My title

The Creative Superpower That Makes The Impossible Possible

How would you feel if you could achieve massive performance gains in every part of your life?

Just imagine what would happen if you could do more work in less time, and produce a higher quality of work during that time. Not only that, you could find so much joy in the process that the work becomes its own reward.

Maybe you sit down at the computer, start typing and think to yourself, "Why on earth would anyone want to read this?" Or you start drawing and you feel you can barely draw stick figures.

Most mornings when I sit down to write, I struggle to write a coherent sentence. My writing is as disjointed as my thoughts. This is still true after 10 years, over a million words, and two books. It could take anywhere from 500-1000 words before I have a spark of insight.

You might not know this, but when I was in the fourth grade, I was failing reading. That's not exactly a sign that you should write books for a living. My teacher suggested to my parents that I might have a learning disability. But Indian parents don't think their kids have learning disabilities, just shitty teachers.

Fast forward to my 20's and I can't get through a lecture in college. I'm distracted by every pretty girl who walks in the class, and I can't survive an 8-hour work day without eventually getting fired.

No matter who you are or what you've accomplished there's an eternal gap between your ambitions and abilities, who you are and who you want to be. Every day in the life of a creative is an attempt to bridge that gap.

The good news is that there's one creative superpower that will not only help you bridge that gap and turn your disadvantages to advantages, but enable you to make the impossible possible.

It sends all aspects of performance through the roof.

  • Surfers catch 100 foot waves.
  • Snowboarders go 70 miles an hour down a black diamond or clear 200 foot jumps.
  • Entrepreneurs are able to build successful companies.
  • Steven Kotler wrote 200 pages of a book in two weeks while in flow. He won a Pulitzer for it.

It is the essential ingredient for peak performance. It's what allows you to become so good they can't ignore you. If you want to accomplish your most important personal and professional goals, you have to lead a high flow life.


What is Flow?

The Creative Superpower That Makes The Impossible Possible 1

Have you ever had an experience where you get so absorbed in something that hours feel like minutes?

  • Your work feels effortless even though you're working hard.
  • You're enjoying the process and detached from the outcome.
  • It feels like you don't have a care or a worry in the world.
  • You look at something and wonder, "How the hell did I just do that?"

Then you have experienced flow. "Flow feels like the meaning of life for good reason. The neurochemicals that underpin the state are among the most addictive drugs on earth," says Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman.

Before I started surfing, a friend said to me "Surfing is the greatest natural high in the world." At that point, I'd experimented with my fair share of unnatural highs. But when I dropped into a wave for the first time, I realized what he meant. Surfing puts you into flow. Hence the reason that surfers say, "All it takes is one good wave and you'll be hooked."


What's Happening to the Brain in a Flow-State?

The Creative Superpower That Makes The Impossible Possible 2

In the brain, norepinephrine increases arousal, attention, natural efficiency, and emotional control. In flow, it keeps us locked on target, holding distractions at bay. As a pleasure inducer, if dopamine's drug analog is cocaine, norepinephrine is speed, which means this enhancement comes with a hell of a high, says Steven Kotler.

Flow floods your brain with all these feel good neurochemicals. As a result, your instincts become sharper. Your ego dissipates, your worries fade, and your only concern is the present moment.

When I hit a flow state during a surf session, I catch waves that I would have hesitated on before the flow state. In a writing session, my word counts skyrocket and I'm back in that place creating for an audience of one. I fall back in love with the process instead of chasing the prize.


Flow Triggers

For most people, flow happens by accident. They don't know how to recreate it.

Sadly, most working environments are not conducive to flow. Between open offices, 8-hour workdays, meetings and constant interruptions, organizations are putting themselves at a massive disadvantage. None of these conditions are optimal for innovation or creative breakthroughs. This is why the people who work at your company are so unproductive.

As flow requires focus, one of the first changes suggested by experts was the removal of cubicle farms, those open office plans that permit constant interruption. - Steven Kotler

Artists, athletes and people who do creative work for a living learn to hack flow because their survival depends on it. If they don't create, they don't eat.

If employees at companies adopted the working habits of artists, they would work less, get more done, and be much happier. So how exactly do you recreate this state of flow?


1. Focus

Attention is the currency of achievement and focus is the spark that ignites the fire of flow. But we live in a world where our attention is under constant assault from people who want to sell it to advertisers, email, Slack messages, and other interruptions.

Flow requires focus on ONE task. It means you have to reduce the competition for your attention. As Adam Gazelley says, "Suppression of irrelevant information improves our focus on the relevant by dropping the floor of the irrelevant."

Digital distractions are just one type of irrelevant information. Three types of irrelevant information are usually competing for your attention.

  • Auditory: anything you can hear (people at a coffeeshop, phone calls, etc)
  • Visual: anything you see (open browser tabs, your cell phone, notifications, etc)
  • Kinesthetic: anything you can feel (room temp, chair, etc)

To achieve the kind of focus that leads to flow, you have to reduce the cognitive load of everything above.

When I'm writing, there's nothing on my desk. My phone is out of the room. I have noise cancellation headphones and I use Notion in full screen mode. The designers of Notion clearly understood how to suppress irrelevant information because the moment you start typing, the interface disappears.

The ability to focus on a cognitively demanding task for an extended period of time, what Cal Newport calls “deep work”, is a skill. Like any skill, it can be learned, but it takes practice.

The easiest way to begin building this capacity is through interval training. Don't underestimate the power of starting small. Aim to avoid sources of distraction for 20 minutes, then 22, and so on. But you have to put something in its place, and any of the following activities are fair game:

  • Building something withy your hands
  • Writing/Reading
  • Playing an instrument

The point of interval training is put your attention on just one thing and to increase the amount of time you can focus.

Environment impacts our emotions and our actions. For flow to occur, you have to design the right environment. Eliminating all sources of distraction is the key ingredient to designing an environment that leads to flow:

  • Leave your phone out of the room, or put it on airplane mode.
  • Use headphones to drown out any noise.
  • Block all distracting web sites.
  • Limit yourself to one app or two and work in full screen mode.

In addition to being distraction-free, the environment has to be inspiring or alluring. Because most action sports take place in nature, by default the environment is rich. For you, that could mean making your workspace colorful. If the space you are in inspires you, the work you create will inspire others.

2. Clear Goals

Lots of people set vague goals like "write every day." That could mean write a grocery list, status update, or email.

  • A clear goal is something you can control and measure.
  • It gives you a target.
  • You know whether or not you hit the target.

Write for one hour every day or write 1000 words a day is a clear goal. The easiest way to amplify the clarity of a goal is put a number in front of it. Outcome-based goals are a recipe for failure because you can't control them. When you're aiming for clear goals, focus on the process, not the prize.


3. Immediate Feedback

Immediate feedback, our next internal trigger is a shortcut into the now. The term refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect. The smaller the gap between input and output, the more we know how we’re doing and how to do it better. - Steven Kotler

When you're surfing, snowboarding or playing a musical instrument, immediate feedback is built into the activity.

  • You're either standing up or eating shit on a surfboard or snowboard.
  • You either sound amazing or like someone murdering poultry with your violin.

But with other art forms, immediate feedback is a bit harder to access.

  • Writers are usually in a quiet room by themselves. This is where it helps to have coaches, mentors and a second set of eyes on your work. These people will see things you can't see.
  • For knowledge workers, that could mean creating a cadence of consistent feedback between managers and employees. Instead of once a quarter, provide feedback once a week. A tool like KnowYourCompany is excellent for this.

We need feedback on how we are performing in order to adjust our performance.

Adjusting the Challenge Skills Ratio

The Creative Superpower That Makes The Impossible Possible 3


In the process of developing any skill, there will be a point at which you bridge the gap between your ambitions and ability. Things that used to challenge you no longer will.

When I started snowboarding, I was scared shitless to go down a black diamond. The first time I saw the top of one, I told my friend, "There's no fucking way I'm going up there. Those people look like ants from here."

But after three years of snowboarding, I bridged the gap between my ambitions and abilities. I could fly down blues without falling. I no longer needed bunny slopes as a warm up run. Without challenging myself, I couldn't get into flow.

“This is because of what is known as the challenge-skill ratio. You're aiming for the midpoint between boredom and anxiety, the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch, but not hard enough to make us snap," says Steven Kotler.

So what does this look like in practice?

I'm comfortable surfing 4-6 foot waves most days. But 8 foot waves are just enough to make me stretch. If I paddled out in 20 foot surf, it would be a death sentence.

As a writer, that might mean 1400 words instead of 1000. As your skill level increases, you'll have to keep adjusting flow triggers.

Knowing how to hack flow gives people a MASSIVE competitive advantage.

  • I've written two books with a publisher.
  • I've hacked flow almost every day for the last few years.
  • I've interviewed Steven Kotler twice on the Unmistakable Creative along with other people who are experts in using attention to generate amazing results.

But, I was still amazed by how much I learned in Steven's flow-hacking workshop. Flow expert Rian Doris who works with Steven says this has fundamentally changed the way we he works. 

If you are serious about becoming an elite performer in your field, there's nothing closer than this that will give you the keys to the kingdom. And I'm saying that after 700 interviews with some of the highest performing people in the world.

Book a free strategy session with The Flow Research Collective to improve your performance. 


Comments have been closed.
© 2019 Unmistakable Creative Podcast