Summary : The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

1. Or, to put it another way: flow is the telephone booth where Clark Kent changes clothes, the place from where Superman emerges.

2.In fact, when Csikszentmihalyi dove deeper into the data, he discovered that the happiest people on earth, the ones who felt their lives had the most meaning, were those who had the most peak experiences.

3. They didn’t just have the most peak experiences, they had devoted their lives to having these experiences, often, as Csikszentmihalyi explained in his 1996 book Creativity, going to extreme lengths to seek them out.

4. In his interviews, to describe these optimal states of performance, flow was a term his subjects kept using.

5. He defined the state as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

6. A ten-year study done by McKinsey found top executives reported being up to five times more productive when in flow. Creativity and cooperation are so amplified that Greylock partner venture capitalist James Slavet, in a recent article for, called “flow state percentage” — defined as the amount of time employees spend in flow — the “most important management metric for building great innovation teams.”

7. Flow, on the other hand, is always a positive experience. No one ever has a bad time in a flow state.

8. Csikszentmihalyi was able to sift through the data and isolate ten core components which demarcate the state. Here’s his list:

  • Clear goals: Expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities. Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
  • Concentration: A high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.
  • A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness: The merging of action and awareness.
  • Distorted sense of time: One’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  • Direct and immediate feedback: Successes and failures are apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed.
  • Balance between ability level and challenge: The activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.
  • A sense of personal control over the situation.
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so action is effortlessness.
  • A lack of awareness of bodily needs.
  • Absorption: narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself.

9. There are five major brain-wave types, each correlating to a different state of consciousness. 

  • “Delta,” the slowest brain wave (meaning the one with the longest pauses between bursts of electricity), is found between 1 Hz and 3.9 Hz. When someone is in a deep, dreamless sleep, they’re in delta. 
  • Next up, between 4 Hz and 7.9 Hz, is “theta,” which correlates to REM sleep, meditation, insight, and (as is often necessary for insight) the processing of novel incoming stimuli. 
  • Between 8 Hz and 13.9 Hz hovers “alpha,” the brain’s basic resting state. People in alpha are relaxed, calm, and lucid, but not really thinking. 
  • Beta sits between 14 Hz and 30 Hz, and signifies learning and concentration at the low end, fear and stress at the high. 
  • Above 30 Hz there’s a fast-moving wave known as “gamma,” which only shows up during “binding,” when different parts of the brain are combining disparate thoughts into a single idea.

10. Creativity has a brain wave signature as well: alpha waves pulsing out of the brain’s right hemisphere.

11. Exactly thirty milliseconds before the breakthrough intuition arrives, EEG shows a burst of gamma waves. These ultrafast brain waves appear when a bunch of widely distributed cells — i.e., novel stimuli, random thoughts, and obscure memories — bind themselves together into a brand-new network. It is the brainwave signature of the “Aha!” moment.

12. “But the interesting thing about a gamma spike,” explains Leslie Sherlin, “is that it always happens inside of theta oscillations. The two waves are coupled.

13. This is where athletes in flow have a huge edge — their brain is already in alpha/theta. They’re holding themselves in the only state that can produce that gamma spike.”

14. This means flow packs a double punch: it doesn’t just increase our decisionmaking abilities — it increases our creative decision-making abilities.

15. According to research done by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, not only are creative insights consistently consistently associated with flow states, but that amplified creativity outlasts the zone. People report feeling extraordinarily creative the day after a flow state, suggesting that time spent in the zone trains the brain to consistently think outside the box.

16. A runner’s high [now considered a lowgrade flow state]

17. In 2006, for example, a team of Israeli scientists discovered that when people lose themselves in a task — be it playing cards or having sex or climbing a mountain — a part of the brain called the superior frontal gyrus starts to deactivate.

18. Flow changes this entire dynamic. For starters, in the zone, the brain releases a number of powerful painkillers that deaden us to the damage being done and allow us to push our maximal strength closer to its absolute boundary (more on this in the next chapter).

19. “Because flow deactivates large parts of the neocortex,” says Eagleman, “a number of these areas are offline — thus distorting our ability to compute time.”

20. Psychologists describe flow as “autotelic,” from the Greek auto (self) and telos (goal). When something is autotelic — i.e., produces the flow high — it is its own reward. No one has to drag a surfer out of bed for overhead tubes. No one has to motivate a snowboarder on a powder day. These activities are intrinsically motivating, autotelic experiences done for their own sake. The high to end all highs.

21. While other hedonic pleasures — drugs, sex, gambling — make us feel good on their own, flow only shows up when we’re pushing ourselves to higher and higher levels of performance. “Because flow involves meeting challenges and developing skills,” explains Csikszentmihalyi in Good Business, “it leads to growth. It is an escape forward from current reality, whereas stimulants like drugs lead backward.”

22. In 2011, neuroscientists with the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) found that military snipers trained in flow decreased the time it took to acquire their targets by a factor of 2.3. Similar research run with amateur (i.e., nonmilitary) snipers found that flow cut the time it took to teach novices to shoot like experts by 50 percent. This means that flow doesn’t just provide a joyful, self-directed path toward mastery — it literally shortens the path.

23. Take external triggers, our starting point. These are qualities in the environment that drive people deeper into the zone. One tamer example comes from office design. In recent years, as the production of flow has been deemed critical to the success of organizations, organizations have reacted by trying to design environments that produce more flow. As flow requires focus, one of the first changes suggested by experts was the removal of cubicle farms, those open office plans that permit constant interruption. “These interruptions … move us out of ‘flow’ and increase research-and-design cycle times and costs dramatically,”

24. “Studies have shown that each time a flow state is disrupted it takes fifteen minutes to get back into flow, if you can get back at all.”

25. He was also depending on two other external triggers — “rich environment” and “deep embodiment” — to keep him in the state.

26. A “rich environment” is a combination platter of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity — three elements that catch and hold our attention much like risk.

27. Novelty means both danger and opportunity. To our forbearers, a strange scent in the wind could be prey or predator, but either way it paid to pay attention.

28. The last external flow trigger, “deep embodiment,” is a kind of fullbody awareness. Humans have sensory inputs all over the place; 50 percent of our nerve endings are in our hands, feet, and face. Deep embodiment means paying attention to all of these sensory inputs at once.

29. Just as flow states have external triggers, conditions in the outer environment that create more flow, they also have internal triggers, conditions in our inner environment that create more flow.

30. Internal triggers are psychological strategies that drive attention into the now. Back in the 1970s, Csikszentmihalyi identified “clear goals,” “immediate feedback,” and “the challenge/skill ratio” as the three most critical. Let’s take a closer look.

31. In 2003, Simons showed a short film of basketball players passing a ball around a court to his students, and asked them to count the passes. When the film was over, he had one question: “How many people saw the gorilla?” As it happened, midway through the clip, a guy in a gorilla costume walked to the middle of the circle of basketball players, beat his chest a few times, then walked off. As it happened, most of the students didn’t see the gorilla.

32. Simon’s “invisible gorilla experiment” has since been repeated dozens of times — most recently with radiologists looking at radiological screens and a cartoon gorilla — and always with the same result. Not many people see the gorilla. In the radiologist’s version (a 2012 study run at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Boston), 83 percent of doctors tested failed to spot the animal. 

33. The point is this: when the brain is charged with a clear goal, focus narrows considerably, the unimportant is disregarded, and the now is all that’s left.

34. If creating more flow is our aim, then the emphasis falls on “clear” and not “goals.” Clarity gives us certainty. We know what to do and we know where to focus our attention while doing it. When goals are clear, metacognition is replaced by in-the-moment cognition, and the self stays out of the picture.

35. “When I dive constant ballast,” says Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, “I don’t think about breaking a record, I can’t ever think about the whole dive. It’s too overwhelming. I have to chunk it down, create tiny, clear goals. I go through kick cycles. The Voice (the voice of intuition) keeps count. I want to pay attention through one cycle, then the next, then the next. Keep the count, that’s my only goal. If I keep the count, I can stay in flow the whole dive.”

36. Applying this idea in our daily life means breaking tasks into bite-size chunks and setting goals accordingly. A writer, for example, is better off trying to pen three great paragraphs at a time — the equivalent of moving through Mandy-Rae’s kick cycles — rather than attempting one great chapter. Think challenging, yet manageable — just enough stimulation to shortcut attention into the now, not enough stress to pull you back out again.

37. Immediate feedback, our next internal trigger, is another shortcut into the now. The term refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect. The smaller the gap between input and output, the more we know how we’re doing and how to do it better. If we can’t course correct in real time, we start looking for clues to better performance — things we did in the past, things we’ve seen other people do, things that can pull us out of the moment.

38. Surgeons, by contrast, are the only class of physician that improve the longer they’re out of medical school. Why? Mess up on the table and someone dies. That’s immediate feedback.

39. And that brings us to the “challenge/skill ratio,” the last of our internal flow triggers, and arguably the most important. The idea behind this trigger is that attention is most engaged (i.e., in the now) when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task.

40. If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention. Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel — the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap.

41. How hard is that? Answers vary, but the general thinking is about 4 percent. That’s it. That’s the sweet spot. If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4 percent greater than the skills.

42. “When performance peaks in groups,” he says, “this isn’t just about individuals in flow — it’s the group entering the state together, a collective merger of action and awareness, a ‘group flow.’”

43. And wherever group flow shows up, it leaves its mark. The same pleasure chemicals behind individual flow also arrive with the group variation — only we seem to like them more. In comparison studies run by St. Bonaventure University psychologist Charles Walker, “solitary flow” (what Doug Ammons experienced on the Stikine) was measured against “coactive flow” (this comes from individual activities done in groups, like surfers sharing a break) was measured against “interactive flow” (where interaction is inherent to the activity, like rock climbing with a partner). Walker discovered that the more social an activity, the higher “flow enjoyment” — the level of joy experienced in flow — was for participants.

44. Flow is an alternative path toward mastery, but, like any path, not without its pitfalls. There’s a serious dark side to flow.

45.I read Sebastian Jungers’s War and I learned something: The guys coming home are all screwed up, not because they saw people die as much as they missed the rush. I would never put myself in the same category as those fighting men, but it can be hard to get excited again. Ever. And that feeling sucks.

46. There is an extremely tight link between our visual system and our physiology: once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly.” 

47. It was Harvard physiologist Edmund Jacobson who first discovered this link. Back in the 1930s, Jacobson found that imagining oneself lifting an object triggered triggered corresponding electrical activity in the muscles involved in the lift. Between then and now dozens and dozens of studies have born this out, repeatedly finding strong correlations between mental rehearsal — i.e., visualization — and better performance. Everything from giving a speech to running a business meeting to spinning a 1080 are all significantly enhanced by the practice.

48. In 2004, for example, Cleveland Clinic physiologist Guang Yue wanted to know if merely thinking about lifting weights was enough to increase strength. Study subjects were divided into four groups. One group tried to strengthen their finger muscles with physical exercise; one tried to strengthen their finger muscles by only visualizing the exercise; another tried to increase arm strength through visualization; while the last group did nothing at all. The trial lasted twelve weeks. When it was over, those who did nothing saw no gains. The group that relied on physical training saw the greatest increase in strength — at 53 percent. But it’s the mental groups where things got curious. Folks who did no physical training but merely imagined their fingers going through precise exercise motions saw a 35 percent increase in strength, while the ones who visualized arm exercises saw a 13.5 percent increase in strength. How tightly are imagination and physiology coupled? Strength is among the most baseline of all performance measures and we humans can get stronger simply by thinking hard about it.

49. Probably the biggest insight arrived a few years before Yue’s experiment, when neuroscientists found no difference between performing an action and merely imagining oneself performing that action — the same neuronal circuits fire in either case. This means that visualization impacts a slew of cognitive processes — motor control, memory, attention, perception, planning — essentially accelerating chunking by shortening the time it takes us to learn new patterns.

50. Visualization is an essential flow hack: it shortens struggle. Visualization also firms up aims and objectives, further amplifying flow. 

51. “I’m certain we can’t answer that question,” says Michael Gervais. “At the world-class level, where talent differences are marginal, we estimate that 90 percent of success for elite performers is mental — yet this is the one measurement milestone we haven’t hit.