was this idea that flow – if you go back to the ‘90s, right? A little bit history. It was tough to train.

Like we had the psychology and best in the world psychologist-wise we’re trying to use that those ideas to train people how to get them to flow. Make it reliable, and repeatable.

Mark: Can we pause… there’s a few points here… Csikszentmihalyi didn’t really talk about training flow, he just talked about it happening as a result of certain kind of circumstances…

Steven: He didn’t in flow, but training flow – I think Susan Jackson who wrote “Flow in Sports” with Mike… I think Susan – she was a coach, a sports coach in Australia – and had worked with really high caliber college and Olympic athletes for a long time.

And I think she started. In terms of that’s sort of where it started. Also there were a ton of people being involved though Csikszentmihalyi didn’t write about this until really last year. He put out a textbook on the subject.

Simultaneously there were a ton of educational experiments. Trying to train up flow in students. Last year two years ago she finally published a textbook “Flow in Education,” that talks about a lot of this work.

So there’s a lot of testing and trying with it. Nobody was super successful, and my work has always been on the neurobiology. And the reason the neurobiology is interesting to me is it’s mechanism. Psychology is often metaphor and the neuro neurobiology is if you can get things down to the kind of the basic shaped by evolution, present in all humans, biology… you have something that scales, you have something that works for everyone, et cetera.

And a lot of the work that I did – first at the flow genome project and then the flow research collective – and we found using the exact same psychometric instruments that Susan Jackson developed, she was measuring flow back in the day, when they weren’t very good at it…

We could get a 70% boost in flow in most people. This is because the neurobiology of flow’s triggers has been done over the past 15 years – which they didn’t have in the ‘90s – a lot of different people have contributed to this work.

But using it you can make the experience very reliable and repeatable. And that’s amazing, because flow is optimal performance.

But it turns out, it’s not stable. You get this huge spike; you can have a very severe return to baseline. Flow – politely put – is the most addictive experience on earth, right?

Mark: Yeah, that’s why people keep chasing it. Because when they leave it behind it’s gone and then you have to chase again.

Before we kind of like tackle that, what are some of the predictors of flow, or the measurements that tell us that we’re in the state of flow.

Steven: So predictors – there are 22 triggers, preconditions that lead to more flow… there is work done on a flow-prone personality also. So I didn’t know what you meant by predictors, so I wasn’t clear there.

But let me start with the psychological definition, so we know what we’re talking about. Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness, where we feel our best, we perform our best. And more specifically when psychologists describe it, they describe a state that produces six core characteristics. Phenomenological experiences. How the state makes us feel.

Complete concentration on the task at hand. The merger of action awareness. The diminishment of your sense of self. Time dilation – which means time passes strangely. It’s an autotelic experience – which is to say it’s very, very addictive. And we have a sense of performance skyrocketed so much we have the sense of control over forces that we normally can’t control.

So that’s how psychologists define and measure flow. So earlier, I was talking about Susan Jackson’s psychometric instrument. All it is those characteristics in a Likert scale.

“in this experience, how much did yourself vanish from not at all to…”

Mark: Right, how much did you experience time dilate.

Steven: Exactly. That’s exactly what we’re doing. And the bad news about that diagnostic is it’s a self-reported diagnostic. And all of those have to be sort of paused…

Mark: What about the neurobiology? Are you able to test for that?

Steven: Yeah, the neurobiology – which is the work that I’ve really been involved in – has galloped forward. Galloped.

I think the first time we spoke was for my book “The Rise of Superman.” We sort of talked about what we knew at the time – flow has five neurochemicals, pleasure chemicals that are associated with it’s production. We know the brain waves drop down to the alpha/theta border line. We know that there’s transient hypo frontality – meaning there’s large deactivations across the prefrontal cortex in the state. And we sort of started to understand that way.

Fast forward to where we are today, and my lab right now and my team we’re working on… and it’s going to come out later this year… but we’re working on a paper on the neurodynamic of flow… the networks involved in the production of the state.

And it’s gotten to the point that the physiology is advanced so much, that there’s a heart rate variability signature for flow, there’s a cortisol signature for flow… in fact, more research needs to be done.

One of the more interesting findings is that your frown muscles appear to be paralyzed or less functional in flow, which is not, by the way… so that’s not what you think it is. It’s not that you can’t be unhappy in flow – though that’s true, because of all the pleasure chemicals – frowning is a measure of effort.

So flow is this feeling of effortless effort, right? So when you’re frowning – when those muscles are really tense, it just means I’m exerting myself, right?

But in flow even though you are exerting yourself in this high energy state and you’re burning a lot of energy – it doesn’t register on your face. Your frown muscles are semi-paralyzed, and your smile muscles are hyperactive.

There’s more work that needs to be done on that yet, but the work has really advanced. In the paper that we’re working on – and who knows what’s true or not, because it’s not out yet – other people have to beat on it – but we’ve got, I think, it’s four different measurable signals that appear to show up at the onset of flow. So if any of those turn out to be accurate, this is great. Now we have a handful of physiological, neurobiological, measurable Markers that will say, “hey, you’re now in flow.” Which will be fantastic.

Mark: So as we get wearables that are more sensitive to these things, then you could literally have an alert pop up in your watch or something…

Steven: Yeah, we’re working on a biophysical-based flow detector that will give us that in the lab. I think what we’re going to get is something of an app that basically says “you’re here. Do these things to move towards first.”

Mark: What are the four signals that you want to measure?

Steven: Well, one is – I don’t know if this is true across the board, so I don’t want to talk about a lot of them because the paper’s not out yet – but one thing is work – we’ve been doing some of this in conjunction with Dr Andrew Huberman – Stanford. I’m sure you know him.

So Andrew in his lab helped decode the fight response. We used to think the fight and the flight response were the same response, and they were both in the amygdala.

He did some work that shows no, the fight response is actually separate. Fleeing and freezing is in the amygdala – the sort of the danger detector of the brain – but in the thalamus which is sort of the routing center of the brain – that appears to be where the fight response lives. And we believe you may have to trigger that response even for like a millisecond – at the front edge of a flow state.

Which is why – by the way – when I do bother doing respiration stuff, one of the things I like using is box breathing, because having to focus through that – when you exhale all the air out of your lungs and it’s more than seven seconds – you tend to panic, right? Fight or flight.

And you have to use that energy to focus through. And have a real slow inhale on the other side of it. And I find that’s tremendous training for this particular point in the cycle…

Mark: It’s interesting you say that, because we’ve been teaching our big four skills as a flow activator – meaning that when you train them and get good at them, they activate flow on demand. The experience of flow.

Of course, we approach all this just from pure experiential…

Steven: And I think there’s a lot in box breathing. Box breathing is… like, we train different things… there’s different kinds of mindfulness things for different situations.

I personally use box breathing 95% of the time, when I’m doing mindfulness work. Because I think it does all the stuff general mindfulness does. and it’s this having to focus through the panic, I find really important.

That was actually… I was talking to JT Holmes, who’s Red Bull Air Force – I’m sure you know JT a little bit. When I was writing “Rise of Superman,” he was talking about specifically the thing that they did in “Transformers III,” it was the most difficult base jump or wingsuit flying anybody had ever done.

And he was talking about how you had to focus through the panic of launch to actually drop into flow. Otherwise really bad things happen.

And that was when I started thinking about this kind of more frequently. And we started to see that a bunch of the neurobiology started to support this.

But way more work has to be done. But I think your intuition and our research pointing the exact same direction with some of your stuff.

Mark: Yeah, a couple of thoughts coming up… one, is it does make sense Andrew’s research, because freezing and fleeing are passive postures. I mean fleeing you could say is fear-based – they’re both fear-based.

Whereas when you step into action, it requires courage, right? And so in a sense you have to tap into your courage assistant… which is going to be a different system than your fear-based system.

Steven: It’s a different system and so here’s something really weird. This is not Huberman’s work – this is work that was really done a long time ago. But this crazy experiment, done by this crazy neuroscientist where they were letting – I want to say it was just two subjects – it was done like in the ‘70s.

They let themselves stimulate any area of the brain they wanted. And this was the area. The fight response. And the funny thing is if you ask them what you feel when you stimulate the fight response, it feels bad. It physically feels bad.

Mark: Yeah, well because you’re poking the fear…

Steven: But we love the feeling, because we associate it with courage. And that’s exactly it. So the point of this experiment – obviously more work has to be done – but it seems like that feeling of courage of stepping into – is one of our favorite feelings.

And certainly all peak performers quickly figure that one out, right?

Mark: Exactly. And the other thing that comes to my mind is just how – I love western science, because westerners just don’t believe anything that’s not backed by science.

But I first came across this idea of flow in my martial arts training when we combined Zen with martial arts – back in 1985. Without any kind of reference material. Without ever having reading Mihaly or anything about flow… not knowing anything.

But my Zen master talked about the concept of Shibu mi

Steven: Sure. Also a very bad book by Eric Von Lustbader…

Mark: Yeah, you’re right. I don’t think I read it, but just the idea, the concept of Shibu mi

Steven: Not a bad book… just very overtly sexual. Let’s just say that…

Mark: (laughing) oh really? Yeah. Oh yeah, exactly. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Steven: (laughing) like if you want a lot of sex with your martial arts fighting, that’s the book for you.

Mark: The razor blade, right? (laughing) I’ve always wanted to find a teacher…

Enough said. So this idea of effortless perfection that came after a long period of practice – you know, like in the seals – crawl, walk, run… crawl, walk, run… crawl, walk, run… and all of a sudden, 15 to 20 years later, you’re able to operate… maybe 10 years… I don’t know…

Gladwell said 10 000 hours. I think that can be shortcutted radically with effective training and I’m sure you agree with that. But you’d then enter this this this peak experience flow state. You’d be able to effortlessly flow. Effortlessly perform with almost perfect execution. Without too much thought, because you’re beyond thought.

So that was really fascinating to me. And I love how the ancient masters from yoga and the martial arts traditions, and other traditions, have found this as a result of development – as a result of development of mind/body/spirit level.

Steven: I want to point out that I think everything you just said in a certain level. So when people read “The Art of Impossible,” it’s the full suite, right? And I like to say peak performance is nothing more or less than getting our biology to work for us, rather than against us. That’s “The Art of Impossible” – flow is part of that biology, but there’s other components.

My point here is when any peak performers read this book as a general rule – a ton of this stuff is familiar. Of course it is.

Because that biology is a limited toolkit. This is the same reason those Zen masters, and the ancients came to these same conclusions.

Because there’s a limited number of things we can optimize in the human body. They work in a specific way and one of the… this is not new information in a sense… but one of the ideas in “The Art of Impossible” that I think hasn’t showed up in a scientific way before is there’s an order and a sequence to all this stuff.

Because we evolved to do it in a specific way millions of years ago. And it’s still the way the systems work. So I think there’s a lot of commonality, if you can strip out kind of the socio-political, cultural stuff that’s in all the traditions – whatever they are – and just get down to the technologies.

The technologies are very, very, very similar.

Mark: They are. I agree. We called that stripping the “fu” out of the kung fu. Yeah.

And the technologies include practices that everyone listening is familiar with. Movement, mindfulness, concentration, arousal control, meditation… to use the deepest sense of that term.

One of my developmental models for flow has been from the ancients and that’s Patanjali’s eight limbs, or eight stages. And it really works. It’s profound.

So at the foundational level – and by the way these eight stages I’m going to go through real quick, cause I don’t want to steal your thunder and you might want to get into it – but they all kind of work together. So you’re working them all the time, but then they all kind of unfold in this linear, holistic, transcendental manner.

And the first two are like the ethical precepts in your disciplines… basically getting the biology of your body squared away. Balanced, pure, de-stressed, clean eating, discipline… all that kind of stuff.

And then also how you orient your life to others, so that you’re in harmony – you’re cultivating peace and some people think that’s the penultimate end state. Because the ethical precepts or religions are based upon those.

But those were the foundation of living a life in flow. And then came physical movement, exercise. And yogis would call that asana. Then came breath work… pranayama. Then came deepen your sense of sensory perception, sensory awareness – pratyahara.

Then concentration training. And then we open up into meditation – which I believe they meant really mindfulness. It’s their kind of depth psychology phase.

And then the stages of integration, right? Or union. samadhi, which is flow, right? Every experience of samadhi they talk about is a different level of flow, but then they’re also including burning off karmic energy and moving more toward highest evolution or enlightenment.

But it’s fascinating again – so it depends on how you look at it. But that is a complete model from my perspective, because it’s worked with me. And we have aspects of that built into our Unbeatable Mind program.

What do you think about that? As a training, developmental curriculum, so to speak?

Steven: I’d have to really look at what’s under the hood. What I can tell you… what resonated immediately… so what the science shows – and this is sort of the order followed in “The Art of Impossible” – is that first of all the path of peak performance always starts… to get in the game positive psychology says there’s six basics, right? There’s three things that are on the physical side of the equation, that tune up our energy levels.

And three things on the mental side of the equation, that keep our anxiety levels down. Because anxiety is such a block on peak performance.

And that sort of resonates with a little bit of where… clean eating, right? And I mean this is sleep seven to eight hours a night, good hydration, good nutrition, get good social support, right? Have conversations with people who love you, and you care about.

And then on the cognitive side it’s daily gratitude practice. Mindfulness, respiration practice or regular exercise. Those are the three best ways to regulate the nervous system, right?

So we’re all starting from the same place. And then – this is where it’s interesting also – is what the science shows, is once you got that sort of done, you have to start with motivation. Because it’s the energy that gets you into the game. And the research is really clear, that you got to start with sort of extrinsic, outside yourself – money – meaning you just got to be able to take care of your bills. Safety and security needs are foundational. If you’re not paying your bills and rent, you’re going to produce too much anxiety for peak performance.

But once that’s done where do you go, and this is exactly where they were going. You got to start with your big five intrinsic motivators. Curiosity – which is designed biologically to be built into passion. Passion is designed biologically to be extended into purpose. Your passion coupled to a cause greater than yourself.

Once you have purpose, what does the science show? You need autonomy. The freedom to pursue your purpose.

And then what do you need? Mastery. The skills to pursue your purpose well. So in a sense – and by the way, if you’re doing that right – sort of what you were talking about with ethics – you just are trying to line up all your intrinsic motivators.

In the way that peak performance athletes they stack fuel sources, right? You’ll have proteins, you’ll have carbs, you’ll have lots of hydration, lots of fats… etc.

You want to stack internal fuel sources. Curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, mastery… and you want them all pointed in the same direction.

Because as you know, peak performance is hard. I mean, life in general is hard, peak performance is challenging as well. And you need all the help you can get. So you want all your intrinsic motivators pointing the same direction. You want your nervous system functioning optimally. And your body to be able to produce the desired energy.

Where it goes from there is interesting – they went into exercise and what the research shows is… once you get to that point, by the way – you sort of line up your intrinsic motivators – it seems like goal setting is next. But once that happens, once those things are taken care of, the system will start generating more flow.

Which is good, because that’s when you have to start training grit. Which sounds like the physicality that they were doing, but that’s what the science shows. And it shows six levels of grit that need to be trained. And in the end, they all sort of blur together. But in the beginning you got to train each one independently it appears.

Mark: Interesting.

Individual Flow


Steven: So a lot of that is very similar. We’d have to go into way more detail about what comes next, to see how it maps on to the stuff I was writing about. What the science seems to be pointing at.

The other thing that I always say is everybody’s going to be a little individual.

Mark: Right. You’re just going to go there. It’s really a personalized thing, too. Like you said, there might be people who are prone to flow. It’s because there’s certain people… the yogis talking about the doshas, the three body types.

Which is basically, like… there’s three types of people. You’re either lethargic, or super athletic, or you’re kind of in between – peaceful yogi so at some level. And even the meditation traditions in the ancient days said “okay, come and we’ll basically evaluate you for a year. So go wax on wax off. Sit, clean the floor, wash your plates, be in the community, and then we’ll figure out what your personality needs in order to activate motivation. So that you can train.”

Otherwise, if I just give you the one-size-fits-all practice, you’ll fail.”

Steven: Yeah, the way I talk about it is – and this is the thing we say a lot at the flow research collective – it’s a lesson I really learned the hard way in my life, for sure. But personality doesn’t scale. Biology scales.

And the problem is that too often in this world that both you and I kind of live in, somebody figures out what works for them and teaches it to other people. And it’s a freaking disaster. It just ruins lives, right?

And this is the dread trap of peak performance. And I’ll tell you – true story – this happened. This is me.

You learn a little about peak performance, wherever that is. Couple years in two, three years in. Your life is working.

And your friend’s lives are broken, and you want to fix them. You got to fix them, right? Or they come to you for help.

And in my case, I had written my first book on flow, I had a column for “Psychology Today,” right? Like I had some cred…

Mark: You were the expert.

Steven: And came to me and I hadn’t learned this lesson yet and I told them what works for me. And the thing that you have to know is that like first of all I covered action-adventure sport athletes for a living. And those guys…

Mark: Rare breed…

Steven: If they’re not nearly dying once every two weeks, they’re not doing their job. And I was an investigative journalist. And if investigative journalists aren’t nearly dying once every two or three months, they’re not doing their job, right?

I mean this was just normal – like, literally we used to do this… you’ll get this as a SEAL, but we used to have a joke, which was like most people call it “trauma,” we call it “Monday,” right?

So like, my risk tolerances are off the chart. I’ve got risk tolerances that are so far from normal and so risk tolerances are essentially genetically hard-wired and set up by early childhood experience. That’s a personality thing. Like the same is where you are on the introversion/extroversion scale.

Now these are things that I have to know, to teach what peak performance stuff works for you. You got to know these things, right?

And if you don’t – of the five or six friends I can remember trying to help – put one in the hospital, nearly caused a divorce in another’s life, one guy didn’t speak to me for five years – another person has still not spoken to me. And on and on.

Personality doesn’t scale…

Mark: (laughing) what did you have these guys…? Base jumping, or…?

Steven: (laughing) we are not going to go into the faulty techniques of yesteryear. Yeah, it was… I mean, it was stupid. That’s why we want to go back to sort of the core biology. “this is how it works, and then go run your own damn experiment in your own life.”

Like I can tell you how it works and that’s great and that’s a basic knowledge to work from and you got to just figure out how does it work for you best.

Mark: Right. What are your thoughts on helping people get curious? Because everyone’s freaking distracted, everyone is obsessed with the fear-based news cycle, and politics, and COVID.

And then here comes “The Art of Impossible,” and I’m like “oh, this is interesting. I don’t have time.”

How do I get motivated? I’m serious. This is a real issue these days – as you’re well aware. I mean I had one of my yoga… not my yoga teacher, but one of the yoga teachers – this is tragic at the studio in our town. Which we have tons of them, but the studio I used to train at – core power…

I mean she’s been shut down and out of a job and she was isolated… she was a beautiful yogi and she committed suicide two weeks ago. I mean, this is happening. It’s real in our society.

Steven: Yeah, dude… I just paid the rent for a friend of mine’s martial arts dojo yesterday.

Mark: So how do we get curious? So that we can get off of our dev center and get back into our true center? And to move forward so we can tap into this “Art of Impossible” theory and practice?

Steven: From a total dead stop, is an interesting question. And we’ve been doing a lot of work since the kind of start of COVID on this. Some of this is woven into “The Art of Impossible.” Some of it is not. But there’s two things…

So one, curiosity people cultivating curiosity – the neural-chemicals underneath curiosity – dopamine, norepinephrine – will get your engine moving. But all you have to do… so if you wanna – for example – how do you turn curiosity into passion? What’s that about, right?

The way I have people start is make a list of 25 things you’re curious about. And by curious, all I mean is if time stopped and you had a free 48 hours – you could devote it to anything – you would watch a couple of movies on a subject. And read a book or two. And have a conversation or two with an expert, right? And try to learn something about it.

That’s all you start with, right? It’s not a huge deal.

What passion is, is literally the ability to find the intersection of multiple curiosities, right? Say you’re interested in football and say you’re interested in nutrition – those are, by the way, categories that are too broad to be useful for this exercise. You want to be as specific as possible.

So instead of football, you’re interested in “what does it take to play left tackle?” And instead of nutrition, you’re interested in insects as a food source.

Then, what does the intersection look like? Well, left tackle is an energy intensive position. Do insects make a good protein food for playing left tackle. And play there, for a little while – 20 minutes a day – a little bit of time.

The thing about curiosity and cultivating curiosity – the way the biology is designed to work, is a little bit at a time. We get really impatient in the modern world. We all want it right here, right now.

But the system is designed to work kind of slowly. Basically want to think about it this way – everybody wants passion these days, but you don’t want to be two years into your passion to discover “oh, it’s only a phase.”

That’s really demotivating. So you basically find places your curiosities intersect and play there. 20 minutes a day – day, after day, after day, after day… build up experience. Slowly those little play sessions will start generating more dopamine, more norepinephrine… those things in our system by design.

Dopamine is designed to make us want to make meaning out of things. To link cause and effect.

Norepinephrine is literally curiosity itself. That feeling of “I want to know more.” It’s designed to feed itself. You just have to start somewhere, and show up, right?

More than anything else, the system will do it, you just have to show up and do the little bit of work of figuring out… so we took the opening of the book “how to turn curiosity into passion and passion to purpose” and did a webinar and created an interactive workbook off of it. It’s called the passion recipe.

So if people want to go to, that’s our exercise for doing that.

The other thing I will tell you is reboot your primary flow activity.

So what the hell did I just say? Everybody’s got…

Mark: First you got to figure out what that is…

Steven: Well, so let’s talk about that. Everybody’s got a primary flow activity. And it is that thing that… just think about it this way… you’ve been doing something over the course of your life that every time you do it, 90% of the time – you just lose yourself in the thing.

Now this could be… my thing was skiing, some people it’s dancing to hip-hop. Some people it’s walking the dog in the woods. Some people it’s riding horses, writing speeches… take your pick… martial arts.

You want to double-down on that. And the research shows an afternoon a week – you can split that up any way you want – but that will work. And the reason you want to double-down on your primary flow activity when you’re cultivating curiosity is one – all the neural chemicals you’re sort of looking for will show up in flow.

But there’s three real reasons. As we move into flow – first of all – there’s a global release of nitric oxide, right? It flushes stress hormones out of your system. So it resets the nervous system.

And anxiety blocks curiosity. Anxiety and curiosity are essentially the same cocktail. They’re both underpinned by norepinephrine.

Many mammals can’t feel both at once. It’s an either/or… not my research… Temple Grandin’s research… but so cows cannot feel curiosity and anxiety at the same time.

Mark: How the hell do they figure that out? They give the cows a survey?

Steven: This is all Temple Grandin’s work, and she writes about a lot of this in “Animals in Translation.” So it was a great book. Phenomenal book, if you want to take a look at it.

But humans can, right? But the easiest way to kind of turn one into the other, is you can transform anxiety into curiosity.

Often – by the way – people can’t tell the difference between anxiety and curiosity in their system. Like they think they’re feeling anxiety, and it could be curiosity or excitement.

Anyways, flow will reset your nervous system. So it’ll make space for more curiosity, first of all.

Second of all, flow’s essentially a focusing skill. It’s not quite like mindfulness, but it’s similar. And like any skill – the more you do it, the more you do it. So if people want more flow in their life at work, go start double-down on your primary flow activity. The best thing I can do for flow in my life at work, is ski a couple times a week.

Also, the big boost in motivation and productivity that shows up in flow seems to outlast the flow state. As does the heightened creativity and it’s a huge spike in creativity 400 to 700% depending on whose numbers you’re looking at.

And Theresa Mobley at Harvard figured out that that heightened creativity will outlast the flow state by a day, maybe two. So by doubling-down on your primary flow activity and just rebooting it – and the reason I’m mentioning this is in times of crisis… in general in adult life, we put away childish things – we stop surfing, we stop skiing…

We stop all that stuff. For our responsibilities. It’s a disaster from a performance standpoint. But to make it worse, coming through the year that we just all had. Where the crisis became a triple crisis kind of thing for all of us. Most people have totally stopped those kinds of activities, because they’re just trying to survive.

Mark: Or it’s been limited by government actions or what’s possible, right? Because it’s difficult to get on an airplane and to go places. And not everyone lives near a ski resort or…

Steven: Yeah, and certainly that. I mean, by the way, when they shut down the resorts last year – the ski resorts last year…

Mark: (laughing) didn’t stop the hardcore skiers…

Steven: Well, I mean there was backcountry stuff… but over the summer we built rail parks in the dirt. And oh, l by the way, you want to try to learn how to slide rails in the dirt in your 50s? You want to talk about pain? Oh my god, I was just cut like crazy all summer long, but I wasn’t giving up.

Mark: (laughing) I bet you that made you better, when you got back on the snow.

Steven: Yeah, well the goal was… you know a big part of resilience is you take the loss and you reset it as a goal for the future.

And so I had been working very, very, very hard to get to last march basically. I had a big project that was over last march, and I really needed time off and I was going to ski for two months. And COVID happened. And I decided to do what everybody else did, I had a whole company to save and all that stuff.

And I got no time off. And it was really bugging me. And I was like “okay, how do I turn this into a win? I was like “well, if I can enter next ski season better than I ended this one, I’ll call it a win.”

And so I created an entire action plan around that. And it worked and it’s been fun, there’s been a lot of progress this season – now that I’ve been back on snow. I mean, I did manage to like, get better over the summer, but it was incredibly painful.

Mark: So, as we begin to link curiosity to passion, how do we then bring purpose into the equation? How do we use passion to help us inform purpose?

Steven: So, we have to pause and talk about a couple of things – this is not a spiritual commentary, this is a biological commentary – like why are these things good? Because they get mystified a lot.

Curiosity, and passion, and purpose are great, because they give us focus for free. There’s not a whole lot of levers in peak performance. There’s the action you’re going to do, and there’s your attention, right?

And that’s the thing – that’s the whole thing. And the action you’re going to do is going to take the energy it requires. Do the action… you can get more efficient; you can get better at the things you do over time. Slowly.

But in the moment, focus is your big lever. The brain is 2% of our mass, 25% of our energy at rest. So if we can lower that energy requirement, that’s a big deal. And curiosity, passion, purpose this gives us focus for free.

Neurobiologically curiosity is a little bit of dopamine, and a little bit of norepinephrine. Passion is way more norepinephrine and dopamine.

Once you get purpose you attach that passion to a problem greater than yourself that you’d like to see solved in the world. It may sound very high-minded, but you get three or four more of the pro-social feel-good reward chemicals that massively boost motivation. It’s an incredibly selfish thing from a peak performance standpoint, and for flow more importantly.

Flow requires you to dial back your ego, meaning the prefrontal cortex gets really quiet. In flow, you have task specific, non-ego-oriented attention, right? It’s focused outside yourself on the task at hand.

Purpose gives you a little more distance from that ego as well. So it may sound high-minded but from an evolutionary standpoint, curiosity is a quest for resources, right? Passion is also about resources. Purpose says “oh dude, you’ve got passion, so you’ve got enough resources for yourself. Now it’s time to go help your tribe, your species. Get more resources.”

That’s all you’re talking about from a neurobiological standpoint. But literally, once you’ve sort of cultivated and found the intersection of multiple curiosities, and played there for a while, I have made people make a list of 10 huge problems in the world, that they would love to see solved.

And then look where does the intersection of my curiosities, my passion – attach to a cause greater than myself? That’s your purpose. That’s how you do it.

And there’s a couple things that are worth pointing out, because people screw this up all the time. For example when people think about passion – and let’s say talk about athletic passion – and they see LeBron James like coming in for a thunder dunk over some poor defenders’ heads in the finals.

And they’re like “that’s what I want. I want that passion.”

And everybody forgets when they start to train this up, that that’s late-stage passion. That’s not… early-stage passion is a little kid in a driveway throwing a basketball through a hoop. And it feels that way.

So when you start cultivating passion, don’t expect it to feel like that thunder dunk passion, because you’re not there yet. Passion and purpose are earned over time. It’s your devotion to tasks, right? You can cultivate them, but if you go seeking a feeling that you’re identifying in somebody else, it doesn’t work that way, right?

In the end this is what people hate about peak performance, but in the end, I think for people who have been doing this a long time this is what we learned to love – is it all works like compound interest. It’s a little bit today, a little bit tomorrow, a little bit the next day, a little bit the next… and the huge results are months and years…

And you are totally right. You can shortcut the path to peak performance. The ten thousand hours. Even Anders Ericsson – the late Anders Ericsson, who was a just a great, great fun man – said 10,000 hours was a… Malcolm just wanted a number, right? And so he picked 20-year-old violinists as like his number. If he would have picked 30 years old, they would have had 20 000 hours, right?

And certainly, even Anders has said like there are certain disciplines memorization… you can get to expertise in like 500 hours, 400 hours like really fast. And some of the military skills for example rifle shooting is something that can be massively accelerated for sure. We’ve got evidence of that.

So there are certain things that take a really long time to learn, certain things that we can pick up quickly. But what my point is, in the end when you look back on the things that really make you deeply satisfied, really made a difference in your life, it’s never the easy stuff. That’s not the stuff we’re proud of. That’s not the fuel that keeps you going. That’s not the stuff that makes you happy.

You know what I mean? I do this with people all the time, they’re like “oh, I want it now. I’m super impatient.”

I’m like “stop. Think about everything that you have in your life that you truly treasure. That made a big difference in your life, that you actually treasure. And did any of it show up overnight?”

And every now and again, somebody will say “well I got on this bus and I accidentally met my wife.”

And I’m like “well, is that the thing you’re proud of? Or are you proud of the 10 years you put into your marriage to get to where you are now?” Because nobody’s proud of the random encounter on the bus, you’re proud of… “oh my god, a marriage is a hard thing. And I put 15 years into this relationship.” That’s what you’re proud of. That’s what changed you.



This is such a difficult thing for most people to grasp. This idea.

And ironically it is one of the aspects of Patanjali’s eight limbs and the disciplines – this contentment. And the idea is to be content with the way things are now, but he didn’t say doesn’t mean you’re not striving to be more or a better person, or to have more…

Steven: You have to be striving because basically, look, we don’t live in reality. We live in a reality that’s shaped by two things predominantly from a neurobiological level – your fears and your goals.

That’s the world we live in. That’s what actually filters our experience. And if you’re not moving forward towards something – your fears will win. That’s just the biology of the equation. There’s nothing we can do to change that biology.

You can do a lot of breath work and meditation to ignore it. You can detach from it.

And we know what that looks like in the brain, as well. But as a general rule, the system is designed to move towards things. That’s why – Andrew Huberman talks about this – when we’re moving forward, literally the act of moving forward diminishes fear. It raises parasympathetic response and lowers sympathetic response.

Mark: One of the things – I know we gotta wrap up soon – but one of the things that…

Steven: I could talk to you all day. We could do this forever.

Mark: I know, it’s fascinating, and I love this stuff. I have a lot more to say about contentment, but we’re just going to leave that.

Steven: Yeah, so do I, by the way. I will tell you, by the way, that my wife and I were joking about it, because last summer I walked up to her, I was like, “honey I’m feeling something on the inside. I don’t know, it’s like a calm lake. I think they call it contentment. I’m not even sure what the word means. I’ve never experienced this before.”

“are we sure? Do I need to go to a doctor?”

Mark: I know, it’s awesome. Well, I think it’s again an outcome from my perspective of training both the extrinsic and the intrinsic aspects of your being. And so kind of like the – and this is what I believe this yin-yang symbol was alluding to – the yin is kind of the interior, the receptive, learning, expanding context, perspectives… aligning with purpose, vision, passion, curiosity.

And then that translates into the exterior doing – which is the yang. And so then these – as you astutely put out – these provide ultimately kind of an almost instantaneous feedback loop. Like an infinity loop between the two. The interior informs the exterior and that’s flow.

And the exterior then provides feedback to the interior. That’s the OODA loop.

But contentment is found when you’re living right on that edge, and you could call that presence. You’re not too much in one or the other – you spend time in both – but…

Steven: It’s interesting, because I think I was always a little afraid of contentment, serenity or any of these kinds of emotions, because I thought like, “I’m not done yet,” you know what I mean?

Mark: You mistake it as completion…

Steven: Right, exactly. And I never want to lose my fire, you know what I mean? Like that’s the thing that like keeps me sane. And no, it turns out that like what contentment means is you just lose a lot of the other nonsense.

Mark: Yeah, you get really, really present. And the metaphor image for me is the Zen master – also samurai or monk – who’s just content; content to sit on his bench, he’s content if someone sneaks up on him to leap into action and wield his sword in self-defense.

And he’s content if it’s his last moment, right? Because it’s enough. He is enough. And what he’s had, in his life the experiences are enough. That’s a powerful way to live.

Steven: Yeah, I don’t know… I don’t know if I’ve had enough, yet.

Mark: Yeah, well I know what you mean. I’m not sure either. That’s why I know I’m not quite there.

Steven: Yeah, I like everything you’re saying, I’m like, “I get that.” But if you came to me and said “okay, dude you’re up.” Have I accomplished a great…? Maybe, but I’m not definitely not done.

I don’t even feel like I’m started.

Mark: Getting warmed up here.

Steven: Book 12 is the one coming out today, and I really feel like I’m just getting started.

Mark: Well, congratulations on that. That’s really quite an accomplishment. And I know it’s going to be huge. “The Art of Impossible.”

Steven: Let me clarify those terms in the last seconds that we have, because I think you’ll just jive with it. It’s a book – it’s lessons absorbed from people who have accomplished capital I impossible, right? That which has never been done.

But it’s really meant to be used by anybody who’s going after what I call lowercase I impossible. Small I impossible. That which you think is impossible for you.

And the point is, I’ve met tons of people who’ve actually accomplished capital I impossible. Probably more than anybody else alive, I would guess. Because I’ve sought it out over and over and over for 30 years…

Nobody who’s done that started out trying to go after capital… they start out at like lower case I impossible… for me, I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I wanted to be a writer, right? It’s a blue-collar, steel mill town… I don’t know any writers. I don’t know how to become a writer. It was like I woke up one day I said “mom, dad, when I grow up, I’m going to be an elf,” right?

Like that was the extent of how I knew how to become a writer. That’s the lowercase I impossible. There’s no clear path between where you are, and where you want to go. Statistically not the best odds of success.

Overcoming trauma, rising out of poverty, becoming world-class at anything, becoming a successful entrepreneur, getting paid for what we love… these are all lowercase I impossibles. Most of us have to solve.

I think the first lower case I impossible most people solve, they don’t even realize they solve – which is how do you get your first kiss, right? You’re 10, 11. Suddenly you’re like “oh my god, I’m attracted to people.” And you like want a relationship a kiss, or a date, or something and how the hell do you do that?

Mark: Yeah, mine was a game of spin the bottle. So I put a lot of work into that one. (laughing) unfortunately, it taught me that life is just spinning the bottle. It’s all a big gamble. I’m just kidding.

Steven: (laughing) let’s not read too much into this, shall we?

Mark: Awesome.

Steven: (laughing) I can’t top spin the bottle. I think we should end there.

Mark: (laughing) I’m good with that. We’ll end there.

What’s next for you, though? Are you going to take another break and do some skiing?

Steven: So I am going to take… I mean, I’ll come up for air… this launch will go through April, right? So, I have a novel coming out next November that’s already done. I tend to write novels for fun in between the big hard think books.

Mark: Yeah, I could see that like decompression a little bit…

Steven: Yeah, I write cyberpunk thrillers. They’re fun. They’re cool.

But I’m actually gonna take some time off. I’m writing a very big book on intuition, which to me is the last uncharted wilderness of human peak performance. And there’s a lot of cool science.

But literally, the top two shelves right behind me – that one and two – those are my “to read” shelves. And those are all books that one way or another related to intuition. So when I’m through those, and I’ve done all the interviews that are on the other side of it, I’ll write another book.

But it’s going to be a little while I think.

Mark: Right, okay. Well good luck with that. And good luck with this book. And of course, it’ll be available everywhere books are sold, I imagine.

Steven: Yes. Thanks man. I appreciate you.

Mark: Yeah, it’s awesome, Steven. It’s been a great conversation. I appreciate you too.

Maybe I’ll see you on the slopes up in Tahoe.

Steven: Yeah, you let me know if you’re if you’re coming this way. If you want to come up and poke around and there’s still snow, I’d love to get a day in and that’d be super fun.

Mark: I agree with that. I’ll let you know.

Steven: I got a whole navy SEAL posse of skiers we could put together.

Mark: (laughing) do you? Let’s do it.

Steven: Yeah. It’s the one time I can kill you guys. It’s awesome.

Mark: Yeah, I don’t know many seals who shredded on the slopes. I know they’re great in the sky and they’re great in the ocean… but I grew up on skis though, you’ll have to know. I grew up on skis since I was 4 years old.

All right. Thank you so much thank you so much.

Steven: Appreciate you too. Bye-bye.

Mark: All right folks. That’s Steven Kotler. Thanks for being part of the Unbeatable Mind podcast. We really appreciate your support and your attention and for being part of the solution to make the world a more positive place and to evolve.

Check out Steve’s book “The Art of Impossible” at his website of or you can just Google him and check him out on social media and whatnot.

Until next time stay focused and be unbeatable.


Join the discussion One Comment

  • Ron Gellis says:

    Like Steven, I am a graduate of U. Wisconsin, Madison. Great dialogue. Marrying purpose & passion (career & calling) is a gift few discover and leads to flow. That is tragic.

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