If you can follow rivers to the sea by drifting without thrashing or grasping -- just let the flow take you upon a spree, a spree of dunk and breathe, without gasping, then you will witness all there is to know. You'll see shaky shanties and vast estates, the birds in flight and creatures: fast and slow, the weeping willows, and fish tempting Fates. If you can roll around the rocks -- always -- and never crack your head and silence all the voices saying you've reached your end-days, and never rush and never, ever stall... If you can do all this and keep the flow, it won't matter you don't know which way you go.
monks of the temple that stands beside the river receive flow teachings
I stand before a horseshoe canyon, and it feels like the world has folded back upon itself. And I sort of like that idea. There's too much emphasis on progress, so maybe we need pockets of regress. Not a full fusion blast of regression. No one's calling for being battered back to the stone age. Maybe, it'd just be nice to escape the clarity of the watercourse way. To be in the kind of place where one has to drop a leaf to know which way the waters flow.
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.
[A pantoum is a Malay form built in quatrains, and which uses repetition of lines. The second and fourth lines of one stanza become the first and third of the next. The final stanza can, but doesn’t necessarily, revisit lines from the first stanza.]
She concentrates on the hov’ring bee.
It becomes the sum of all things in her world.
There’s nothing else to feel or hear or see.
Only the bee alighting, body curled.
The bee is all that resides in this world.
Its undulation lulls her into trance.
She sees it flit and hover, its body curled.
The moment slows to show her its wee dance.
“It flows? What flows? the creek below?”
“I know the creek must flow downhill.
I mean how I flow through the world,
or it through me — by force or will?”
“I know when I lie here it slows,
between the bleats and blowing winds,
and I wonder through shaded eyes
whether the world is still in spin?”
I nodded, wandering on, wondering whether the world would stop for the likes of me.
The provocative title of this book captures why people are so drawn to games while they are, simultaneously, discontented with their real lives. McGonigal argues that all aspects of human activity could benefit from gamification, and that we should stop thinking of games as trivial endeavors to be engaged in in our spare time. After reading the book, I have a much better understanding of how turning activities into games can increase motivation, productivity, and – if done right – even human interaction. That said, I remain unsettled as to whether her overall thesis is sound.
On one hand, games are unambiguously motivating and captivating. To see it, one needn’t look further than the people playing games for free with at least as much (re: more) enthusiasm and attentiveness as they do those activities for which they are paid a salary. The mechanism by which games spur us is understood. Considering the question from the perspective of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” (as McGonigal does in ch. 2) we can see that constant feedback and an impetus to reach ever beyond our current capacity make games Flow-prone activities. Given that Flow is associated with both high productivity and positive mental states, that’s a sound argument in support of McGonigal’s ideas.
That said, I’m afraid that the need for constant, instantaneous feedback and the inability to remain mentally engaged for long periods when one must focus on something dull could have dire consequences for our species. Homo sapiens once had to follow wounded prey for days with constant vigilance, without instantaneous feedback, and with the possibility that the payoff could be lost at any moment. We developed attentiveness and mental discipline in the face of unstimulating conditions at great cost, and it has helped us to achieve great things. What will happen to our mental machinery when no one can pay attention for two minutes if there isn’t the possibility of an instantaneous virtual reward for it? To be fair, McGonigal does acknowledge — and to some degree discusses — these issues, but fails to take on such questions in much detail or with much objectivity. (It should be noted that she does extensively challenge the belief that gaming leads to lonely people living on their couches and never talking to real people in the real world.) The book is extremely thought-provoking, but shouldn’t be taken as an unbiased examination of the rise of gamification.
The fourteen chapters of the book are divided into three parts. The first part (ch. 1 through 6) both introduces what games are and offers insight into what they do for us. This includes an examination of what positive psychology (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, as mentioned) has to say about games, as well as how games can foster collaboration and give us the ability to take on problems bigger than our individual capacities would allow. Chapter four offers one of McGonigal’s most powerful arguments: that games are a way for people to learn to fail with grace and resilience. Adult humans tend to be severely averse to failure. (There’s a great meme featuring a baby sitting like she just plonked down on her butt, and the caption reads, “What if babies decided after four or five falls, ‘This walking thing just isn’t for me?’”)
The second part (ch. 7 through 10) is entitled “Reinventing Reality,” and it considers how games can be brought into real life to make reality more invigorating. A great example of this can be seen in the discussion of “Chore Wars,” which is a game designed to take household chores out of the realm of mundane drudgery and to make them a competitive activity that excites people. McGonigal uses the story of real games that have been developed for various purposes extensively in both part II and part III. Another example is the “Tombstone Hold ‘Em” game that was designed to address the problem of declining visits to cemeteries. While there are games that address less unusual topics, these two examples are insightful in that they show how virtually any endeavor can be gamified.
The final part (ch. 11 through 14) suggest how games can be used to take on large and difficult problems. Such challenges often remain insufficiently addressed (or unaddressed altogether) because of a lack of immediate motivation to take them on or a structure to organize activities – games can help provide both the motivation and the organization. Readers learn how the wisdom of crowds can be harnessed, as well as how incentives to change behavior can be created. In this section, McGonigal highlights games such as one designed to help humanity move beyond our oil supply.
The book has a few graphics and appendices, and is annotated to support the author’s thesis.
I found this book to be thought-provoking and insightful. As I mentioned, it doesn’t address my fears that humans will become incapable of sitting down and reading Joyce’s “Ulysses” or weeding a garden if we tread the path needing some sort of Pavlovian pat-on-the-back every time we do anything. (Again, to be fair, the author does suggest that one limit time devoted to gaming – e.g. Appendix 2.) The book does do a good job of showing how games can be used to make people more motivated, productive, and happy. I would recommend it for people considering that question, as well as those trying to figure out how they might go about gamifying some activity that they think needs to be more motivating.
This book examines how Flow can be achieved by runners. Flow, in this usage, means a specific state of mind in which the activity at hand becomes effortless, self-criticism quiets, and one becomes pleasantly fixated on a task. It’s a term coined by the book’s lead author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, based on his research into how some people were able to slip into a mental state in which even mundane activities could become an almost blissful obsession. This was part of a broader inquiry into how people can achieve a higher quality of life at work or at home.
The book is divided into two parts. The first four chapters lay out the concept of Flow in detail, and provide the necessary background for readers who may not be familiar with the concept. These chapters describe the role Flow can play in running, examine the components of Flow (i.e. necessary conditions and outcomes), and explain what personality traits are most conducive to achieving Flow.
The second part consists of five chapters, and it delves into how a runner can achieve Flow. Chapter five explores in detail three of the nine components that were introduced in chapter two, and tailors the explanation for runners. These three are the antecedents of Flow: clear goals, a match of challenge level and skill level, and immediate feedback. Chapters six and seven suggest the ways in which Flow can be facilitated in non-competitive and competitive runs, respectively. Chapter eight discusses the limits of flow. Because Flow is associated with feelings of effortless performance, some think of it as a sort of panacea for all that plagues their running. Furthermore, it’s not a state that easily happens and consistently returns; it’s often fickle and elusive. This chapter not only disabuses one of such notions, but also explains how failing to achieve Flow need not be the end of the world (or of one’s race.) The final chapter takes Flow beyond the concept of running and suggests what it’s pursuit can do for an individual more broadly.
The chapters use mini-case studies in which the authors describe the experience of professional runners in races and the effects of Flow on their performance and their experiences of races. There are numerous graphics. Many of these are color photos of the athletes who the authors spoke to, but there are also diagrams used to clarify key concepts. There is a glossary and references section as well.
I enjoyed this book. I’ve always thought of running as a task for which Flow would be hard to achieve because the matching of skill level to the amount of challenge is so crucial to achieving Flow and the movement pattern of running is so repetitive and monotonous. (The reason this matching is important is that if one’s skill level is far beyond the challenge, then one is bored, and if it’s the other way around, one is frustrated and overwhelmed – and neither boredom nor frustration facilitates Flow.) The book is a quick read that offers runners everything they need to make their mental experience of running more enjoyable and productive.
There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.
We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.
Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)
The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.
The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.
For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.
The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.
The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.
I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.
I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.