I recently finished an excellent book called The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. I have read several other books from this author Steven Kotler including ‘The Rise of Superman’ and ‘Stealing Fire’, and most of his books are about the science of flow – the state of being ‘in the zone’. I’m sure you can vividly remember some of the moments of your life where you have been in flow, whether through athletics, your professional career, conversations, or some other type of flow-like experience like being on a roller coaster, sky diving, white water rafting, etc. What I enjoy about Steven’s books are that he explains (mainly through Science) how we can repeatedly experience flow by understanding and prepping our body and minds to allow the state to happen. The more we understand flow the more we can put ourselves in the state. And the more we put ourselves into the state of flow, the more we can start to unlock the ability to reach our own personal ‘impossible.’ What is your impossible? For some of us, impossible might be achieving an athletic or professional accomplishment or even repairing a broken relationship. Maybe your impossible is as simple as getting through the day, staying focused, or enjoying the present. Here are a few takeaways from Steven’s book on conquering your own impossible: 1. We are all built for impossible. What he calls impossible is a kind of extreme innovation—in mind as well as matter. These are the feats that have never been done before and most believe will never be done. History is full of impossible feats and most of his studies involve extreme athletes. He discovered that what they had figured out was that peak performance is nothing more than getting your biology to work for you rather than against you. It’s a capacity we all have. “Flow makes seemingly impossible achievements possible, because it provides an enormous boost to motivation, creativity, grit, and productivity.” 2. The only way to accomplish the impossible is by first achieving many small impossibles When we see people accomplishing an impossible like breaking a world record in the Olympics, shooting a private rocket into the outer atmosphere of Earth, or seeing a person walk a tightrope in between the Twin Towers, we haven’t seen the thousands of hours or years they have had to study and practice and fail in order to get to that level of expertise. We don’t see the incremental improvements that are made each day through simply pushing a little farther each time (even though to the outside world it looks like they have accomplished the impossible overnight). And yet they are still achieving impossible but only by first achieving many smaller “impossibles.” 3. To achieve the small impossibles, get into flow. Flow is an optimal state of consciousness that you may know by other terms, like “being in the zone.” It refers to those moments of hyper focus and total absorption when we get so focused on the task at hand that everything else just seems to disappear. Flow makes seemingly impossible achievements possible because it provides a significant boost to motivation, creativity, grit, and productivity. Flow is an innate feature of the human experience so its benefits are available to all of us. Additionally, achieving flow states is a trainable skill and, with practice, you can spend more and more time in flow and eventually create what he calls a “high-flow lifestyle.” 4. The 4 steps to peak performance. According to Kotler, in order to achieve impossible goals you need to master the 4-stage sequence that leads to peak human performance:
Motivation. This means fueling your intrinsic curiosity and passion as well as developing the skills needed to sustain motivation over time, like persistence, grit, resilience, and the ability to delay gratification.
Learning. This refers not only to the ability to acquire news skills and knowledge, but also to the ability to understand the process of learning itself. It also means cultivating the self-awareness needed to know where you need to improve.
Creativity. He uses this term to mean mastering a whole subset of skills, including idea generation, pattern recognition, and risk-taking.
Flow. Finally, learning how to get into focused and absorbed flow states is the master skill that will turbo-charge all the other steps and catapult you to peak performance.
5. Not going big is unhealthy for us. The same steps needed to achieve peak performance are the steps needed to remain happy and healthy. Put another way, not striving for big goals is actually unhealthy for you. For example, one of the root causes of depression—beyond genetics and trauma—seems to be disconnection from meaningful work. Doing work that you’re not curious about, that you’re not passionate about, and that doesn’t fulfill your purpose can actually lead to physical and mental harm. By embracing the skills of peak performers—motivation, learning, creativity, and flow—you’re not only just pushing yourself to achieve, but also you’re actually taking care of yourself. In closing, what is your Impossible? And what are the mini-impossibles you can achieve each day and along the way that will help you get closer to accomplishing your Impossible? Don’t let the seemingly-out-of-reach larger impossible discourage you. Just focus on that small impossible right in front of you today and go for that. Then tomorrow, go for the next one. Have a great week!