When Steve Jobs designed the offices for Pixar, he did something strange. He had a large atrium built in the middle of the building and then placed mailboxes, a cafeteria, meeting rooms and the bathrooms – the only ones in the building – next to the open-air structure. There was of course a reason for the unorthodox layout.
“Employees from across the company were forced to bump into each other by chance, which massively increased novelty, complexity and unpredictability,” writes Steven Kotler in “The Art of the Impossible: A Foundation for High Performance” (Harper Wave). These factors cause the brain to produce more dopamine, an important neurotransmitter that is involved in pleasure, motivation, memory, and attention. Kotler notes that creativity and productivity have increased across the office, and Pixar has become the Oscar winner it is today.
The random interactions also triggered a so-called “flow”, a unique state of awareness and concentration in which we do our best. The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly first began researching the phenomenon in the 1970s and coined the term. His book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, published in 1990, is considered a groundbreaking classic. According to Kotler, flow can help us achieve seemingly impossible physical performance and increase mental abilities by up to 500 percent.
“In every domain, flow always plays a leading role when the impossible becomes possible,” writes Kotler, who is not only a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, but also director of the Flow Research Collective, a research and training organization.
Legendary surfer Laird Hamilton is in the river when he attacks waves that are nearly 100 feet high. Navy SEALs are in a flow state when they carry out top-secret missions covertly and precisely. Silicon Valley titans rely on Flow to optimize their time and innovation. And, according to Kotler, the average person can use Flow to help them achieve their big goals for 2021, from training for a marathon to getting promoted, in significantly less time than working in a sub-optimal state.
“What most people want, when they play according to their goals, they want to get ahead faster,” said Kotler. “And that’s exactly what happens when we let our biology work for us.”
But how do we get into the river? Researchers have identified 22 “flow triggers,” including clear goals, immediate feedback, a rich environment, and a task that challenges our skills just enough. “Flow follows the focus. The condition can only arise when our full attention is focused on the present moment, ”writes Kotler.
Finding out what you are really passionate about is central. Kotler suggests writing down 25 things that you are curious about. Be as specific as you can in creating the list and look for places where three or four curious items overlap. “Don’t just care about football or food,” writes Kotler, “be curious about the pass-blocking mechanics required to play left attack … or the potential for locusts to become a primary human food source in the next 10 years . ”
Then take half an hour each day to learn more about these overlapping areas. “This slow-growth strategy takes advantage of the brain’s inherent educational software,” Kotler writes. “When you expand your knowledge a little, you give your adaptive unconscious the ability to process this information.”
No matter what stage you enter your interests, top performance requires constant learning, according to Kotler, and books are the most radically condensed form of information on the planet. It takes an author years to acquire the knowledge to write a book that can be read in hours. “Everyone from tech titans like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to cultural icons like Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban and Warren Buffett owe their incredible success to their incredible passion for books,” he writes.
Kotler cautions against focusing on a single interest too soon, whether you are early in your career or looking for a new path at a later date. Research shows that top performers – whether athletes or industry titans – typically begin their careers with a long sampling period in which they try different things before finding a job that perfectly matches their interests and skills. “The number of different tasks in a given area is still one of the best predictors of success for CEOs,” writes Kotler.
Bob Iger, the chairman of the board and former CEO of the Walt Disney Company, started doing odd jobs at the age of 13. He started working for ABC Television in his early 20s as a studio supervisor and has worked in more than 20 different jobs at ABC. among other things as a minor crew member in a soap opera before he became head of the parent company.
Another thing that distinguishes high performers from average performers is willingness to fail. Less successful people tend to look for abbreviations. Kotler recalled that skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen was originally a pioneer in freestyle skating and spawned many of the movements of shape. When this style of skate went out of fashion in the late 1980s, Mullen switched to street skating, an entirely different, much more dynamic style that required entirely different skills. Mullen had to learn a new discipline from scratch. He went to the streets of LA at night to practice where no one could see him, but eventually he succeeded and he became one of the most influential street skaters.
Autonomy can also help spark the flow that savvy businesses benefit from. Since the late 1940s, 3M has had a “15 percent rule” that allows engineers to spend 15 percent of their time on projects they’ve developed. While this is quite an investment, it has paid off tremendously. In 1974, the 15 percent rule helped produce sticky notes. The sticky papers now earn the company more than $ 1 billion annually, Kotler writes. What is better known is that Google has a “20 percent rule” and that more than half of the technology giant’s most profitable products, including Gmail, Google Maps and Google News, come from autonomous employee projects. Apple, Facebook, and LinkedIn all have similar programs. Her success is remarkable outside of the corporate world, showing that just four or five hours a week doing something we’re passionate about can produce dramatic results.
High achievers are also characterized by their strength: the tenacity and determination with which they pursue their goals. Kotler writes about how child prodigy Josh Waitzkin believes in “learning to do your best when you are at the worst”. For example, Kotler makes a habit of practicing big speeches after a busy day or in the middle of a challenging hike. “If I can sound coherent when I crawl up a cliff,” he writes, “I can sound coherent in all conditions.”
Another aspect of grit is recognizing and training your weakness, which most of us are not inclined to do. “Our weaknesses are usually what we least like and are least motivated to train,” writes Kotler. In his heyday in bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger began his weightlifting sessions by targeting his weakest muscles. The late skier Shane McConkey would aim to tackle the worst of conditions on the slopes.
Those who excel not only take on challenges, they also take on fear. Kotler talked to surfer Hamilton over the years and was initially surprised to learn that he was not a fearless daredevil, but rather lives in fear.
“Every successful person I have met runs away from something as quickly as from something,” writes Kotler. “Fear is a fantastic motivator. . . Learning to treat fear as a challenge rather than a threat to be avoided can make such a profound difference in our lives. “
“Risk is a flow trigger,” he adds. Using it can also help you extend your time in the zone.
If you’re looking for a risk-free way to increase performance, do a hobby. Everyone has what Kotler calls a “primary flow activity” – maybe knitting, skiing, or tennis – that fit our personality, keep us busy, and is relatively natural. We find it easy to get in touch with loved hobbies, and getting into the groove on more serious work is good practice for the brain. Many adults don’t think they have time for hobbies, but they actually help us work more efficiently. “You go skiing on Monday and have the chance to get into the river [the rest of the work week] Go way up, ”said Kotler.
Ultimately, when we better understand how our brains work, we can work less but achieve more.
Kotler writes: “The only thing more difficult than the emotional effort to achieve true excellence is the emotional effort not to pursue true excellence.”