Interview: Steven Kotler on Flow (Hacking) & Stealing Fire

Steven Kotler Interview

This is the transcript of the interview I did with Steven Kotler on advanced Flow Hacking on YouTube topics.

I interviewed Steven Kotler, one of the most interesting people in Flow and peak performance. I skipped the easy questions that you find in other interviews and got right to the juicy advanced stuff about Flow. So without further ado, enjoy!

 

Max Hug (MH): Steven Kotler is a New York Time’s bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project. He worked with Google, the Navy SEALs, Red Bull, and other high performaners to research Flow states and peak performance. His books include the non-fiction works Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance and Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Together with his wife Joy Nicholson, he co-founded the “Rancho de Chihuahua” dog sanctuary in New Mexico and he made his first money working as a magician at the age of 10. Welcome, Steven Kotler.

 

Steven Kotler (SK): You have done your homework!

 

MH: Great to have you here Steven.

 

SK: Nice to be with you Max.

 

MH:

I give you a short introduction of why the fuck I’m doing this, and it all started with your book. A good friend of mine recommended me Stealing Fire, I think in March or April this year, and I got the audio version first, which is awesome by the way, and I walk here in the park next to the river and I listened to it. And I could listen to it for hours because I felt so excited hearing this and suddenly when I was hearing this audiobook I had this epiphany.

I was like oh, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 6, 7 years in my life. I’ve been seeking Flow. That’s why I’m so excited about it and I started the Flow meet-up and I started this YouTube channel. So I was wondering, what was your intention in writing Stealing Fire?

 

SK:

Well, look, there’s a lot. Stealing Fire is the culmination, both for myself and Jamie Wheal, my great partner on the Flow Genome Project, who I wrote the book with. It’s the culmination of 30 years of work in the world. That said, you’re what we were aiming at. When I wrote the Rise of Superman, which was my first book on Flow, it was not my idea. Do you know what I mean?

I put together a bunch of the neuroscience and a bunch of the science at once, but what I was trying to do is: standardize a language so people could have the conversations out loud. Give it a scientific foundation and say “Hey, this experience that a lot of people are having, it’s got a language, it’s got a terminology.” We now understand some of the biology. Right, there are still holes in the research that you can drive a bus through but we are farther than we have ever been before.

I felt like I had taken the question as far as I could possibly. I had a ton of questions, all I wanted to do was to put it out in the world and let other smart people think about it and talk about it.

When we started the Flow Genome Project, we had a partner, Laura, who used to say “We know we’re going to be successful when we have events and Steven is not bored.” And in a certain level she’s not wrong. Stealing Fire was more of the same but on a bigger level because in the gap between Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire, Jamie and I had the privilege to really see everything that was going on at the cutting edge of high performance.

And I spent my whole career, 30 years, investigating what it takes to do the impossible. An obsession by the way I got when I was 10 years old and first learned magic. Because the first time I saw someone make a sponge ball disappear, it was my baby brother. And two things were really clear to me. One was, holy crap that ball was gone. Two, holy crap, my brother isn’t magic.

I’m looking at this impossible thing and I know there is a skill and a process underneath that. And from that point on I was obsessed. What is the skill? What is the process? What does it take to do the impossible?

And, in the gap between Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire, the people are using altered states of consciousness, Flow is one, but to tackle those kinds of challenges went from this counter-cultural subversive idea to everywhere in the world and fueling the 4 trillion dollar economy, which is one sixteenth of the global economy.

It’s being driven forward by this stuff. That was shocking to us. Again, what we wanted to do was put it out there and say “Look man, this is happening. This is real and there’s a language for it and we don’t have to bury it under weird mystical new age terms.” Like there’s biology here. Yes, there’s still mysteries. There’s a whole ton of stuff we can’t yet explain.

We think it’s because the measurement technology has yet to be invented. Maybe there’s some other cosmic reason. Cool, I’m open to that too. I’m not that smart that I can tell. But this is exciting. This is amazing.

Just to put it in context. When I started investigating the neuroscience of so called mystical experiences, this was even before Flow, I started looking into my second book West of Jesus. I met Dr. Andrew Newberg who was then at the University of Pennsylvania and he had just done the very first brain-imaging scans of Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns, feeling oneness with everything.

And I had just completed all this research with surfers, and surfers kept talking about, and I had the experience as a surfer. I’m out in the waves and I’d become one with the ocean. They would talk to me about it but they wouldn’t even talk to their friends about it. This was this weird thing that happened to surfers. They think we’re weird as it is. We can’t let this out. They would think we’re really crazy.

And suddenly, Andy had figured out, “Wait a minute. There’s biology underneath this. We know why we feel one with everything.” It turns out this portion of the brain turns off and we can no longer separate self from other and “Oh my God, there’s biology there.” And it was the first mystical experience.

And I remember talking about it with him. We were talking about, how far do you think we are going to get in our lifetime? Both were convinced it wasn’t going to be very far and it’s 20 years later and pretty much every mystical experience you can possibly think of: near-death experiences, speaking in tongues, trance states, on, and on, and on, ancient voodoos. Take your pick. We looked under the hood of them. There are still things we can’t explain but by and large we have found a really interesting biology underneath this stuff. That’s a revolution. Everybody should know about this.

 

MH:

So a question that came up at our Flow Meetup here in Düsseldorf is, people want to be very efficient these days so they ask: Can you apply the Pareto principle to Flow? What are the 20% of things to do to get 80% of Flow? If that’s possible, and, to be more specific, if you need it for someone who is working in the white collar job sitting in front of the computer most of the day and punching stuff into the keyboard.

 

SK:

So there’s two totally different answers to this, it’s a great question and of course it came up in the meet-up, it makes sense. I’m going to give you the heavy, no, and then I’m going to give you the softer, yes. But the heavy no is this: shut the fuck up. Are you kidding me? It’s like people coming up to me, “What are the 3 things I can do Monday morning?” Shut the fuck up!

Are you kidding me?

This is what I know for sure, you get one shot at this life. You are going to spend a third of it asleep. So what you do with the other two thirds? It may be the only ball game in history, period, for you. Forget about the 3 things you can do Monday morning. This is optimal performance, this is the biology of high performance. This is what we are wired for.

So if you are really happy being mediocre then I am more than happy to give you 3 things you can do on Monday morning and you can just start doing them. If that’s what you want out on this world, great, fantastic, but I’m really not interested. The people I’m interested in working with are going to fight every moment of every day to put everything they possibly have into the day.

At the end of the day, I want to collapse into bed because I have nothing left. I’ve spent it all on my day, and I want to do the same thing the next day and the next day and the next day. And those are the people I’m interested in.

That said, that’s the hard answer. That’s me being an asshole. Here’s the other answer which is, the funny thing about Flow hacking is, and this is some of the work we have been involved in at the Flow Genome Project, that they’ve done some fantastic work on this stuff at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and elsewhere, which is, over the past 15 years we’ve identified that Flow states have triggers, pre-conditions that lead to more Flow.

There are 20 of them in total as you probably know. Not everybody is going to be susceptible to everyone. That’s why we have the Flow profile in the Flow Genome Project. That diagnostic.

But what our research has showed, what our training at Google has showed, what the surveys and the studies we’ve run around Flow fundamentals, our training course which is built around these triggers and what not. It shows that this stuff is unbelievably trainable. We are seeing on average in Flow fundamentals, for example, a 70 % bump in 7 different correlates for Flow, seven different metrics each jumping on average 70%. This is 8 or 9 hundred people that have taken these surveys on both ends.

So we took decent sized data. It’s not fantastic but it’s decent sized data set and it’s not because our Kung Fu is so great. I think our Kung Fu is fantastic but whatever. It’s that this stuff is really easy to train. And it’s really easy to train because we are all hardwired for it. This is how we perform this way.

First thing’s first, when I work with organizations, the first thing I do is I say, “Look if you can’t hang a sign on your door that says <Fuck off, I’m Flowing>, you’re sunk.” This is uninterrupted concentration. The research is really clear that 90-120 minute blocks of uninterrupted concentration maximize focus, maximize Flow.

So if you work for a company, run a company or treat your own life with this much disrespect that you try to answer messages in 15 minutes and emails in an hour, and you have your alert set up on your computer, okay, well you’re just being idiotic. The research is really clear on this, and it’s not that hard. We need uninterrupted focus to be at our best. For 80/20ing anything, that’s got to be the very first thing we do.

You’ve got to build your life around Flow and the best way to do it is to say “the hardest thing I’ve got to do today, whatever it is, I’m going to spend 90-120 minutes on it and to block out all distractions.” Again, this stuff isn’t super sexy. It’s really stupid simple and most high performers will go in the same direction naturally. Peak performers are going to have 90-120 minutes blocked out in their schedule anyways. They are going to move in that direction naturally because it’s what we are wired for. So that’s a simple one.

The challenge skills ratio, Csíkszentmihályi called it the golden rule of Flow. Make sure you’re pushing all the time, just a little bit so you’re at the edge of your challenge threshold. That’s where we perform our best. So you want to be as close to that sweet spot all the time as possible.

The third thing, if I was going to 80/20 this, what would I focus on? I would focus on uninterrupted concentration. I would make sure I push myself hard enough. I train that grit muscle, that lean in muscle to always stay at that, and also will train up risk-taking, which is another Flow trigger so you get a stack. You are not just training with one variable at once. And that same thing to kind of abet this process is, there are lots of different tools for it. I personally like reframing, but you got to learn to train down fear.

Because norepinephrine and cortisol, which sit underneath fear, block learning. They block Flow, a little bit is great. Too much and you’re [out of Flow]. That’s where the challenge/skill sweet spot is. While you’re working challenge/skill sweet spot, you also have to be training down your reaction to fear.

So whether it’s breath work, physical activity, take your pick. I use all of them because I’m crazy and neurotic, so my daily fear load is off the charts and it’s a great motivator. But it’s also like I am always doing that. So to me, if I was going to 80/20ing this principle and I wasn’t giving you my asshole answer, those are the three things I would focus on and if I was going to add a fourth in, it would be: make sure you’re getting enough sleep at night.

 

MH:

Awesome! Yeah, I saw Jamie posted something on Facebook like master the basics. That was a pretty cool like…how to live healthy, and he said also, it’s so important. And about the challenge/skill ratio, I think it was +4% or something? How do you find the sweet spot there? When you’re working in front of a computer.

 

SK:

That’s a great . Let’s clarify the +4% because you brought it up, Csíkszentmihályi, godfather of Flow psychology, and a Google mathematician sat down and they were trying to figure it out. Could we come up with… And somehow, and I have no idea how, I need to ask Mike, they came up with 4%. And we said “Well that’s interesting. Let’s try to test it.” We devised a whole bunch of semi-crazy weird little way. I’ll give you an example.

I took a bunch of mountain bikers and we mapped out in a downhill mountain bike park, we mapped out everything we could do and the heights and the gaps between jumps and things like that. So you could actually measure and go “Okay, I can clear a 12 foot gap jump. No problem. I get nervous at 16 feet and I won’t go over it. 16 feet is my maximum.” So somewhere in between.. And then you can start measuring.

We started doing those sorts of things.

And then Austin Eichhorn, another guy we worked with, started using it. He trains professional athletes and he was measuring tons of metrics, and he took it. A bunch of other people did that [too]. Turns out, we are all finding that [+]4% works really, really well.

In fact, I found that when applied to action sports, I did not plateau. I kept getting into Flow state after Flow state after Flow state. Instead of a couple big Flow states of season and a long plateau, I would really move. What is 4% feel like in computers is an interesting question.

I could turn it back on you. You’ve been applying this stuff at your computer. So let’s start there. What does 4% feel like to you Max?

 

MH: That’s hard. I would say, for example, doing this interview now.

 

SK: Okay.

 

MH: It’s a plus 4%.

 

SK: You are a little bit out of your comfort zone but you’re not totally overwhelmed. Right?

 

MH: Yeah.

 

SK:

It’s exactly right. That’s what it usually feels like for most people. Feels like that to me. I’m going to give you an example as a writer.

This isn’t always the case because I write nonfiction, but if I’m writing fiction or anything that has to do with me at all where there’s a reveal going on, I have found that 4% is the point at which I feel vulnerable, where I feel I’ve showed the reader just a little too much of me and it could come back and hurt me. That spot, I’m not totally exposed but I’m vulnerable. That to me is the level of truth-telling that I know equates to: a) pushing 4%, and b) actually getting the best response in readers.

It’s something that I’ll train and learn over time. Certain activities are really useful for it: weight lifting: built in measurement, running: built in measurement, rock climbing at an indoor climbing gym, or even an outdoor climbing facility where everything is rated; skiing, beginner, intermediate. We have a rating system that has been pre-established for you. Well that’s a great way to sort of go into that situation, and then, by the way, that 4% you feel, how it makes you feel? Let’s say, 4% skiing feels a certain way on the inside, right?

That same feeling is going to map onto your writing, it’s going to map onto your computer. What you’re trying to do with a lot of this stuff I think is you may have heard us talking about the somatic address. The somatic address is, “How does it make me feel? What’s the phenomenology of the sensation?” That is often what your guide is. You have to find how it makes you feel and then you steer by that, you’re going back towards that feeling.

We are really good at neuro-feedback and bio-feedback. We train really easily on that stuff. You can find the feeling again. I always tell people “One of the most powerful things you can do, Flow-wise is, you had a deep Flow state during the day, as you’re falling asleep, try to remember it, replay the activity and keep going, until you can get the feeling, you’re going to lock onto that feeling.” And one of the reasons is, to lock onto that feeling you’re producing neurochemicals. And neurochemicals, if you really want to lay down learning, and patterns in the brain quickly, you want neurochemicals. They’re much more powerful than neuro-electrical signals in terms of rewiring the brain, they are bigger levers.

The guy who taught me neuroscience first was a guy named Dr. Robert White. He was one of the great neuro-surgeons in the twentieth century. He said, “If you really want to understand the brain, understand neurochemistry” because it’s hard to get a big neurochemical reaction, it’s like a first principle. In Abundance we talked about first principle thinking, Elon Musk and all that kind of stuff. I often think of neuro-chemicals as first principles for the brain. The amygdala response, pattern recognition, those things are really big drivers in the brain so you can sort of use them as first principle thinking. If any of that makes sense.

 

MH:

Yeah, awesome. I heard another interview that you get up around 3:30-4:00 am. And I was wondering, is it better, because you said you like to work within 4 minutes of waking up, if I got that right? And I was wondering if it’s better to get out of bed, turn the computer on and write versus doing a meditation and Qigong session for half an hour and then start working.

 

SK:

I think pretty much every other high performance expert in the world says, “Do the meditation, the Qigong.” They say do that first. And all I can say is, and you’ll hear both Jamie and myself at the Flow Genome Project say the same thing all the time, “You have to conduct your own experiment.” I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning for a number of reasons.

You have to conduct your own experiment.

I produce a lot of norepinephrine. That’s why I have so much fear and neuroticism, but it’s also my brain is really fast and there’s a lot of curiosity, and a lot of excitement and intensity. Good side / bad side, Kryptonite / Superpower. Always the same. I wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning because my racing brain gets me up and rather than try to fight myself, I go with it.

Why do I try to start writing 4 minutes [after waking up]? I’m a creative. The first thing I do every day is I work on whatever book I’m writing. And when you wake up, you’re coming out of theta waves, you’re passing through alpha on your way to beta which is “Hey, I’m awake and alert.” But Flow is back down on the borderline between alpha and theta. So I don’t want my brain to start working at all. I just do it by automatic. I programmed a habit machinery, and I try to be at my desk before I’m thinking about anything. I want to stay as close to alpha [as possible], at least, because I’m only going to have to work harder to get back there. So that’s me, I produce a lot of norepinephrine.

Other people, by the way, if you are in sales and other jobs where it’s not your job to be creative, I would probably opt for your choice. Start with the meditation and the exercise, that kind of thing. Certainly when I travel, when I’m on the road, speaking. I roll out of bed and I’m at the hotel gym within 4 minutes. So I’m working out before my brain has time to wake up and go, “Man, you’re going to lift weights now? Don’t you know it’s 4 o’clock in the morning? What the hell is wrong with you?” I’ll do 1 of the 2.

 

MH:

Do you wake up 365 days a year this early? Even on New Year’s Eve and weekends? How do you do that?

 

SK:

If I could change it, I would. You’re looking at me like I’m getting up early because it’s some kind of superpower, I’m telling you I’m getting up early because I’m meshuggana. I mean, yes, it’s really great. The other thing I have to tell you is: I’m not particularly interested in having much of a social life. I don’t prioritize that. I have really good friends and I see them and we spend really high quality time together. I love my wife. We spend really great quality time together but I always say “If I’m going to know you at all, we are either going to work together or we are going to hurl ourselves down mountains at high speeds.” Because other than that, I’m uninterested.

If I’m going to know you at all, we are either going to work together or we are going to hurl ourselves down mountains at high speeds.

I understand very, very clearly what it is in this world that makes me feel most alive, and I do those things. I don’t waste my time with other things. If I’m going to bother to go to a party, it’s going to be one party. I’m going to say no for 6 months straight and I’m going to choose the one event where I don’t waste it. I would much rather go to bed really early, wake up and to be able to put it into my books than spend it on an evening.

And by the way I wasn’t always this way. One of the reasons I get to be this way is I was a bartender through college and through grads. Do you know what I mean? I lived at the center of a very exciting cosmopolitan city world for a lot of time. On top of which, I was a journalist. So I got to go on tour with rock bands and I got to be behind a lot of curtains and have a lot more fun than most people. I think my tank is full. I certainly had 10 lifetime’s worth of fun in my 20’s. So I’m cool. I’m good.

 

MH:

I also get up at 5:30. I can get it 6 days a week but 1 day I can’t make it that early.

 

SK:

I think the more important thing is, some people are night owls. My wife is a night owl. Sure, her brain doesn’t turn on till 11 o’clock at night kind of thing. The first thing is you have to figure out: What are you wired for naturally? When does your brain naturally focus the best? And augment that. This is a Flow game. My brain works the best when it’s dark outside and it’s 4 am and I had a full night sleep. That’s when I’m at my best.

 

MH:

So like you mentioned before, people should experiment for themselves what’s working for them.

 

SK:

We always said at the Flow Genome Project “conduct your own experiment”. That’s one of our mottos. That’s what the data shows over and over and over. 40 to 60 % of whatever we are, high performance-wise, is genetically modeled. That’s what we know now. Epigenetics is showing more of that stuff is more mutable than we thought but we don’t really understand the mechanisms. What we know is 40% of us is sort of locked in by birth by our genetics one way or another.

 

MH: You mean, if you can wake up early?

 

SK:

Yeah, this is coded physiology. You’re not a bad person if you don’t work best at 4 o’clock in the morning. You have different genes and different physiology. You are a bad person if you don’t figure out when you focus the best and use that time wisely. The universe is giving you a gift and said “Hey man, you’re at your best in these hours” and if you don’t do the work to figure out what that is and to maximize those hours, you’re an idiot. I’m sorry but you know.

The universe is giving you a gift and said
“Hey man, you’re at your best in these hours”

 

MH:

You released an online course called “Get into Your Creative Flow” on Creative Live and inside that course you talk about the Flow Cycle with 1) the Struggle, 2) the release, 3) the Flow and 4) the recovery phase. And I was wondering when I want to get in Flow, do I always have to get through the struggle and release phase to get in Flow or is there a hack, like 4 minutes after waking up and I’m immediately into Flow?

 

SK:

Yes and no. No, the Flow cycle is biology. You can sort of play with it and amplify it in ways I’ll talk about in half a second but the core answer is no. You have to move through all four phases of the cycle, as far as we can tell. That said, what we have seen and a lot of the work we do at the Flow Genome Project, there are ways to struggle more gracefully for sure. Flow is what happens when we have learned a whole bunch of skills consciously. We’ve automatized them. We’ve chunked them. We’ve learned them, we’ve turned them into chunks, we’ve past those chunks over to the adaptive unconscious and the unconscious can execute those programs very quickly without conscious intervention.

Flow is what happens when 4 or 5 of those chunks come together at once. We are using all of our new skills at once at a higher level. You’re still going to do skill acquisition on the front end of a Flow state. You’re still going to always overload your working memory because it’s limited and that’s what happens, we overload the working memory, we burn out. Conscious mind chews on it for a while, passes it over to the subconscious, chews on it. Do that enough times and you’ve laid down some learning and a skill.

And then Flow can start to amplify those things. You can 80/20 some of those processes. Tim Ferriss has done a phenomenal job with saying, “Hey man! You can learn these skills instead of all these skills. You can learn these skills.” But Tim is also lying to you. Tim is absolutely right about everything he is saying and you can do it. But one of the things I always say in journalism, and I was talking about this on Monday on the Mind, which is the Facebook Live I do every Monday, I really believe in surrounding your craft and knowing how to do everything.

I was talking about all the different ways I’ve had to learn to write and there’s 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, a 100, a 1000 different ways I’ve had to learn to write and I’ve had to become great or tried to be great at all of them. There’s no 80/20ing your core craft. The better I get. And there’s huge Flow consequences too for that kind of stuff. As a writer, if I 80/20ed writing so I never exactly learned how to write marketing copy, or I never learned how to write really clear dramatic prose or whatever. When I’m working on something and I need to write marketing copy or dramatic, and I reach for that tool and I don’t have it, it’s going to kick me out of Flow. If I was in Flow I’m going to get kicked out of Flow because here’s the thing I don’t know how to do.

If I don’t know how to do it, it’s going to push me out of that challenge/skill sweet spot again. So yes 80/20 is a great way to approach learning. There’s lots of ways to amplify learning and to learn faster and better and all those things, “but nobody can do your push-ups for you,” my partner Jamie Wheal loves to say.

 

MH: Thank you so much for the interview. That was awesome.

SK: You’re totally welcome man. Thank you for having me. Thank you for the support from Germany. I appreciate that.