As part of the continuing series where I share highlights of some of my favorite books that have shaped the way I approach business and leadership, I’d like to introduce you to The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler.


Understanding how our brains function and how we build disciplines into our daily, weekly and monthly schedules enables us to do our best work. A concept or state of mind that might be new to some of us is the idea of flow.

Many of us have experienced this when we’re working on a project late into the night with heavy concentration, and fresh insights seemed to “flow.” We finish the project exhausted yet exhilarated with a glow of satisfaction and confidence that stays with us.

Research on the various states of consciousness has uncovered the complexity of our minds and how much this influences our decision making, our motivation, and our performance over time. Flow is an optimal state of consciousness.


Mihayl Csikszentmihalyi is sort of the godfather of flow. He saw ten core components of flow:


  1. Clear goals
  2. Concentration
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness
  4. Distorted sense of time
  5. Direct and immediate feedback
  6. Balance between ability and level and challenge
  7. Sense of personal control over the situation
  8. Activity is intrinsically rewarding, so action is effortless
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs
  10. Absorption: narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself

In The Rise of Superman, author Steven Kotler shows us how we can look to extreme sport athletes to see individuals who are pushing the boundaries of human performance. They are flow junkies and are denying the “impossible” at every corner. They are the ones taking a skateboard over the Great Wall of China after breaking his ankle the day before or skydiving from space to Earth at 800 mph.

In many ways, as business owners we have to push the boundaries of human performance with our knowledge, our speed of delivery and our products and services to improve others’ lives. We need to tap into the resources of flow, where we feel our best and perform at our peak.


In our pursuit to enter flow, there can be different on-ramps for different types of people:


  • For writers, painters, dancers, musicians, scientists creativity is their trigger
  • For endurance athletes runner’s high is their trigger
  • For philanthropists helper’s high is their trigger
  • For technology enthusiasts, video games and writing code is their trigger

There are also internal and external environmental triggers to flow:

  • External – qualities in the environment that drive people deeper to the zone, such as office design
  • Internal – putting oneself in high consequence situations that have mental, social, emotional, and/or creative risks. One trigger is the challenge/skill ratio. This is the relationship between the difficulty of the task and our ability to perform the task. Pushing ourselves to do work that is 4% greater than our skills will push us toward flow.

Another trigger to flow is group flow. This is where you bring the lives of like-minded individuals together. In those healthy environments, challenge, encouragement, competition, and care all happen. There is an amazing energy that is generated both individually and corporately. That very energy can push us to do more than we ever dreamed possible ― to push our boundaries and radically accelerate performance in our lives.

Company culture is certainly a consideration here. Sharing common experiences and beliefs can create flow in our lives and push us toward the “impossible.”


Much of the research around flow has identified the powerful biological aspects of the state. Because we are trespassing into intensely complicated neurochemicals in our bodies, we need to consider the dangerous side of flow:

  • Constantly pushing the challenge/skill ratio can lead to exceeding the traditional margins for safety.
  • There can be long stretches where the flow state is inaccessible and where there is increased risk of depression and mental frustration.
  • Athletes hit walls, writers experience writer’s block, executives over commit and burn out.
  • Those who have experienced flow in the past (as a child, possibly through play such as instrument playing, painting, skateboarding, bike riding, etc.) never go back because it is a “waste of time” for adults.

Being aware of these risks means we can focus on finding the sweet spot and reap the rewards of flow without dipping into the danger zone.


The skills called for in the 21st century are grit, fortitude, courage, creativity, resilience, cooperation, critical thinking, pattern recognition and high-speed decision making. The speed of innovation and change that is happening calls us to do the impossible. We can channel the way that action and adventure athletes reliably reproduce the flow state and take that to the other domains of society in our own work and our own families.

How might you better tap into your flow?

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