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“The Rise of Superman” – A new book by Steven Kotler on “flow”

Photograph of the dust jacket of "The Rise of Superman"
Photograph of the dust jacket of "The Rise of Superman"
Photograph taken by Paul Rest

I was driving to San Francisco a couple of Wednesdays ago and happened to catch a morning talk show on KQED-FM. The person being interviewed was Steven Kotler whose new book had just been published.

Now, to tell you the truth, with the exception of Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air,” I’m pretty skeptical of radio interviews. They tend to be either dull or to shallow. But this one caught my attention immediately. Kotler was talking about extreme sport athletes’ ability to enter into a state called “the zone” or “the flow” where normal cognitive brain activity for all practice purposes disappears, and one enters into a state of hyper-awareness where time and space seem altered.

I would have liked to have called into the show and talked to Kotler for a few minutes, but being in my car negated that. So I did the next thing, I ordered his book the next morning from my local independent bookseller. It arrived early the following week.

With most new books, they sit on my desk for a couple of days, maybe even a week or so before I open them and begin reading. With Kotler’s book, I sat down after returning from my walk to the bookstore and starting reading, becoming engrossed right from the beginning.

For those of you who have practiced martial arts, you’ll immediately get this book. Although most of us aren’t X-Games level athletes, or surfers who brave “The Maverick” or rock climbers who have conquered Half Dome, the stories of the individuals who did these feats will resonate. This is especially true when they talk about what they experienced when they were in that state of flow.

What happened was that they were able to enter a state of consciousness where something different than ordinary every day reality occurred. Kotler defines “flow [as] an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best.” Then he continues, and this is important, “It is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided that certain initial condition are met.”

He continues, “Researchers now believe flow sits at the heart of almost every athletic championship, underpins major scientific breakthroughs, and accounts for significant progress in the arts.” Then he adds, “Yet, there is a rub. Flow might be the most desirable state on earth; it’s also the most elusive.”

More on Kotler’s amazing book to follow in future columns including what the conditions for flow are. The book is very readable and the author’s excitement and enthusiasm comes through time and time again. His outlining of the history of past and current brain research is excellent.

And having experienced “the flow” or the “the zones” a number of times myself during my dan tests in Aikido and while competitive swimming, what the authors writes rings true. Bottom line, this is a title worth having if you have any interest in understanding what flow is and then learning how to create the conditions so flow can happen.

“The Rise of Superman” by Steven Kotler – Published by New Harvest, $26.00 in the US – ISBN 978-1-4778-0083-6