BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance PrimerThe Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: January 19, 2021


Steven Kotler’s new book, “The Art of Impossible,” shares territory with two of his previous books [“The Rise of Superman” and “Stealing Fire” (the latter co-authored with Jamie Wheal,)] but it also takes a step back to reveal a broader landscape than those previous books. Whereas the earlier books focused on how to achieve a high-performance state of mind called “flow” (or “peak performance,”) this one looks at the bigger picture of how to achieve success with daunting projects. So, while the fourth / final section of the book presents information that will be familiar to past readers, the first three sections – on motivation, learning, and creativity, respectively – are not addressed in the earlier works. [It’s worth pointing out that even section four (Ch. 19 – 23) presents some new information and organizational schemes because this is a fast-moving research domain of late.]

The book’s first six chapters (i.e. Part I) are about achieving and maintaining motivation. This starts from the logical bedrock of finding an “impossible” task for which one is likely to have sufficient passion and interest to follow through. The reader learns how to formulate goals that are challenging enough and clear enough to facilitate sustained interest, effort, and productivity. The importance of autonomy is discussed at length, and the reader learns what companies like Google, 3M, and Patagonia have done to make gains via employees energized by increased autonomy. The kind of motivation that allows one to knuckle-down under adversity, grit, is given its own chapter, and the author discusses six variations that are important to success.

Part II (Ch. 7 – 14) is about the learning process and how one can organize one’s pursuits to get the most learning per effort. Chapter ten is the heart of this section, offering a detailed approach to organizing one’s learning activities. Chapter fourteen offers yet another critique of the 10,000-hour rule that was popularized by (and oversimplified in) the Malcolm Gladwell book, “Outliers.” [This “rule,” developed by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, has come under intense criticism in large part because every time the explanation shifted downstream it became less of an approximate rule of thumb that was applicable to some specific domains and more of an iron-clad rule deemed applicable to every activity that benefits from practice, resulting in insane behavior such as parents who pick their child’s sport in the womb so that the kid can get the requisite number of practice hours before the college recruiters come to see him or her play.]

The third part (Ch. 15 – 18) is about fostering creativity. Here, Kotler takes the reader on a tour of changing thought about creativity, ranging from the ancient stories of muses to today’s state-of-the-art neuroscience. Like the section on Flow, there is an elaboration of where the neuroscientific understanding of creativity sits at the moment. Having read a range of books discussing such descriptions, this approach is falling out of favor with me. First, whenever I’ve read a book by an actual neuroscientist, I’ve learned that these simple attributions of activities to certain brain regions are either vastly oversimplified, more tentatively agreed upon than suggested, or both of the above. Second, I have realized that learning a name like Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and an oversimplified explanation of what it does doesn’t really help me. That said, I understand there is interest in these descriptions that drive their inclusion in such books. (I, too, have been interested in reading about it, but less and less so.)

The final part is about Flow, and this is where readers of “Rise of Superman” will be well-primed for the information that is covered. Chapter 21, which elucidates the twenty-two “Flow Triggers,” is the heart of this section. As I mentioned, Kotler has changed the way he organizes this discussion since his earlier book, but the material is still largely from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the subject. In addition to explanation of what it means to get into the state of Flow and of how to improve one’s chances of getting there, there is a discussion of “Flow Blockers” – four mind states that hinder Flow. The last chapter lays out a plan consisting of daily and weekly activities, and – as such – it serves as both a summary and an outline for moving forward.

Writers may find this book particularly beneficial because Kotler relies heavily on anecdotes from his own work to clarify and explain the points under discussion. By contrast, “Rise of Superman” relied almost exclusively on stories from extreme sports athletes, and “Stealing Fire” drew on silicone valley and the special forces heavily for examples. I actually enjoyed that Kotler spoke from his own experience. As someone who has read a fair number of books on peak performance, I’ve seen a lot of the same stories repeated within popular books. That said, readers who haven’t read much on the topic may wish the book had a broader set of narrative examples and less definitional / conceptual discussion. The author may be aware that many of his readers will have fatigue from reading the same stories and examples. When Kotler does mention such widely-discussed examples (e.g. Steve Jobs putting bathrooms in the Pixar building in a central location that created cross-pollination of people on different projects) he does so briefly and without preaching to the choir.

I found this book to be an interesting overview of how to approach a large-scale life mission. It’s well-organized and readable (though it might benefit from less vocabulary-based neuroscience discussion.) If you are feeling a bit rudderless, this is a good book to look into.

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DAILY PHOTO: Frangipani in the Temple Yard

Taken on January 16, 2021 at Virabhadra Temple, Lepakshi.

POEM: Synesthesia

cool patterns radiate off the back wall
sunshine screams through the transom

i cringe at the taste of red #4,
but don’t know whether it’s red’s stench
or the bitterness of the number four

across Asia, “4” is an unlucky number —
the number of death —
but for some it tastes like citrus peel

BOOK REVIEW: Empire of Ants by Susanne & Olaf Foitzik

Empire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny ConquerorsEmpire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors by Susanne Foitzik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: May 6, 2021


In love with our own grandeur, most humans don’t give a thought to the magnificence of other species, and this is particularly true of ants. People use ants as their go-to being to fill in the SAT Analogy “Gods are to Humans as Humans are to ______________.” When we want to explain how some more capable entity (be it a god, a trans-galactic alien species, or an advanced artificial intelligence) is more likely to kill us through indifference than through maliciousness, we draw upon the image of an ant about to be crushed under the boot of a person who’s just going about his day, harboring no ill-will towards his six-legged neighbors.

This book will roll back that smug attitude, impressing the reader not only with all the little-known but intriguing behaviors of ants, but also with the range of skills employed by ants that we humans have always thought of as our unique bailiwick – e.g. city building, agriculture, slavery, war, and communication of complex ideas.

The book consists of fourteen chapters and a brief epilogue. The introductory chapter not only prepares the reader to be more impressed by ants, it also explains how crucial ants are collectively to our ecosystems. Chapter two explores the ant caste system in much more detail than the usual queen / worker / drone distinction, and it also explains how sex is determined in a manner quite different than that to which we are used. Chapter three continues an extensive discussion of reproduction that was begun in the previous chapter.

Chapter four dives into what might be called the governance of ant colonies. That may sound grandiose (and, in some sense, it is) but we are talking about huge populations living in a relatively small space. While sci-fi might have one imagining the queen ruling with an iron first while all others act as mindless automatons, the truth is very different, and – in fact – after establishment of the nest, the queen leaves the the thinking business altogether. Chapters five and six investigate the subjects of communication and navigation, respectively. Ants have a tremendously varied set of chemical emitters and receptors, allowing them to communicate a wide range of messages with great clarity. They also communicate through physical contact. Anyone who has ever seen a line of ants in convoy probably suspects that ants must be skilled at getting where they need to go and back. This chapter explains the methods by which ants achieve this purposeful motion, from chemical signals to navigation by the sun to – in some cases – an internal magnetic compass.

Chapter seven takes the reader into the realm of ant militaries, elucidating how they hunt, bivouac, and carry out the various tasks required of them. Chapter eight introduces the question of how colonies (that can be on par with human cities with respect to population) feed everyone, and gives special attention to leafcutter supply chain logistics and in-colony fungiculture. Chapter nine examines the lives of tree-dwelling ants. In this chapter, we learn that not only do ants engage in activities we think of as human; some also perform activities we associate with other species – such as silk weaving. Chapter ten continues the book’s examination of ant agriculture by explaining how some ants keep aphids as livestock [the aphids consume leaves and excrete sugars as a waste product because there is far more of it than they need for their own purposes.]

While chapter seven indicated how ants share some of the less palatable habits of humans – specifically, war, chapter eleven delves into some of the downright loathsome activities these insects share with our species – including: enslavement and theft. Chapter twelve identifies some of the threats to ant health and well-being, including tape worms and fungal parasites. You may have read about the fungus that can hijack an ant’s nervous system to turn it into a zombie (Ophiocordyceps camponoti-floridani,) eventually the fruiting body of the cordyceps pops out of the ant’s head to release spores (after the fungus has “driven” the ant high up into a tree from which the spores can be widely distributed.)

Chapter 13, entitled “The Path to World Domination,” is largely about how invasive species have come to take over in many parts of the world. This includes fire ants, which the Spanish (unwittingly) hauled from Mexico to the Philippines, from which the insects were dispersed all over the world via trade routes. While — throughout the entire book — intriguing ant behaviors are mentioned, the final chapter collects together a group of particularly unlikely skills that are witnessed among ants. My favorites were ants that could glide back to tree trunks when knocked off a limb, as well as another species that could catapult themselves through the air.

The book is well-illustrated, employing both drawings and color photographs. The photographs are particularly useful for showing some of the stranger species and – in a few cases – behaviors that can be difficult to visualize. There is an extensive “further reading” section that is organized by chapter.

“Empire of Ants” provides a fascinating look at an underappreciated species. Just as Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” changed the way I looked at trees, this book changed the way I see ants. I’d highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the natural world.

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