What is flow state – REALLY?
Is it a mythical anomaly that’s as rare as a bigfoot sighting?
Or is it something you can tap into on-demand – anywhere, anytime?
In this behind-the-scenes exclusive interview, I sit down with Steven Kotler – author of Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.
In this interview, we talk about how to hack different states of consciousness to reach FLOW STATE and operate at max capacity – on demand.
Hey Posse! What’s up? It’s Alex.
And I’m coming to you this week with an exclusive interview with the man, the myth, the legend himself – Steven Kotler.
One of the world’s leading experts on human performance and bestselling author of Stealing Fire.
During this interview, you’re going to hear…
- What flow state ACTUALLY is.
- What about ADHD or other focus-related challenges? Is flow state realistically attainable for everyone?
- The simple way to “trick yourself” out of writer’s block and tap into flow state more easily.
- The #1 thing you must do before you sit down to write in order to achieve flow state.
- Steven’s 3-step process to writing anything, anytime.
- What the research says about psychedelics versus flow.
- Steven’s personal process for balancing creative work with entrepreneur work.
- Why meditation ISN’T the secret to getting into flow (and what to do instead).
- And SO, SO, SOOOO much more!
This interview is so juicy, I really really loved this one and I think you will too.
And if you’re new to the crew and you want to see more expert interviews & tutorials like this one, then make sure you subscribe to my newsletter.
Now here’s the interview…
How to Get into Flow State & Be More Productive
Hello everyone! I am so freaking excited about the special guest that I’m gonna be interviewing today. So what you may not know is last month we did a book club in my Reign Maker program, which is my exclusive mentorship program for copywriters. And the book that we read was all about hacking altered states of consciousness, “Stealing Fire” by the incredible Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. And I thought, oh my gosh, how cool would it be to be able to actually bring in the author of this book to interview on all things flow, altered states of consciousness, consciousness hacking.
The conversation is about to get super juicy. So I have to say our speaker is amazing. He is a New York Times best-selling author. He’s actually written, you know, 14 books. Many of those are New York Times best-selling authors. He’s an award-winning journalist. Actually got his start back in advertising, which was interesting to find out, and he is the executive director of Flow Research Collective. He also happens to be one of the world’s leading experts on human performance.
So as I mentioned, he’s the author of “Stealing Fire,” “The Art Of Impossible,” “The Future Is Faster Than You Think,” “The Rise Of Superman,” and so many more. He’s also been nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize and his books have been translated into over 50 languages.
So I have, oh gosh, I have so many questions for you. As you know, the Copy Posse is a community of copywriters, content writers, storytellers, many who are just getting started on their journey, many who have been doing it for a while and something that we as writers are obviously obsessed with and I’m sure you have a lot to say on this matter is flow state.
And so my first question to you is, we’ve all heard of the word flow and we talk about being in the zone, but what is flow state? How would you define it and how would you say it’s experienced?
Let’s start with the definition. The scientific definition of flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. That doesn’t get anybody very far, but that’s the technical, scientific definition. It refers to, flow refers to any of those moments of rapt attention and total absorption when it’s so focused on what you’re doing, so focused on the task at hand, for writers, so focused on the writing, everything else just starts to disappear. Action or awareness are gonna start to merge. Sense of self, self-consciousness, bodily awareness is gonna fade away, sometimes completely.
Time is gonna pass strangely, occasionally it’ll slow down. You get that freeze-frame effect from anyone who’s been in a car crash. More frequently for writers, it speeds up. Get so sucked into what you’re doing, four hours go by and right, and you didn’t even notice and throughout all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, and mental includes creativity, learning, motivation, productivity and 40 other skills, that’s an exaggeration, 12 other skills, go through the roof.
So that’s the sort of technical breakdown of flow. When scientists wanna define flow, psychologists define it by six core characteristics and say when you’re in the state, how do you know you’re in the state? There’s complete concentration on the task at hand. There’s this merger of action awareness, self vanishes, time passes strangely. And the two other things that we define it by is we don’t experience big performance on the inside, we feel a sense of control.
Holy crap, my sentences are doing things they don’t normally do at like 6:00 AM on a Tuesday right? And we also, the experience is autotelic, which is a fancy way of saying it’s so damn fun and euphoric and addictive, you can’t wait to get more of it. So right, once writing starts to become autotelic, it’s an addiction. You have to do it every day, and that’s sort of gotta be the point. Otherwise, there’s no way to have a career. So that’s the psychological definition.
One level deeper and then I’m gonna shut up is, the neurobiological definition, which is the work I do at the Flow Research Collective. What goes on in the brain and the body when people are performing at their absolute best and when they’re in flow. I’m not… I’m happy to go as down that rabbit hole as you want me to go, but I’ll stop right there.
I mean I love all of that. Yeah, I mean I hear a lot and I’m curious what your thoughts are on this. I hear a lot of people say, Alex, I have ADHD or my brain just can’t focus. Do you believe that everybody can train themselves to reach that level of flow state or are some people just not hardwired for it?
So there’s five answers to your question, but I’m gonna start with the first one which is Ned Hallowell who is the man who coined the term ADHD and a psychologist at Harvard was on my board for a long time. He believes that what we call ADHD or an ADD are actually evolutionary adaptations that produce hyperfocus and thus more flow.
There’s the downside but he thinks there are adaptations, like every adaptation has a downside and a good side and a bad side, but he thinks in the modern world, this is actually if we know how to work with it, this is a beneficial thing. ‘Cause in all cases of ADD or ADHD, if you like what you’re working on, focus is not a problem. You can focus on what you’re interested in. So what you may call ADHD and wanna say is a focusing problem is actually a motivation and attention issue much more so just slightly different things.
So I wanna start there, but I wanna back up and say flow is ubiquitous. Anybody, anywhere can get into flow, provided certain initial conditions are met. I probably have a touch, if not a lot, of both of those conditions myself. And you know, certainly not a problem. If my, the original group of people I studied the first study group, which was action, adventure sport athletes, all of them almost to at the elite levels are ADD and ADHD and are self-medicating to flow in action sports and they can focus on, right?
So that’s an absence to me, that’s an excuse for sure. And knowing how to work with ADD and ADHD can actually really help you with flow sometimes. I’m not saying there aren’t downsides, right? I, for the life of me, cannot sit through a lecture, right?
Right, that’s so interesting. Yeah and I agree, I think almost every successful entrepreneur that I’ve ever met can identify with that. Yeah, I have ADHD or I have a hard time focusing and I love that you talk about the difference between intrinsic motivation and when you’re truly interested in what it is that you’re doing, focus really doesn’t become a problem. And I think that that acronym has really become a story for a lot of people when it comes to focus and what it is they’re working on.
I know as a writer there are days where something happens. It’s like this magical force takes over my body and it’s beautiful. It just comes through me, out my fingers, onto my keyboard and I’m having, you know, almost being able to write while simultaneously coming up with this incredible, you know, framework or ideas that turn into the copy that I write.
And that’s kind of what I define as flow state, but it’s almost impossible to grasp on command. And so as a writer who has written, you know, 14 books, how do you overcome writer’s block when you’re sitting down and you go, okay, I need to get into flow so that I can keep moving forward through my book or whatever it is that you’re writing? How do you do that?
So you’re asking four different questions sort of disguised as one. So I have to sort of break them apart, ’cause there’s two different things you’re asking. One is about writer’s block, which we can have a separate discussion about. First thing I wanna focus on is flow states have triggers. Preconditions that may lead to more flow. The short version is flow follows focus. Only shows up when all our attention’s in the right here, right now, focused on what we’re doing.
So that’s what all the triggers do. They drive attention into the present moment. So a lot of those triggers can be present in writing, are present in writing. The most important being pattern recognition. When we link ideas together, when we have rhythm in our words, any of those things. Alliteration’s a cheap way of getting at it, sort of in a sense. That releases the neurochemical dopamine, which does a bunch of things in the body, but it massively increases focus in a sudden excitement and attention and acts as a flow trigger.
So that’s one of the things writers are gonna leverage all the time. What does that mean? What does that look like in practice? Simple thing is I always start my writing day one at the exact same time. Then we can come back to why, but I read and edit what I wrote the day before and I always do this. Why? Because when I’m reading and I’m editing, I’m not facing a blank page, I’m facing a pattern recognition problem. Editing is about pattern recognition.
Getting the rhythm of the sentences right, getting the information load right, getting all of the right, all that stuff. I’m, so I’m producing little squirts of dopamine as I’m editing what I wrote the day before. So by the time I get to the blank page, oh shit, I gotta add a thousand words to my manuscript today, what do I do? I’m already, if not in flow, primed for flow.
So one, that’s really important and two, I don’t think…so one of the things that I can tell you separates real writers from everybody else is the amount of time you’re rewriting your material. There is nothing of mine, I don’t care if it’s a sales letter that goes into public that hasn’t been hammered on 40 or 50 times, read by me, read by other people, like nothing right? And so I don’t often think, you know, I worked as a magazine journalist for a really long time.
And this is one of the things I started to notice is the lazy, magazine journalist would wanna, not wanna edit their stuff, they’d wanna write it, maybe they’d tune it once and then they’d wait for their editor to give them feedback and then they’d sort of fix that and they were done. And one that’s stupid because your job as a writer is actually to make your job editor’s life easier. You work for them, you don’t want to turn in copy that is actually a mess for them to have to fix.
You want to turn in absolute pristine copy that they can go, “Oh my God this is great. I wanna work with this person a ton, I don’t have to do anything right?” And you make their boss happy. That’s gotta be the goal, if you want to actually make a living here, you can’t lean on your editor in that way, which means you have to learn how to edit yourself really well along the way, and so this training builds up that muscle, which is sort of like a grit writer’s muscle and it helps you get into flow.
I also just gonna say this ’cause it’s obvious to me, but may it’s not as obvious to other people, before you sit down to write, you have to practice distraction management, flow follows focus and you need uninterrupted concentration. And actually what the research shows is the brain focuses best in 90 to 120-minute slots of uninterrupted concentration. There’s a 90-minute sleep cycle, REM cycle, we know about this. There’s a 90-minute focus waking cycle. So I try to…your writing session should be at least 90 minutes long and manicure the environment, turn off your cell phone, turn, you know, email goes off.
Absolutely turn off your messages, turn off anything, notifications. I think most importantly, have conversations with your loved ones, with your family, with your partner, with your boss, with your whatever. You need this time uninterrupted. Research not done on writers but on coders showed that even if you, if you get into flow and you get knocked out of flow, it’s a minimum of 15 minutes to get back in if you can get back in at all. So only gonna block 90 minutes for writing and you know, 15 minutes are gonna be wasted, ’cause you get kicked outta flow ’cause somebody called you or something like that. That’s insane. That’s really a waste of your time.
Yeah. Oh you said so many incredible things there and echoing even sort of, you know, I’m writing a sales letter right now and I have gone back and touched that thing so many times, that I’m like, “No, am I making it better or am I not?” But I really do believe that copy editing, like you said, is almost a more important skill set to develop because it, you know, it’s one thing to get the words out, it’s another thing to go back and say, “Okay, what’s really necessary?”
And that does take a lot of creative energy and so blocking out that time. And then I love what you said about sitting down and copy editing or editing what you wrote yesterday before you edit or start writing today almost. Because you’ll never feel, at least for me, there are days where I do not feel like writing but if I go back and start reviewing and editing something I wrote, you know, the day before or the day before that I can immediately or at least a lot more quickly get into that state of writing flow.
You talked about, and this was one of my questions for you, so I think it’s a good place to go, is these ideas of flow triggers and you mentioned focus follows attention or flow follows focus and distraction management. What other flow triggers are sort of required?
So commplete concentration is the flow trigger that you’re talking about. Novelty is a flow trigger. Unpredictability, complexity. Complexity is perceptual vastness. You look up at the night sky, right? And there are, suddenly you realize each of those stars you’re looking at could be a galaxy and you’re also looking back in time and et cetera, et cetera. And it’s overwhelms you. You have that experience of awe that’s the front edge of a flow state as well. So that’s perceptual, that’s complexity.
The most important is what is what’s known as the challenge skills balance. Flow follows focus. We pay the most attention to the task in hand when the challenge of the task slightly exceeds our skill sets. So you want to stretch but not snap. So what does that look like writing wise? I’ll give you an example for me. I write books. So when I’m starting a book, stretch but not snap, is about 500 words a day ’cause I, in the way I write, 350 words is an idea. 500 words is I’ve gotta transition to the next idea, and you know, nothing is harder than a transition.
So like I write 350 words, I can sort of do it really hungover, really tired, really in a bad mood, really what doesn’t matter. I can pull 350 words out of my butt. 500, now that’s a challenge, that can get hard. That’s starting a book. Middle of the book where I sort of know more of where I’m going and what’s going on, 750 to 800 words a day. End of a book where I actually know what I’m doing, it’s 1,200 words a day or so. So it’s a moving target and the rough idea is that these numbers are not deadly accurate, just understand that it’s a metaphor more than science, but it’s an accurate metaphor.
The science shows that when the challenge is 4% to 5% greater than our skills, that’s the sweet spot. So if you’re shy, meek, timid, risk averse, whatever, you’re gonna be a little uncomfortable ’cause you’re outside your comfort zone. If you’re a hard sharking type A type, now you have got a problem ’cause you’ll take on huge challenges, 20, 30, 40% greater than your skills just ’cause it wakes you up. That’s cool. I do that too. Chunk it down so what’s in front of you though today, today’s job is just 4 or 5% greater than your skills.
Now one other thing, as a writer, is this also means big picture. Every one of my books requires more style, more talent, more research, more skill than the last one intentionally. Like I got a challenge to communicate these ideas, but there’s the book you’re holding in your hand, for example, “Stealing Fire” that all of you just read, to write that book, I actually had to figure out how to increase the amount of factual density per sentence. Normally my sentences are slightly less factually dense than what you read in “Stealing Fire,” but there’s so much damn material in that book, I had to.
So I studied Steven Pinker who’s a science writer who, with incredibly dense sentences, but they’re fun, he doesn’t lose his readers. There’s still jokes in there, there’s still stuff. You gotta pay attention but he does it in a fun way and so when I was learning how to write “Stealing Fire” and like sort of training for the book, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out stealing Steven Pinker’s style. Like where does he put his verbs, where does he put his adjectives, how does he do it?
And I had to play in his style over and over and over again for like three months until I started to figure out how we might be able to do it in “Stealing Fire.” There’s a bunch of other writers that I sort of stole ideas from in that book, but like I literally like spent months studying Steven Pinker or I was gonna bore the shit out of my readers.
Yeah, well and it’s funny that you mention that ’cause as I was reading your book I was like, “Oh my gosh there’s so much in here and I love psychology and I love scientific research and I love learning it, and immediately I started thinking if I were to write a book I would be so uncomfortable by having to rise to that level. And I love that you said that idea of challenging yourself because I think quite often as entrepreneurs, as marketers, as copywriters, we are scared of taking on new projects that challenge us because of whatever stories we’re telling in our head about how we’re under qualified or how you know, we’re not able to to do that ’cause we’ve never done it before.
And going at it with the perspective of, “Okay, how can I push myself just enough so that this does feel a little bit scary and exciting, but that in and of itself is gonna help you retain focus and get into that flow state?” And they talk about how even, you know, job satisfaction or happiness is always correlated with the level of challenge that people experience in their life. And so I love that you’ve talked about that and it also made me feel better knowing that you didn’t go into writing this book feeling fully confident and comfortable, but knowing that you had to go out there and do the research and find what you needed to be able to create something that was so well received.
Couple things to spin off of that that are worth pointing out. Anything that gives you focus for free is, well, one it’s super important for flow, but two, it’s super important for energy, okay? We spend most of our energy trying to pay attention to shit. When we’re curious, we don’t expend any energy, it happens automatically, right? When you’re scared, a little scared, it also happens automatically. So you want every one of your projects to scare you a little bit. Not too much that it’s crippling but we know for example, flow, there’s a sweet spot, there’s a little bit of cortisol and or epinephrine in the so-called stress hormones and chemicals in your system in flow.
It’s not a total zen. Like people talk about flow as bliss and whatever and they get this like bliss junkie vibe, especially in the MindValley community that you came out of. And it’s actually a total misnomer in fact get into flow at a deep neurobiological level, you actually have to trigger the fight response. So there’s fight or flight, right, those two major responses at the front end of a flow state. This happens for writers and you all know this, you’ve all had this experience where you’re working on copy and get to a point and you’re like, “No!” It’s broken and I’m annoyed and then you’re like, “Goddammit, it’s due.”
And you lean in, you’re like, “I just got, I’m gonna get it. Even if I have to go one word at a time, I’m gonna fix it one word at a time.” We’ve all done this and like four words later you’re in flow ’cause you’ve leaned into that challenge and that testosterone and some of the other neurochemicals you get from leaning in are dropping into flow. I want to go back to one other question you asked just ’cause it’s important ’cause we’re talking to writers.
You asked about writer’s block and there’s one thing, there’s two things that I wanna say about writers’ block and one ties in with the complicated writing style we talked about in “Stealing Fire” which is, one of the reasons I go back and edit what I wrote the day before is, I don’t write. So you know, sometimes painters paint in layers, I write in layers. So the first layer, first time I… it’s who, what, where, why, when? I just get the action down on the page. Second layer, I come back, that’s where I put in the meat, all the facts, all the data, everything I need to support all that stuff. Finally, the third thing I do, that’s when the style goes on. One of the main things that happens with writer’s block is you commit to a style.
The front end before you figured out what it’s gonna say, style will dictate everything you can say. So once you lock into a style, you’re already locked into what is the information in the piece. And if your style conflicts with the information in the piece, you’re now in writer’s block. So that’s problem A and that’s why one of the reasons I write in layers, especially ’cause I’m a very stylish writer, so in all, and my books all have slightly different styles ’cause I like to learn and I like to play, so I know like I’m gonna get locked in.
Same thing with articles, same thing with ad copy, same thing with anything. The second thing is your…and this is in “Stealing Fire,” as you all know, your brain is a giant pattern recognition system. It does it automatically links like to like, but to get it to work, you have to know your starts and your endings. Where am I beginning, where am I going? Your brain literally is designed to do path-finding. You don’t have to do anything. You literally say this is my start, this is my ending, I’m gonna go to sleep, when I wake up I’d like them connected and your brain will do that for you.
This is how intuition works, this is how map-making in the brain works, this is how the hippocampus is essentially designed to do just this. So it happens automatically. People get stuck ’cause they don’t know where they’re going, they don’t know where they’re ending. This is really dangerous when writing a novel. And you’ll hear a lot of writers, big name, big name novelists talk about, “I won’t write, like I won’t write my first paragraph until I have my last paragraph.” And it sounds psycho, but what they’re really trying to figure out is, what is my damn ending? Where am I going? ‘Cause where am I starting, where am I going? And everything else will sort of take care of itself.
I love that you said that. One of the things I talk so much about in copywriting is identifying the A to B. Where are you taking people in promoting a product to service and offer? Because if you’re not clear on what it is that your product or service does and how it can help the people reading it, then it really does feel like you’re just sort of grasping at all these random benefits without guiding people through this path of transformation.
And this happens in personal development a lot where it’s like, “I don’t know, people just feel better,” and that’s kind of hard to sell. So I love that you talked about that and the layering is so amazing. In fact, I’m trying to remember the line, there was one particular line in your book where I read that and I go, “Oh that’s so smart.” It was an idea that you put into this beautiful phrase that was sort of punny and fun and totally my style of writing. But you don’t just get there immediately.
And I think that’s what a big mistake that a lot of copywriters make is they try to lead with the stylistic flare. They try to be cute, they try to do an alliteration for the sake of doing an alliteration without just saying, “Okay, I’m gonna throw it out on the page, then I’m gonna look for supporting evidence and tie that in where it makes sense. Then I can go through and finesse it and see where I can be clever or have that sort of stylistic approach.” So that I think is insanely, insanely useful for writers going in, starting any sort of project.
Well, it also gives you, if you’re gonna edit, read what you did the day before, right? If it’s day one, when you’re coming back to it, you should be looking at a who, what, where, why, when. You should be layering now, you know, what’s my job today? My job is to like put in more facts and make this thicker and more believable, right? Day two is when like for me it’s when like when I’m done with it, my bullshit detector is no longer ringing. Like I’m looking at what’s on the page and I’m like, okay, you supported it. You believe that this skeptical journalist, scientist guy reading this is comfortable. You know what I mean?
Yeah, yeah, believability. It’s huge. Absolutely. I wanna sort of bridge this idea of flow with a lot of what you talked about in the book, “Stealing Fire”. You talk about this, this term ecstasis. How would you define ecstasis as being different from flow? Or are they the same thing?
So ecstasis from ecstasy, right, ecstasis. So at the heart of “Stealing Fire,” is this idea that all altered states of consciousness, and especially when you’re dealing with the altered states that are north of happiness. So what’s north of happiness? So there’s psychedelic states that can be sometimes going the other direction, but they can be north of happiness. Flow is always north of happiness. Trans states, ecstatic states like speaking in tongues or meditative states.
So underneath all of those altered states of consciousness, there are a bunch of very similar changes in the brain. There are big differences. In fact, we have a big research paper coming out that looks at the difference between flow, trauma, the trauma that leads to PTSD and the psychedelic state. They have a lot of overlap, neurobiologically, under the hood. They’re very, they’re similar but they’re radically different, right? But they’re more similar than different, which is what’s surprising to people.
So, and historically, altered states, you know, whenever you’re looking at huge innovation, you’re looking at people tapping these states of consciousness, this is how creativity gets done. This is just how the brain is designed to work. So “Stealing Fire” is just, you know, a book about a whole bunch of different groups of people taking advantage of the same neurobiological technology that alters our consciousness and can sort of provide a bunch of benefits. There are certain things, you know, if you talk to my partner in the book about this, he’s a big fan of psychedelics.
He’s a big fan of stuff that is completely uninteresting to me. I think psychedelics are fine. I’ve got no moral judgment, but I do not think if your goal is creativity and practical and things like that, I think there are better tools. We did this with the folks working at Imperial College London where they do all the brain imaging on psychedelics, we teamed up in a really wild study where we looked at, in situations what’s more important, flow or psychedelics? What’s more useful, which situation and you know, psychedelics, if you want a spiritual experience, psychedelics are probably better for you than flow, for example. But if you’re interested in innovation or anything practical, flow’s the better tool. That much was really clear in the research.
Yeah, yeah, I love that. I think it’s so fascinating looking at how psychedelics are becoming more mainstream and a tool for reaching, that level of ectasis and creative problem solving and you know, mentioning working with Google and how they use that to do creative problem solving and you know, the whole background with Burning Man, all of that is so fascinating. You mentioned that you think there are other tools to get you there faster. So what if you know, like everyone listening here, you are sort of that solopreneur, you’re working at home and you wanna be able to experience these possible altered states of consciousness using more accessible tools, you know, without going into Burning Man.
Flow’s your best friend there and you know, I would turn to my book “The Art of Impossible”, which is a how-to playbook on flow. And if you want to go deeper, go to the Flow Research Collective, there’s a bunch of stuff for free and there’s a ton of training and this is, you know, what we do and I can tell you so that at the collective, if you’re not familiar with our work, we’re a research and training organization, and on the training side, we work in 130 countries.
So we work globally and we work with everybody from like professional athletes and Navy Seals through C-suite executives with many, many Fortune 500 companies to like soccer dads and soccer moms and insurance brokers and copywriters. You know what I mean, just everybody else. And the reason I think this matters other than like, “Oh look we’re a big company,” is we’re data geeks. We measure fricking everything and we’re global in 130 countries, 50% of our clients are women. It’s a really even split.
So we have wildly diverse, globally accurate information on what works. That’s why all that matters, and what I can tell you out of that is on average, most people after about an 8-week training can see a 70 to 80% boost in flow in their lives. So to put this in perspective, McKinsey did that 10-year study that I talk about in “Stealing Fire” where they went around the world talking to top executives, how much more productive are you in flow than out of flow? And you gotta take with a grain of salt ’cause it’s subjective, right?
They’re not measuring it, it’s just asking people. But after 10 years and thousands of CEOs, the average is 500% more productive. That’s enormous. That’s also another reason for why you can block 90 minutes for uninterrupted concentration. If you’re 500% more productive in that 90 minutes, your boss, your spouse, your kids, whoever it is that wants your attention, they’re gonna get more of it if they leave you alone for those 90 minutes than if you’re distracted throughout.
Yeah, yeah. That leads me to a question, and you mentioned this in your book, sort of the difference between like creator mode and manager mode, I think it was that as entrepreneurs, and I think this is a real struggle, especially when people are just starting out and they have to wear basically every hat in their company, they’re the creative ones but then they’re also the managers and they’re also the sales people.
How do you see it working kind of switching between those roles? Is it really sort of just blocking out that time and going, “Okay, now I’m being creative and then later I’m gonna do all the manager stuff.” Is there a system that you’ve seen work well?
Yeah, so you’re asking a great question. We train a lot of organizations as well, right? Like Facebook, Accenture, Bain Capital, San Francisco Police Department, a lot of like wildly diverse organizations as well. And this is a question we get a lot and there’s a couple of different answers. One, leaders in flow tend to drive their teams into flow. So in every organization we work with, there’s individual triggers and then there’s group triggers for flow, right? The shared collective version of flow, stealing fires from the Navy Seals, group flow story. But you want to start with yourself, especially at the top.
If for no other reason, flow is gonna calm you down and make you a lot happier, right? Like you can’t be effectively wear all those hats you have to do a red line, especially if you’re a creative, ’cause too much more rapid effort, too much fear blocks creativity completely. The anterior signal cortex, which is the part of the brain that allows you to make big connections between far flung ideas. It’s at the heart of creativity. The more fear in your system, the more of the neurochemicals fear, the more this part of the brain wants to be logical.
When you’re scared, the brain wants to be safe, give me a solution that worked before, 100% of the time, don’t try something new. Which is exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to do as a writer. So you have to take care of yourself. Psychological safety for the person at the top really matters. You don’t often think about it that way, but it really matters. Part of it’s baked in the conditions that creative flow. You can’t have a high-flow environment without psychological safety. It’s built into optimal performance.
But it is worth sort of talking about starting with leaders. I write from 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM and that’s my time, you can’t talk to me. Maybe if my assistant wants to talk to me at like 7:30 I’ll have a conversation. But like anything before that, you know, everything’s turned off. And then depending on the workload, I’ll tend to take a break, get some exercise, eat some food, and then the rest of the morning is managerial, right? I run a company, I have 100 people who work with me. So I’ll do that work then, then I’ll try to, something to reset my state.
I’ll take a nap, I’ll eat lunch, get a little exercise, meditate, something to like reset my brain, change my state, take a long walk in nature. And then in the afternoon I tend to work with my editors. So I’ll go back and do another like four hour writing block and then at the end of that I’ll call my CEO and we’ll do company stuff. So that’s tends to, I like, I run a company, I write full time and I run a company and that’s sort of how I balance it but I don’t try to mix the management and the creativity and the writing ’cause one man’s solitude…you’re… and I don’t try to fake it.
Right, yeah and you can feel that, you can feel that when you’re trying to fake it. You’re like, “Okay, I’m just gonna write something genius and you’re writing it and you’re like, this is so dumb I can’t do this.” I love that and I also love, and you’ve mentioned this before, that it really is about doing what works best for you. And you talk about this concept of personality and you know, personality can’t scale and you could say all day long, these are the time blocks that work for me.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Very crucial point. This is like, this is what drives me crazy about most coaching performance, editor everything is that what you have is you have people who figured out what works for them and they want to train other people in it. And mostly you tend to break other people with this methodology. And because personality is coded by genetics and shaped by early childhood experience, radically impacted by culture and things along those lines.
There’s a lot of stuff that goes into personality. When you get one level deeper, which is the level we play at, which is neurobiology. We get under the psychology of neurobiology that was shaped by evolution, that’s shared by everyone. That’s what you’re…that’s sort of the level you wanna play at. So what is true is that we tend to be one of three things. You’re either a night owl, you’re an early lark. I’m an early lark or you’re normal and you tend to wake up around eight or nine o’clock. If your writing is the hardest thing you’re gonna do all day and the most important thing in your life, whichever is the point at which you naturally wake up.
My wife who started out her career as a novelist is a night owl. She doesn’t wake up ’til four or five o’clock so like we miss each other, right? If she’s working on a writing project or a creative project, she’s sitting down to work at four o’clock, which is, you know, I’m starting to think about ending my day around four or five and she’s starting her day and my day, you know, her day’s gonna end around 3:00 AM and my day’s gonna start at 4:00 AM.
Ships passing in the night. Yeah and I love that concept because there’s so many prescriptions out there, you know, and it’s easy to go, “Okay well this is what I need to do to like fully optimize myself.” And at the end of the day, nobody really knows yourself better than you, and so finding what works for you.
One of the things I make this point in in “Art of Impossible” and I think it’s so important that ’cause there’s a lot of, I’m sure there are a lot of ass kickers who are current, you know, lists joining us right now. You seem like an ass kicker as well, and because people performance is biological. If you read “Art of Impossible,” I always say this to people, your experiences is not gonna be like, “Oh, shit this is totally new.”
Your experience is gonna be, “Oh I do this. Oh I don’t do this but I should do this. Yeah I see how I can do this.” Right, like because biology, everybody converges on the same solutions ’cause these are the only solutions. It’s, we’re humans, we’re hardwired to work in a certain way. So if you’re a peak performer, top 30% whatever, you are gonna come to these same solutions. So you know, it’s really a question of sort of like fleshing out your knowledge and thinking in and out. But like if you’re, you know, if you’re kicking ass, you’re doing it ’cause of these factors that these are shared among all humanity which is the good news.
Right, one thing that you talk about in the book which really hit home for me is this OS versus UI. And because you mentioned I’m an ass kicker and that’s true, but sometimes it’s so hard for me to do what I know I need to do for myself because I’m constantly just like pushing forward for the next thing. And my psychology really controls what I end up, you know, my biology I guess you could say.
And I love that you talk about this concept of becoming more of the UI and thinking of, “Okay the thoughts that you have can become sort of a dashboard for you to see what’s going on right now in your mind and then how can you choose to do something different?” And, that to me is, you know exactly how I feel so many days where I don’t feel like going to the gym or I don’t feel like doing all the things that I know logically I should do because I have so much on my to-do list or so much I have to do. Do you have any thoughts on that and how to make that spin?
Yeah so this is how I do it and this is the way I think about it. And I’m not saying you should do it this way, but I find this is a useful thing. The way I think about it is, I work for the boss. The boss is the version of myself that has my long-term best interests at heart, ’cause in the moment, I’m like everybody else, I want the big high, the quick fix, the shortcut and it…this is…we’re homeostatic organisms, which means like we operate at a certain energy level and anytime more energy is required, the body’s pissed, the brain is pissed. It’ll give you that energy. You have an endless supply.
But literally like, this is why we know like the thoughts in our head on the way to the gym are pretty terrible. Like if you, ’cause I was actually as lazy and tired and all the things that I think I am, right, this is my brain saying, “No, no, no, you’re about to expend a lot of energy and are you…?” Right? Like, “Yes I’m sure,” but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m a homeostatic organism, and that’s gonna happen no matter what. Like I’m super gritty. Doesn’t change the fact that those thoughts are gonna show up every time I gotta go to the gym, right? I’ve just learned to sort of ignore them ’cause I work for the boss.
The boss is the one who writes the to-do list at the start of the day, right? And when I win my day, I win my day by kicking everything off my to-do list and right? That’s the boss’s job. The boss is, you know, it’s like making the grocery store list before you go to the grocery store when you’re not hungry, after you’ve like read the “Blue Zone Diet” handbook and then you’re like, “Okay, what I gotta shop for the next month right?” Not going to the grocery store when super stoned and hungry, right?
Yeah, I love that. It’s almost like your alter ego.
That’s literally, that’s how I think about it. I use that, in actual, like I used that to advance in skiing. I tried to, at age 53, I have a book coming out in a couple of months that talks about this. I ran an experiment in peak performance aging where I taught myself how to park ski, which the discipline involves jumps and tricks and acrobatics and I’d never park skied before in my life. And I was doing things that scared the ever living shit outta me and could have killed me all day long for a really long time.
And I kept, I worked for the boss, I’m showing up, I’m doing the thing. And it allowed me to like do these terrifying, like really big fear things all day long. So like it works in writing, it works in other things for me at least and there’s some data from the science side What works for everybody, is that kind of distancing, that’s what meditation gives us too, right? You get a little distance from your emotions, right? This is just a different, slightly different tool and you know, it cracks me up more, than say more the spiritual tools. Like, you know, if I can make myself giggle along the way.
It’s so practical. That becomes so hard when you become your own boss, ’cause you know, if you’re, especially a lot of the people listening here, whether they’re in a nine to five now or they’ve left a nine to five, you’re used to working for a boss and then when you become your own boss you’re like, “I’m gonna have all the freedom in the world.” And then it doesn’t take too long to realize like, “I am not, this is not working, I need to be accountable. So who am I accountable to? The boss?” Like just come up with that almost that alter ego.
The other thing, so side note on this, is the thing that is most important of this game. If you’re gonna play the “I work for the boss” game, I have one, another cardinal rule with is, which is if it goes on a to-do list, if I say it out loud or it goes on a to-do list, it’s a goal and I accomplish it. I will die before I don’t accomplish it and the reason is, this is so true if you work for yourself and you’re a writer, if you don’t keep your word to yourself the minute you say, “Oh I gotta do this,” your brain starts make looking for reasons not to.
If you never break your word to yourself, if it goes on the to-do list and you’re gonna get it done, never break your word to yourself, your brain stops considering it as an option. So quitting, failure, all that stuff, if your brain doesn’t even go there anymore, but if you literally break your word, “Oh, I’m gonna lose 10 pounds by New Year’s,” and you don’t, right? You’ve broken a promise, maybe to other people, you’ve broken a promise to yourself and yourself notices. Like the brain pays a lot of attention to these things. So work for the boss but if it goes on the to-do list, you have to be willing to die before you don’t do it kinda thing.
Because it really, I think when it comes to productivity, going back to, you know what we were talking about earlier, a lot of people just are kind of waiting for this divine feeling, now I’m gonna feel like doing this and that’s not what happens and I think having to lean into that uncomfortableness, like you said, just go, “No, I’m committing to doing this.” Yeah, let me, this is, I call this the Mind Valley Creative Fantasy. Literally like after you exit flow, knows this, I tease him with this all the time, but I think this is so freaking true in that in spiritual communities there’s this whole idea.
Now by the way, I am mostly agnostic and probably an atheist, but I’m gonna still put it this way. There’s a lot of people in the world who think it’s God first, creativity second. Meaning like, I’m gonna find the bliss and then it’s just gonna flow out of me. It’s literally not how it works. It’s flow first, God second. People think, “Oh I gotta do like two hours of meditation to get calm and all these things before I can write.” It will not work that. It literally, biologically works the other way around.
You have to go flow first. So even if you’re a spiritual person and that’s your whole thing. Let me put it in an action sport term, the easiest way to go to the hospital as a skateboarder, mountain biker, skier, or whatever it is, “I’m going out for a flowy ride.” This happens all the time. People go out for a flowy ride. Mountain biking is a classic example. Mountain biking is the most aggressive sport, I’ve like… not quite football, but it’s like a full contact, aggressive sport. And if you go out for a flowy ride, you’re gonna get bucked by your bicycle and end up in the hospital. It is the easiest way to break a collarbone is to go out for a flowy ride.
If you out to attack the trail, through that attacking, through that fight response, you’re gonna get testosterone, you’re gonna drop into flow and suddenly it’s gonna get very, very flowy. But if you go in thinking it’s gonna be flowy, no, it’s gonna kick your ass and put you in the hospital. And it works the same way with writing, just not gonna put you in the hospital today. But I do, I always said point of fact, used to think I was insane. At least once a book I discover myself, I wake up, I find myself face down on the ground punching the floor. And I used to think, “Oh my God, I’m fucking nuts, if anybody sees me like this…” Then I heard an interview with David Foster Wallace before he passed. He, said that he said, you know, once a book I don’t even know how it happens, I end up face down on the ground punching the floor and I’m like, shit it’s not just me?
Yeah, there’s always that. That’s the goal now, we wanna get there. Yeah, I love that we, that we spoke on that, ’cause I think that happens a lot. It’s like we hear about the term spiritual bypassing and the spirituality communities, but it happens, it happens when we’re talking about, you know, focus and productivity too. And it really is something that just comes down to just doing the work and going at it with that mentality and then, you know, training that skill to be able then to get into flow.
So you, in your book and you and you wrote “Stealing Fire” in 2017 and so I’m really curious as we wrap up the interview is, what are you most excited about in terms of evolving technology in the areas of consciousness hacking? Because you know, you talked about the AI shrink and 3D printing drugs and I’m like, what? This was five years ago?
So the one that I care the most about and this is work we’re actually actively doing at the Flow Research Collective. I’m gonna say a bunch of tech things quickly. Video games can drop people into flow but not very effectively. Unless you’re a total gamer and love games, then they can really do it. They can get at 3 of the 22 flow triggers, virtual reality can get at much more. So we learn faster in flow. 250 to 500% faster than normal. So we have teamed up with Limitless Flight, which is one of the most advanced VR companies in the world. Scientists at UCSF, much bigger team, we’re trying to use VR to build a high flow, sort of accelerated learning environment for our worker training, is our interest.
It can be used for education. Not kids, but for worker retraining it is interesting, and a big problem in 21st century, especially as we move to like autonomous vehicles in the entire trucking industry within 20 years, needs like the largest employer in America and they’re about to be out of jobs in the next two decades. So how do we retrain them and skill them up quickly and in a fun way, right? Like that’s gotta be hard enough losing your job and having to like learn a different set of skills later in life. So high flow and being inside VR, if you can do it right, it’s distributed.
So you don’t have to have a classroom, you can be anywhere in the world. That’s the tech I’m most interested in, ’cause it’s the tech that like we are working the hardest on. And it will, the path to that will also answer a lot of the questions I have about flow. And a lot of the remaining questions we think we have about flow is probably a whole lot more that we can’t see yet, but, you know. So that’s the one I’m most excited about, but, you know.
I love that and there, it’s tech that solves massive, widespread issues and problems that I think that, I mean, that’s amazing and exciting to hear about.
I’m also, I’m a very low tech person, so even though I’m working on this, you know, I tend to push personal technology far away. As far away as I use what I need to do my job, but I find that the trade-offs and the distractions and all that comes with it, I’m very aware as a writer, I’m wary of the technology. As a scientist and researcher, I’m excited by it. But as a writer and a creative, I’m like, “No, no, I’m gonna be a late adopter because I don’t want it to break what’s already working.”
Yeah and I do think the future is really combining humanity and creativity with the technology and it’s easy to lose sight of what we know to be sort of foundational truths when it comes to, you know, community and connection and engagement and the things that really require that human level of interaction and creativity. But I agree, the tech is exciting and, you know, it’s exciting to talk about without losing sight of everything.
I think the problem with the tech is the tech feels like, it’s like a pill. “Oh, I’m just gonna use this technology and it’s gonna fix it.” And nothing I know about human performance and creativity, like it doesn’t work that way like it at all. And it still requires as much hard work. And the tech often blinds us to interoception, our ability, like self-awareness for the body’s own signals. And one thing as writers, like any career that involves pattern recognition, writing a big one, pattern recognition’s directly coupled to your ability to generate your interception.
So they did this really crazy study with London stock traders and they said they believe the best test for interoception is, can you count your heartbeats? How many times does your heart beat in a minute? That’s the standard interoception test. And they found that the London stock traders who could count their heartbeats better, were much better as stock traders. Stock tradings all about pattern recognition and they, like, they were short term, long term. They beat the market, they beat everybody else.
Writing is pattern recognition. So it’s the same, you know, so the tech often divorces us from our bodies and our bodies and being in touch with that. Literally, like if you’re a writer, you’re in the pattern recognition business. And if you’re relying on technology to know how you’re feeling on the inside or steer that. So I get nervous about what it does. I think that there’s a place for it, but it’s worth knowing to use it correctly, I guess.
Yeah and it happens in the marketing world too, you know, people lose sight of foundational marketing truths about how you communicate to a group of people because of all this fancy tech and new trends and technologies and tactics that are exciting. And then they go that direction and then they go, wait a second.
And they’re breaking with what has always worked. And so I think that that’s showing up in a lot of different ways and a lot of different industries. You mentioned before we started this interview that you have a program called Flow For Writers. Can you talk a little bit about that? Given, you know, the audience that is watching this is all.
Little like weird history, but Neil Strauss, who’s another big name writer and has written a lot of New York Times bestsellers, even though he is ghost written them for other people. But he’s, you know, he’s done a ton of great work and he is a good dude and a great journalist. And it’s gotta be 15 years ago at this point, 12 years ago, we were, we did a thing together. We were talking about like all the tips, tricks and techniques, all the stuff that like, sort of gave us our career, that was underneath it. And we were talking about it, maybe we’ll do something about it, and I just sort of got obsessed.
He forgot about the idea like 20 minutes after, like, but I just sort of got obsessed and I couldn’t stop thinking about like, what is it that I had learned that allowed me to, you know, do what I did and all that stuff? And so after like five years of thinking, we took all of it and put it into a training called Flow For Writers. So it’s a 4-part training, basically, digitally delivered.
Part one is everything you need to know about writing itself, like how words work, how the science underneath, like words working in the brain. So how do readers’ brains work? How do words work? Everything you need to know to, you know, write great copy.
Part two is on the business of writing and it’s a little focused on book writing if you ever wanna write a book. But most people have no idea what goes into a book, how big the team is to actually make a bestseller, all that stuff. So what does it take to write a bestseller and put a book on the New York Times bestseller list?
Part three we do a section on creativity itself. So creativity is a core skill for writing. What does science tell us about flowing. And finally part four is flow. And it’s really focused on stuff we’ve been talking about today. It’s a big flow picture, but it’s very focused on like, if you want to learn a ton about flow, take Zero To Dangerous, go to the Flow Research Collective.
But if you just want to know what you need to know, be super dangerous to a writer. It’s more compact and it’s also cheaper than it’s ever been ’cause we’re right about to record a new version. We’re about to go into a studio and make it big and fancy and add in a whole bunch of other stuff. So right now it’s less expensive than I think it’s going to be in like three months. So this is, it’s going away.
This is it! Steven, thank you so much. This has been absolutely eye-opening and I appreciate you being here to do this interview with me.
My pleasure. I like talking writing!
All right guys, that wraps up that interview.
Wow, I love everything we talked about and I hope you did too.
Until then, I’m Alex. Ciao for now.
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