The Formula For Peak Performance with Steven Kotler
Hey, everyone, hello everyone, I'm Chase Jarvis. Welcome to another episode of the Chase Jarvis live show here on Creative Live. This show is where I sit down with the worlds top creatives, entrepreneurs and thought leaders and I got one mission, one vision and that is to unlock everything that I can from their brain and put it into yours with the goal of helping you live your dreams in career and hobby and in life. My guest today is the best selling author, Mr. Steven Kotler, welcome to the show my man. (upbeat music) Welcome to the show my man.
Chase Jarvis, good to be with you.
Long time coming.
Yeah, we've been talking about this for a while.
Yeah, we've been talking about this for a while. You've done some books, I got to be a part of one of your projects.
We have so many mutual friends in common and you study something I am fascinated about, I have been fascinated since I was a wee pup. And I was wondering if as just an intro to the show for anyone who's not ...
familiar with you or your work, give em the background, like what's, how did you get here? You're sitting on the chair here. How did you get here?
In the door, walked across the carpet.
You have a lifetime of wisdom.
Yeah, so I--
First of all, you called yourself a journalist.
Well, I started out as a journalist. I did.
Yeah, okay, but we've been friends for like 10 years.
But you know, my degree, my undergrad degree is in poetry.
Did not know that. So we've been friends for like 10 years, but I knew you had journalism in your background, but you called yourself a journalist, is that what you call yourself now or you call yourself a researcher, an author?
You know I'm a guy who puts words together in a straight line. I write fiction, I write non-fiction, I've been a journalist for 20 years, but it's all my chance to rearrange words 'cause that makes me happy.
And what you've been focused on for the last decade or so in particular is?
Well, let's back it up, so I think over the whole course of the career there's been one question, which I've focused on which is what does it take to do the impossible? Alright, that's been my fundamental question. And I think since I was like nine or 10, I can tell you the story of where that came from.
I love it, no do it.
Literally two stories, so I'm nine years old, 10 years old, nine years old. My brother, baby brother, seven years old, eight years old, must a been 10 he musta been. Comes in the house, I'm talking to my mom in the kitchen. He's got a red sponge ball, takes the red sponge ball, he takes it from this hand and puts it in this hand and it vanishes. And I think two things, 'cause it looked like he vanished the ball, I think one holy crap. Now I gotta compete with this for Mom's attention. Right, like I gotta problem, right? This is, we gotta work this out. It's not gonna happen. Number two, I knew my brother wasn't magic. So like at that moment in time, I went oh wait a minute. There's something behind the impossible. There's a skill set there, alright, and I was interested in that. I don't think it ever went away. And so I spent most of my life and obviously this led me to my work on the Flow Genome project, where I'm director of research and co-founder and we study flow states or runner's high or being in the zone, whatever, take your pick. Those moments of total focus where you get so drilled down on the task at hand. Everything else vanishes, right?
Right, those are the best.
And performance in those states, goes through the roof. So I'm interested in those states, I'm interested in the neurobiology of them, where they come from and mostly how do we get more of them. What are the triggers, what are the preconditions? And you know what I've found over 30 years of studying the impossible is any time you see the impossible done, and you see a lot of other things happening along the way, but it doesn't matter what domain, whether it's Tomorrowland, the innovators, I wrote about who turned science fiction into science fact, like the guys that dreamed up tomorrow or the guys I wrote about Peter in abundance who are trying to tackle impossible challenges, poverty, energy scarcity, health care.
Space, right, or you know Stealing Fire, which is a much more mainstream book where we're looking at US Navy Seals and tech companies like Google and we're saying what's the commonality here and over and over and over which is the ability to shift out of normal consciousness and into these heightened states of consciousness. Heightened performance.
I want to put a pin in that. I want to say it one more time, so you've spent the last how many years would you say, well you started when you were nine. But the last--
27 ish years, yeah.
This is how you make a career doing awesome shit, is find the things that interests you so much the thing that you're fascinated by and build a living and a life writing and thinking about it. And it's that altered state, the ability to unlock the impossible as a replicable like analyzing the things that the best shit in the world happens when you're in this state. What does that state look like? And how can we get there more often? Is that a fair summary?
That's a perfect summary, yeah.
Alright, so, I'm gonna tell a small story to then kick it back to your words.
This isn't the one with the purple underwear.
No, no it's not the one with the purple underwear. Sorry we've been friends for too long for this broadcast. I grew up playing soccer. And went to college on a soccer scholarship. And it was somewhere in Junior High, early High School where, oh it was Olympic Development and they started developing kids for the Olympics, smaller, they're called the Olympic development teams and my coach for one of these ODP teams started talking about sports psychology. And--
Which by the way might have been the very first, like right when you were young, that's probably when sports psychology was brand new.
Right and I was, I like to read, and I was given a book. And there wasn't, no one could articulate it at that level because still it was in development, but I'll cut to the chase, I was given a book, I was massively intrigued. I started doing everything I could on my own and I begged my parents, who we were very middle class, lower middle class and I had upside down Nikes and Adidas with four stripes. And to help me find a way to see a professional. Someone who could help me with this and I saw one person, one time and they gave me a handful of tools and I used those mental tools to what I consider to do something that was impossible which was to see the future, to know how many goals I was going to score in the next season and ultimately to land a soccer scholarship at the top soccer school in the country. And I have been hooked, that was when I was probably 15, and I have been fascinated, obsessed with that the psychology around human performance and what's possible since then. Enter you into my life and I don't remember how we got connected.
It was Gerard.
It was Gerard, that's right, former manager, Gerard, what's up, I'm sure you're going to listen to this. And it was like you had already discovered and written about all of the things that I was obsessed about as a young person. Starting with the first book that I really went deep with, of yours was Superman, Rise of Superman, you call it Rise, I call it Superman, so can you orient our audience, and again the people who are listening here aspiring creatives, entrepreneurs, people who are seeking to change or transform their life. This is just, folks this is just very potent medicine that you're going to hear from Steven here today so take notes, pick up some of these books, but orient the audience around--
What happened in Rise?
Okay, Rise emerged out of looking at action sport athletes, in the late 90s in the 90s, two things started to happen in action sports. The first is that we started to see leaps and bounds, you were there to document it. We started to see leaps and bounds, crazy progress, right? Like I broke a lot of bones along the way because I wasn't a professional athlete and I was chasing professional athletes around. What would happen is I'd be hanging out, snap this or that, have to take three or four months off and when I came back, stuff that was talked about as totally impossible, never gonna get done, four months before I broke my ankle or whatever was not just being done when I got back, it was being iterated upon. So I started you know as I often do, wanting to put some numbers around it, I was trying to quantify and measure it and what are we really looking at, and I started realizing we were looking at nearly exponential growth in ultimate human performance. And ultimate human performance is defined as performance being your best when it matters most. In their case--
Being your best when it matters most. Got that.
In their case it was being your best often when their lives were on the line. Right, and you know just a couple of examples. And you know this first one probably first hand, in 1992, biggest gap jump anybody ever cleared on a snowboard was the Baker Road Gap in Washington. Right, and it's 40 feet end to end, which is big, it's two buses, right? In 2006, Travis Rice cleared a gap that was 260 some feet long, right. That is insane. Surfing went from the biggest wave anybody'd ever surfed from 400 AD until was 25 feet. And today we're pushing to waves that are 100 feet tall, right, like that's incredible kinds of progress. The question was where the hell is it coming from, right? And what we realized is that what unified all these athletes wherever we see this is flow. They were tapping in to this state of flow. And the good news at this point is neuroscience had sort of progressed enough over the past ten years, that's another science that's moving exponentially it's being drive by Moore's law and for the first time we could look under the hood. We could, you know flow's been around forever. We've known it's been linked to improved performance since the 1870s scientifically right, that was where the first research was done. It was a mystery, like where the hell was it coming from? What was the mechanism and once we figured out the mechanism, what we did at the Flow Genome project I was involved in was we took these athletes and we took all this neuroscience and we worked backwards and said okay, what are the triggers and that's so Rise was about kind of the neurobiology of where is this state coming from, how is it helping these athletes you know achieve the impossible? What's triggering it and how can we bridge the gap from the extreme to the mainstream? Take it out of these extreme athletes and put it more into our lives?
Alright, so, I think embedded in what you just said is a couple of really important points. And that is let's talk, let's break down flow, for a second. So flow in your world, you are able to grasp it so quickly and that's the thing that I want to impress upon the people who are listening is every single one of you who are listening or watching has experienced a flow state. And these are those moments where whether through sports, the action sports example that you just gave or maybe in a more mainstream sort of day to day you were able to achieve something almost effortless with little awareness or seemingly little awareness.
Let me give you a technical definition.
So technically flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. More specifically, it's those moments of rapt attention, total absorption. We're so focused on the task at hand that everything vanishes. Action awareness will merge. Your sense of self, self-consciousness, all of that will disappear. Time will pass strangely, slow down, you'll get that freeze frame effect. Maybe anybody who's been in a car crash. More frequently it speeds up and five hours pass by in five minutes. And throughout all aspects of performance, mental and physical go through the roof. We call it flow but the name was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who was then at the University of Chicago.
You aught me how to say that one and I can't remember.
First time, on site. He coined the term because he had conducted kind of the largest at that time, study of optimal psychology ever. Went around the world, tens of thousands of people. Everybody you could possibly imagine. Navajo sheep herders, Italian grape farmers, neurosurgeons, wall street guys, dancers, everybody, take your pick, talked to everybody. Asked about the times in their life when they felt their best and they performed their best. They all said the same thing. Which is I get into this state and every action, every decision flows seamlessly, perfectly effortlessly from the last, right. So flow is a phenomenal, logical description. It's a fancy way of saying it describes how it makes you feel, right. The experience of flow actually is flowy and what's cool about that is if you go one more move under the hood, where's this flowy coming from, well what you see and this is a quick, shorthand way to think about flow is as close to near-perfect high speed decision making as we can get. Now it is definitely not perfect decision making. You can make a lot of errors. You gotta know how to course correct. I just spent a week, some time with the Marine Aviators in Yuma, Arizona, and their problem is they can get into flow, but they're getting kicked out of it and they're crashing billion dollar airplanes. They like you know, Scott Schmidt the skier used to say Flow makes you feel like Superman up until the moment you're not. So as close to near perfect high speed decision making as you can get, but you know. You gotta have some break on fantasy land there.
Okay so, what I think is beautiful about this. Your several books and we'll get to your most recent one in a short bit here, but is that this is available to everyone, so take us there. This is not, when we're talking about in terms of elite athletes, you know my experiences with the Olympic Soccer teams, so these are high falutin ideas but every, you know the way that you defined it, is I love that definition because what it, there is a vehicle and an avenue for every person to achieve this. It is being your best self, near perfect decision making for whatever it is in life that you're leaning in.
Let's just speak directly to your audience and what they care about which is creativity for a second, so. I'm not going to do too much in the sciences. One of the things that happens in flow is five of the most potent neuro chemicals the brain can produce flood your system. So stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine are flushed out of your system. And they're replaced by these positive, feel-good performance enhancing neuro chemicals. These chemicals do lots of different things. One of the things they do is they massively improve creativity. And without getting lost in the science of the definitions, creativity is mostly, almost always a recombinatory process. New information comes into the brain. We connect it with an older idea. We create something startlingly new. That's totally short-hand, stupid definition, but mechanistically it's good. These neuro chemicals surround that process. So when we're in this state, we take in more information per second so data acquisition goes up. We pay more attention to it, so salience goes up. We find faster and quicker connections between this information and older information. Pattern recognition goes up. And we also find those far flung disparate connections between ideas so later thinking goes up, so creative break throughs massively rise. When we try to quantitate this, measure it, different people have different numbers but the numbers are huge. Research done all over the place including stuff we've done in the Flow Genome project shows a 400 to 700% boost in creativity while in flow. That's off the charts, huge, right? And we've all had that experience.
Yes, it's when you've seen a guitar soloist in the middle of a solo, and they've lost their mind. And it's like they are one with their instrument. And there is no thinking happening, it's just doing. You can see it expressed in their face and the outcomes of the music that they're playing and there's 50,000 million other examples.
And it's a coder on a midnight tear, when they fell like they're raining ones and zeros in the matrix, right? That's creative flow. And it's interesting as a creative so ne of the funky things about flow and we'll talk about, you wanted to go with what can people do so let's go there for a second. What we learned is that flow states have triggers. Pre-conditions that lead to more flow. There are 20 of them, 10 of them help produce individual flow, right. Like you in a flow state shooting a, me writing. And there's 10 that produce group flow, which is what happens when a team comes together. We just saw the Patriots win the Super Bowl, that 4th quarter comeback. That's a phenomenal version of group flow. Or if you see like a band come together or an improv troupe come together. And the level of humor or comedy goes through the roof, that's group flow. A great brainstorming session, where the ideas are flying around, that's group flow. There's 10 triggers that lead to individual flow, 10 that lead to group flow. And the first thing to know, the easy thing, like is flow as you mentioned earlier happens when all your attention is focused on the right here, right now, it's total engagement with the present moment, right? So what do these triggers, do? They drive attention into the present moment. That's nothing fancy. They're the 20 things that evolution shaped our brain to pay the most attention to. Now, they're are probably more triggers, right? There are whole categories we haven't looked at, there's stuff we know that we can't go deeper into yet, whatever. But we know of 20 and here's the really cool thing. They're really trainable, so I mentioned this earlier. We did this six week joint learning project at Google a year and a half ago. We trained up 50 or 60 engineers in four high performance basics which like sleep hygiene and things like that. Like real basic stuff, some breathing stuff, mindfulness stuff and four flow triggers, the use of four flow triggers. And after six weeks, we saw a 35 to 80% increase in the amount of flow in their lives. So this stuff is really, really, really trainable.
It's accessible, it's so accessible.
I can give you, Stevenkotler.com, my website, there's if you sign up for my mental newsletter, you will get a free breakdown of how all these triggers work and how to apply them in your life. So that's there, you can have it as a tool, go.
Amazing, so to, again, I'm trying to stitch, 'cause this is it can be perceived as heady. Like my first dipping the toe in here with you is like I love this stuff, is like wow, I hear drugs like norepinephrine, and serotonin and I'm trying to keep 'em all separate. I think that's one of the things that I want, if we, if you all walk away with anything from this interview it's that you don't actually have to know anything about that.
Yeah, you don't, you don't have to know any of the science.
Don't focus on the science, but everyone has seen or felt someone in that state and the thing that is the take away from this is it's trainable, it's replicable, and it is almost required for you to be at your best.
So not only is it required, let me just, some other studies. McKinsey did a 10 year study of top executives and in flow, and they found that top executives in flow are 500% more productive than out of flow. Alright, and specifically these are the people who are most called upon to make really hard creative problem solving decisions, solve so-called wicked problems like non-binary, really complicated solutions where you have to need perspective all around. So really deep creative tasks, 500% more productive, 400-700% boost in creativity and we see learning, DARPA the US defense department did a bunch of studies with soldiers, they found soldiers in flow learned 470% faster than normal. Motivation goes through, so these are fundamental skills. And my point is what I wanted to point out is don't get lost in the neuroscience but you do, not only do you need this stuff to be at your best, my organization a lot of other organizations, people are aware of this stuff. It's being rolled out into the work world and really after a few years from now, how do you keep pace if company A is doing all kinds of flow positive stuff and their employees are 500% more productive and company B isn't. You can see how quickly this race is gonna get lost. You know, right now it's sort of mandatory for creatives to tap into it, I think, but in a couple of years, four or five years, it's going to be mandatory to keep up.
Is it, I'm sure some of this came out from deconstruction. Like, oh my gosh, that was an amazing experience. What was it like when you were in that experience and what can you do to get yourself there again? And I'll just begin using my very simple anecdotal when I would have--
Chase Jarvis trying to play dumb on TV and failing.
When I was just able to sit there and what was happening, what were the feelings that were in my body? What was I thinking about? And I would try and through some mental imagery and some relaxation, some breathing, I would try and recreate those in my mind's eye. And I found that the more senses that I could incorporate, like what did the grass smell like when you scored the diving header?
So you just landed on one of flow's triggers. You're right there, keep talking.
No, no, this is I'll keep talking and then you can break it down for me. But this is again, this is accidental or through the very, very basic amount of knowledge. There were a handful of characteristics that were present in all of those flow states. And you can start to see what are the things, relaxation, focus, just being in a positive state. It was rarely when I was afraid or angry or anxious or any of those things that I had my best performance. And today with thanks to your science I can do a lot more, put myself there, to keep myself there and I know that if I'm not there, that I probably shouldn't be doing work. I go to the old Tony Robbins thing like you need to have the right state before you can tell yourself a good story. And you need to have a right story before you can tell yourself to do any strategy or tasks, so I focus so much of my time on state instead of trying to do work when I'm in a shitty state. So help me.
So Stealing Fire, the new book, we're not there yet, what you should just ended up, that's essentially the central theme of Stealing Fire. Which is there are certain kinds of problems that you really want to solve by changing your state of consciousness. That's the solution. But so, let's just back it up to where you started. Flow has what's called a deep embodiment trigger, which is a fancy way of saying you're engaging multiple sensory streams at once. Why, 'cause when you're using, most of us spend most of our lives these days, we're heads on sticks. We don't even have bodies. We're heads on sticks and we're looking at screens. The most disembodied generation ever. But it turns out the easiest way to drive flow is engage multiple senses at once. So one of the reasons the action adventure sport athletes got so much flow is they're not only using their five senses, body perception, so balance and body position in space, like all of this stuff.
The physical, the emotional.
Drives attention in and out. And in fact, so if you, Csikszentmihalyi and a guy named Kevin Rathunde at the University of Utah went looking for like what are the highest flow places on the planet that are not action adventure sports. And what they found is Montessori Education. And Montessori Education is often called embodied education. Don't just read about that Windmill, go out and build one. You go out and build one, engaging your eyes, your hands your heart all of it's into it. You pay a lot of attention to it. You also see this I think with like start ups. Guys start companies. It's a deeply embodied process 'cause you're doing everything, right?
You're screwing legs to desks, and you have, right.
The company starts to calcify, gets funded, and suddenly you're not doing all that stuff anymore and I think one of the reasons you see serial entrepreneurship by guys who've started companies they've made a lot of money, just leave it alone. They, no, we're going to start another one. And it's because A risk is another flow trigger, so they want the risk, too, focuses attention, but it's also deeply embodied. You're fully engaged and you know it drives focus. And you were right with your other one. So you said a certain amount of anxiety. We know, it's often called the golden rule of flow, it's called the Challenge/ Skills balance. Which is where we're saying, remember flow follows focus. Right, so we pay the most attention to the task at hand, so what we're doing when the challenge slightly exceeds our skill set. Right, you want to stretch but not stress. I was saying it emotionally, I'd say, flow sits near the mid-point between boredom not enough information, not paying any attention, and anxiety, whoa, way too much, right? Nor biologically, norepinephrine, one of those chemicals, right? That's anxiety, and it actually, the higher it goes, it starts to block flow. So you have to stay in that sweet spot, which is mindfulness practices are great, any kind of breathing work, you're down regulating, you're calming down your nervous system. It's a great training for flow, that's why when we were at Google, when we work with anybody we try to lay down a basic breath mindfulness practice of some kind. Calm your nervous system down, get a little less reactive to the present, right?
That was part of that coaching that we experienced, was always a relaxation and a centering exercise before visualization. And I don't know it just helped the uptake, it was almost like you were putting yourself in a position to receive the feedback that you were giving, that you're pumping into your brain. But I wanted to go to the thing that you started leaning into which is from Rise to now the new book, Stealing Fire, which the subtitle is around the green berets and the Navy Seals.
Silicon Valley, Navy Seals, and Maverick Scientists are revolutionizing how we live and work.
Okay, so, part of, yeah, why don't you take us there?
Let me just take you there 'cause it's almost funny. So you know Rise comes out and before Rise came out at the Flow Genome project, we were working with people who, Olympic level athletes, red bull athletes, Spec Ops, really people with life and death consequences for high performance. And suddenly it's mainstream. We're on Wall Street, we're tech firms and we're on main street, Morgan Stanley in Columbus, Ohio, you know what I mean.
Like trading floor.
Exactly, it spreads really wide. And I'm going training up corporate executives in the use of an altered state of consciousness, flow. Which you know, I graduated high school in 1985. I entered the business world that year. That was not, that's just not what happened. Go back to 1985 you want to walk into a boardroom and just mention creativity or passion, you'll get laughed out of the room. Forget like flow, right? So I think I'm doing this crazy, edgy shit and I'm going to these companies and we're like we're teaching flow and after we would be done, people would come up to us, everywhere we went and say this flow stuff is really cool but we met Navy Seals who had just come back from two week science, the positive meditation retreats or we would meet whole teams of engineers at Fortune 100 companies that will go unnamed who are micro dosing with psychedelics to improve problem solving. Or we're meeting Wall Street guys zapping their brains with electrodes to kind of knock out their pre-frontal cortex and alter their consciousness. So you know soccer moms with yoga practices, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so everywhere we went, we're talking about one particular altered state of consciousness but it seemed like people were utilizing and entire suite of like state changing techniques and technologies to improve performance. And Stealing Fire grew out of the question of like honestly like what the fuck is going on? What is happening? This seems crazy. The other thing you need to know that's really important. So and I'll just do this historically because it's probably the easiest way to do it. Stay away from the science. A hundred years ago William James, who's the first psychologist in America, teaches at Harvard, he's considered the greatest Western philosopher, psychologist, physician, physiologist, he's got the whole package. A hundred years ago, he notices that, so altered state's a big category, you've got meditation, dreaming on one end and you know schizophrenia on the other. In between are all these other states of consciousness. He notices that what you could talk about as the ecstatic bandwidth, this is flow, meditative states, contemplative states, mystical states like speaking in tongues or trance states, psychedelic states, awe, all the north of happy experiences, right?
What about sexual?
Sexually mediated states, even technologically mediated states. He says hey, I think these are the same thing. They seem to produce very similar psychological benefits, they decrease anxiety, they heal trauma, they're very psychologically real, they help us emotionally. And they all seem to enhance performance in the same way and they all seem to make us feel the same way. And we forget about this. There's a 100 year detour. Freud is interested in pathologic problems, he doesn't care about psychological possibilities. Take a 100 year detour around these ideas. Where we are today is turns out James was right. And we had accidentally, in trying to map the neuroscience of flow, we had to map a lot of other altered states and we started when you look at what happens in the brain in a flow state, and what happens to the brain in awe, or in psychedelic state, or in a speaking in tongues experience, they're very similar. They're not 100% but the knobs and levers in the brain that are being tweaked are the same. So we started to realize that all these different tribes weren't really talking to from the right for most of the 20th century, flow is like the domain of artists and athletes. Meditative states are like seekers and saints. And psychedelic states are hippies and ravers, right? These groups are not talking to each other, they're not friends, they're not hanging out. They don't think they're doing the same thing but it turns out neuro biologically, they're all doing the same things. Alright, all these groups of people, all these top performing organizations everyone wants, they're all chasing these same states. And they're chasing them for the massive increase in performance we get.
That's where Stealing Fire came from.
And that's one of the reasons that I was so excited when you wrote Superman. When you wrote, or Rise.
You can call it whatever you want.
For me it's Superman, but for you it's Rise.
It will always be Superman to me.
It to me that was the first move to the mainstream stage where I felt like I could talk to people who hadn't, who wouldn't think it was weird because you can see that if you are going to jump out of a air balloon 20 miles from the surface of the earth that you'd have to have a couple of screws loose and want to do something and tap into something that other day to day people aren't largely tapping into. And then when you shifted to the new book, it to me that's what, it unlocks the conversation at another level. When you really realize that executives at Google and ravers and these high performance athletes they're all tapping into the same thing. This is sort of a unifying theory.
Jason Soba, it's in the book.
Jason's gonna be on the show. We were just talking to him recently, right? It's coming up in the next couple of weeks. We'll have him, he's a great guy.
Give him a hug, give him a hug for me. Good friend, featured in Stealing Fire, right? We tell his story and one of the things he talks about, 'cause obviously Jason talks a lot about altered states of consciousness. He talks about these states as a common language that we all speak. We all speak, we don't know we speak this language but we all actually, it's a language. His phrase was real brilliant, it's a language without words that we all share. That was the Jasonism and it was really a good one.
It's beautiful. So it to me this was, this is we're on the cusp of the next era of greatness in this world You've been living in it for a long time. But there it's now more accessible than ever, we're realizing we're speaking a common language. What you guys did was quantify the experience that we're all chasing. We are all chasing some sort of altered state. Whether that's through alcohol, through drugs, through meditation, through big work stuff. And you guys put a number to that?
Yeah we did, so we, I know, crazy, but when we started seeing this, so I wrote Stealing Fire with my partner, Jamie Wheal, when I say we, I'm not trying to be
The royal we?
The royal we, right, no me and my partner Jamie Wheal on the Flow Genome project, when we started seeing this all over the place, we wanted to quantify it, right? Like what are we really looking at? Is this really about, the book is about revolutionizing how we, like revolution is a big word, right? So I felt like we had to earn it and this is like you know, as I said, you said I was a journalist, I am like and I'm highly skeptical of everything. I like to see numbers and studies and science and so what we did was, we wanted to calculate the altered state economy. How much money do we spend globally trying to shift our consciousness, right? When I say shift our consciousness, what all these share, there are common characteristics of all these states, whether it's awe, meditative states or we see four things. They're selfless states, so your sense of self disappears. Timeless states, sense of time. They're effortless states as you pointed out earlier, right? You're propelled by a force that's greater than you, motivation goes through the roof. Intrinsic motivation goes up, and they're information rich states. All the brain's information processing machinery goes through the roof, so heightened insight, information, creative, right? So chasing those states and actually ekstasis, I talk about the ecstatic bandwidth, it's actually, it's a Greek word, ekstasis, it means to stand outside yourself and be filled with divine information. So it's literally, these states right, are states where we're outside of our normal waking consciousness and we're tapped in to greater access to information. So we wanted to quantify how much money do we spend even forgetting even tapping into greatness, just trying to shut off the self, right? Change that channel.
Even if it's dreaming, too.
Even if it's drinking, even if it's nicotine, whatever we use and we looked at elicit chemicals and elicit substances. We looked at all the psycho pharmaceuticals from Adeline Ritoral, sleep aids, you take your pick. We also looked at kind of the self-help stuff, not the stuff that was at skills acquisition, that's a different thing, but like Tony Robbins, Release the Giant Within seminars, where he's trying to change your state of consciousness and help me feel better kind of stuff. We looked at recreation, action-adventure, which we talked about gambling, produces a lot of the, shifts our consciousness in a way. Certain parts of media, social media, IMAX, whatever. We added it all together, and we were as conservative as possible. And in places, there were a lot of places we couldn't even get world numbers so we just took US numbers and just added it in. So like this number is off, it's small, but it's four trillion dollars a year. So it's 1/16th of the global economy, it's greater than the GDP of India, or Russia or Britain that we are spending trying to change the channel on consciousness. That is such a huge, mind-blowing, like Jamie kept like 'cause I worked the number the first time. And Jamie for the next year and a half, that we were writing the book, every month and half he would call me up and be like okay man we gotta get really serious about the number for the altered state economy. I'm like Jamie no.
I did the math.
I did the math, like I've done it. And I would redo the math like every two months. And I would show it to him and you know. Finally I actually made him do the math with me and he was like okay, I'm done. And we've got if you go to the Flow Genome project website, there's a PDF breakdown it's in the book, too, but I think there's a free one up on our website that breaks down how we did it and where the categories are. But it's an enormous sum of money, and it's interesting, we were talking about this earlier, so Ronald K. Siegel at UCLA among a lot of other people, Oliver Sacks, a lot of other thinkers, have said the urge to alter our consciousness, to shift state, to get out of our heads the urge to resent intoxication is what they called it, is a fundamental evolutionary driver. It is as powerful, they call it a fourth evolutionary drive, it is as powerful as our search for sex, and sustenance, and shelter. And the reason, like really simple, like why, you see it, so the interesting thing is, it's everywhere. It's not just humans, it's every, most mammals have found a way to shift their consciousness. Dolphins will chew puffer fish to release the nerve toxin and will get high on that. Elephants will drink fermented bog water, like fruit drops into a pond, they will get drunk on that. Iboga the ibogaine, really powerful psychedelic, baboons use that, jaguars use iowaska which has DMT in it. So everywhere you look, even kids, kids will hyperventilate.
They will get dizzy.
They'll spin in circles, they'll roll down hills. Exactly, they will do anything they can and the question was why, right? I mean cats messed up on catnip will like get hit by cars a lot more easier, right? Birds chew marijuana seeds and they will fly into windows. This is not always good. So the question has been for a really long time, what the hell is going on, why are we doing this, right? Alcohol, right, very damaging to our society, but we use it all the time. The reason is every species on the planet gets stuck in ruts. And you need they call it a depaterning instrument. Which is a fancy way of saying, a way to shift your perspective and do something different than whatever you've done. So the point is, these non-ordinary states of consciousness they're the very tool evolution gave us to solve certain kinds of creative problems. Right, like that's the point, that's why we access these states, that's what they're here for. So in a sense, what we measured, it's the first time I think anybody's put a number on it. We measured a fundamental evolutionary driver. This is how important monetarily this is to us. It's four trillion dollars a year. And again very conservative number, so it's probably higher, but I think that's kind of neat. You know it wasn't my intent, but that's where we ended up.
Well I think that's what's fascinating is that we're able to put context around this is a pretty heavy concept. That our species is fundamentally given tools to change their states of consciousness to get out to use your word. To get out of ruts, to change thinking that might be patterned and remember patterned thinking is good on one way because you can establish a repetition and something replicable.
Habits, but it's also, it undermines perhaps evolution. If you're just stuck looking at.
It undermines innovation.
Yeah, innovation if you're just stuck looking for the wooly mammoth in one place, and wooly mammoth has moved on, you're gonna die, so you need to travel to look for the wooly mammoth. That's not the most scientific example I'm giving.
Have spear, will travel.
But to me this is a powerful thing that I'm hoping unlocks the minds and hearts of the people who are listening or watching. And it's not just about only action sports figures. It's not just about burning man raves. It is literally a biological connection and it's a mechanism we have been given the ability to do this. And more importantly, this is the key point, if we do it responsibly, it can create amazing results.
Responsibly is really, really key, right. Like this is not the first time in history somebody has said, look, altered states of consciousness could really help perform. This goes horribly wrong pretty much every time we try it and it doesn't even matter. The 60s Kesey sneaks a little bit of LSD out of a Stanford research lab and all sorts of tie-died hell breaks loose. In the 70s people start realizing that sex, sexual liberation first based on the pill and whatever, it's a way to alter your consciousness and what is the end result at the end of the sexual revolution? Massive spiking rates of marital dissatisfaction and divorce. Rave culture, right, they discover MDMA and it starts out and we're gonna heal the world, unite the world and look at Michael Osnick and it ends up with ER visits and tabloid fodder and this goes wrong. What we're trying to say is there's a middle path between these extremes. Because what happens is it goes wrong, there's a top down clamp down. We dated, in Stealing Fire, we started in the Greeks, we walk you through all the times this has happened before in history and what you see is access and ideas start leaking out and change really starts happening. You see top down control because hedonism is a real issue. These things go wrong, and people can use these, leaders can use these states. I mean what goes on in a terrorist training camp? What goes on in a cult? They are shifting your state of consciousness and they are telling you it means something. With the Flow Genome project and Stealing Fire we don't ever let anybody tell you, if somebody starts making meaning for you, this state of consciousness must mean this, it's a good sign that it's going in the wrong direction. Hitler, the Nuremberg rallies, he literally, like we document it in this book, he literally stole state changing technology. He borrowed cheerleading stuff from American college cheerleaders 'cause he saw it was effective here. Like it's really crazy, but it was the Nuremberg rallies were specifically designed to shift consciousness. These you get group flow is what happens on a small scale. Communitas is the term for when it happens on a larger scale and you see it can incite political movements and it can go wrong. It really can go wrong. These are not, this is not just self-help it's all gonna be good. These are powerful, powerful technologies. We're playing with very addictive states of consciousness. You Have to be very mature. But our argument is, hey for the very first time, there's a bunch of neuroscience. We understand mechanism. We understand where this stuff is coming from. Even know there are four ways these states tend to go wrong. We've got a map of the, like these are the normal fuck ups.
Don't go here.
Don't go here, here or here. Like people have all the time. Like we're getting to that point so our only hope is hey there can be a middle path and you know what we're advocating for in the book is a giant open source research project. So maybe if the top down control does come, things are disseminated enough that we can retain this knowledge and build on it. Because you know you look at flow for example, what I'm talking about is there's 150 years worth of really smart people thinking hard about the science because when we talked about this stuff it wasn't as complicated as psychedelics or meditation or some of these other things. It was neutral at least. It didn't have a deity attached or a drug attached. So that's where the middle path has gotten us, these same things, we're starting to get the knowledge, right? Last year for the very first time, for example, we took FMRI pictures of what is your brain like on LSD. And for years we've talked about mind expansion. Turns out like you're actually right. When we look at the pictures, we see huge far flung networks of the brain are talking to them, to each other on LSD. Which is what you see in most of these states, but you know, suddenly there's a little bit of a middle path and maybe we won't get so horribly lost this time.
No, no so this is what maybe we can try. I might be asking for too much here, but in as much research as you have, and in a show that's as short as this one relative to 30 years of your research, let's try and be a little bit tactical for a second. And talk about what are some of the things that are useful for the community that would be paying attention to this show. Here on CreativeLive or in a business or entrepreneurial, creative concept, what are some of these things, that to use your words are more down the middle that can without or maybe just brushing up against the taboo without going fully into it that can help?
So let's just start with some flow fundamentals, right? When I go into an organization, train them up in flow, the first thing I do, the very first, so flow can only happen when all of our attention is focused on the right here, right now. And we learn that the ideal amount of time to spend focused is minimum 90 minutes. 120 minutes is usually better. If you can't put a sign on your door, that says fuck off, I'm flowing, and be left alone, no cell phone, no messages, no interruptions, complete focus, you're lost, like you cannot even get into this race. It's a basic, it's just like a given.
Like to get in the door.
You've gotta get in the door, you've gotta do that. And you also, I believe, need some kind of a mindfulness practice. You know if you look at 21st century normal, psychologically, is tired and wired and chronically stressed. And if you look under the hood of that chronically stressed, what you see, you know biologically, most of us are essentially living on the edge of a fight or flight response all the time.
With like cortisol.
Cortisol, norepinephrine, brain waves in an agitated beta. Lot of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, it's basically the edge of a fight or flight response. And the fight or flight response was meant to be like this really brief, like there's a tiger, let me run away, okay out of it. And the body down regulates. We don't come out of it anymore.
You need to calm it down. So much of flow and you pointed it out earlier, is negotiating with fear. You're gonna have to use that fear, right? Because risk, one of the other things you're going to want to start doing if you want more flow in your life, is you're going to actually have to practice taking risks. Right, it doesn't have to be physical. You creative risks, social risks, intellectual, take your pick, emotional risks. But you have to take more risks. It's a focusing process, drives attention. You need to train that on a regular basis. You also need a mindfulness, a breath practice, we like box breathing, which is what the Navy Seals use. It's a very simple, and what I like about it is, I don't know if you.
I'm not familiar with box breath.
Alright, it's called box breathing because there's this inhale for five seconds, one side of the box, hold your breath for five seconds, second side of the box. Exhale for five seconds, hold your breath, let the air out of your lungs for five seconds. Then you do six, then you do seven and you go up to about 10. And what you'll find is that a couple of things happen. One, is there's so much going on that people cannot meditate at all. Who hate it, you can log ten minutes without even noticing. If there's so much going on. The other thing that's going on is when you exhale all the air from your lungs and hold your breath, you'll automatically induce a fight or flight response after about seven seconds. So when I get up to seven seconds the sides, I've exhaled the air.
I got no more air.
Your brain goes holy crap, panic. So you have to focus through that panic response. Use the heightened norepinephrine and cortisol as focusing drugs which is what they're meant for. And calm down. So what ends up happening over time is not only is it a meditation practice and you start gaining benefits from that, we'll talk about what those are. It down regulates your nervous system, right. You become less reactive and there's more space to maneuver. Those are really kind of fundamental basics that are really, also deep embodiment. We talked about you have to move your body for this stuff. Have an exercise, I mean this, I'm just giving you a high performance basics, but you want to really practical basics.
Yeah, this is exactly what I want. And you know I have the folks at home know this, I have a practice of 10 habits that I do every day. And one of them is move my body. I move my body for health, but I also move my body because it changes my state. I am so aware of my ability to be a better husband, friend, leader, partner, like all of these things when I have exercise as a piece of the pie. It's not the whole pie. But it's a critical piece.
So what we've seen, one of the things that happens neuro biologically in flow is activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that's right back here, that governs a lot of your higher cognitive functions shuts down, becomes really quiet. The technical term is transient temporary hypo frontality, hypos the opposite of hyper.
Thank you for not saying that ever again.
I'll never, but the point I'm making is you can get that with a 20 minute walk, 25 minute walk. It's exercise induced, the words I won't say again. Alright, the thing that's so horrible, whose name we shall not speak, but I mean a 20 minute walk will start to quiet this down. And we did some work with this really cool company in Chicago, Sterling Partners, and they recently in their office they built like a walking track around their office so employees can get up on their cell phone and pace and walk but also they can walk around, put themselves into this state, just turn down the activity, quiet it down a little bit and A that resets the nervous system, and B it you get heightened creativity, heightened cooperation, all this, all the good stuff. So really practical simple stuff. That if you're not, you know a lot of high performers are already doing this stuff, but if you're not doing these things, you need those things to get in the race a little bit. The other thing, I'm sorry to.
No this is like, you're listing them this is what I want. Matt's over here taking notes. He's literally on his phone taking notes.
Cool, so the big thing is, you have to understand that they're the same thing. So let me give you an example. We talked about how these states decrease anxiety, they help us psychologically. The best example is PTSD, right, which is the most extreme anxiety disorder you can possibly imagine. So back in early 2000s, they discovered, this was work by psychologist named Michael Mithoefer, discovered that they were working with soldiers with PTSD from Iraq and Afghanistan and victims of child abuse and sexual abuse. And they found that one to three MDMA therapy sessions, so they give you MDMA, right the chemical, ecstasy, and then it's talk therapy right, as you work with a psychologist, that sort of thing. One to three sessions of psychedelic therapy were enough to produce significant or total removal of PTSD symptoms. So they redid that study and they replaced the MDMA, they did this at Camp Pendleton with over a thousand soldiers and replaced it with surfing as a trigger for flow. Surfing is packed with flow, so like I said, flow has 20 triggers, surfing is an activity that's packed with them, so they used surfing and talk therapy, right? They pinpoint people and put em into flow and bring em back on the beach and have a group talk therapy session. They got the exact same results the MDMA study got in five weeks of surfing. I think they were surfing three times a week and doing this therapy session. So and it's the same protocol except they used surfing and flow instead of MDMA. Then last year the defense department redid the same protocol. This time they used meditation. And they found that four weeks of mantra based meditation, 20 minutes a day, was enough to reach similar results, a little lesser, so the point I'm making is there's an on ramp for anybody. Right, that's what this information is giving us. And it depends on a couple of things. What are you risk tolerances? Right, if you have really high risk tolerance, you don't mind seeking out an illegal substance, you know that sort of thing, signing up for a government trial at this point. You can go the MDMA route. So the FDA, we're now I think it's phase 3 clinical trials. It's about to become mainstream treatment, MDMA for PTSD, but even cooler, they started phase one trials for normal anxiety and depression. 'Cause the results were so strong with PTSD. They were like okay, we can treat normal anxiety and depression, which I don't know if you know the numbers, but one out of eight of us, one out of four of us, is on some kind of psychiatric med, whether that's sleep aids, or anti-depressants, or anti-anxiety. One out of four of us. We're really sort of lost and SSRIs are not a particularly interesting intervention. But the big point is like there are choices. Once we know that all these things take us to the same place, you can say well what's my risk tolerance? You know maybe surfing is your thing, maybe that's how you arrive. Some people if I were to give you these offers, they would look at meditation and say that's the scariest one. I don't want to, right?
For me no problem.
Give the MDMA, I can learn to surf, but I am not going to meditate, right? Like it's really funny, depending on who you talk to. But that's what we're getting, is we can compare, we can contrast, we can figure out what's right for me. And we can kind of go in these directions now.
Yeah, that's you know Tim Ferriss, he's been on the show a number of times, a good friend. He studied, in his most recent book Tools of Titans, he studied 200 people, high performers, world class billionaires, and the number one most common thread, most popular common thread, of all of them was a mindfulness practice of some sort.
I think it's really, I think it's, so another thing, we're getting really practical. So you have to also have an active recovery process at the end of your day. So you have to calm down actively. So that's sleep hygiene but at the end of my day, I go into an infrared sauna for 50 minutes and do, A I do breath work, I do 25 minutes of breath work which is really important for all the reasons we've shown. And the other thing I do is, so turns out, I was going to say this in the beginning, from talking to you about flow, creativity itself is a flow trigger. And what that, is a fancy, the pattern recognition when you link ideas together, there's a neurochemical release. It releases dopamine which is a focusing chemical. And we've all had this experience. If you've done a crossword puzzle, you get an answer right, you get that little rush of pleasure, it's dopamine. It's pattern recognition in the brain. So that drives focus and creativity actually spirals. Flow produces heightened creativity, heightened creativity produces more flow. That's sort of the thing. But if you're going to have pattern recognition, you need to feed the pattern recognition system information. And most of us today we specialize. That's what we drill down in our thing. So the more you specialize, the less fodder you get, so I like to have people read 25-50 pages a day outside their discipline. Usually non-fiction that works better than fiction I've found. And outside your discipline. And so I go into a sauna for 50 minutes and I do 25 minutes of breath work and 25, I can read about a page, page and a half, 25-35 pages so I'm stocking up my pattern recognition so the next day it's filled up with stuff that can like create those links and give me that dopamine and drive me into flow. 'Cause if you're not feeding the system it has no raw materials to work with.
Wow, and that the way that I talk about that in more plain language is, no, no, but I want to continue to bridge that gap for anyone who's like intimidated by, it's just that creativity creates creativity.
You're totally right. You think that's simpler?
Using the word three times in a row? That's simpler than pattern recognition? Creativity creates creativity.
The finger pointing at the moon.
Fair enough, fair enough. So congratulations on the book. Very, very meaningful. What are you working on next? Like what's the next thing? I know you're talking about corporate stuff and you're training Navy Seals and you got military stuff going on and what's next for Steven, yeah?
Believe it or not, I'm writing a novel. First novel in 19 years.
But I haven't written one in a long time, but I've done a couple of books with Peter Diamandis, I've done a bunch of non-fiction. And I just, I wanted to stretch my creativity muscles. I wanted to stretch my let's play with language, let's not get a little outside, you know I've spent a long time being, writing inside a box which is wonderful, I love limits. I think limits are really important for heightening creativity. But I needed to like, I'm gonna try to do it, like I want to see if I can get a first draft in three to four months. Which is I'm doing pretty well. It's really fun. I just wanted to sort of feed my soul for a little bit. I needed to do something for me. So yeah I'm actually writing a novel.
You're practicing what you preach.
And trying to ski as much as possible.
I was like well who doesn't want to ski? This is an aside for the folks at home, ear muffs, I got it at High Skiing Inn about two weeks ago. Thigh deep, blue bird, blower snow. Unbelievable.
Where were you?
North Cascades. I was so joyful. And I think about all my friends who chase great snow like you and I have.
I was just in Squaw past three days.
So much snow.
So much snow.
So you're taking care of yourself. Is there, let me just ask, I like to throw a couple of curve balls, a little speed round here.
What's something that if you told someone something about yourself, they would be surprised to know that that was true? Like, wow, I would never have though that.
Well, okay, let's start where we started. I was a professional magician. From eight, my brother came home made that ball vanish, I was pissed. I figured out how to make that ball vanish, too. Absolutely, and I made my living that way. I started working in Ground Run restaurant, doing birthday parties, did Bar Mitzvahs. I don't think I ever did a wedding, but from like 11 to 17, bought a car in cash when I was 16 years old with magic money. Yeah, did that.
Not a lot of people know that.
How about that you have run a pet rescue?
We still do, my wife and I run Rancho de Chihuahua. It is, so we work in the second poorest county in America, with the highest instance of animal cruelty. And we do hospice care and special needs care for small dogs, so the most, mostly chihuahuas, the most euthanized breed in America. So we sort of work on like a bandaid on how we want to work on the very far front lines. When I said I was interested in how people do the impossible and I was interested also in kind of the extremes of altruism and I think animal rescue, people like helping people. They don't see animals as much and they don't see plants as much. So I like to do that, working on equilibrium, which is a big conference at Squaw, trying to get technologists and environmentalists together in the same room. This is in August, again solve, help animals. So like at a small level and I'm doing it at a bigger level with an amazing team at Squaw. You'll have to come for that.
Yeah, all I need is an invite.
You're invited, done.
Wow, noted, you heard him say it here. If he doesn't send me something, I can just play this video. Remember, you invited me.
You saw it here first.
Thank you so much for coming on this show. The book is Stealing Fire, do you have a title for your next novel yet?
Last Tango in Cyberspace.
Last Tango in Cyberspace. You got a preview, this is Mr. Steven Kotler. I'm Chase, thanks so much. How do they get ahold of you? What's the best way to follow you in the world?
Stevekotler.com is me, StealingFirebook.com is the book. Flowgenomeproject.com and if you want a tool, right, if you go there, there's a free flow profile. It's now the largest study ever run in optimal psych, 70 or 80 thousand people have taken it. But it's traitology it says if you're this kind of person, you're likely to find flow in these directions. Basically, there are a bunch of triggers we talked about. This is just an easy way, you don't have to know too much, you can just point in that direction to flowgenomeproject.com.
Wow and The Rise of Superman, there's all kinds of videos that Steven and I and some friends made that are really worth your time. They're short five to 10 minute videos that extrapolate and explain a little bit more about on the chemical level what's going on. How to get yourself in those states.
It's a great one that you did on creativity.
Yah, I'm proud of that. I think it was a really fun project to be a part of. We got to run around with some of our other action sports friends, too. So thanks. Thanks for making that. You been making a bunch of cool stuff. I'm grateful to call you my friend.
Back at you, thank you for what you do 'cause you're putting a lot of great stuff into the world and I appreciate it.
Thanks, we at CreativeLive are very lucky to have you on the show. Thanks, bud.
Until next week, I'm Chase, this is Steven. Next time. (techno music)