The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human – Steven Kotler

Date Read: 2018-08-20

How Strongly I Recommend it: 7/10

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A good mix of extreme sports stories, science, and practical advice. He uses action sports as a vehicle for flow triggers. Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, you feel your best and perform your best. Flow is a luxury in most domains, but necessary for action and adventure sports. My favorite part: you lose the inner critic in flow state.


My notes:

Flow: lost an afternoon in a great conversation. Got so involved in a work project that all else was forgotten? We’re so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Each decision leads effortlessly and fluidly to the next. You do everything better while in flow, even making love.

Flow is elusive. It’s very consistent in extreme sports where the choice is flow or death.

Travis Pastrana: BMX athlete

Danny Way: Skater athlete

Albert Heim on near-death experiences. A high-risk activity can alter consciousness and enhance mental abilities

  • Time slows down
  • Heightened senses
  • Panoramic vision

Scientist William James looked for mystical experience in most religions.

  • Themes that Albert Heim reported (the geologist that fell and survived in the snow alps)
  • Profound. They changed people afterward. They were happier, “significantly” more fulfilled
  • High-risk adventure tended to amplify mental and physical performance

Heart rate speeds up, the muscle tightens, digestion stops, pupils dilate, nostril flare, senses sharpen. These were a global response of the nervous system to extreme stress

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (OG researcher of flow): happiest people/most meaning life are the ones with most peak experiences (flow states). They dedicate their lives to having peak experiences (flow states). They often involved painful, risky, difficult activities that stretched their capacity

He later rebranded peak experiences to flow states because the subjects kept using flow: effortless, fluid, automatic

Flow: being involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, the ego falls away, time flies.

For action and adventure sports, finding flow is a necessity, if not you die. You don’t have to risk your life to recreate parts of this. Putting yourself on the line socially, professionally will help trigger flow more consistently.

Runner’s high is a light state of flow.

The Voice. Pink Floyd: “there’s someone in my head but it’s not me”. Listening to the voice, developing intuition. Potter: “right before I make a move, the voice tells me what to do”. 

Intuition: Jung’s perception via the unconscious. The unconscious mind communicating with the conscious one. Other people see images, strong feelings. 

Story of Potter a free climber in Patagonia. Meditating to get into a deep flow.

Effortless effort. In flow, parts of the PFC (prefrontal cortex) deactivate. It’s not that it goes hyperactive, instead, it deactivates the elements that create the appeared complexity.

Time dilation is the technical name for time slowing down. When focus heightens, the brain stops multitasking. The brain shuts down parts of the neocortex

Potter (Patagonia climber) parachute doesn’t open correctly while base jumping. On the floor, he felt one with the bird with a broken wing. Franciscan nuns and Tibetan monks have similar experiences of oneness.

When in deep focus, the brain shuts down an area related to location and boundaries of ourselves and the world. It gives the feeling of becoming one with your object of focus. You merge with what you’re thinking, the dying bird, the love of god, the wave, the rock, the sexual partner?

Hypo frontality

I can meditate for 2 hours to get a 15-second glimpse of the state or risk my life and get there instantly, and it lasts for hours.

In deep flow, we lose our fears (hypofrontality)

  • Self: doubt and insecurity. Ego
  • Time: no yesterday to regret nor tomorrow to worry about
  • Space: physical consequences disappear

When all 3 happen at once, our fear of death cannot exist.

Is not that the voice gets louder, everything that’s between just gets removed

Scientists claim that hypofrontality (loss of self, time and space) is an illusion, just a feeling.

High-performance models: mothers, musicians, and marshmallows.

  • Mothers: encouragement from loved ones. Special environment instead of special talent
  • Musicians: 10,000 hours of practice reaches mastery if the talent level is the same
  • Marshmallows: delayed gratification is a bigger indicator of SAT scores juvenile delinquency

Action sports by definition attract thrill-seeking junkies. They don’t pass the marshmallow test, they come from broken homes, don’t have access to the factory for 10,000 hours (elite schools). The reach mastery through flow.

Time perspective is our general attitude towards time. Future or present-oriented in the marshmallow test. Source: the time paradox by Phillip Zimbardo

Present oriented: ate the marshmallow

  • Benefits
    • Creative, spontaneous, open-minded, high energy, risk-takers
    • play sports, have hobbies, make friends easily and find lovers often
    • Fun and fast lives
  • Dark side
    • Can’t anticipate consequences
    • Don’t often learn from mistakes and failures
    • Unable to resist temptation: sex, drugs and rock and roll
    • Correlated with mental health problems, juvenile delinquency, crime and addiction
    • Very hard to accumulate the 10,000 hours of practice

Future-oriented: kids that didn’t eat the marshmallow. They live in their mind envisioning future scenarios and successes

  • Benefits: delayed gratification.
    • Outperform presents in grades, education, income, health, morality
    • Learn from failure
    • Consider work a source of special pleasure
    • More likely to achieve 10,000 hours of mastery
  • Dark side
    • Stressed out workaholic
    • Health issues
    • Marriages fail, sex lives disintegrate, children become burdens
    • Friends become memories
    • Supernova burnout

Healthiest, happiest and highest performers blend the future and present-oriented. Phil Zimbardo in over 30 years of research

  • Energy, joy, and openness of presence
  • Strength and long-term vision of the futures

Using flow is one of the most efficient mechanisms

  • Reorients presents towards the future and futures towards the present


Flow appears when we’re being challenged, using our skill to the utmost.

  • Flow leads to growth, it’s an escape forward from current reality
  • Stimulants like drugs lead backward

Flow allows presents to achieve a future’s results. Flow junkies turn instant gratification into their north star, putting in more hours of practice time

Flow pulls futures into the present. There’s no time in the zone, there’s no way to worry about the future

Flow is the way to success for adventure athletes that come from broken homes, would eat the marshmallow, don’t have the access necessary to the factory

A more direct way to mastery: athletes in flow likely gather more relevant data and code more efficiently. Having these experiences frequently could significantly shorten the learning curve towards expertise

External trigger: high risk or danger.

Practical advice: no need for physical danger just fear or risk (social, work, etc.)

Second external triggers: rich environment. Novelty, unpredictability, and complexity.

Practical advice. Seek out complexity, especially in nature: the night sky, walk in the wood or contemplate small nature to induce awe. Brush your teeth with the other hand, take a different route to work

External trigger: deep embodiment. Paying attention to all your body inputs at once. More inputs mean more information, too much information for the conscious mind to process. Motor related tasks are best done by the implicit system. There are no words anymore.

  • Zen walking meditation
  • Balance and agility training
  • Yoga, Tai Chi or martial arts

Internal trigger: clear goals that define immediate success.

Those podium visualizations (thinking what you’ll say in the interview) can pull us from the present, even if the goal is seconds away, it’s still a future event

Clarity is more important than goals. We know what to do and to focus on, they become many tiny goals stage by stage

Breaking a task into bite-sized chunks. Just enough focus shortcut attention now, not enough stress to pull you back out again.

Internal trigger. Immediate feedback: info required is close at hand, the mind doesn’t need to wander. Put a mechanism to get daily feedback, forget quarterly reviews. Professions like surgeons.

Internal trigger. Challenge, skill ratio. Challenge is too great, fear takes over. Challenge too easy, loose attention. Mid-point between boredom and anxiety: flow channel. Stretch, not snap. Challenge 4% greater than skill.

Mindsets to learning (same as entity and learning theorist of developmental psychology in the Art of Learning)

  • Fixed mindset: abilities like intelligence and athletic talent are innate and unchangeable. Fixed at birth
  • Growth mindset: those abilities are gained by dedication and hard work. Natural born talents are just starting points for the learning process
    • Maximizes the total amount of flow in your life

Challenge skill ratio: Growth mindset you believe you can develop yourself. You’re open to accurate information about your current abilities. Fixed mindset distorts the current skill level, some outcomes are magnified, and some explained away or discarded


  • Flow is an on or off switch.
  • Flow always feels flow-y

Steps of flow

  • Struggle: loading phase, overloading the brain with information. Fact gathering, physical training, study. Cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine rise, tension and frustration also. Until we chunk (identify patterns and repeat them) enough, we’ll feel awkward
    • fap: it requires high effort
  • Release: take your mind of the problem. Go for a walk, do something that requires less effort. Relax. Nitric oxide floods the system, causes stress hormones to decline. Dopamine and endorphins replace them. Let your training take over
  • The zone (flow). It’s transitory. It’s an expensive state: energy and neurochemically
  • Recovery: no more feel-good or superhuman powers. Action and adventure sports comes built-in by weather conditions

Perils of a fixed mindset: it’s hard to see flow as the result of something you did differently or could do again or do better with more practice. They want to take unilateral credit for the performance that came with the state. It’s the basis for their self-esteem. But flow is a transitory state.

The reward for doing amazing work is more work. Other deadlines, more responsibilities and less time available.

Group flow. Keith Sawyer. We’re social beings, competitive.

  • Sensation: the group is a single organism. Moved with the same purpose.
  • Most common flow is conversations, especially those about work

The dark side of flow seeking. Similar to Sebastian Younger’s ‘War’ soldier coming home missed the rush and found it hard to get excited about anything again ever.

Roger Bannister effect. Sub 4-minute mile, mega ramp 1080. Why is it considerably easier to do something after it’s been done before? The first reaction is “no way”, “not real”, “not possible”. The new reality forces us to change our story, we move to the imagination. Visualize ourselves attempting and achieving that feat.

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