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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BOOK REVIEW: Brain Rules by John Medina

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and SchoolBrain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this is a book of guidance about how to get the most out of one’s mental life. Medina goes a mile wide, looking at twelve areas in which one can improve the performance of one’s brain, including: exercise, attention, memory, sleep, stress management, sensory integration, and visual acuity. It also has chapters that explain how evolution and gender affect the way in which one’s brain operates.

After an Introduction that sets up the premise of the book, there are twelve chapters. The first chapter explores the well-documented connection between exercise and mental performance, and offers insight into what type of exercise has been shown to be most helpful to the brain. The second chapter pertains to our brain’s evolutionary history. The conscious mind housed in the cortex is but the top floor of a multi-story enterprise, and understanding this has important ramifications for how one gets the most out of one’s brain. Chapter 3 explores the way brains are wired, which turns out to be flexibly and diversely. By flexibly, I mean that brains can be rewired by way of what is called neuroplasticity on the proviso that neurons that fire together wire together. By diversely, I mean that each individual’s brain is a bit different, and these differences can explain how someone gifted in one domain may be an idiot in other aspects of life. The next chapter deals with attention and explains why humans suck at multi-tasking (despite thinking they are the bomb) and why an extended ability to concentrate is essential to success.

The next two chapters both deal with memory, but with different types of memory—each having its own unique considerations. The first, chapter five, describes the peculiarities of short-term memory, that part of the memory that can hold a finite amount of data points at the forefront of our minds for a limited period. Chapter six deals with long-term memory, the part that holds vast stockpiles of information for extended periods (sometimes across a lifetime) but with lower fidelity and accuracy than we generally believe. While the rule offered for both forms of memory is simple—i.e. repetition is key—there is much to consider in the details. For starters, there are many other ways to divide up memory other than with respect to the short-term / long-term dichotomy (e.g. procedural v declarative) and differences in the way these types of memory work affect how they are both optimized.

The influence of sleep on mental performance is the subject of chapter seven. There is a vast pile of research on this subject, including a number of famous cases of extreme sleep deprivation—some of which are touched upon herein. It’s true that there is a great deal of variation in how people sleep (e.g. morning v non-morning people, and those who can power nap and those who can’t.) However, one thing remains unambiguous and that’s that we need sleep and must have full cycles of it in order to not suffer mental degradation. Chapter 8 is about how stress can kill mental performance. Of course, not all stress is the same. When one feels in control, short bursts of stress can be just the motivator one needs, but when feeling out of control stress can become crippling.

Chapters 9 and 10 are both about the senses. The first, nine, explains how one can obtain synergistic outcomes in a multi-sensory environment, and the second focuses on vision—arguably our most dominant sense. Our sensory experience is much more a product of the brain (and much less a pure representation of the outside world) than we tend to believe.

Chapter 11 reports on the gender differences that have been discovered with respect to brains. Before anyone lights a torch or sharpens a pitchfork, this isn’t the old “boys do math and girls do language” line. The differences are more nuanced, and it’s not clear in every case that the differences matter—or how. E.g. Men have bigger amygdala (involved in emotional response) and produce serotonin more quickly. While it’s not clear that these differences make a big difference, it’s know that men and women use their amygdala differently in times of stress, men activate the right amygdala and tend to remember more of the gist of events while women trip the left and remember more emotional details. The last chapter is about our human proclivity to explore, but it focuses heavily on infancy and childhood, during which the world is novel and the impulse to explore is at its height.

Each chapter ends with a summary box that both restates the rule and offers a few bullet points of key takeaway lessons, which may either be more specific guidance or summary of relevant research findings. There aren’t many functional graphics—by functional I mean as opposed to the ornamental drawings used throughout. I only remember one brain drawing. However, the reason for the dearth of graphics may be that there is a link to a 45 minute video that one can access, and the publisher probably thought that was a much more useful way to impart graphic information. It should also be noted that in the Kindle edition that I have, the references are also on-line.

I found this book to be useful. As I mentioned, it’s a broad overview. One can get books that dive more deeply into all of the topics addressed. But this is a nice mix of popular science and self-help. It’s readable, and the summaries and concise statement of rules help make the content stick more effectively.

I’d recommend this book for those who are seeking a book that covers a lot of ground, and which offers practical guidance as to how to put scientific discoveries on the brain into use in one’s own life.

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