When Steve Jobs was designing the offices for Pixar, he did something rather odd. He had a large atrium constructed in the center of the building and then placed mailboxes, a cafeteria, meeting rooms, and the bathrooms — the only ones in the building — next to the open-air structure. There was, of course, a reason behind the unorthodox layout.
It “forced employees from all over the company to randomly bump into one another, massively increasing novelty, complexity and unpredictability,” writes Steven Kotler in “The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer” (Harper Wave), out now. These factors lead the brain to produce more dopamine, an important neurotransmitter involved in pleasure, motivation, memory and attention. As a result, Kotler notes, creativity and productivity was heightened around the office, and Pixar became the Oscar-winning powerhouse that it is today.
The random interactions also triggered what’s known as “flow,” a unique state of consciousness and concentration where we perform our best. Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly first began researching the phenomenon in the 1970s and coined the term; his 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” is considered a groundbreaking classic. Flow, Kotler notes, can help us accomplish seemingly impossible physical feats and may increase mental capabilities by as much as 500 percent.
“In every domain, whenever the impossible becomes possible, flow always plays a starring role,” writes Kotler, who, in addition to being a Pulitzer-prize-nominated journalist is the executive director of the Flow Research Collective, a research and training organization.
Legendary surfer Laird Hamilton is in flow when he tackles waves nearly 100-feet tall. Navy SEALs are in a flow state when they accomplish top-secret missions with stealth and precision. Silicon Valley titans rely on flow to optimize their time and innovations. And, Kotler said, the average person can use flow to achieve their big goals for 2021, from training for a marathon to getting a promotion, in significantly less time than when working in a non-optimal state.
“What most people want, when they’re gaming after their goals, they want to get farther faster,” Kotler said. “And that’s essentially what happens when we get our biology working for us.”
But how do we get into the flow? Researchers have identified 22 “flow triggers,” including having clear goals, immediate feedback, a rich environment, and a task at hand that challenges our skillset just enough. “Flow follows focus. The state can only arise when all of our attention is directed at the present moment,” Kotler writes.
Finding what you’re truly passionate about it is central to flow. Kotler suggests jotting down 25 things you’re curious about. When it comes to creating the list, be as specific as possible and look for places where three or four items of curiosity intersect. “Don’t just be interested in football or food,” Kotler writes, “be curious about the pass-blocking mechanics required to play left tackle; or the potential for grasshoppers to become a primary human food source in the next 10 years.”
Then, devote a half hour each day to learning more about these intersecting areas. “This slow-growth strategy takes advantage of the brain’s inherent learning software,” Kotler writes. “When you advance your knowledge a little bit at a time, you’re giving your adaptive unconscious a chance to process that information.”
No matter what stage you’re at in exploring your interests, Kotler says peak performance requires constant learning, and books are the most radically condensed form of information on the planet. It takes an author years to get the knowledge to write a book that can be read in hours. “Everyone from tech titans like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to cultural icons like Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban and Warren Buffett credit their incredible success to their incredible passion for books,” he writes.
Kotler cautions against zeroing in on a single interest too soon, whether you’re at an early stage in your career or looking for a new path at a later point. Research shows that high achievers — whether athletes or titans of industry — tend to start out their careers with a wide sampling period in which they try out several different things before finding work that perfectly suits their interests and skills. “The number of different jobs done in a given field remains one of the best predictors of CEO success,” Kotler writes.
Bob Iger, the executive chairman and former CEO of the Walt Disney Company, began working odd jobs at age 13. In his early 20s, he started at ABC Television as a studio supervisor and went on to work more than 20 different jobs at ABC, including as a lowly crew member on a soap opera, before he became the head of the parent company.
Another thing that distinguishes peak performers from average achievers is a willingness to fail. Less successful people tend to look for shortcuts. Kotler recalled how skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen was initially a pioneer in freestyle skating, creating many of the movements of the form. But, when that style of skating fell out of fashion in the late ’80s, Mullen shifted to street skating, a very different, much more dynamic style that required an entirely different set of skills. Mullen had to learn a new discipline from the ground up. He’d go out in the streets of LA at night to practice where no one could see him, but he ultimately succeeded and became one of the most influential street skaters.
Autonomy can also help trigger flow, which savvy companies capitalize on. Since the late 1940s, 3M has had a “15 Percent Rule” that allows engineers to spend 15 percent of their time on projects they’ve come up with themselves. While doing so is quite an investment, it’s paid huge dividends. In 1974, the 15 Percent Rule helped spawn Post-it notes. The sticky papers now make the company more than $1 billion each year, Kotler writes. More famously, at Google, there’s a “20 Percent Rule,” and more than half of the tech giant’s most profitable products, including Gmail, Google Maps and Google News, have come from employees’ autonomous projects. Apple, Facebook, and LinkedIn all have similar programs. Their success is notable outside of the corporate world, and demonstrates that spending just four or five hours a week on something we’re passionate about can yield dramatic results.
High achievers are also defined by their grit: the persistence and determination with which they pursue their goals. Kotler writes of how chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin believes in “learning to be your best when you’re at your worst.” For example, Kotler makes a habit of practicing big speeches after an exhausting day or in the middle of a challenging hike. “If I can sound coherent scrambling up a cliff,” he writes, “I can sound coherent under any conditions.”
Another aspect of grit is identifying and training your weakness, something most of us are not inclined to do. “Our weaknesses tend to be the stuff we like the least and are least motivated to train,” writes Kotler. In his bodybuilding heyday, Arnold Schwarzenegger would start his weightlifting sessions by targeting his weakest muscles. The late skiing great Shane McConkey would make a point of tackling the worst conditions on the slopes.
Those that excel don’t just embrace challenge, they also embrace fear. Talking to surfer Hamilton over the years, Kotler was initially surprised to learn that he wasn’t a fearless daredevil, but rather lives in fear.
“Every successful person I’ve met is running from something just as fast as they’re running toward something,” Kotler writes. “Fear is a fantastic motivator . . . learning to treat fear as a challenge to rise toward rather than a threat to be avoided can make such a profound difference in our lives.”
“Risk is a flow trigger,” he adds, so using it can also help you increase your time in the zone.
If you’re looking for a more risk-free way to boost performance, get a hobby. Everyone has what Kotler calls a “primary flow activity” — perhaps it’s knitting or skiing or tennis — that fits our personality, engages us and comes relatively naturally. We have an easy time getting into flow with beloved hobbies, and it’s good practice for the brain to get into the groove when doing more serious work. Many adults don’t think they have time for hobbies, but they actually help us work more efficiently. “You go skiing on Monday, and your chances of getting into flow [the rest of the work week] go way up,” Kotler said.
By better understanding how our brains work, we can ultimately work less but achieve more.
As Kotler writes, “The only thing more difficult than the emotional toil of pursuing true excellence is the emotional toil of not pursuing true excellence.”