The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer

by Steven Kotler

The Art of Impossible takes a science-based approach to understanding and executing high performance in professional athletes and beyond. Following neuroscience and experts in their respected fields, this book narrows down habits of excellence applicable to everyday life intended for those who want to achieve the impossible. 

Summary Notes

Discover Your Passion(s)

“Cultivating real passion isn’t an overnight process.”

To start on the path to doing the “impossible,” aka, being the best in your field, you must first know your passion. This ultimately boils down to curiosity. It’s curiosity that leads you to discover your purpose.

In neurobiology, this is called the “seek/desire” system and is created to give you the enthusiasm to explore more resources. The brain lights up and squirts dopamine when we discover things that may be useful to us and also makes learning more effortless. 

When we cross two intersecting ideas, our brains engage in what is known as “pattern recognition,” which rewards the brain with more dopamine. This means that the more you follow your curiosity, the more dopamine you get. This is the path to mastery.

Actions to take

Create your mission statement or MTP

“An MTP is both a crucial driver and a great foundation for a commercial enterprise.”

A mission statement, also known as a Massively Transformative Purpose (MTP), refers to the overarching theme of your passions in life. Defining this helps you narrow down how your passions and overarching purpose work together and what they have the potential for.

A good MTP satisfies three criteria:

  • Massive: huge and bold
  • Transformative: the ability to cause great change or impact in your chosen field
  • Purpose: the “why” underneath the work

When you turn your passions into purpose, they now have an external focus. This can help you evade obsessive thoughts and rumination, which only causes depression and anxiety and kills passion.

Actions to take

Make Your Goals High, Hard and Clear

“Because the brain is a prediction engine and consciousness is a limited resource, fear and goals are the basic building blocks of our reality.”

Your brain is a powerful engine capable of constantly absorbing information from a million sources with our senses, but astoundingly enough, it can only consciously handle seven pieces of information at once. In fact, even focusing on seven pieces of information at once can be difficult for the brain to manage.

Social media, our environments such as sounds and temperature, games, and all sorts of entertainment make it difficult for us to focus or stay focused. What can start as an intention to go on a walk can quickly turn into a marathon on the couch binge-watching Netflix. We’re constantly being pulled in multiple directions with varying temptations. 

The solution?  Giving yourself a “high hard goal” and “clear goals” help the brain filter through the noise. A “high, hard goal” (HHG) can help you realize your life’s purpose and mission. For example, your mission could be to reduce pollution in the coral reefs. A high, hard goal corresponding to that mission statement could be starting an annual 5k run event that funds ocean cleanup organizations or creating a nonprofit that sustainably uses recycled bottles.

These goals should be difficult but attainable. After a high, hard goal is set, there are clear goals to be made. These further focus the brain as clear goals give plain instructions. Clear goals are the tiny everyday steps towards our HHG. Examples include researching how to plan an event or various sustainability practices.

Actions to take

Master Your Mindset

“More technically, mindset refers to our attitudes towards learning.”

Although passion, purpose, and goals are incredibly important to achieving the impossible, mindset also plays a huge role. What’s referred to as a “growth mindset” is crucial for success. 

A growth mindset is an outlook on viewing challenges as opportunities rather than failures or blistering frustrations. People with growth mindsets stay engaged, do the challenge smarter, and stay focused for longer. Their brains light up with possibilities for triumphing over difficulties. 

Meanwhile, those with a “fixed mindset” view challenges beyond their scope as too difficult, and their brains lack activity. Those with fixed mindsets believe talent is innate, so their brains filter out what they feel is too difficult. This becomes a problem since pursuing our greatest goals also means facing high-level challenges along the way. 

Self-talk is also important. Just as a fixed mindset is constricting and a growth mindset is expanding, self-talk works the same way. It’s said that it takes three positive thoughts to neutralize a negative one. Negative self-talk hinders our ability to move forward and diminishes our options. On the other hand, positive self-talk gives us resiliency, increases our options, and helps our moods too. When it comes to the brain, rewiring that negativity means being consistent on how we positively talk to ourselves.

Actions to take

Learn How to Learn and Develop Your Skills

“Lifelong learning is how we can keep pace with the moving target that is the challenge-skills sweet spot.”

Lifelong learning is what keeps high performers in the game. This is such a giant driver, as motivation by itself will fade if continual learning is stopped. It also keeps us in a “flow” state, a process where you feel completely immersed in your work or task. 

It’s a euphoric feeling with many neurotransmitters at play and is useful as it keeps you coming back and achieving high performance towards your goal(s). When we are in the “challenge-skills” sweet spot, we are on the edge of our skill sets, pushing our boundaries, which requires learning something new. 

This cycle can be ecstatic but also draining. If we don’t have the emotional support to help us bounce back from time to time, this can cause anxiety, depression, and cortisol (a stress hormone) increase. Having a support system is crucial. 

When a challenge seems too daunting, the support systems push us forward. Connecting with others, though, is a skill that can be mastered. This is referred to as emotional intelligence, and studies have shown that it is one of the biggest markers of high achievement. EQ helps us understand people and ourselves. It helps with self-control, well-being, and self-awareness, all of which contribute greatly to the pursuit of our goals.

Actions to take

Handle Recovery Appropriately

“It’s hard for peak performers to relax. If momentum matters most, sitting feels like laziness.”

Being in a “flow state” is laborious, as it shuts down parts of the prefrontal cortex and relies heavily on the unconscious mind, uses extreme attention and focus while also concerting a symphony of pleasurable neurotransmitters at all once that flood the system. 

To have continued bouts of flow throughout the week and perform at your best, you need time to recover—or else you’ll experience burnout. Incorporating times of recovery means taking a real break from our tasks, letting our minds drift, and not getting obsessed with our goals. 

All ideas will look tantalizing and exciting, but it’s best to write them down, step away, and get some shut-eye or practice an active recovery protocol. Unfortunately, beer and TV don’t work for this, as most people would think of it as only a form of “passive recovery.” 

TV keeps the mind on alert (even when tired) with its fast scene transitions, and alcohol disrupts sleep, not letting us reach the deep levels of sleep required for memory consolidation. Active recovery, on the other hand, truly enables the brain to shift to calmer brainwaves and helps the body destress. This includes walking in the woods, hopping in the sauna, taking an ice bath, etc. This gives the brain a break it truly needs. 

However, if the burnout symptoms such as depression, exhaustion, and high doubt feel inescapable no matter the recovery protocols, it’s best to truly have a break and call it off for some days and then return.

Actions to take

Don’t just read. Act.
Read comprehensive summaries and discover carefully compiled action lists for active learning