The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. – #300

Peak Performance

Creativity And Peak Performance

Peak Performance

What does it take to accomplish the impossible? What does it take to shatter our limitations, exceed our expectations, and turn our biggest dreams into our most recent achievements? These are the questions that our guest today has sought to answer in his new book The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

Steven Kotler is a New York Times-bestselling author, an award-winning journalist, Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, and one of the world’s leading experts on human performance. He is the author of nine bestsellers including The Future is Faster Than You Think, Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman and Bold and Abundance which were co-authored with Peter Diamandis. His work has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, translated into over 40 languages, and has appeared in over 100 publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, TIME and the Harvard Business Review.

Steven and I discuss extreme innovation and the role that motivation, learning, creativity and flow play in it. He also shares his perspective on the ROI of reading books and his Five Not-So-Easy Steps for Learning Almost Anything. Enjoy the show.

For More of SuperCreativity Podcast By James Taylor

Peak PerformanceJames Taylor  0:00  

So Steven, welcome. Great to have you with us here at the super creativity podcast.

Steven Kotler  1:17  

Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

James Taylor  1:19  

Now, I first heard about you because I was doing a keynote somewhere and one of your co writers, Peter Diamandis was speaking and we were given a copy of abundance. I thought, wow, I really like this. I really like this right. And then you got me into getting bold as a result of that. And then I checked that one, you read more recently, raise a Superman, and your latest book, which I just finished reading the art of the impossible, which is a phenomenal peak performance primer. So before we get into talking about the book itself, and some of the ideas in the book, as I was doing my little kind of research on you, I found something interesting that can fascinate before we talk about creativity and peak performance and all that stuff. Rancho that our nervous Ranger ketola langtree. Tell us about that. How did that come about?

Steven Kotler  2:07  

So I’m a lifelong animal geek. I’ve been since I was a little little kid really interested in animals. When I first started my career, I started as a journalist, I predominantly covered neuroscience and action sports Don’t even ask, but those were the two things I was deeply interested in. There were also super geeky animals. So I use journalism as a way to like sort of run around the world and hang out with scientists who were hanging out with animals. I learned a lot about ethology and evolutionary biology, all that stuff along the way. And it was it was amazing. And I loved it. But when you work in the wild with animals, you’re not there’s no contact allowed, right? Like if you’re working in a wildlife sanctuary, you don’t want them habituated to humans. That’s bad. And what I started to realize is, Hey, wait a minute, I want more intimate relationships with the animals I’m around, not this, like really standoffish thing, met my wife, she was doing dog rescue, and we decided, because we’re morons, we would do all the terrible things in dog rescue all at once. So we started Rancho de Chihuahua, which was, for 14 years, we’ve since moved, but for 14 years, until a year ago, we ran a hospice and special needs Animal Sanctuary in the second poorest county in America with eyes instead of animal cruelty. So we just basically put ourselves on the front lines and stayed there for 14 years, and did a lot of great work there. And then we have since moved to Utah, we’re still like lining up our sanctuary license to this legalities, that have slowed us down a little bit. But we’re going to take the work we were doing what we really did is develop a healing protocol, we can take a dog, we like late stage cancer, heart disease, and three legs, one eye, you know, our kind of dog and get 234 more years out of them using a union protocol that is based on good diet, evolutionary biology, just a bunch of stuff that is sort of been in the canine field for a while, but we put it together in a really neat way. And it’s working. So we’re now going to try to take that out to the world. -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

James Taylor  4:08  

Well find that when you’re finally able to open up I look forward to going to visit and supporting the sanctuary as well, you know,

Steven Kotler  4:14  

so if you read a small furry prayer, which was the first book I wrote that got nominated for a Pulitzer, that’s about Ranch, well, it’s about the relationship between humans and animals in the work we did. And it’s also about the evolution of flow, because flow may have evolved to allow us to cohabitate with dogs. One of the theories that’s out there,

James Taylor  4:33  

fantastic. So we’ll definitely put that on the show notes here, people can check out that that relationship between dogs and humans is a really fascinating one. In the art of the impossible, you’re really talking about peak performance, you’re talking about the impossible. You talk about motivation, learning creativity and flow right at the start, and then you can come back you circle back at that at the end, you can bring everything together. So how do you see those things as being Connected when it comes to what you call it can extreme innovation. So

Steven Kotler  5:06  

the way I think about it, is this peak performance, we use that term. It’s a really fancy term people hear peak performance that no way not me, man, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, that’s like, and performance really like, what it actually means is nothing more or less, I guess, than getting our biology to work for us rather than against us. And if you’re looking at mental performance, cognitive performance, which is most of what the book focuses on, there’s some physical stuff in there, but is mostly cognitive peak performance. Well, while there’s a lot of biology, it’s actually a limited set of skills, in a sense, and the way so thus, the four parts of the book, the way to think about the biology of peak performance is there are a series of motivational skills, that’s a catch all term, it’s not adopt just talking about the energy required for action to catch all term, their motivation skills that get us into the game, there are learning skills that allow us to continue to play creativity skills that allow us to steer and flow, which is the state of optimal performance is all humans are sort of hardwired for is how you turbo boost the results, kind of beyond all reasonable expectations. And the way I explained in terms of extreme challenges, the last part of the question you asked, answered the book is called the art impossible because I have spent my career studying people in pretty much every domain sports science, art, technology, business doesn’t matter who have accomplished what I call capital, I impossible that which has never been done. The book is written for people who are interested in going after what I call small I impossible, the stuff that you think is impossible for yourself, right. And, you know, we all know what these impossibles are to overcoming trauma rising out of poverty, getting paid for what you love becoming a successful artist, or writer, or creative or world class or whatever you do, etc. Small ly impossible. That said, here’s the cool thing. Because if you’re listening to this, you’re like, dude, I’m just trying to get through Monday mad like whatever right? capital, I bought a little small I bought while I’m just trying to try to get through Monday, man, the good news is because peak performance is nothing more or less than getting our biology to work for us rather than against us. The same biology that gets us to capitalize impossible is the same biology that gets us to small if possible, is the same biology that you know, makes Monday better. So it’s the same toolkit. It’s all hardwired into all of us. So all this stuff is available to all of us, we’re willing to put in the work. And I think that’s how I think about it and frame up the book out that helps. -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

James Taylor  7:38   

Now, one of the other things I think you did really interesting in the book, I’ve never seen it set out like this before, as you talked about the ROI of reading and the value of a book. And so I’m a big read. I love reading. But can you take us through that? Because I think it’s actually quite powerful. We’re living in there, you have lots of grazing on information,

Steven Kotler  7:59  

yeah. information, but

James Taylor  8:01  

you talk about really why people shouldn’t be investing their time in reading a book is the investment of time, you know, we are spending time on a book and I’ve really enjoyed and I kind of got a sense of flow, because I love reading and like probably many of our listeners do. But can you talk about this ROI piece?

ROI Of Reading

Steven Kotler  8:18  

Yeah, for sure. So side note two and the most common form of flow on earth is the flow we get into while reading. It’s really common. So you’re not alone in that happens to me, I think, all of us anyways, um, thanks for asking this question. Because it’s a cool point. And on. What people don’t realize about books is they’re the most information dense source of information on the planet. And the way I explain it is, when I write a blog, and I, you know, wrote a blog for a very long time for Psychology Today, I wrote a blog for a very long time for Forbes. And these were, you know, these are serious people running serious magazines. You know what I mean? You do the work, I would spend that a half day prepping for the blog, doing interviews, reading a couple of things, probably get, you know, a couple hours of writing out of me day one, and then I come back and I polished day two, you know, and maybe a little bit of work on day three if I don’t quite like it. And all in all, you can read a blog average person reads about 250 words a minute, two words a minute right in there. So you can I read an 800 word blog, and it takes me about I don’t know eight hours right roughly, I don’t know what the number exactly our numbers i given the book are so um, takes about eight hours. So your ROI is you’re giving me buddy minutes, and you’re getting eight hours of my life and my brain and my craft in return. Cool trade. Okay, let’s say you read a magazine article I wrote for the New York Times or wired or did a lot of work for Wired on average is about 5000 word articles. Now how much time you get in exchange 5000 words can take About 2025 minutes to read. So what are you getting back? What’s the ROI for your 25 minutes? Well, excuse me, the first blog is like three minutes, right? like three minutes to read, not eight minutes to read. But anyways, what are you getting for your, you know, I 5000 word article, well, I’m gonna spend a month, even before I pitched the article, just doing research on the front end, I’m going to pitch it. So me and my editor are gonna bang it around, you’re gonna get two smart people hammer on the idea for a little while, I’m then going to go report the article, three months to six months, depending on the story. And then I’m going to write it, that’s another three months and attorney, my editor is going to bang on it for a while, he’s going to turn over to the fact checker who is going to beat the shit out of it for a while. And then the publisher is going to chime in and say, Hey, this, this, this and this, right, our readers care. And I’m going to do that. So you’re going to get at least four really smart people. And you’re going to get roughly nine months of my life for 25 minutes with your time plus some other brains on it. Okay, cool. You held up rise as Superman rise as Superman is literally 15 years of research. That’s how long that book took to research. And then another year to write out a bunch of other smart people, and you know, etc, etc. So the book is 70,000 words, it takes on average, about five, six hours. So here’s their rr, give me about three minutes. And what do you get, you get three days, that’s kind of cool. You give me 20 minutes, and you’re going to get eight, nine months. better deal better ROI for a little bit more time, you give me five to six hours, you’re going to get 15 years, and you’re going to get every single smart person I could literally get my hands on in the past 15 years, you could weigh in on the topic, you’re going to get their ideas to write. So it’s a massive, massive return on investment. People often say okay, books, blog, whatever, I listen to audiobooks, I listen to speeches, I watch, and all that’s fair. But I give those speeches, I write those speeches, I’m known as one of the better speakers in the world, like I’m the guy doing that work. And I can tell you that there was nothing I could talk to you for five or six hours. And I couldn’t give you the information that was in rises, Superman books in the most informationally dense source of information on the planet. So if this is in the learning section, right, so the question, one of the meta skills around learning is, what do you learn from what’s your source material? Right? That’s a really important question. You’re trying to accelerate learning. And by looking at the ROI on reading you it’s not a question. You read books. Or to be really blunt. But there’s a joke. I like that I heard years ago here, which is, what do you call people who don’t? What does smart people call people who don’t read books? I don’t know. Dom. -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

James Taylor  12:57  

Yeah, right. I mean, but but you hear this all the time, it just seems to be a lot of it in our culture is pushing us more towards those little snackable stackable bits of content, but it’s it’s self defeating, in some ways,

Steven Kotler  13:12  

as well, self defeating in two big ways. One, we just talked about the information density, but this is the creativity podcast. This is the I think the more important one for creatives. So neurobiologically creativity at a really simple level, it’s always recombinant Tory, so it’s the brain taking in novel information, combining with older stuff and using the results to make something startling new shorthand definition of creativity from a neurobiological level when you’re reading the same shit as everybody else, because everybody wants the bite size digestible, right? If you’re reading all the same stuff as everybody else, you’re gonna essentially, at most likely get to the same ideas as everybody else. Right now, if we know that creativity is the most important skill for thriving in the 21st century, right? creatives are making so much more money than not creatives have better quality of life wellbeing lives that we can go on and on and on about the benefits of creativity in the 21st century. But are you kidding? Like if you don’t get those benefits, if your creativity is telling you the same place everybody else is going then you’ve done then you’ve done nothing but like just taught yourself to think like everybody else, and that’s not the goal.

James Taylor  14:29  

 I’m James Taylor, business, creativity and innovation keynote speaker, and this is the SuperCreativity podcast. If you enjoy listening to conversations with creative thinkers, innovators, entrepreneurs, artists, authors, educators, and performers, then you’ve come to the right place. Each week we discuss their ideas, their life works, successes, failures, creative process, and much more. You’ll find show notes for today’s episode as well as free creativity training at If you enjoyed learning about Steven Kotler, then please check out my interview with author and marketing guru Seth Godin where we discuss his creative process the potential impact of artificial intelligence on human creativity and vodka making. Here my conversation with Seth Godin at James After the break, we returned to my interview with Steven Kotler and why anxiety blocked our creativity. This week’s episode is sponsored by speakers, you the online community for international speakers, speakers, you helps you launch grow and monetize your speaking business faster than you thought possible. If you want to share your message as a highly paid speaker, then SpeakersU will show you how just go to to access their free speaker business training. I think what you’re also kind of touching on there is we had a guest on recently Marcus du Sautoy, from pressive, mathematics Oxford University, he just said wrote a great book called the creativity code. 

And he talked about something I think was, Margaret Mead said a long time ago, which talks about these three types of creativity, exploratory, which is like everyday creativity most of us are doing looking a little bit deeper on a topic. And then you kind of get the kind of the collaborative, where you maybe take something from a slightly different area, maybe at a site like a similar kind of boundary where maybe a physicist takes something from mathematics or something like that. But then you get this transfer, which usually goes transformational creativity, which is the kind of 1% stuff, it’s and to do that you have to push way out of, often your comfort zones. And the next part in your book, you said probably one of the best chapters I’ve ever read about learning, which is five not so easy steps to learning almost anything. I thought this was brilliant because most people do step one when they tell us about it but then some people do step two, but very few people do step 3 4 5. So I’d love to maybe just have a good shot just to kind of tell us what those steps are kind of a high level, because I think it really and this is the learning, anything is not obviously we talk about creativity. But this is really for learning on any

Peak PerformanceFive Not-So-Easy Steps for Learning Almost Anything

Steven Kotler  16:59  

Yeah, so I’m caveat, right warning, I try really hard to make everything as science based, and research based as possible. This is not based on my personal experience. And what it came out of is, I was a freelance writer, freelance journalist for a very long time. And the point in freelance journalism is you have to sort of like exploit your curiosity, and write about anything you possibly can to make a living write as many articles as you can well, back in the 90s, especially when I started out magazines, as I jokingly pointed out a second ago that fact checkers who literally were ruthless, like their job was to prove me wrong, and make sure that I didn’t work for the magazine ever again, right? Like That was really what they set out to do is prove that the writers weren’t worthy of the magazine. And so like they, I would write an article, and they wouldn’t just call like every expert and confirm the quotes, they would call the enemies of the experts I interviewed to try to prove me wrong. I mean, it was, it was this really weird, ruthless game, but it produced really high quality work. And that was sort of the goal. And it was a standard. It was sort of set by the economist and the New Yorker, both of those publications. And I worked for editors who came out of both of those trees a lot. So that was the standard. And that was, you know, that was the game. And so I would have to learn things very, very quickly. And how did I do it? I developed a system that I call the five knots, so easy steps for learning absolutely anything and I’m going to get all the steps wrong, you probably have them in front of you, I may have to open up the book to figure out what all the steps are. But it’s start, the most important thing to know about these steps is your brain has a foundational learning software, like we’re built to learn. And you there’s a certain way to use that software to your advantage. And so there are things I tell you, for example, the step one is the five books, what I call the five books of stupid, right, and it’s a series of AI when you’re trying to learn a subject. Start with the simplest, most popular, most fun read possible. Why? First thing is terminology. In any technical subject, most of the subject or a large portion of the subject has actually talked within the terminology. So jargon, while annoying, it’s annoyingly price. precise, right? Homo sapiens versus humans. Less ABMs is annoying, but it tells you genus species. And it tells you that at some point in history, somebody thought we humans were wise apes, to get genus species and commentary versus humans, which just gives you a thing. So you want to pay attention to new terms. The way I think about that is if a term shows up five times, I look it up and then every time I bump into it, I just say the definition out loud until it’s locked. Second thing you want to pay attention to a little bit is the history of an idea, any thing you’re trying to learn. And by the way, we’re talking about a way to learn subjects not skills, different stuff for skill acquisition. This is about subjects knowledge acquisition. But anything you want to learn is simply nothing more or less than a voyage of discovery. Somebody had a question answered, the question led to another question led to another and if your brain is a meaning machine, meaning it’s a narrative engine, it loves to link cause with effect to what it does automatically, it happens automatically in the brain, have you pay a little bit of attention to history histories, the brain starts to go, Oh, this happened first, this happened. Second, this happened. Third, cool, this is the narrative Oh, look. And what you end up with is like this big giant Christmas tree, that all the little facts that start showing up are the ornaments. And because you have the big tree in place, the arms just stick better when your brain has a place to slot things, especially when it’s sort of like a map, which is sort of what a timeline is humans, we have really foundational map making software in our brain, our brain is really good at it to go along with our meaning making software. So your brain will start to map these things out, and the facts will stick and you won’t have to work as hard. The third thing that you really want to care about are what I call emotional wows. The real this is the thing that people this is the biggest mistake people make when trying to learn from books, is they think they’re trying to learn all this subject stuff in the book. And maybe if you’re in college, you’re taking incredibly complicated notes, and going really slowly and writing everything down and you’re gonna read, regurgitate it for an exam, but you’re gonna forget it after the exam, it’s gonna go away, unless you’re using on a regular basis, but the stuff that’s going to stick is stuff that naturally lights you up and makes you curious when your brain goes, whoa, holy shit, I didn’t know that. That’s the stuff you take notes on. Because your brain is going to remember it any ways. What you want to do is like write down what the note is that you’re taking what you learned and all the things you’re thinking off of it. So you have a little bit of a record of those are the things to pay attention to. And the five books is stupid. Start with the most popular book you can go to next easiest you nonfiction usually right? second book would be a slightly harder fiction book. So let’s say you want to learn about intuition. Right? second book might be Malcolm Gladwell is blink book on intuition. It’s very popular, it’s really simple to read. It’s not done a super technical book, but it’s a good introduction of get a feel for some of the language, the next book up like third level. Now you might want to read something like Dan economists Thinking Fast and Slow, right? That would be next level up little harder. But now you’ve got some of the language from your first book, and then blank. And then and then economists book. Now it’s starting to lay in a little bit more your fourth book, this is the first time I read a super hard technical book. This is usually I’ll breed it textbook on intuition, or I’ll read, you know, this is what I’ll read the Oxford book of imagination, which by the way, is fantastic if you’ve never read, it’s amazing. The Oxford Handbook of imagination is really cool. But that could be -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

Steven Kotler  23:12  

your your fourth book, in the fifth book, I try to find a book that is either a giant overarching history of the field from the beginning of time to now or find a book that’s about the very cutting edge of the field. And the reason is on the fifth one, what I want to know is where’s the edge of crazy, right? Like, where’s the boundary where to scientists and researchers think the boundary of knowledge is I’m not saying as you pointed out, sometimes you got to go way past your comfort zone to get to new ideas. So I’m not saying don’t go past that boundary in your own thinking, but know where other people think the boundary is know that if you step beyond that, people are gonna think you’re crazy. And you better have really good reasons, and kind of twice as much proof once you enter that arena. And what is this get you what is the five books, this is step one, it gets you the ability to do step two, which is start talking to experts, right? Step two is talk to experts. That’s when you take your ideas out for a spin. And I always say that, like, you know, you’ve talked to enough people, when the experts start saying, Oh, that’s a really good question. We don’t know. But that’s a really good question. When you start getting the point of I’ve learned everything and I’m asking questions, the right questions, the ones the experts, that gets used to through step two. Step three is look those questions are going to show you where the gaps are, right now get into the gaps between fields between knowledge is in play around there for a while. Most real information is stuck between fields, right? That’s where that and that’s where kind of real expertise starts to emerge. And then I’m a I’m be getting this one out or out of order. By the way, if you’re looking at me funny because I’m mixing up the order, I haven’t bothered to look them up and I can’t find a PDF which which order I’m -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

James Taylor  25:07  

gonna have to go get the book to figure out the

Steven Kotler  25:11  

apologize people, this is not a question I get asked all the time, and the neck, you then you want to start playing with the ideas and, and going out and having like, public successes with the ideas. And what I’m talking about here is I don’t mean you want to go do a TED people hear this? And they’re like, Oh, I gotta go do a TED talk. No, no, no, no, you don’t want to go to a TED talk yet. Now you just want to go talk to people, talk to strangers, I, what I do is, I try to summarize the ideas I’ve been learning for, there’s two goals. One is find somebody who is really sick of listening to me, like my mom, or my dad, or my brothers or a friend who and you know, try to tell them about this and see if it holds their attention all the way through when I’m learning. That way. I know I’ve taken the learning and I’ve turned into a story and I can hold on to it. And then I try to do it with an absolute stranger ago, like, you know, pre COVID I’ll go sit in the bar and try to like, you know, Hey, how are you? How are you? What are you doing? What are you doing? Oh, well, I’m studying this thing. And I’ll try to like, and if I can hold the attention of a total stranger, then then then then then I’m far and then I might try to tell it to an expert and see, you know, right at that at that point, there’s another step I left out. I think -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

James Taylor  26:25  

the ones that we missed that there was just the finding contrarians and Tim Ferriss talks. Oh, yeah.

Steven Kotler  26:31  


James Taylor  26:32  

finding people that like, okay, all they have to do this, this, this, this this, but who are the ones that don’t do any of that stuff, they still achieve success and

Steven Kotler  26:42  

naturally happens in step two between Step three, because step two, is you’ll, when you talk to experts, one of the easiest ways to do it, or you learn as a journalist is when you’re done talking to your experts say that was awesome. Who else should I talk to about? Yeah, they give you three or four names. And what happens is everybody knows everybody, and but by the time you usually get down to the fifth person, right, and you and you’re like four research experts, and they tend you’ve like sort of exhausted that tree, and they tend to start giving you either, they will tell you something that totally discredits every single thing everybody else has said before, or they’ll start to give you experts names, who will. And until I get turned around once on a subject completely like oh, my God, everything I thought I knew was wrong. And then I have to refine my footing. I don’t feel comfortable that I’ve learned the subject, because you’ve gotta be challenged. -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

James Taylor  27:38  

Yeah, I guess also, I mean, you mentioned this in the book as well, it brings things also back to first principles of what is true, what can be said to be true. I am interested in which obviously, we’re kind of going. We’ve been talking a lot about this kind of learning, which is really important and really powerful. I wonder like as we can talk about resources, big sections in the book about creativity. And I obviously loved reading those if someone is passionate about the topic. And there was part of the book you were talking about. Long Haul creativity, which people really I don’t have ever really heard someone define and kind of talk about it in that way to talk to Ken Robinson before he passed away about this topic. So I’d love for you to kind of define what you mean by long haul credit. I

Long Haul Creativity

Steven Kotler  28:24  

tell you the Ken Robinson story, because it’s so funny. I got interested in this question of what is the take not just as you looked at all the creativity textbooks or science and stuff, and it was always about like, how do you get more creative for like a project or a thing? Or how do you get creative for a book or a painting or a like or whatever. And I was like, Christ, that’s not like, first of all, as a creative I want a creative career, right? I want to be creative from like 23 when I entered the workforce to like 80 or 90 when I die. And first of all, in writing, I’ve had to like my industry itself has morphed and gone away and come back. And like three or four different times, I’ve had to reinvent myself and you start talking to other people who have had kind of lifelong creativity, and you start to realize, wait a minute, they’re always reinventing. And the rules are different. And when you start doing research into long haul creativity, you start to realize that a bunch of the stuff that you need for the short haul is going to really screw you up for the long haul. And the rules are different, and etc, etc, etc. So I, um, I’ve been studying this and there’s very little written on the subject almost nothing. There’s a really interesting book called The creative age that sort of spun out of the Harvard adult development project that looked at people sort of trying to rebirth their creativity in their later years. But there’s very little work that’s been done on this subject other than sort of like historical You know what? Anyways, so I just started, I’ve been interviewing people on the topic for about a decade now. And what you got in the book is, I think 11 best bits of advice that I’ve uncovered along the way. And the stuff that I’ve used and all the people around me so well, there’s not real research on it. The good news is that at the flow research collective, which is the organization I run, where we started the neurobiology of peak performance, and we do this in conjunction with bureau college and London, USC and Stanford, a bunch of other colleges. We train out, we also train 1000 people a month. So while this stuff does not hard sciences, big data we’ve done we put lots of people through this stuff. So it seems to work fairly consistently is what I can say with confidence. But a camera Ken Robinson with this story is funny, because it’s one of these like counterintuitive examples. And we were talking about, you know, what, what do you need to sustain creativity over over a lifetime? And he said, I think you need frustration. And I said, What are you talking about? You need frustration, like, seriously? Turns out, there’s like, 17 different ways. He’s actually right. But he I was like, What are you talking about? He’s like, let me tell you a story about George Lucas. And I said, Okay, and he said, I, you know, I met him. And I know, I wasn’t supposed to do this. But I had to pop the question. And I was like the question, like, what the hell did you ask George Lucas, he’s, like, I said, George, what else? Do you keep remaking all those Star Wars movies? George said, Well, -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

Steven Kotler  31:43  

In this particular universe, I’m God, and God isn’t satisfied. And that’s what he was talking about that little itch. And that you know, what I like about that I you know, since he said that, one of the things that I’ve been joking about, but it’s, I think it’s very true. I don’t know if this is other authors experience, but my experience, when I write a book, I write I, you know, edit what I wrote the day before, and then I add like, 1000 words a day, then I come back tomorrow, and I edit what I wrote the day before, and I add 1000 words. And I want to say like, 95% of the experience of writing book is thinking that the 1000 words I added was strong, coming back the next morning and discover and I have failed miserably, trying to fix it, tried to add another few 100 words, maybe it goes well, and I think I’ll victory again is mine. Or maybe it just goes terribly. And then I know I got my ass kicked that next big comeback. And I found out how the stuff that I wrote yesterday, even though it was taller, was actually worse. And I have to rewrite it and it’s a failure, like 90 95% of the time. That’s what you encounter. You’re like, I screwed that sentence up. I screwed that sentence up, right? Sure you got all these right, but you can’t even notice that because this is the stuff you’ve got to work on. And I think the reason you keep going is that that little frustration is irksome. But solving it is very deeply satisfying. And going right at frustration, which is an experience we often respond to as courage is one of our favorite feelings we love sort of, like when you allow humans to self stimulate the brain, they’ll still stimulate the off in the fight response, which when we feel it, when you stimulate it feels like frustration. But in the real world, it’s the frustration that leads to courage. So we love it.

James Taylor  33:32  

So probably the time we’re living through just now there’s probably a lot of a frustrated creatives out there because many of not being able to be together performers to perform to know you do a lot of retreats to be you know, be with other people bounce ideas off other people in a in we can up close and personal in that way. Do you think you in the book you’re to talk about sometimes, having limits can drive creativity? Do you think that I’m not gonna say the self imposed but the imposed limits that we’ve currently been living through? Do you think it’s been good for our creativity as a species over the past year or do you think it’s gonna be detrimental? You -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

Limits Can Drive Creativity

Steven Kotler  34:10  

know, what I’m thinking about the Orson Welles quote about creativity where he’s talking about cultural creativity, he says, Look at Switzerland 500 years of peace and prosperity and what do you get the cuckoo clock and the Renaissance you’ve got the bloody cheese and whereas you’ve got death and murder and rape and may have and what do you get Leonardo and Michelangelo Bertolucci, so what there is that side of this right, I don’t know if he’s right or wrong. What I think are two things. One, you have a difficulty and that anxiety blocks creativity. So the more anxious we are a little bit of anxiety is as good as sort of primes learning gets us moving but then when we produce anxiety, which is really cortisol and norepinephrine and predominantly norepinephrine is the issue here. That’s a little bit of curiosity, a little bit more excitement but then too much anxiety. And the problem is that when the brain gets anxious, we get logical and linear, the part of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex tends to find remote associations between ideas, right, Link things together for us. The more frightened you are, the more it says, Hey, whoa, whoa, let’s find something that works every time that’s tried. That’s true. That’s logical. The extreme example is big danger, you get Fight, fight or flee, freeze, right? Those are three options, we’re not giving you any more, you can’t be trusted, right. But what people don’t realize is, it’s not just during, you know, acute high risk dangers, like there’s a tiger coming at you, it’s any kind of fear. So too much fear blocks anxiety. So if you can get past the anxiety of today, and there’s a lot of different techniques for that. Some of them are talked about an impossible bunch more elsewhere. But if you can lower the anxiety, I do think, limits. First of all, drive creativity. We know this, right? The worst thing a writer could ever face is a blank page, but give them just, here’s where you got to start, here’s where you got to, and now you’re off and running. Right? It’s this sort of the same thing with everything we don’t, it’s really hard when you don’t have parameters around things. This is a tough lesson to learn. But it there’s a lot to be learned from being creative instead of other people’s limits as well like forcing yourself to do that, which is what happens when you this is one of the other difficulties, long haul creativity so that if you most creatives get famous or known or paid in their 20s for that thing they can do right then you get to your 30s or part to your career were actually a name and now you’re being hired. So for example, I got known as a stylish kind of fancy writer in my 20s working for magazines like GQ and details and you know fun magazines good good magazines and writing my first book and then I got to talk to your magazines, The New York Times Magazine wired and I was reading for a while they give a damn about a span see Steven Kotler story, they one of the best day of wired story I could write like, Who the hell is Steven Kotler, we’ve got all these people on our masthead, right. And what happens to create is as you like, build up your ego in your 20s, and you get hit a lot, right, you can get creativity, you’re gonna get knocked down all the time. So if you survive your 20s, and you’re actually sort of like winning, you’ve cleared stage one, you’ve got a really healthy ego, and you’re sort of ready to get into the boxing ring. And you have to check that whole thing at the door and spend 10 years roughly for most people being creative inside other people’s boxes. And a lot of creatives, whatever the field, this is very common in almost every creative field, however you come up, unless you’re some kind of, you know, crazy superstar, where you’re the first thing you produce is just unbelievable. And then that’s its own kind of burden and weight. But besides the point, most a lot of creators get derailed right there because they’ve like they’ve developed this super healthy ego to survive as a creative which you need because it’s rough. And then you get to the second portion of your career and people are like, I don’t care about you Be creative inside my box, my box is bigger and I’m more important than their right. Right and you’re like if you want to get paid make a living, you’re going to spend 10 years inside of their box and I always tell people don’t think you get free once you get like your own fans, cuz like you think publishers or you know producers or take your picker difficult way to you have fans, they like they’re very, very particular. -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

James Taylor  39:00  

And often they want the same thing that you did in the previous over and over and over you want and you want, you want to branch out, you wanna move to a new place. Steve, we could focus on it on because I love the book, The Art of the impossible. We’re gonna put links here to people can get their copy of the book, in terms of the the flow research collective and the other work you do. where’s the best place for people to go to learn more about about these

The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

Steven Kotler  39:21  

Perfect, thanks for asking. So will tell you about the organization. And there’s a video page and there are I don’t know how many hours of like 20 4050 like, you can find more videos of me and a bunch of the really brilliant neuroscientists and psychologists who I get to work with blah, blah, blah, ad infinitum. Steven Kotler calm, we’ll also get you that if this just because it’s this great. I do a class called flow for writers, where we take a lot. It’s really, really focused on writing, you can’t get that through the flow research collective that’s through So if people are interested in that, it’s everything I know about flow. It’s everything I know about writing on every level, this neuroscience of creativity, it’s really, it’s, it’s sort of it doesn’t really, people take it to learn how to write books, but you know, we songwriters take it and, you know, advertising, right, and copywriters take it and whatever. And it’s proved incredibly, incredibly useful. Lots of books have come out of that class. So -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

James Taylor  40:30  

Fantastic. Fantastic. We’re gonna put all of these links here, Stephen, thank you so much for talking about some of the ideas in the book. And also, thank you so much for the work you’ve done with with animals as well. And with dogs in particular, I think it’s great to see someone kind of putting back into other species that not necessarily the human species,

Steven Kotler  40:48  

I just want to say, because I do this a lot. I talked to a lot of people in one conversation without being over the top you’ve got in Hemingway, Margaret Mead, and like four or five others very impressive. I just I’m walking away impressed. That’s all I’m saying. Walking away for us,  -The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

James Taylor  41:09  

Stephen, all the best. And good luck with all the new projects you’ve got going to end this book as well.

Steven Kotler  41:13  

Thanks, Ben. It’s super fun hanging out. But like,

James Taylor  41:15  

you can subscribe to the speakers you podcast on Spotify, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts while you’re there. leave us a review. I really appreciate it. I’m James Taylor, and you’ve been listening to the speakers. You podcast.


-The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.


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