“The Rise of Superman” is an absolutely fascinating read. Ever since I was young I have had a deep curiosity around what makes people the way they are. Is it habit, genetics or environment that produces the best athletes, happiest people or most innovative creators? The Rise of Superman investigates its central hypothesis that “being in flow” or the ability to activate an intense degree of concentration, where the rest of the world melts away and you can be singularly focused, is a critical piece of the puzzle.
It starts with investigating the literature around conventional predictors of success, primarily what has been posited is the Mother, Musician and Marshmallow models. The mother theory revolves around environment, showing correlations between supportive, encouraging home environments and success. The Musician theory, famously flaunting the 10,000 hours theory discussed in Outliers, is all about habit, pointing to successful musicians with had similar backgrounds to their peers but through extensive hard work became dramatically more talented. The Marshmallow model is around delayed gratification and is the most “genetic” of the three models, essentially showing of the young kids (age 4) that are offered to get more marshmallows if they can wait, those who elect to get more later vs. less now have been shown to have higher rates of happiness and career success later in life.
While all these models have bits of truth, we can also see how they are deeply flawed. Many of the most exceptional world renown leaders in their niches, come from adversity, lack formal training and take tremendous risks in the moment. Steven Kotler, the author, discusses this “state of flow” that I mentioned in my opening, as a key differentiator irrespective of the models discussed. He walks through countless examples, talks about the biology and brain chemistry of people who are able to achieve intense concentration. Although many of his initial examples of people who tap in to flow are extreme athletes he draws the differentiation here between adrenaline induced “fight or flight” and flow. Fight or flight is linear and instinctual, with a few programmed outcomes that the individuals takes without questioning. “Flow state” on the other hand is a more creative, divergent mode of thinking where the person experiencing it becomes hyper aware, able to process feedback and environment extremely acutely and is able to block out external feedback. People who are able to tap in to flow can become incredibly efficient. Although there is degrees of flow, all of us have experienced, that feeling of getting super engaged with a task, sport or job and getting things done at orders of magnitude higher efficiency.
So if flow is behind high degrees of success, is the ability to sync in to it innate (genetic) or is it trainable? Like everything, nothing is black and white, but there seems to be some solid ways I think we can better trigger it’s effects.
#1 Practice deep concentration/focus. We live in a world of fractured attention with technology constantly pulling us in a million directions. We have to habituate ourselves to blocking out distractions and focusing on singular tasks.
#2 Have a growth mindset. Albeit I am a bit bias here but I think this is one of the most critical elements to life success. In a growth mindset you are constantly focused on self-improvement, making incremental gains and on “the process” vs. “the outcome”.
#3 Take risks. If you never go out on a limb to try new experiences or risk failure, you will inevitable live a very predictable and pre-defined life course. Don’t conform to the conventional rules of business or process. Following those will produce results that are consistent with an average, not an exceptional result that has yet to be programmed due to its innovative approach.
#4 Take care of your mental state. One of the major reasons people can struggle to fall in to flow is a busy/scattered/anxious mind. Worries, depression and other mental impediments can flood your body with cortisol and make it hard to tap in to extreme focus. So do meditation, or seek therapy, or find supportive friends/families/colleagues and most of all prioritize your mental health. You need it to be exceptional.
#5 Embrace work or activities that make you feel alive. When I took my first formal job outside of college in a new state and new environment, I remember feeling exhausted, mentally and physically after an 8 hour day. I wasn’t exceptional in my work, I was just average. It led to anxiety and worry and me questioning why I couldn’t just “do”. The reality was the work just wasn’t a good fit for me. Nowadays I work with small businesses on a daily basis and work on my own small business and I feel alive and alert with far more grueling hours. The contrast is actually pretty insane.
I highly recommend the book, The Rise of Superman, for anyone interested in a deeper look in to human exceptionalism and have a feeling I will be referring back to this read in the years to come.