Full text of best-selling author Steven Kotler’s talk: How to open up the next level of human performance at TEDxABQ conference.
Listen to the MP3 audio here:
Steven Kotler – Author
I study ultimate human performance, or what it takes to be your best when it matters most, what it takes to do the impossible.
And when I found, when I say something like ultimate human performance out loud and in public, most people tend to think of anybody but themselves, we picture astronauts or Navy SEALs or genius innovators.
So I want to be clear: when I say what does it take to be your best when it matters most, I mean what does it take for you to be your best when it matters most? What does it take for you to do the impossible?
And I came to this topic from an unusual direction: journalism. In the early 1990s, I became a journalist and at the time action sports were beginning to grab the public’s imagination.
So back then if you could write and you can surf or you could write and you could ski, or you could write, you could rock climb, there was work.
I couldn’t do any of those things very well, but I needed the work. So I lied to my editors and I was lucky enough to spend the better portion of five years chasing athletes around mountains.
I will tell you if you’re not a professional athlete and you spend a lot of time chasing athletes around mountains and across oceans, you break bones. I broke a lot of bones. This meant I had a lot of time off; I had a lot of downtime. I’d be hanging out, I would snap this or that.
And I did take four or five months off.
And when I came back the progress I saw amazed me, absolutely astounded me; it was leaps and bounds kind of progress. Stuff that had been absolutely completely impossible four or five months ago was not only being done, it was being iterated upon.
Now sports performance as a general rule, it’s slow, its steady, it’s governed by the laws of evolution. As a general rule in athletics, we break records every five to ten years, not every couple of months. But that was exactly what was going on in action and adventure sports.
And I want to give you a couple of examples. In 1990, in snowboarding, the biggest gap jump anybody ever cleared was 40 feet. 40 feet is big; it’s two buses stacked end to end. Today as you can see we’re clearing gap jumps that are over 250 feet tall. That’s a skyscraper.
This is my favorite example. This is my friend Alex Honnold. Alex is free soloing Half Dome in Yosemite. Free soloing means he’s climbing without ropes and without protection, so he falls, he dies.
Now most people when they climb Half Dome, it’s an enormous climb; it usually takes a day and a half, two days. They bring portal edges so they can sleep on the side of the wall. Alex didn’t need a portal edge, because in 2002 or 2012, he free soloed Half Dome in 1 hour and 22 minutes. That’s the rough equivalent of running a four-minute mile in about 38 seconds.
And Alex is only one example between 1990 and today. Action-adventure sport athletes have achieved more impossible feats than pretty much any group in history. And this raises a pretty basic question: what the heck is going on?
And the answer is a state of consciousness known as flow, that these athletes have learned to harness, probably better than almost any group in history. You may know flow by other names. You may talk about it as runner’s high, being unconscious, being in the zone.
Flow is a technical term, and it’s defined as an optimal state of consciousness. When we feel our best and we perform our best. More specifically, it refers to those moments of rapt attention and total absorption. We get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears. Action and awareness start to merge. Your sense of self vanishes. Time passes strangely. Sometimes you’ll slow down, you’ll get a freeze-frame effect. More frequently it speeds up and five hours pass by in like five minutes. And throughout all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.
But 15 years ago, our brain imaging technology got good enough that for the very first time could peer under the hood in figuring out where this ultimate performance was coming from.
And what we discovered turned a lot of our deep old ideas about high performance on its head. The old idea was that at any norm… normal time we’re only using a small sliver of our brain. So ultimate performance must be the full brain on overdrive.
Turns out we actually had it exactly backwards. In flow, we’re not using more of the brain, we’re using a lot less. Instead of brain becoming hyperactive, it’s becoming hypoactive… H-y-p-o… it’s the opposite of hyper, means to slow down or deactivate.