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How Innovators, Athletes and Warriors Hijack Their Senses for Off-The-Chart Productivity

It’s the biggest revolution you’ve never heard of, and it’s hiding in plain sight. Over the past decade, Silicon Valley executives like Eric Schmidt and Elon Musk, Special Operators like the Navy SEALs and the Green Berets, and maverick scientists like Sasha Shulgin and Amy Cuddy have turned everything we thought we knew about high performance upside down. Instead of grit, better habits, or 10,000 hours, these trailblazers have found a surprising short cut. They're harnessing rare and controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges and outperform the competition.

In his new book Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work, co-author Steven Kotler details this place called "the flow" where creativity and performance are heightened. Getting in the flow isn't all sunshine and lollipops, however. Kotler joined Glenn on radio to discuss the phenomenon.

"If I understand you right, what you're saying is, whether it's drugs, whether it's a spiritual experience, no matter how you get there, there's this place called the flow, and it makes you so much more focused and productive," Glenn said.

Kotler explained.

"What we know about flow is that . . . in these states, all of the brain's kind of information processing machinery gets amplified, right? We take in more information per second. We process it more quickly. We're able to, like, link ideas together. So creativity goes through the roof, motivation goes through the roof, cooperation, collaboration --- all the so-called twenty-first century skills, the skills that we need so badly right now," Kotler said.

This state of consciousness floods the brain with dopamine, the chemical that underlies all addictive behavior --- like gambling, sex, shopping or cocaine addictions.

Glenn experienced his own version of it for several years from a "deep spiritual connection of profound gratitude and service" called "helper's flow."

According to Kotler, there are ten individual triggers that could drive someone into the flow, as well as group or shared triggers.

"There's a shared collective version of a flow state, known as group flow. It's what happens if you've ever been in a great brainstorming session or if you watched a band come together and the music just starts to soar, or for that matter, if you saw the Super Bowl last year . . . what the Patriots did in the fourth quarter. Everybody comes together, and football looks more like ballet. That's group flow. It's what the SEALs rely on so heavily too," Kotler said.

Based on brain research and four years of investigation, Stealing Fire explains how the driving forces of psychology, neurobiology, technology and pharmacology are fueling a trillion dollar underground economy.

Enjoy the complimentary clip or read the transcript for details.

GLENN: Steve, welcome to the program. Glad you're here.

I have to be honest with you, I've only read, you know, 50 pages of the book. And I'm not sure I -- I understand. Let me just ask you one question before we get into it, to make sure I do understand what the point is here. Is James Valentine -- he was not taking any drugs. He was just -- he had a different kind of experience. But the same effect.

STEVEN: Yeah.

GLENN: Okay. So I just wanted to know that. Now you can start at the beginning because now I think I got it.

STEVEN: Absolutely. Let me just put it in historical context for you because it's the -- thank you for having me, by the way.

GLENN: You bet.

STEVEN: But it's the easiest way to frame this up.

Back at the turn of the century, 1902, William James, who is a Harvard philosopher and psychologist and has used sort -- he's sort of the godfather of western philosophy -- he makes the observation that a whole slew of experiences, what all the experiences that are sort of found north of happy -- so these are states of awe. Certain kinds of mystical experiences, like trance states or states produced by prayer or yoga or meditation, or even in some cases, psychedelic states or flow states, which is what we study at the Flow Juneau Project, myself and Jamie Weil, who I wrote the book with. Which are those states of -- kind of optimal states of consciousness where we feel are best, where we perform our best.

You notice that all these states were really, really similar. They produce very similar psychological changes in us. They seem to heal anxiety, heal trauma, and they seem to lift us up to incredible heights. And they produce a very similar kind of physical experiences in us.

And we sort of turned our back on it. Like we weren't really interested in all states of consciousness at that point. Freud came along. He said, hey, pathological problems are much more interesting. Let's try to fix people.

And that's what psychology did, for about a hundred years, until the late '90s, when somebody -- hey, you know, there's this whole upper realm of experiences we haven't looked at. And now we have.

And as it turns out, using, you know, high-powered brain imaging technology, James was right. There's very, very little difference in the brain of a skier in the zone, moving down a mountain base, or say, as you pointed out, in the beginning, a billionaire microdosing with psychedelics or somebody meditating. Very similar things happen in the brain. They produce very similar feelings. And, thus, they have similar benefits.

GLENN: Okay. So let's get into this. Because I -- I've read 55 pages this morning, just trying to get ready for this. And I wish I would have picked the book up earlier. Because I think --

STEVEN: I got to tell you, by the way, 55 pages, you're doing well compared to a lot of people I talk to.

GLENN: Well, I'm embarrassed --

STEVEN: I appreciate that.

GLENN: I'm embarrassed that I've only read 55.

But the idea here -- I'm fascinated by it because I believe -- as long as we're not talking about a drug-only state, in the flow, I really truly believe that from 2007 to about 2012, I experienced that. And it -- just being in the flow. And it was a very different feeling and real high, high clarity.

Mine was a -- mine was a -- not drug induced. But I could explain it to you. And I think it's the way John Valentine --

STEVEN: James Valentine.

GLENN: Or, James Valentine would explain it as well. So I think there is something here to people --

STEVEN: Do I mind if I ask you a question?

GLENN: Yeah, go ahead.

STEVEN: What triggered that experience in you? At the front end of it, what was going on in your life that brought that on?

GLENN: It was a -- a -- a deep spiritual connection of profound gratitude and service.

STEVEN: So, interestingly, you had an experience, and it's very long-lasting. It's known as helper's high. It was discovered by Allan Luks, founder of Big Brothers Big Sisters back in the '90s. It's essentially a flow state. Right? And let's just define "flow" for your listeners who don't know what exactly it is. Flow is a fancy term for being in the zone, being unconscious, if you play a lot of basketball. Those moments of wrapped attention and total absorption, where you get so focused on what you're doing, everything else vanishes. So your sense of self goes away. Time passes strangely. It slows down, or it will speed up.

GLENN: It's what, like, SEALs and people describe when they're at their height of, you know, going in to kill Osama bin Laden. Time slows down. Everything else disappears.

STEVEN: Yes. Now, that's a very acute -- when time slows down, it has to be very acute. There's a lot of additional brain processes being involved a little bit

GLENN: Right.

STEVEN: But essentially, helper's high is a flow state produced by altruism. You can even get a little taste for it -- if you've ever donated to Kiva or an online charity or anything like that, you'll get a little flush of that kind of feel-good feeling on the back end.

GLENN: Yes.

STEVEN: You just got it for a very long time. My wife and I were on a dog sanctuary and -- so we do hospice care and special needs care, and we live in a very poor community. And we work here intentionally and live here intentionally to do this work. And she runs on helper's high.

GLENN: So the difference between that and just the dopamine that you get from -- you know, the (sound effect) from your Facebook or your email.

STEVEN: Yeah, exactly.

GLENN: What is what is the difference?

STEVEN: So the differences are, as we move into flow, a couple of things happen: First of all, you get -- so most of what -- what they call 21st century normal, you and I, where our brains are right now, there's a lot of activity kind of behind our forehead, in what's known as the prefrontal cortex, which is your executive function, your attention, your sense of morality, your sense of will, language, function, all that stuff. That's going crazy.

And we -- most of us live with like the steady drip, drip of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine. That's what psychologists talk about as 21st century normal, essentially.

As you move into all of these states -- this happens in meditation. It happens in conflative states like yoga. It happens in flow states, whether they're triggered by action/adventure sports or by music. James Valentine's experience was he got into these deep trances playing music.

You can -- chess is -- Josh Waitzkin talks a lot about chess and flow. Very common in a lot of things that require intense focus in the present moment or altruism, in your case.

And so what happens is you move into those states -- and in the prefrontal cortex, it gets really quiet. It dies down.

That's why your sense of self disappears. Right? The inner critic -- that nagging, always on, defeatist voice in your head goes quiet in those states because the inner critic is basically calculated in your prefrontal cortex. And if that part of the brain starts to shut down, we can't perform the calculations. So your inner critic goes away. Time passes, strangely. Because time is calculated all over the prefrontal cortex. And what goes away, we can't separate past, present, from future. It all blends together into what researchers call the "deep now."

And to your question, the stress hormones, norepinephrine and cortisol, they get flushed out of our system. And they get replaced by not just dopamine. Dopamine itself is a very powerful, you know, feel-good neural chemical with a lot of performance-enhancing benefit. But you also get endorphins and serotonin and monoamine and oxytocin. It's the cocktail that is so popular.

And what that cocktail does -- you talked about the clarity, besides -- you know, it makes us feel selfless. It makes us feel timeless. It also gives -- it massively -- it massively boosts motivation.

So McKinsey, for example, did a ten-year study of top executives in flow. And they found that top executives were 500 percent more productive in flow. That's a huge boost. And it's because all of these same neural chemicals, they're feel-good drugs. Some of the most addictive pleasure chemicals the brain can produce -- flow is the only time we get all at once. And so it produced this huge spike in motivation. A positive spike, right? Like a positive addiction.

GLENN: And so your -- your job now is to try to figure out how to trip us into this flow?

STEVEN: Yeah. We -- so over the past -- you know, flow science has -- stretches back 150 years. But recently, the past ten years, we've been able to look under the hood for the first time. Where are these experiences coming from? And we've been able to work backwards. And we now know that flow states have triggers, preconditions that lead to more flow.

There are ten individual triggers, what you or I could have used on our own to drive ourselves into flow. And then there's a shared collective version of a flow state, known as group flow. It's what happens if you've ever been in a great brainstorming session or if you watched a band come together and the music just starts to soar, or for that matter, if you saw the Super Bowl last year. Saw fourth quarter comeback, right? The spectacular -- what the Patriots did in the fourth quarter. Everybody comes together, and football looks more like ballet. That's group flow.

It's what the SEALs rely on so heavily too. It's a team coming together, being able to kind of behave like a collective organism.

GLENN: Okay. When we come back, I want to have you go through some of those ten things that can trip us into it. The name of the book is Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Work and the Way We Live.

[break]

GLENN: I'm fascinated by this. Steven Kotler. The name of the book is called Stealing Fire.

And, Steven, if I understand you right, what you're saying is, whether it's drugs, whether it's a spiritual experience, no matter how you get there, there's this place called the flow, and it makes you so much more focused and productive. And however you get there, you're trying to figure out how to trip yourself into it. Correct?

STEVEN: Yeah.

GLENN: Okay.

STEVEN: What we know about flow is that -- you know, in these states, all of the brain's kind of information processing machinery gets amplified. Right? We take in more information per second. We process it more quickly. We're able to like link ideas together. Find -- so creativity goes through the roof. Motivation goes through the roof. Cooperation, collaboration, all the so-called 21st Century skills, the skills that we need so badly right now.

GLENN: Okay. So give me -- we have about five minutes. Give me the high points on how to trip yourself into it.

STEVEN: So, you know, some really kind of basic stuff is pretty simple. First thing you need to know is that flow shows up when all of our attention is focused on the right here, right now.

So at a very practical level, we go into companies, one of the first things we tell them is if -- you can't hang a sign that says, bleep off, I'm flowing. You are in trouble. Because flow requires 90- to 120-minute periods of concentration to really bring it out. Which is, by the way, one of the reasons Montessori education is so effective. It's built around to 90 to 120 minutes of uninterrupted concentration periods, right? They use this. And it's why Montessori kids, you know, see so much flow and end up testing better than so many other kids on any test you throw at them. Very simple thing.

Want to get it -- take it one notch up. We'll go into a trigger that's often called the golden rule of flow, known as the challenge skills balance. The idea here is really simple: All of flow's triggers are things that help drive attention to the present moment. Right?

So we pay the most attention to the task at hand, when the challenge of the task slightly exceeds our skill set. So you want to stretch, but not snap. And this is tricky. Because if you're sort of shy or timid, maybe a bit of an underachiever, whatever, the sweet spot is outside of your comfort zone. You have to be pushing yourself outside your standard comfort zone.

For a really super high productive, top performers, type A types, the problem here is they blow past the sweet spot. They will take on challenges that are so much bigger than they need to be.

And so one of the things we always tell people is in this stuff -- especially if you're type A, you got to go slow to go fast. There's a kind of neuro biologically sweet spot as to how we pay attention. And when you hit it, it really drives focus.

GLENN: Okay. Go ahead.

STEVEN: I mean, just a couple places to start.

GLENN: All right. So do you do this with -- are you guys doing this work with companies coming in and saying --

STEVEN: Yeah. Yeah.

I mean, last week, we spent a day with all the top senior management, top executives at Ameritrade. And the bigger point is this, we've learned this over the years in our digitally delivered classes -- and, for example, we did a six-week training at Google a couple years ago. It was a joint learning exercise, where we were trying some of this stuff out. And we train them up in kind of four high performance basics like sleep hygiene. Get enough sleep at night kind of stuff. Real basic. And then four flow triggers. How do you deploy these in your life?

And after a six-week period -- and they did about an hour of homework a day, spread out throughout the day, but it took some work. But not a ton. They saw a 35 to 80 percent increase in flow.

Now, within context, same McKinsey article I talked about earlier, the same study, found that a 15 percent increase in workplace flow will double overall workplace productivity. So what we've learned is, not only does flow have triggers, the stuff is really easy to teach. It's not -- and it's funny because everybody -- everybody is basically -- we're hard-wired the same. We're wired for high performance. So once you start understanding how this stuff works, you can really step on the gas.

PAT: So you don't have to do this through drugs, through chemical means, right?

STEVEN: No. No.

PAT: In fact --

STEVEN: There are a lot -- you have to understand that what you're talking about is pharmacology today, which has a long history of strong reactions. Lots of politics. Lots of mess. Goes back a long time.

Tomorrow, you're going to be talking about a EEG headset that zaps your brain in a particular way. We're already getting there. Right? We have EEG headsets that can dial up a lot of kind of the underlying neural biology of flow. And they're getting better. Virtual reality is better. Is really good at this as well. So like you have feelings of, hey, I don't want to take a pharmacological route. Totally fine. Right? Absolutely valid. You know what I mean? Not for everybody.

But, you know, it's an interesting bias because, you know, our idea that we -- it's internal and comes from us. It's pure and whole and sacred. And, you know, drugs are -- drugs are a cheater's way there, or they're bad or whatever. Fine. Okay. That's where we are now.

But tomorrow, it's going to be an app on your phone. That's where it starts to get really interesting.

PAT: Wow.

GLENN: Well, I want to talk to you about that a little bit. Because you say this can be really, really good or highly destructive.

STEVEN: Well, so earlier I mentioned that you get all five of these really potent neural chemicals. They're very addictive. All -- I mean, there's no external drugs, cocaine, for example, most addictive drug on earth. All it does is flood the brain with dopamine, right? Dopamine is the drug that makes -- that underlies all addictive behavior.

GLENN: Yes, yes, yes.

STEVEN: Gambling addiction, sex addiction, shopping addiction. You know, cocaine addiction. It doesn't matter. So you're getting the into the same neuro chemistry. So these states can be very, very addictive.

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