The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler

Overview

“This is the main lesson a lifetime in peak performance has taught me. Each of us, right here, right now, contains the possibility of extraordinary. Yet, this extraordinary capability is an emergent property, one that only arises when we push ourselves toward the edge of our abilities. Far beyond our comfort zone, that’s where we find out who we are and what we can be.”

The Art of Impossible is a how-to guide for peak performance. The book unpacks and builds upon the latest findings in both neuroscience and psychology, providing immediately actionable advice that we can all use to up our game and attack our wildest dreams.

The author, Steven Kotler, is the executive director of the Flow Research Collective – a company dedicated to understanding the science behind ultimate human performance. In his words, evolution has shaped the brain to perform at its best by getting into a ‘flow state’ and, for that reason, it’s the critical component behind accomplishing extraordinary feats.

Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness where, not only do we perform at our best, but we also feel our best as well. The idea, therefore, is to design our lives in a way where we can regularly get into flow and to use it to propel us towards our larger goals and aspirations. 

Kotler provides a thorough roadmap for doing exactly this. However, he notes that, when tackling the impossible, flow is not enough by itself. To accomplish large and audacious goals, we’ll need consistent effort over a lengthy period of time – much of which, where we won’t be in the state.

“Whenever we see the impossible become possible, we are witnessing the end result of a quartet of skills – motivation, learning, creativity, and flow – expertly applied and significantly amplified.”

For this reason, the book is divided into four sections where Kotler expands on each topic individually. In his words, “Motivation is what gets you into this game; learning is what helps you continue to play; creativity is how you steer; and flow is how you turbo-boost the results beyond all rational standards and reasonable expectations. That, my friends, is the real art of impossible.”

Key Lessons

Finding Purpose

“It’s hard to achieve the amazing by accident. You have to dream big.”

The central premise of this book is that impossible has a formula and, since motivation is the first step, it’s crucial we get it right.

Kotler describes ‘intrinsic drivers’ as psychological and emotional forces which fuel and energise our behaviours. He lists the five most important as: curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy and mastery. These are neurobiologically designed to work together.

For example, by finding the intersection between multiple curiosities, we develop passion; and when we shift our focus to something greater than ourselves, we find purpose.

By correctly aligning our motivations, we can sculpt what Kotler refers to as a Massively Transformative Purpose (or an MTP for short). This acts as our north star, it provides the direction from which all of our other actions will follow.

Kotler notes that, in his experience, one key characteristic of those who go on to ‘achieve the impossible’ is the size of their original vision.

In Mastery, Robert Greene presents a similar idea. He writes that, by following our deepest inclinations we may discover our Life’s Task, which we are then deeply motivated to pursue.

And the idea here is the same. “We need to know our needs – that is, our intrinsic motivations – before we can utilize goals as a way of fulfilling those needs.”

For that reason, the first step is to correctly align our intrinsic drivers (i.e. our innate curiosities, our deepest inclinations) with a fitting target. In this way, Kotler explains we get our biology to work for us rather than against us.

The Infinite Game

“Peak performance works like compound interest. A little bit today, a little bit tomorrow, do this for weeks and months and years and the result won’t just be a life that exceeds your expectations, it’ll be one that exceeds your imagination.”

Kotler describes peak performance as ‘the infinite game’. It’s not something we win, instead, the only goal is to keep playing – that is, to stay in the game. 

Accomplishing large goals requires that, perhaps above all else, you continue to chase them for a long enough time frame. However, just this ability is challenging and requires that you are strategic in your approach. There’s a crucial balancing-act between working hard and resting well in the game of long-term consistency.

In regards to recovery, Kotler recommends an ‘active recovery protocol’ where you allow the brain to recharge. He writes, “Knowing how to stop working without feeling bad about stopping is key for long-term success.” And again, this is much easier to do when your overarching objective is to keep playing the game.

This is an important message to bear in mind as it changes how you approach each day moving forward. As Kotler points out, peak performance works like compound interest – and internalising this idea will allow you to shape healthier expectations for yourself. Specifically, it will allow you to become more patient as you pursue your goals. Kotler notes that you must grow to love small, incremental progress as it is the only sustainable metric you can really aim for.

Further, he writes, “Excellence requires repetition. Even if you’ve got passion and purpose perfectly aligned and completely love what you do, what you do is often reduced to a daily checklist.” The process towards achieving the impossible is underwhelming – it’s a lot of small things done right, day in and day out –  but the challenge is to actually do those things, again and again and again.

A recurring theme in the book is the idea that consciousness is an extremely limited resource. Kotler points out that most of what we do each day is simply autopilot behaviour, allowing us to conserve energy. But with so much of our biology primed for energy conservation, it’s important we become deliberate with our habits, deliberate with our actions and streamline the process wherever possible to make doing the ‘right’ things (things that will often require energy) easier.

A very simple but easily overlooked habit that Kotler recommends is to write down a to-do list for the following day, each night. He explains that, “At a very basic level, this is exactly what the road to impossible looks like – a well-crafted to-do list, executed daily.” Having a to-do list where you write out clear goals acts as a flow-trigger (i.e. something that makes it easier to get into flow).

He explains, “When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t have to wonder about what to do or what to do next – it already knows. Thus, concentration tightens, motivation heightens, and extraneous information gets filtered out. In a sense, clear goals act as a priority list for the brain, lowering cognitive load and telling the system where to expend its energy.”

Continuous Learning

“If you keep learning, you keep playing.”

Kotler describes learning as what allows us to keep playing the infinite game. He explains that continuous learning helps in continuing to fuel our passion and purpose, both of which are critical for long-term perseverance.

But beyond that, he explains that a lot of learning comes down to pattern recognition and, further, that a lot of this takes place at an unconscious level. The important idea, in his mind, is to keep the brain’s ‘pattern recognition system’ stocked with new bits of information (a) to help facilitate the process of learning and growth and (b) because novelty is the basis of creativity.

He explains that creativity is always a recombinatory process where we take existing bits of information and combine them in new and different ways. So, essentially, the more ideas we can expose ourselves to, the more ways we can potentially combine them to create something new. 

Creativity is important because it allows us to bridge the gap between where we currently are and where it is that we’d like to go. The road to impossible isn’t always straight forward.

And so, his specific recommendation when learning is “[To] come at it from every angle, so there are no weak links in your game,” and to do this by reading in and around your field.

“Books,” he writes, “are the most radically condensed form of knowledge on the planet.” They grant us the opportunity to digest decades of someone else’s work and study within mere hours of our own time and therefore, have the largest return on investment in terms of knowledge acquisition.

Taken together, this means that by prioritising continuous learning on our journey towards the impossible, we gain greater insight into a greater number of ideas which helps fuel our own motivation and creativity. Further, it allows us to refine the direction that we’re headed as our interests grow and evolve.

The Effects of Flow

“We’re biological organisms, and evolution is conservative by design. When a particular adaptation works, its basic functionality is repeated again and again. Flow most certainly works. As a result, our brains are hardwired for the experience. We are all designed for peak performance.”

Kotler describes flow as the starring component behind extraordinary feats. It is “those moments of rapt attention and total absorption when you get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears.”

Interestingly, in these moments, we’re not using more of the brain but less. As neuroscientist Arne Dietrich explains, “We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”

During this state, the brain appears to blend all six of the major pleasure chemicals (dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, etc.). And the more neurochemicals that show up in an experience, the more likely the experience will move from short-term holding to long-term storage in the brain. Taken together, this means that flow is a crucial component in the process of learning and, hence, the path towards mastery.

It’s also, in part, why we see boosts to motivation, learning and creativity in the flow state, and why, as a result, it’s been referred to as “the source code of intrinsic motivation”. Some studies suggest that, in flow, our productivity may increase by up to 500% and learning by up to 230%.

Not only that, this blend of neurochemicals is why many people report the ‘flow state’ as being some of their most enjoyable experiences. And since the road to mastery is a lengthy journey, Kotler explains, “The amount of flow an activity produces directly equates to our willingness to pursue it for years on end,” – making flow a key ingredient in long-term perseverance and ensuring we can continue to play the infinite game.

With all these benefits, Kotler’s advice is, ultimately, to design our lives around flow triggers, such as ‘clear goals’, ‘immediate feedback’ and ‘the challenge-skills balance’.

Flow follows focus, meaning, the state only appears with complete concentration on the task at hand. And this is what flow triggers help us do – they drive attention into the present moment.

Distraction is the largest barrier to flow and so, as much as possible, the task is to remove them from interrupting us and to plan our tasks around the ‘challenge-skill sweetspot’ – i.e. where the skill required very slightly exceeds our current capability, as this is tends to be where we’re most engaged.

Closing Thoughts

The Art of Impossible covers many different topics – everything from the growth-mindset and mindfulness meditation, to gratitude practices and goal-setting. Kotler outlines a complete overview for someone looking to optimize their performance whilst, simultaneously, detailing what that will look like on a weekly/daily basis.

He closes the book with this remark, “And now that you know the secret, pretty underwhelming, right? And that’s the real rub. None of these interventions are particularly sexy. There is no nifty piece of technology to play with or unusual substance to ingest. They’re just items on a checklist.”

All in all, as we play this infinite game, there are several key ideas to bear in mind: (1) the size of our vision matters; (2) we must shift our attention away from immediate results and instead focus on long-term consistency and engagement; (2) we must value learning above all else as we tread the path to mastery, this will keep us open and adaptable as well as fuel our passion, purpose and, in the end, lead to heightened creativity; (3) we must design our lives in such a way where we can regularly get into the flow state if we want to tap into the outer-edges of our potential.

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