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Get Into Your Creative Flow

Lesson 15 of 32

Tuning the Challenge Skill Balance

Steven Kotler

Get Into Your Creative Flow

Steven Kotler

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Lesson Info

15. Tuning the Challenge Skill Balance

Lesson Info

Tuning the Challenge Skill Balance

So one question at a time. Where in your life are you coasting? Where are you not pushing hard enough? Where are you overtaxed? Where are you pushing too hard? Where it might be useful to back off. What are your unconscious habits in each case? Let me give you an example. Who here procrastinates? Who here feels bad about procrastinating? Who feels like you're doing something wrong when you're procrastinating? One of the things we learn about high performance is when you're doing this stuff, most of your emotions don't mean what you think they mean. For example, fear. We talked about fear. Most people encounter fear and they think, oh wow, this is a sign that I should stop, I'm doing something wrong. But in this work it's a sign of going in the right direction. Procrastination is not a sign that you're lazy, or anything like that, it's a sign, that you're not in the challenge skill sweet spot. You are procrastinating it, because you, every one of us, we are wired for high performance. Y...

our body will naturally move you in the direction of peak performance if you let it and you understand what you're looking at. Procrastination is a signal that you are bored. You are not paying enough attention. It's not interesting enough so you're going to put it off and put it off and put it off until the challenge level gets high enough that you can pay attention and be in flow. So how do I manage this as a journalist, right, this is going back to that portion of my career where I would get an assignment that wasn't so great and I wasn't super thrilled about it, but I really needed to do it cause I had to make a living and I had to eat, what would I do, if I was putting it off? Cause procrastination ultimately, it's effective right, you will eventually, if you put it off til the night before, know all you attention is right there, you'll get it done, but, the cat could've gotten sick. Or you could've broken your leg the day before or all the other things that could've happened. It's a lousy strategy for long term success. Your better strategy is to figure out early on, oh I'm procrastinating, what I used to do is say okay, I got a writing assignment I'm gonna try to write this, in the style of my favorite writer. Or a random writer who I knew nothing about. I would just switch my style up. I would make it more interesting, I would increase the challenge level a little bit. So that's one example. So what are your unconscious habits around tuning the C/S balance, and then, if you could get the challenge/skills balance right with your primary activities, end up with more flow, once again, what do positive results look like? What would more flow in your primary activities, getting this right, look like and feel like? And be sure to right down emotional words, because again we're hunting the somatic address. We're hunting how this stuff makes me feel on the inside. For the format of this, does it make sense to share about experiences that I've had, like training with you on the mountain? Back before, the slide before, around the challenge/skills ratio, as a hard charger this sort of thing, pushing past he four percent, falling flat, and, does it make sense to share that? Where? Here, right now. You wanna say it out loud? Say it out loud, yes. You wanna interrupt my speaking to share your? No, (laughs) Go right ahead man. So over the winter went up to Utah, Steven and Jamie were writing something up there, and historically if I went up to, you know, snowboarding or skiing with one ski. I guess as it's called, would be, to push myself as hard as I possibly could, and one of the things they did was to encourage us to back off. And as this hard charger type that might blow past the four percent, it was absolutely a game changer. I hit more flow on that trip, it was unbelievable, backing off a little bit, getting into that four percent, not going into the 10, 20, 30, for me it was an absolute game changer, and I just wanted to point that out. We talk about this a little bit more later on. But it's one of the things I, it's really interesting, the exit sports is something that's really easy to train people with, but you'll see people will go out, a group of skiers will get together and everybody they'll want to get into the knarliest thing and then the next knarliest thing and then the next knarliest thing, and people are having a really hard time getting into flow. You pull everybody off that put them on an intermediate slope, let them have a couple of high speed runs really inside that comfort zone, suddenly they'll wanna flow really really quickly and then go do the dumb and dangerous stuff. After you're already in flow. Alright, so, that concludes module two. Any questions? Please. Would you say that, people is it possible for people to enter flow in different ways or different categories or different tasks? Coincidentally you brought up mountain biking and I race downhill mountain bikes and have from all over the world for a long time. But on the professional side with the creativity I'm a writer, film maker, photographer. I feel like on the bike I enter the flow state sometimes when I, my preparation meets a lot of, in the face of danger perhaps, and then you kinda, you gotta channel that in, some of your best events happen and you don't even remember the run. And then on the, you know, when I'm editing video all night long, I feel like those moments come when I would bite off something way bigger than myself and just really dig into that, is that, I feel like that might be what you meant by the a bunch of near perfect decisions, where like one little thing feeds the next as like an internal reward system keeping you going, and I feel like I approach both those things as a hard charger and a deep thinker. Is that possible to? Oh yeah, sure it is. Yeah as I said, these are not fixed categories. What they really are is, so we looked at those flow triggers right, there's a lot of different neurobiology underneath that stuff, for example, risk has to do with how active your dopamine receptors are. Whenever we take a risk, right, we'll go into this more later, we get dopamine, right, some people have very high functioning dopamine receptors it's really easy for them to get dopamine. Action and adventure sport athletes, especially pros, often they may have low functioning dopamine receptors. So they have to work harder to get that same drug. So what did that the tradetology is screening for what these flow triggers are all about. Some of this is genetics. You're born a specific way. A lot of it is learned along the way, but we have dominant triggers, and we tend to, and that's what the flow profile is poking at, but, again, it's not an exact thing, it's a general vicinity that tradetology is just saying look in this direction. Anybody else? Please. Hi so you asked us to guesstimate before what percentage of time we spent in flow and I was wondering if there is more information or research around you know, what is average for range? And is more always better? For instance, if I was always surfing, I'd never get anything done. No more is not always better. So a couple different answers here. One, flow is a focus and skill essentially. The more flow you have, the more flow you have. The more flow you get. So you get a lot of flow from surfing, you're training your brain to focus in a specific way. It's gonna show up in your job as well. You're training the brain to focus in one domain, it will apply in the next, you can start applying more flow into work even if your outside activity is surfing it'll cross over a little bit. When I say, what percentage of your life do you spend in flow, I just want you to know where you're at right now. That was the only reason it was, okay this is where I'm at right now, so when this course is done, when you go home and you start applying these things, two months from now, ask yourself the same question, and hopefully you'll get a different answer. Now, there are also, different flow states can last different lengths of time as well. So ultras for example, will produce a flow state known as helpers high, most flow states last about hour and half to two hours long, helpers high, which this may happen because it has more oxytocin in it, nobody actually knows, helpers high which is the flow state produced by ultras discovered by Alan Lux who founded Big Brothers Big Sisters, can last a day, sometimes two. So there are certain times there are very long lived flow states as well, wait a sec, did you have a question? Oh no I was sort of coming to the end so what's your... So your strategy of, to cope with procrastination, is to up the challenge, right, so that you become more... Okay so there are occasions where procrastinating means your scared to death, so, one of the other strategies that is either or. You can up it, or you can lateralize. Lateralizing will give you, surfing example that I told you about Orion as superman. For years surfers had never been able to they can't paddle onto a wave above about 25 feet, so they started towing using wave runners, and towing behind them and pulling them into these giant waves and then people started to realize, well wait a minute, there's a little pocket on the wave where the wave surface gets really steep and you can actually if you position yourself right there, you could find ways to actually paddle into these things. And unfortunately the guy who's figuring this out, couldn't hold his breath for very long. It was a problem, so rather than trying to fight it, and fight it and fight it and stay in that sweet spot, he spent three months learning how to be a free hold breath diver, right, so suddenly he went from 30 seconds of breath holds to four minutes of breath hold. He lateralized, learned a different skill, then went back into surfing, suddenly, the fear was less. So it was to stay in that challenge/skill sweet spot. So on that note, lateralized thnking, what about overcommitting as a quote unquote problem, what strategy would you recommend? Overcommitting, give me an example. You know lateral interest in different industries, different styles of work. Again, give me an example from your life, just tell me. Okay sure, here we go. So I work in real estate finance, but I make investments as well, with different companies in different fields and very different in nature. For myself overcommitting to a lot of opportunities and day job, Promising too much Promising too much yes. So what was your strategy? Yeah we're gonna talk about this, we're gonna get to this, but, I will always, I will reduce and reduce and reduce. So I do six things in my life. That's it, period. My life is broken down in six things. Five of them produce flow. So I write, I advance flow science and research, I try to make the world a better place for animals, I have family and friends, I hurl myself down mountains on a regular basis, and then there's all the stuff I have to do to support those things, so PR, public speaking, marketing, all that stuff, alright, that's not a particularly flowy category. The other five, right, helping animals produces helpers high but those are like those are my core passions, so I have a mission statement for my life. And we're gonna be talking about that a little bit later, but I find that the best way to do it is as you can, you can't always do this right away. Creativity we're talking about the long game. We're talking about what it looks like over the course of a career, these are things you move to over long periods of time you don't get upset that you can't do it next Monday, because your life isn't arranged that way. It doesn't matter, right, these are long term goals. But I tend to, remove most distractions, I tend to focus on, and then reason I have that list, is cause it let's me know what I say no to. If it doesn't fall into that list, it's a flat out no. If you come to me with something and it doesn't fall into one of those categories, no. No, these are the things I do. I don't do something else until I want to move one of them out, cause I've found this is my sweet spot. Everybody's got different numbers here, you have to figure it out for yourself. One of the things you'll hear me say today, and we always say the flow genome project is conducting an experiment, right. Everybody is a sample size of n to one. Nobody's experiences are the same. So you have to conduct the experiment yourself. Everything that I'm saying to you today, don't believe me, go home, run the experiment, test it out yourself, that's the only way you're gonna be able to do this. There's no other way. Do we have stuff, yeah. Quick online question. Just before we wrap up here we had lots of people posting. So these questions here, this one comes from Jessie. And Jessie says, I feel like DC's metro capitalists invest a lot in the hard charger types rather than some of these other flow profiles. Is there particular type of flow profile that's better aligned for entrepreneurship, or is this another bias that investors have. I mean I guess now that people have figured out their profile how do they use that? If they are an entrepreneur, how do they use that in business, have you seen any patterns? Well I've seen lots of different patterns, and in fact, interestingly, we work with a school district in Minneapolis, and they are using the flow profile with fifth graders. Starting with fifth graders, and what they're doing is they're making them do, figure out what is your primary category, and they're making them do four different activities, like they've got their own version of Google, so they've got 20% top, and spending it in their primary flow categories in four activities a year. So by the time they get to high school, they'll have done 16 different activities, projects inside their primary category, it's a really good way of figuring out for kids. What do I actually wanna do with my life? Cause you've done all this stuff within your flow. But I don't, I think you're right I think Jessie's right. That's a great point, and I do think we tend to look it's well known that extroverts do better in business, right it's well known that introverts have more problems. This is also by the way, for people, for creatives, introvert, extrovert, right, that introvert side of yourself doesn't get paid as well as the extrovert side of yourself. We tend to overly emphasize aggressive extroverted people, and we tend to think they're going to be better at things, but again it's, it doesn't seem, I think what any healthy company needs a mix. And I don't, I think that he sees that we're probably overemphasizing that. Yeah, i don't think there's on thing that correlates with success. I think what would actually correlate with success would be knowing which category you fall into, knowing how to steer, right, that matters more. So you have one more question? Yeah let's wrap up, so we've got a couple different variations on this question I'll try to boil them all down but, the big question is. I know you talked about tired, wired and stressed and the brain kind of working like that. We had a lot of questions about how multitasking can kind of fit into the flow state. Can you be doing multiple things at once, and how, kind of a follow up on that, we have some people that are saying, I have ADD, I have ADHD, my brain is all over the place, how can I focus my flow that way? Well so those are a couple different questions. I got lost on the ADD one, what was the first question again? Multitasking. Thank you, so, first of all, the brain can't multitask. If you think you know how to multitask, you're lying to yourself. Study after study after study, research was done down the road at Stanford, you cannot multitask the brain does not multitask. It can serial task, do this then do this, then do this, then do this, here is what I have found, this is my suggestion. My suggestion is, at the back end of your 90 to 120 minute block, of concentration, when you've used your flow state for your primary activity, and then you have like three or four small little things that you would normally be multitasking on, doing all at once, do them then. You're still in a state of heightened performance, you're coming down out of it a little bit, so you're probably not at total peak, but that's the time you start checking those things off. At the back end of that. As far as being ADD and ADHD goes, and Haliwell, who's the world's kind of leading expert on this is on our board, and Ned has said, and I tend to agree, see one of the things that we see consistently is there's a lot of ADD and ADHD in the world's top performers. It may be a detriment, but, it allows hyperfocus. So if you can find your primary flow category and you have, I don't even want to call this an illness or these, these are a condition, but if you are wired that way, you have a superpower, Ned will tell you that ADHD is a focusing superpower as long as you can figure out where to put that focus. Nothing else is interesting, but if you're doing your primary thing, it's laser focus. So on a certain level there are people, like Phil, who's an expert in this, does work in ADD and ADHD, would agree with me, that this is not the detriment that most people think it is, in fact, one of the things that we see over and over again in the action adventure sport world is pretty much everybody at the top of that world has ADD or ADHD and they are medicating for their ADD and ADHD with their action sport. And you see a lot of creatives. Creatives with ADD and ADHD tend to medicate with their primary artistic focus. They can focus there and no place else. So I don't buy the ADHD excuse, not an excuse. It might actually be an advantage when it comes to flow hacking.

Class Description

Do you want to learn more about flow? Take the Free Flow Profile to find out if you are a Deep Thinker, Crowd Pleaser, Hard Charger, or Flow Goer.

If creativity is already core to your life, then this program is perfect for you. This could mean you’re a copywriter at an ad agency, a scientist hunting a breakthrough, a coder designing software, an entrepreneur dreaming up your next start-up, a writer aching to finish that novel or a landscape painter trapped in the life of an accountant — all that matters is that generating novel ideas (and putting those ideas out in the world in some form or another) is core to your life and purpose.

Why Does “Flow for Creatives” even matter?

  • You keep losing the battle to be innovative in the rush to be productive.

  • You have writer’s block or coder’s block or painter’s block and the thing you used to love most in your life has become a source of pain and frustration.

  • You have trouble managing your emotions and fear keeps getting in the way of your good ideas.

  • You have trouble sustaining momentum on projects and tend to quit early rather than to finish what you started.

  • You have no idea how to gain access to groundbreaking insights and ideas when you need them most.

  • You don’t actually believe creativity is trainable.

  • You’re numbing yourself with substances and placating yourself with distractions as a way to ignore the fact that you’re not living up to your creative potential.

  • You get lost in the fixing to get ready phase, and never get down to business.

  • You keep bashing into creative walls but never breaking thru.

  • Your emotions keeping getting in the way of your desired outcomes. Fear of failure keeps you from committing to projects; perfectionism keeps you from making your work public.

Flow For Creatives can help.

It’s like an inspiration turbo-boost training program. It’s practical, experiential and experimental. You learn a new idea about Flow and Creativity, apply it to whatever problem you’re trying to solve, see what happens, then make it your own.

And, did you know…

  • When in Flow, your creative problem-solving abilities can spike by over 400 percent.

  • Research done at Harvard shows that the heightened creativity produced by Flow can outlast the state by a day, sometimes two—suggesting that Flow actually trains the brain to think more creatively over the long haul.

  • Creatives are more prone to depression than most people, but an understanding of the process can protect against this liability.

  • Creativity tops the list of 21st-century skills—meaning those skills that are essential for thriving in the modern world—yet 75 percent of people think they’re not living up to their creative potential.

  • The baseline brainwave state produced by Flow is also the ready condition for “Ah-ha” insight, meaning being in the zone makes you primed for breakthrough insight.

  • Fear blocks creativity, while Flow resets the nervous system, calming us down so we can avoid burnout and gain access to much-needed insight.

  • Unless you know how to train the brain properly, most people tap into their deepest creative potential at age 5.

  • Frustration is actually a built-in component of the creative process—it’s a sign that you’re moving in the right direction not a sign that you’re going about it all wrong.

Life is better than ever and we are feeling worse than evener. We are neurotic, stressed, unmotivated and it’s literally killing us. This class is for anyone that is serious about staying in their highest performing state.

*Warning: this instructor occasionally uses strong language. Viewer discretion advised*


Jeremy Richardson

I've watched and participated in many webinars and online classes, and this was by far one of the best. The depth and breadth of information that Steven covers in this class is not only really important, but he structures it in a way that is engaging and most importantly: PRACTICAL. I'm coming out of this with a clear list of ways to improve my ability to get into Flow while accomplishing all of my creative endeavors. I highly recommend this to anyone who would like to do the same!


This is amazing. Steven is hitting so many pain point for me about reframing my fear. He is also an amazing presenter. Thank you, Steven! I am excited, I am excited, I am excited!

Isaac Freed

Utterly mind blowing. Wow. A few hours listening to Steven Kotler felt more like a few days. He has done his research, and offers so much practical application advice that I will review this material several times. Well worth it, and highly recommended. Thank you, Creative Live!