The Why Of Flow
This is a book about the impossible, but it starts with the invisible. Over the past three decades, an unlikely collection of men and women have pushed human performance farther and faster than at any other point in the 150,000 year history of our species. In this evolutionary eye-blink, they have completely redefined the limits of the possible. But here’s the stranger part: this unprecedented flowering of human potential has taken place in plain sight, occasionally with millions of people watching—yet almost no one has noticed.
The reason for this is simple: virtually all of this massively accelerated performance has occurred within the world of action and adventure sports. Certainly, surfing and skiing make for good recreation, and the X Games look excellent on TV, but when it comes to riding 100-foot waves and hucking 100-foot cliffs, most of us see daredevil magic: Unfathomable stunts, insane athletes, enough said.
Yet what appears to be impossible is actually progressive. Behind each of these feats is a litany of small steps—history, technology, training—and not just physical training. Mental training as well. Success in these danger-fueled activities requires incredible psychological and intellectual talents: grit, fortitude, courage, creativity, resilience, cooperation, critical thinking, pattern recognition, high speed “hot” decision-making—and on and on and all under some of the most extreme conditions imaginable. Researchers at Harvard recently coined the phrase “21st Century Skills” to describe those myriad abilities our children need to thrive in this century—abilities not currently taught in school, but desperately needed in society. Action-and-adventure sports demand them all.
Yet even this is just the beginning. Of all the things these athletes have accomplished, nothing is more impressive than their mastery of the state known to researchers as “flow.” Most of us have at least passing familiarity with flow. If you’ve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so involved in a work project that all else is forgotten, then you’ve tasted the experience. In flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.
We call this experience “flow” because that is the sensation conferred. In flow, every action, each decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed problem solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance. “Flow naturally catapults you to a level you’re not naturally in,” explains Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ned Hallowell. “Flow naturally transforms a weakling into a muscleman, a sketcher into an artist, a dancer into a ballerina, a plodder into a sprinter, an ordinary person into someone extraordinary. Everything you do, you do better in flow. From baking a chocolate cake to planning a vacation to solving a differential equation to writing a business plan to playing tennis to making love. Flow is the doorway to the ‘more’ most of us seek. Rather than telling ourselves to get used to it, that’s all there is, instead learn how to enter into flow. There you will find, in manageable doses, all the ‘more’ you need.”
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best. It is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided certain initial conditions are met. Everyone from assembly lines workers in Detroit to jazz musicians in Algeria to software designers in Mumbai rely on flow to drive performance and accelerate innovation. And it’s quite a driver. Researchers now believe flow sits at the heart of almost every athletic championship; underpins major scientific breakthroughs; and accounts for significant progress in the arts. World leaders have sung the praises of flow, Fortune 500 CEOs have built their corporate philosophies around the state. From a quality of life perspective, psychologists have found that the people who have the most flow in their lives are the happiest people on Earth.
Put differently, a recent Gallup survey found 71 percent of American workers “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their job. Think about this for a moment: 2 out of 3 of us hate what we do with the majority of our time. This is a crisis of commerce, to say the least. Yet we already know where the solution lies. The other 29 percent of workers have jobs that generate flow. Flow directly correlates to happiness at work and happiness at work directly correlates to success. As CNN recently reported: “A decade of research in the business world proves happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37 percent, productivity by 31 percent, and accuracy on tasks by 19 percent, as well as a myriad of health and quality-of-life improvements.”
Yet there’s a rub. Flow might be the most desirable state on earth; it’s also the most elusive. While seekers have spent centuries trying, no one has found a reliable way to reproduce the experience, let alone with enough consistently to radically accelerate performance. But this is not the case with action and adventure sports athletes. Quite simply, the zone is the only reason these athletes are surviving the big mountains, big waves and big rivers. When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die.
Ironically, this is very good news. Scientists have lately made enormous progress on flow. Advancements in brain imaging technologies like fMRI and consumer “quantified self” devices like the Nike Fuel band allow us to apply serious metrics where once was merely subjective experience. Up to now, there’s been no way to tie all this disparate information together, but recent events in action and adventure sports solve this problem. Knowing that survival demands flow gives us a hard data set with which to work. We don’t have to wonder if our research subjects are really in flow: if they live through the impossible we can be certain. Moreover, by mapping this new science onto these extreme activities, we can start to understand exactly how flow works its magic. Finally, if we can figure out exactly what these athletes are doing to reliably reproduce this state, then we can apply this knowledge across the additional domains of self and society.
In other words, despite the unusual “them” at the center of this story, this book is really about “us.” You and me. Who doesn’t want to know how to be their best when it matters most? To be more creative, more contented, more consumed? To soar and not to sink? As the deeds of these athletes prove, if we can master flow, there are no limits to what we can accomplish. We are our own revolution.
Towards these ends, this book is divided into three parts. Part One examines just how far action and adventure sports athletes have pushed the bounds of the possible and explores the science of why (this work is based on over a decade of research; unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from direct interviews between the subject and the author or historical documents). It’s here that we’ll see how flow works in the brain and the body, how it massively accelerates mental and physical performance, how its allows these athletes to accomplish the impossible. As capturing lightning in a bottle is not easy, Part Two of this book probes the nature of the chase: how these athletes have mastered flow; how they have redesigned their lives to cultivate the state; and how we can too. Finally, Part Three looks at the darker side of flow, wider cultural impacts, and the future.
The great civil rights leader Howard Thurman once said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs most is more people who have come alive.”
The data is clear. Flow is the very thing that makes us come alive. It is the mystery. It is the point. Put another way: There are difficult and dangerous activities described in the pages of this book. The people involved are highly trained professionals. So please, please, please, try them at home. Because what the world needs most is superman.
It is time to rise.