The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performanceby Steven Kotler
The Rise of Superman decodes the mystery of ultimate human performance. It explores the frontier science of “flow,” an optimal state of consciousness where we perform and feel our best, backed by research. Building a bridge between the extreme and the mainstream, The Rise of Superman explains how top athletes use flow to do the impossible and how we can use this information to improve our own performance dramatically.
The Characteristics of Flow
“When you’re in that moment, there’s no beginning and no end. It starts off where it left off. When you go to that place, there’s no time, and there’s definitely no thought. It’s just pure. You are, and it is, and that’s why we continually seek it out, and always search for it, and need it.”
In the last thirty years, the limits of what was possible were pushed farther and faster than ever before. We’ve seen near-exponential growth in ultimate human performance, both a hyperbolic paradox and a considerable mystery.
While our mindset significantly enhances performance, there is another crucial factor behind success: flow.
There are three curious and basic properties within the experience of flow, also known as “being in the zone”:
- The profound mental clarity provided by the state: the calm, rational nature of the mental argument.
- The emotional detachment that comes with clarity: observing our own mind debate itself from afar.
- A hint of its automatic nature: how one right decision always leads to another right one.
Flow's mighty cocktail is made up of three chemicals. Each one strikes a chord when combined. Consider the progression from pattern recognition (unconsciously gathering information from the world) to future prediction.
Norepinephrine tightens focus (data acquisition);
Dopamine jacks pattern recognition (data processing);
Anandamide accelerates lateral thinking (widens the database searched by the pattern recognition system).
Flow’s neurochemistry also accelerates social bonding. When you’re in love, you are likely to have experienced sleeplessness, giddiness, hyperactivity, loss of appetite, etc. These are all caused by dopamine and norepinephrine, the neurochemicals that reinforce romantic love.
Endorphins also serve a similar function, only showing up in maternal love (in infants) and general attachment (in adults). Serotonin also further reinforces love and attachment (alongside oxytocin). And anandamide, as any pot smoker will attest, makes one feel open, expansive, and empathetic, which further improves connection.
Actions to take
External Triggers for Flow
“To reach flow, [...] one must be willing to take risks.”
External triggers are environmental factors that push people into the zone. Extreme athletes use risk as a “flow hack” as flow follows focus, and consequences catch our attention. When we view risk as a challenge, our fear becomes the guide that points us in the right direction. Since risk-taking increases dopamine release, it improves performance and pattern recognition. If you want to achieve anything, you must be willing to take risks and enjoy the challenge.
These risks come in many forms. They could either be physical, mental, social, emotional, or creative risks. A shy man crossing the room to say hello to an attractive woman is a simple example. In casual conversations, merely telling someone the truth can serve the same purpose.
Creative risk is all about mental chance-taking with the application of imagination. Betting on a bad idea can endanger one's survival as it could result in a loss of respect, resources, and time.
Aside from risk, we can also use other external triggers to keep us in the flow state:
- Rich environment is a combination of
- Novelty—both danger and opportunity,
- Unpredictability—we don't know what will happen next, so we focus on it.
- Complexity—when lots of salient information comes at us once, we tend to be complexed by it.
- Deep embodiment is a kind of full-body awareness. It means fully observing all our sensory inputs (nerve endings, basic senses, etc.) at once.
Actions to take
Internal Triggers for Flow
“Clarity gives us certainty.”
Internal triggers are conditions in our inner environment that create more flow. They refer to psychological strategies that drive attention into the now.
There are three critical internal triggers you can use to get into the flow state:
- Clear goals: having a clear goal in mind narrows our focus and helps us identify what to disregard.
- Immediate feedback: the closer the gap between the input and output, the better we know how we are doing and how to improve it.
- The challenge/skill ratio: there must be a balance between our ability to perform the task and its difficulty. The task should be hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to snap.
Actions to take
Group Flow Triggers
“Turns out there’s hidden leverage available, both a secret balm to make you braver and one of the best flow hacks yet discovered: community.”
Flow states have ten social features that alter social conditions to produce more group flow. The first five features include serious concentration, shared and clear goals, good communication, equal participation, and an element of risk.
Familiarity is a feature that refers to the group sharing a common language, knowledge base, and communication style. It ensures that everyone is on the same page so that new ideas don't get lost in lengthy explanations. This is followed by blending egos where no one gets the spotlight, and everyone is fully involved.
Having a sense of control is about choosing your own challenges and having the skills to overcome them. It combines autonomy and competence.
Close listening happens when we are fully present in the moment. It’s about generating spontaneous, real-time responses to a conversation.
The last feature is always saying yes. This means seeking to add value rather than arguing with each other. The goal is to constantly amplify each other's ideas and actions to create momentum, togetherness, and innovation.
Actions to take
The Four-step Flow Cycle
“There are two common misconceptions about flow. The first is that the state works like a light switch—on or off. You’re either in flow or out. Yet flow is not binary.”
The flow state consists of four steps:
Struggle - this is where we overload the brain with data. This struggle uses the conscious mind to recognize patterns and repeat them enough, making us feel awkward and uncomfortable until done.
Release - it means taking your mind off the problem. To get into this state, you have to take a break especially if you’ve been working on something too long.
Flow - achieved after the release state.
Recovery - flow is a costly state to produce and maintain. In this state, information is being moved from short-term to long-term storage.