Bestselling journalist Steven Kotler is “obsessed with the moment when the impossible becomes possible.” He has released two books on the theme: The Rise of Superman (2014) explores the science behind the performance of extreme athletes, while Bold (2015), co-authored with XPRIZE founder Peter H. Diamandis, examines how entrepreneurs can “go big, make bank, and better the world.” His latest book, Tomorrowland (2015), looks at how ideas from science fiction have become fact.
We asked Kotler to apply his obsession to the workplace and tell us how individuals—and entire companies—can push boundaries to reach new levels of innovation and productivity.
Q: What do all of these people who dream up the impossible and then make it happen have in common?
Steven Kotler: The secret is their ability to achieve the state of consciousness known as flow, a concept that dates back more than 100 years, to psychologist William James. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, another psychologist, coined the term in the 1980s to describe the optimal state where we lose ourselves in our focus and feel and perform at our best. It creates a massive uptick in performance and creativity, and it’s spectacular for high-speed decision making in the heat of the moment. If you spend just one day a week in flow, your performance will improve by 500%.
Q: What separates the rest of us from people like Roger Bannister, who clocked the first four-minute mile in 1954 after everyone said it couldn’t be done, or Tom Schaar, who won a skateboarding gold medal in the 2012 X Games at age 12? Do you believe people are born with the ability to tap the flow state, or can anyone learn to do it?
Kotler: The sweet spot for flow is between boredom and anxiety, where you’re engaged and using your best skills; think of a world-class surfer taking on a monster wave. Some people are better at getting there than others, but it’s an entirely trainable skill. In fact, I co-founded the Flow Genome Project to research how best to teach people to achieve flow. One of the things we’ve discovered is that flow follows focus, so to hack flow, you want to teach people how to direct and sharpen their focus.
Q: How can individuals get themselves into a state of flow?
Kotler: Flow goes beyond concentration to being entirely absorbed in what you’re doing, being energized and fully involved, and enjoying the process. One way to encourage it is to take a physical or emotional risk that forces you to focus on the moment, like speaking up at a meeting or going skateboarding on your lunch break. Another is to introduce novelty into your environment, even in small ways, like taking a different route home from work. A third way is to practice linking ideas together in novel ways. Routine is useful, but being on autopilot kills creativity.
Q: What about at a company? Can you have a team that’s in flow?
Kotler: Absolutely! Group flow, the shared, collective version of the flow state, was discovered by University of North Carolina psychologist Keith Sawyer. Some of the triggers for it are stretching from shared goals; taking collective risks; engaging in active, close listening; and encouraging equal participation.
Q: If we’ve been studying flow for more than 30 years, why is the idea of applying it to the workplace still so disruptive?
Kotler: As I wrote in the Harvard Business Review last year, timetables we once measured with calendars are now being clocked with timers. The only way teams can keep up with that pace is by learning to shut out distractions, absorb information better, and innovate faster. Flow is what makes that possible.