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The Rise of Superman: All About Flow State

Updated on February 12, 2015


I started The Rise of Superman because I wanted to learn more about flow state and how to access it. I was an athlete growing up, and I remember the times when I was in flow – I performed at my peak, I had no awareness of space and time and I felt my best. Essentially, I felt superhuman. Now, as an adult with a pretty challenging job who still plays intramural sports (and gets really competitive), I want to figure out I can enter flow state again.

In The Rise of Superman, Kotler decodes the science of flow by examining action and extreme sports athletes. Action sport athletes have been able to access flow to push performance farther than any other group in history. And why has this been possible? Because the stakes are so high and lives are at stake, action sport athletes need to enter flow. When you compare a basketball player to a BASE jumper, flow will allow the basketball player to play better while for the BASE jumper, flow will keep him alive. Flow is the only guarantee of perfection.

This book is not telling us to all go out and start jumping out of planes. Instead, these stories and events are meant to serve as case studies to see what is actually achievable and see how we can achieve similar heights.

The Stories

Kotler does a great job blending the science of flow with amazing examples of extreme athletes achieving what most people deem to be impossible, or just downright crazy, feats.

One of the examples was of Danny Way, a professional skateboarder, who attempted jumping the Great Wall of China on a 100-foot MegaRamp on his skateboard over a 70-foot gap over the Wall, which dropped into a 32-foot quarterpipe. This ramp was the largest ever constructed.

Before Way, this had never been done before. In fact, two days prior to Way’s jump, a BMX biker tried to jump the wall but launched into the side of the mountain and died of massive internal organ failure.

On Way’s first attempt, he under jumped due partially to the construction of the ramp. His fractured his ankle, tore his ACL and his steering foot was severely swollen.

While you would think that would have been the end of it, 24 hours later and with the tweaking of the ramp construction, he tries again. This time, he lands it. Once again, you would think it was the end of it. He goes back up, does a 360 over the wall and lands it again. For 99% of the population, this feat would be impossible, even with both feet working. For Way, he jumped the wall twice, with all his injuries and a fear of heights. Further, he withstood 4 g’s of pressure, equates to 800 pounds of extra pressure (to compare, Formula 1 drivers pull 2 g’s when cornering, astronauts pull 3 at takeoff and most people black out at 5). Way’s response to how you get into flow is “It’s either find your zone or suffer the consequences – there are no other choices available.”

Danny Way Jumps the Great Wall of China!

What is Flow?

Flow is an altered state of consciousness. This is a tough definition to grasp so can we delve into the properties of flow: profound mental clarity, emotional detachment that tends to accompany the clarity and a hint of its automatic nature – how one right decision always leads to other right decisions. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has made it is life work to study flow and is said to be the father of flow, was able to isolate ten core components of flow:

  • Clear goals: expectations are discernible and goals are attainable given one’s skillset. The challenge level and skill level should both be high
  • Concentration: high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention
  • A loss of feeling of self-consciousness: the merging of action and awareness
  • Distorted sense of time: time is altered and it can either be faster or slower
  • Direct and immediate feedback: successes and failures are apparent, so behaviors can be adjusted quickly
  • Balance between ability level and challenge: activity is neither too easy or too difficult
  • Sense of personal control over the situation
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so the action is effortless
  • Lack of awareness of bodily needs
  • Absorption: narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself

Of these ten, three of the components, clear goals, immediate feedback and the challenge/skill ratio, are considered “conditions” of flow. Since flow is said to occur in a continuum, all the other elements do not need to present at the same time

Additionally, the one condition that truly sets flow apart is the creative, problem-solving nature of the state. Because flow requires action, there is decision making at every step. Flow is extremely efficient and effective decision making strategy

Brain Waves

Whenever we encounter stimuli or have a thought, the brain has electric responses. As these occur in bursts, they create brain waves. The five major brain waves are:

  • Delta: slowest brain wave and is found in deep, dreamless sleep
  • Theta: found in REM sleep, meditation, insight and processing of novel incoming stimuli
  • Alpha: the basic resting state; people are relaxed, calm and lucid but not really thinking
  • Beta: learning and concentration occur on the low end and fear and stress at the high end
  • Gamma: only occurs during binding, when different parts of brain combine disparate thoughts into a single idea

There are two distinct systems for procession information

  • Explicit system: rule based, can be expressed verbally and is tied to conscious awareness. Beta waves are created.
  • Implicit system: based on skill and experience, not consciously accessible and cannot be described verbally (try describing a hunch). Low alpha / high theta waves are created.

There are two advances to accessing the implicit system

  • Speed: Automatization allows for faster decision making because whatever you are processing is already burned into your memory. For example, when a tennis player swings a ball, they know exactly how to do it rather than having to think about it.
  • Efficiency: Explicit burns lots of calories. However, by switching to implicit processing, you minimize energy expenditure when solving problems.

Because of skill and experience being burned into your memory, when you are in flow, you do not have to rely on your conscious mind. Your explicit system goes offline and the implicit system is turned on.

Since the implicit system produces low alpha / high theta, it was long thought that these waves were the nature of high performance and flow states. However, these ideas have begun to shift. was flow, actually found out other.

Based on research, flow occurs in a 6-stage cycle. Before stimuli shows up, you are in your baseline state. Then comes problem-solving analysis, pre-action readiness, action, post action evaluation and back to baseline. Each step requires different parts of brain and have different brain waves. Studies have shown that the best athletes move through this cycle fluidly – most people can’t make through whole cycle without getting hung up somewhere. Really great athletes can transition smoothly into the zone, creating that low alpha high theta wave and then hold themselves there.

Insight and Creativity

Creativity is deeply rooted in the right side of the brain, which is dominated by the implicit system. The reason has to do with structure. With the explicit system (mostly left side), the neurons involved are very close to one another, which leads to linear connections, logical deductions and every other aspect of standard reasoning. With the implicit system, the proximity is much farther with different corners of the brain talking to each other. This is known as “lateral thinking” or as we’ve familiarly heard, “thinking outside the box.” It means that some novel stimuli can combine with random thoughts and obscure memories and result in something new and creative.

Creativity also has certain brain waves associated with it. It is driven by alpha waves. However, when we a sudden insight comes along (i.e. that “Aha!” moment), there is a spike of the gamma waves, which interestingly always happens inside of theta wave oscillations. This is why flow is such an effective decision-making strategy. By holding themselves in low alpha / high theta needed to produce the gamma strike, people in the zone are already “neurologically” on the brink of breakthrough. It doesn’t just increase our decision-making abilities, it increases our creative decision-making abilities. We are resourceful, imaginative and ingenious in flow. Even better yet, these changes stick. According to the research by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, not only are creative insights consistently associated with flow states, but that amplified creativity outlasts the zone. So we can be feeling extremely creative even a full day after the flow state.

The Quieting of Doubt

In flow, parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) become temporarily deactivated. The PFC is the heart of our higher cognitive abilities – it is where we collect data, problem solve, plan ahead, assess risk, analyze thoughts, learn from experiences and give rise to normal sense of self. It is where the thinking happens. However, in the term transient hypofrontality, we are trading the energy used for higher cognitive function for heightened attention and awareness. During this stage, the following occur:

  • We let go of the voice of doubt or our inner critic. Second guessing would only slow down the fluid, automatic problem solving nature of flow. In flow, we act without hesitation and risk taking becomes less scary
  • We don’t try to control our impulses. If we try to control them, hesitation would creep in and the end result would be less doing
  • The brain releases a number of powerful painkillers which allows us to access all our strength. Normally, people can access about 65% of their absolute strength; trained weightlifters can access up to 80%

In flow state, there is no risk assessor or inner critic around to monitor the situation. The normal safety measures of the conscious mind are no longer there. Therefore we are able to perform past, what our conscience mind deems to be, our limits.

Flow Hacks

The book dives deeper into the science behind flow as well as into other characteristics of flow. However, I wanted to end the article with certain "flow hacks" that Kotler suggests we can do to enter into flow state (without needing to do an extreme sport).

Environmental Triggers

  • Risk: to achieve anything, you need to be able to tolerate risk. With risk lurking, it primes your mind to focus. Risk is relative to you. If you do not want to make physical risk, you can take mental risks, social risks and creative risks. We must be committed to taking these risks. Any "half-assedness" will not trigger flow
  • Rich environment: a rich environment is a combination of novelty, unpredictability and complexity. Novelty means both danger and opportunity. Unpredictability means we don’t know what happens next. Complexity is when a lot of salient information coming at us at once. All of these elements increase and hold our attention
  • Deep embodiment: is all about total physical awareness. It means we have to pay attention to all our sensory inputs at once. If we want to pull the deep embodiment trigger in less extreme environments, then we need to learn to pay attention to all these inputs in those environments

Psychological Triggers

  • Clear goals: here we need to focus more on the "clear" than the "goal". Many of us make goals but with no roadmap to get there and ultimately fail. Clarity gives us certainty. We know what to do and where to focus our attention to get it done. To incorporate this into our daily lives, break down large lofty goals into smaller ones with clear roadmaps to achieve them - make sure they are challenging yet manageable
  • Immediate feedback: while clear goals tell us what are doing, immediate feedback tells us how to do it better. Tighter our feedback loops, the quicker we can improve real time. To incorporate into your daily lives, ask for more feedback and ask often!
  • Challenge / skill ratio: this is arguably the most important. Attention is most engaged when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task. If the challenge is too great, fear overtakes us. If the challenge is too easy, we lose attention.


Overall, I thought this book was wonderful with a lot of relevant information woven in with very enjoyable stories of extreme sport athletes. I recommend this book to anyone look to achieve flow state.


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