Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart.
I’m also the owner of an eye that might be leaking today. My eye has been giving me some trouble and the doctor gave me some drops and the drops are causing leakage. But if today’s guest won’t mind and you won’t mind, I can continue. Frankly, if I was on a dying hospital bed, I would still want to continue to do the interview. You may not want to watch me as I do it, but maybe we’ll do it as an audio-only interview. That’s how committed I am to doing these.
Let me ask you this–you, my listener–have you ever felt like you were in a state of almost perfect decision making? And do you want to know how to get there more often? Well, today’s guest build a business that is helping people do that. His name is Steven Kotler. He is the founder of the Flow Genome Project, which is committed to mapping the genome of flow by 2020. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.”
This interview is sponsored by HostGator. Later on I’ll tell you why if you need a web hosting company you should go to HostGator. And it’s sponsored by Toptal. You should probably know what Toptal does. But I’ll tell you again. They help you find great developers for the projects you need built. I’ll tell you about them later. First I’ve got to welcome Steven. Great to have you here.
Steven: Thanks for having me.
Andrew: Steven, when we talk about Flow, it does sound a little bit New Age-y. It does sound a little bit good for athletes but not necessarily for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs feel like we want more information, more ideas for how to get more traffic, how to get more customers, how to convert them better, how to hire better. What do we need this flow for?
Steven: So, big picture–McKinsey did a ten-year study. They looked at top executives in flow and they found them five times more productive than out of flow. So, five times more productive means you could go to work on Monday, spend Monday in a flow state, take Tuesday through Friday off and get as much done as your steady state peers. If you work two days a week in flow, you’re 1,000 percent more productive than the competition.
So, I think the first reason anybody wants this in their business is because if it’s not there, other companies are starting to work with flow integrated in their corporate philosophy. You’re talking about a massive upgrade in productivity. It’s going to be hard to keep up without it.
Andrew: How is a massive upgrade in productivity from flow different from a massive upgrade in productivity from having the latest version of an iPhone or having a new system for filing things away? What does it look like when someone’s in flow? I know I have tons of examples that I’m hoping we’ll get to for athletes being in flow. But what does it look like for someone sitting in an office or on a laptop getting more work done.
Steven: So, flow–let’s just start with a definition. It is defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. More colloquially, it refers to those moments of rapt attention and total absorption. We get so focused on the task at hand that everything else seems to disappear. So, our sense of self, our sense of self-consciousness, they go away.
Time dilates, which is a fancy way of say it passes strangely. More frequently, it will speed up. Five hours will go by in like five seconds, like what happens when you sit down to write down that quickie email and you look up a couple of hours later and realize you’ve written an essay. Occasionally, rarely, time will slow down and you’ll get a freeze-frame effect, from anybody who’s ever been in a car crash.
Throughout, all aspects of performance, mental and physical go through the roof. The physical stuff, as you pointed out, we’re familiar with this. We now know because research into flow has really come a long way in the past 25 years because neuroscience has advanced so quickly. We now know you’re stronger, you’re faster, you’re more agile, you’re more dexterous in a flow state.
But the most important point is so is your brain. Flow amplifies all the basic neuronal processes. So, information acquisition, pattern recognition, our ability to link ideas together, lateral thinking, our ability to make far-flung connections between ideas–all those things are amplified. So, creativity, for example, is all about taking in novel information and finding connections between it, in studies it goes up 500-700 percent in flow. Teresa Amiable at Harvard figured out that heightened creativity outlasts a flow state by a day, sometimes two days. So, in a world where innovation, innovate or die is sort of the rule, massively amplifying your creativity, massively amplifying your productivity, we see the same kind of step function in change in motivation.
A key point in business–the most recent Gallup survey found 83 percent of workers disengaged or actively disengaged on the job. It means four out of five of us hate what we do with the majority of our time. The remainder have jobs that produce flow. Flow–and this comes down to its neurochemistry–is underpinned by five of the most–
Andrew: Here’s what I imagine in a very specific way–you’re a journalist, so maybe this is an example that you can relate to. Tell me if this is what I’m aiming for. I want to sit down and write the perfect blog post.
When I’m in flow, I do it without looking for excuses and get up. I want to go into a meeting and convince somebody of my worldview. When I’m in flow, I’m completely in the zone of understanding what they’re doing, reacting to their issues in real-time, but being at my most persuasive self. Those are the kinds of things that I’m picturing. Am I right?
Steven: Absolutely. You pointed out that most people think of this associated with athletics. We’ve done a giant survey, kind of a flow diagnostic. Over 9,000 people have taken it. It’s one of the largest studies done in optimal psyche. 48 percent of people who have taken it find the most flow doing knowledge work or creative work, so your two examples exactly.
Andrew: All right. You’re a guy who discovered this or got into this back when you got Lyme disease. What was it like have Lyme disease?
Steven: It’s sort of like the worst flu you’ve ever had crossed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Andrew: Paranoid schizophrenia, I’ve never had that. What’s that like?
Steven: That’s not an exaggeration. People with Lyme are often misdiagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. It totally affects your physical function. It’s like a really terrible flu, as I said. Memory–you hallucinate. Your short-term memory decays. It goes away completely. Long-term memory is totally gone.
Andrew: Did you start thinking your friends are going to kill you?
Steven: I got a little paranoid. Paranoid wasn’t the main thing, but I did hallucinate all the time. I’d do things like I’d be at a red light and the light would change to green and I know would no longer know what green meant. Things like that were pretty common.
Andrew: You said that you had ten percent functionality. What does that mean?
Steven: It means I could actually get up and live my life about an hour a day, maybe, tops. The rest of the time I pretty much laid on a couch and moan.
Andrew: Wow. So, when you’re friend came over and said, “Let’s go surfing,” what did you think?
Steven: I thought it was the dumbest idea I had ever heard. I couldn’t walk across a room, let alone get a surfboard. I would have never said yes on that particular occasion, but she wouldn’t leave. I was exhausted and frustrated and finally I said, “Yes, let’s go surfing today. Whatever,” just to get her to shut up.
Andrew: So, you finally get out there. I picture you just being carried out to the water, being put out on a surfboard.
Steven: One arm on each other, giant surfboard, big as a Cadillac.
Andrew: Yeah. I figure like a baby. You’re just being placed there and you’re hoping you’re going to get some sun and go back in. But that’s not what happened. You weren’t just lying there.
Steven: Well, I had surfed. I had a little bit of muscle memory. It had been five years since I had been on a surfboard and three years that I had been in bed. But 30 seconds later, a wave came and a wave. It was a tiny, tiny wave, like a two-foot slider. But I spun the board around and it took one paddle, maybe two and I climbed to my feet. I went from an incredibly sick, depleted reality into the most profound flow state I had ever experienced. Of course, at that time I had no idea it was called flow. I thought I popped up into another universe.
Andrew: So, your body was doing more than you could. Is it because when you were in ten percent . . . let me rephrase it. Is it because your mind reduced you to ten percent before or is that your mind afterwards overcame the Lyme disease?
Steven: So, we want talk about the science too much, but there are a bunch of neurochemicals that get dumped in the brain during flow, almost immediately. Among other things they have huge pain relieving functions. You get endorphins, 100 times more potent than medical morphine–huge amounts of pain relief.
So, I went from feeling massive pain load in my body to that was gone. That alone was an enormous relief because I hadn’t been free of pain in years. That was part of it. Flow massively amplifies all your physical abilities and your mental abilities at the same time. So, I got use of my brain back. Who knows if it was my full brain? I had been so diminished for so long. Suddenly I felt like I had a brain again. So, those two things alone kept me coming back for more.
Flow, as we know–and this is Herb Benson’s work at Harvard–it amplifies the immune system. It sort of calms the nervous system down. With Lyme disease, which is an inflamed nervous system and nervous system gone haywire, when you calm the nervous system down and pump the body full of immune-boosting neurochemicals, major things happen. You get a fast return to help, which was what I got. And then I got this giant question like, “What the hell is happening to me?” Surfing is not supposed to cure an autoimmune condition. What was going on? That’s where a lot of this started.
Andrew: Did it cure it? Did you get cured of Lyme disease because of this experience?
Steven: I went from about 10 percent functionality up to about 80 percent functionality. That jumped back and forth for a while. To get from 80 back to 100 took another five, six years. But yeah, I have very little Lyme anything in my system at all. I function normally.
Andrew: So, now anyone hearing this for the first time is going to think, “This guy is a hippie mystic who’s going to be selling us on some hippie ideas. But that’s not who you are. Talk a little bit about your background.”
Steven: My background, I’m a science writer. I’ve written for, I think, over 80 different publications at this point. I published seven bestselling books, the vast majority of them on science. When I came into all of this, that was my exact reaction. I couldn’t stand the New Age. I was a hardcore rational materialist. The first thing that happened when I started trying to figure out what was going on with me, these experiences I was having in the waves were quasi-mystical to me. I’m a rational materialist. I don’t have quasi-mystical experiences.
So, Lyme is only fatal if it gets into your brain. I was certain I was having these experiences because the disease had gotten into my brain and I was going to die. It was going to kill me and that was it. So, when I started out, the first thing as, “Am I not crazy?” What I quickly discovered–first of all, flow science goes back 150 years. For the first 50 years of it, we didn’t even know what we were looking at.
We thought we were looking at so-called mystical experience. William James talked about these as mystical spiritual experiences. Maslow came along in the 50s and found flow in this huge study group populated with atheists and thought, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t have anything to do with religion. What’s going on?” He was looking at successful people. He thought flow was all about success. Csikszentmihalyi came along in the ’70s and ’80s and figured out no, it’s everybody. The state is ubiquitous. It underpins ultimate human performance everywhere.
What’s happened in the past 20 years, which is why I got really interested is neuroscience has advanced so much we can peel back the hood. We now understand to a certain extent, what’s going on in the brain that produces these ridiculous changes. So, suddenly we have mechanism. That was what interested me. If you have mechanism, if you’re like, “This is what’s causing it,” you can work backwards and figure, “Well, how do I get more of it?”
Andrew: What’s one mechanism that’s easily accessible?
Steven: So, the simplest thing is we used to believe optimal performance- you’ve heard this, what’s called the 10 percent brain myth, “Hey, you use only 10 percent of your brain. But optimal performance must be the full brain on overdrive.” It turns out we had it exactly backwards. This was proposed by a guy named Aaron Dietrich at Georgia Tech and then Charles Limb at Johns Hopkins used FMRI to visualize it. So, that’s the science if anybody’s curious.
But we discovered is that rather than the brain becoming hyperactive, it actually goes in the opposite direction. It shuts down. So, when we move into flow, the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain back here, turns off. This part of your brain does a lot of stuff. It governs higher cognitive functions, executive functions, morality, will. It’s also where your sense of self lives.
So, when this part of your brain goes away, we can no longer do the calculation. It’s called self. Time is calculated all over the prefrontal cortex. So, why does time pass so strangely in flow? It’s because the parts of the brain that calculate time are literally turning off so we can no longer perform that calculation and we’re plunged into that eternal now that people talk about when you’re in zone. “I’m living in the moment. I’m in the now.” It’s because the part of your brain that can calculate the then is gone.
Andrew: I see. Actually, could you be more practical? If I wanted to be in flow right now–to be honest with you, I’m not fully in flow. Partially it’s because my eye is bothering me. Also because I’m a little intimidated by you because of everything that I read about you and I’m feeling like, “I’m not going to do the best interview possible.” And I want to do the best interview.
I’ll be open with you. The reason I was ten minutes late to start was I wanted more time to prep. The issue was my prep. So, I’m not in the flow the way I often am in interviews. What’s one thing I can do right now?
Steven: So, the reason you’re not in flow–let’s talk about why you’re not in flow. We know flow states have triggers. The most famous one is called the challenge/skills balance. They call it the golden rule of flow.
So, flow takes place when all our attention is focused in the now, right? Flow follows focus. So, for you to be in the zone right now, you’d need to be completely focused. So, emotionally, that space exists between boredom/anxiety. Boredom is, “Hey, there’s no enough stimulation.” Anxiety, which is where you’re at, “There’s too much stimulation.” So, in between is this flow challenge.
To put it in terms of the challenge/skills balance, we pay the most attention to the task at hand when the challenge of the task at hand slightly exceeds our skill set. You want to stretch but not snap. Your problem is you pulled into the snapping zone. So, if you really want me to calm you down, I’m going to take you to three sets of box breathing, which is a mindfulness meditation that the Navy SEALs use. We use it as well. It will calm your nervous system down and make it easier to get into low.
Andrew: I see. So, breathing is going to help me get rid of the extra thoughts. As you were talking, I wanted to do some research–you might have seen my eyes wander because I was doing research–“What has said in The New York Times? What has this other person who you brought up said?” So, breathing is going to keep me from letting my mind go to those activities?
Steven: So, here’s the thing. You’re going to breathe in for three seconds and out for six. You’re going to do it a couple of times. Try to get your exhale for about seven seconds. Here’s the reason–your brain, your fight or flight response is hard-wired to respiration. So, when you’re exhaling for seven seconds, your brain goes, “Oh, he’s exhaling for seven seconds. That’s a really long time. He must be calm.” So, it down regulates your fight or flight response.
Andrew: So, in for three, out for seven.
Steven: In for three, out for seven. In for four, out for eight if you can do it.
Andrew: Okay. How many do you want me to do?
Steven: Let’s just do three in a row. That should be enough.
Andrew: All right. Sure. Is the audience really just going to watch me do this?
Steven: You wanted to calm down and be in flow. This is the quickest way I know how to downregulate your nervous system.
Andrew: Do you want to give us another one while I do this so they don’t just listen to me breathe four times.
Steven: You keep taking deep breaths.
Andrew: I’ll do it and you go through the next one.
Steven: I’ll talk more about flow triggers. So, all the flow triggers–because flow follows focus–all of these flow triggers are quite simply the things that evolution shaped our brain to pay the most attention to. So, when you’re hacking flow, what you’re really doing is using evolutionary biology to your advantage. You’re using breathing because we perform in this sweet spot of attention.
When we’re too wired up, we get gripped. If you’re playing golf, that’s where the yips come from. If there’s not enough energy, we don’t pay enough attention. We need that sweet spot. This, by the way, tell us something really critical about business, which is companies that don’t continuously level up and level up and level up, you’re not keeping them in the challenge skills sweet spot, you’re going to deny them flow, so you’re denying them the best level of performance you can have. Do you feel any better?
Andrew: I do. What you’re saying is if I want the people who I’m working with to feel in flow, I need to give them something that’s always just a little outside of their knowledge base.
Steven: Risk is another flow trigger for obvious reason. Flow follows focus, consequences get our attention. One of the problems that you see often in business is people get into a sweet spot. They’re really good at sales at this particular level. The boss doesn’t want to move them out or anything because they’re great there.
But after a little while, you can sell to those people with your eyes closed and it works easily, you start to get burned out. You start to get bored. There’s no enough challenge. Your performance drops off because you can’t get back to the same place you needed to make that sale. You have to give people the steps to move up and up. If you can’t, you have to lateralize.
Let me give you my favorite example in business, which is Facebook. They came up with something brilliant here. Lateralize means if you can’t move up here, go to the side. Facebook came up with this hack-a-month program. If you work for Facebook for over a year, you can audit the whole company and say, “I might be in cell animation or whatever. I want to move over to marketing.” And you can go work in marketing for a month, audit it. It allows you to lateralize.
The cool thing is this–you would think taking somebody out of coding and putting them into marketing, they’re not really going to produce. But it turns out there are so many flow triggers when you lateralize, there’s so much flow. They end up being very creative. They end up actually contributing a lot.
Once you’re done, by the way, if you like it, you can petition the company and stay there. So, they allow people to lateralize and move up and down, which is really critical if you want to build kind of a flow-based company.
Andrew: When you wanted to learn this, you got to know the research and the researchers. Then what you decided to do was get them all together for a conference. What was the reason for the conference?
Steven: It was very early on when we were just building the Flow Genome Project. I hadn’t actually written “Rise of Superman” yet. One of the things I had noticed–I had written four or five books and I had gotten to know all the top scientists involved. They never talked to each other. The people working on the neurochemistry had no idea what the neural anatomy people were doing, had no idea what the psychologists were doing and it went on and on and on. I kept saying, “Let’s get everybody together in a room, have a conversation and see what happens.
So, we did this. We partnered with the summit series when they had their house out in Malibu. We had a flow salon. We invited 100 of the top experts. We chose artists, academics and athletes thinking the academics had the most knowledge and the artists and the athletes, in our opinion, had the most knowledge of the state itself. We wanted to have a big conversation.
It was an amazing evening. It was very manicured. We tried everything to take control of the conversation to stay within this box and figure out what everybody knew. Within five minutes, the conversation was astral projection over here, alien abduction over here and none of it was flow. I was interested in the hard science. I wanted to put flow in a hard science footing.
That was when I realized I had to write “Rise of Superman” because I had to take all the research that had been done over 150 years and put it in one place at one time so everybody could be on the same page. We’d have a common language.
That was sort of like the PR push at the front edge of the Flow Genome Project. We couldn’t build the Flow Genome Project until people understood that flow wasn’t about the New Age, that it had business applications, that there are long business case studies here and there’s amazing data and amazing opportunity here. So, we had to start there. So, maybe one of the first companies that had to start with a massive PR push to reclaim a word, but that’s what we had to do.
Andrew: And the word was flow that you were reclaiming.
Steven: Flow. Yeah. We had to take it back.
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Steven: I’ve got to tell you, with a leaky eye, that was a phenomenal performance. Well done.
Andrew: Is my eye really leaking?
Steven: It’s really not. I just had to tease you about it. But you could do that.
Andrew: The only reason that I even cared about my eye was I love swimming. This past summer I discovered that I can go to Napa, get some sun, get out of San Francisco’s dreary weather, get some sun. There’s a pool there. So, I’ve been driving up there and swimming and it’s been interfering with my drives, you know?
Steven: Oh, wow. That sucks.
Andrew: It’s just getting in my way, one more thing to get distracted by. So, I said, “If it’s going to bother me when I try to go swimming, I better go handle this.” I will deal with anything until it gets in the way of something I really care about and then it becomes a crisis.
So, you write the book–actually, before I get into the book, I feel like calling it the Flow Genome Project really set it apart from other ideas about flow and also from having people think that it’s a self-improvement project. Where did you come up with that phrase?
Steven: It was my partner’s phrase, actually. Jamie Wheal, who I cofounded the flow genome project with, he had it and he had been talking about it. Genome is obviously a metaphor. There are genetic components to flow. Eventually we will get to the point that those can enter the research discussion. But as I said, we wanted to put flow on a hard science footing. We wanted to decode–people were used to decoding a genome. Also, it sounded great, we thought. But it stuck.
Andrew: It does sound absolutely great and it does communicate exactly what you’re trying to do and it’s not a finished project, which keeps you from sounding like a know-it-all who has got everything figured out and all people have to do is come pay you for something and their lives will be perfect instantly.
Steven: Interestingly, we didn’t actually even start. Our original intentions, training was always on our roadmap, but we started out trying to become the largest open source research project into ultimate human performance in the world, which I think we’ve become at this point. But that was really where this started out. The training stuff–after “Rise” came out, there was such overwhelming demand from the general public and we had never worked with the general public before. We had sort of worked with C-suite executives.
We don’t want to work with HR departments. We wanted to train the leadership and let everybody else come along. That wasn’t our interest. But there was such an overwhelming demand from the general public that we ended up moving in that direction and creating flow for fundamentals, our digital content, and that sort of thing. But it really wasn’t in the original blueprint either.
Andrew: How’d you connect with your partner, Jamie?
Steven: So, when I was first thinking about doing this, I had gotten to know, as we pointed out, a bunch of the top scientists in this column and I kept trying to get them to start a flow research project. A bunch of them finally sat me down, a bunch of neuroscientists sat me down and said, “We can’t do it. Flow is too New Age-y. It’s not in the mainstream. We can’t fundraise for this. But if you do it, we can support you in it.”
So, when they sort of gave that to me, I sent out an email. I rented out a conference room in LA. I sent out an email to everybody I knew saying, “I want to advance flow science and research. If you want to help, come to the Standard Hotel on Sunset Blvd. this weekend.”
Andrew: Great spot.
Steven: And I figured maybe five people from LA might show up. But 25 people from all over the world flew in and I was shocked by this. One of them was this guy Jamie Wheal. We had friends in common. We had been on the phone. He had been doing flow research and flow training on a different side of the fence than I had. We had talked. He came to the meeting. Jamie has worked for Stagen. He’s facilitated for really, really Fortune 500 companies. He’s led really great meetings.
Very quickly, right before this meeting started, I realized my background is as a journalist. I’ve never run a meeting. I’ve got 25 people in from all over the world. I don’t know how to actually run a meeting. I turned to Jamie who I had one phone call with. I knew he had some skills here. I was like, “Do you know how to run a meeting?” He said, “Yeah, I’m really good at it, actually.” I’m like, “Great. I can’t run it. We’ll tag team.”
Watching Jamie run a meeting, it’s like a higher level of kung-fu. Anybody who’s ever been in a meeting like us walks out going, “Oh my god. I didn’t even know you could run a meeting like that. I thought meetings were always a waste of time.” So, he’s got this secret ninja skill that like blew my mind. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had the right partner. That’s how we met.
Andrew: It was a 50/50 ownership of the Flow Genome Project. Is that right?
Steven: It is 60/40 ownership with 60 percent his and we’re moving towards his. The reason is the core IPO, which is Flow Dojo, which is our dedicated research and training facility that we’re now doing an AngelList campaign to raise the seed round for is predominately his idea. So, he gets the majority stake because of that. It’s compartmentalized different ways and we have different ratios depending on where we are.
Andrew: Okay. So, you guys partnered up. You have this idea. You have a book that explains where the idea is and a vision for where the idea is going. It’s time to start getting some customers. How did you get customers?
Steven: We started by capitalizing on the momentum for “Rise of Superman” and we created Flow Fundamentals, our online digital workshops. We followed that up with–
Andrew: Did that come first before you reached out to your network and started working with people one on one?
Steven: Flow fundamentals happened because after “Rise of Superman” came out, people kept reaching out to me on Facebook, through my agents, any way people could get to me saying, “This is amazing. Can you do a training?”
Andrew: “Can you train us in how to get into flow?”
Steven: “Can you train us in how to get into flow? We want more of this.” A lot of people were very, very excited. They had this experience before. They didn’t know it had a name. They had no idea no idea it had hard science behind it. They had no idea they could get more of it. So, we built an online community around this and we leveraged that community into Flow Fundamentals and now we’ve got our second round of training,
Andrew: So, first it was the online community and then it was working with people in person?
Steven: It was both at the same time. We had started Flow Hacker Nation, which was our web presence on Facebook and what not. The way our trainings work, they’re very participatory. So, we have subnetworks, sub-Facebook groups where if you’ve gone through our training and you’re really geeked up about this stuff, we’re there.
So, a lot of the people in there are professionals in other areas. They’re coaches. They’re trainers. They’re people who have taken our stuff and turned it into apps and they’re part of our community. As I said, it’s an open source research project in developing the human performance, so we have a lot of mesh network relationships, co-developed relationships all over the place.
Andrew: Okay. How did you get people–I guess they came online because they read the book and you got them into–does the book even actually lead to a website? I don’t remember seeing that in there.
Steven: Yeah, it does. At the back, it leads you to the rise of superman on the Flow Genome Project website.
Andrew: I see it, right there in the afterword. Okay.
Steven: Simultaneously, I was doing a lot of public speaking, Jamie was doing a lot of public speaking. We’d go in and we’d talk about flow in business and it was all over on both coasts. So, every time I got to go do a speech, I would mention some of the work we were doing at the Flow Genome Project and it built up over time that way. Those speeches also lead into more corporate trainings.
Andrew: You told our producer that you didn’t have much experience in delivering content digitally before. How did you figure out how to turn this into a course that people would want to pay for and participate in?
Steven: Jamie spent a decade working with Stagen doing executive coaching and things along those lines. We took our material together. He turned it into a course. We ran a beta test. We actually ran two. We ended up videotaping the second one, which became Flow Fundamentals. People liked it enough.
The big thing was 50 people signed up for the first course, 100 signed up for the second course. We did after reaction surveys. People were recording five-fold increases in flow, five-fold increases in creativity and three-fold increases in self-confidence. We knew we had gotten something right.
So, in the beginning it was, “Let’s just keep this as Flow Fundamentals because we’re getting results. Let make sure these results are real over time and look at the data.” That’s sort of where it started.
Andrew: What did you learn about teaching properly online?
Steven: It’s hard as hell.
Andrew: It really is.
Steven: I really think you have one of the hardest jobs out there. People don’t realize it because it’s an empty medium. There’s not a whole lot of feedback. There’s not nearly the excitement you have in a television studio. There’s not the kind of bounce of radio voice. It’s a colder medium and you’re sort of talking to a blank screen. It is really, really difficult to be engaging and captivating.
I think what worked with Jamie and me is we’re very, very natural and we also hold opposite poles in public. I think personally we probably are much more closer together. But in public, I am very skeptical in hard science and he is a little more open and culture. The balance and the back and forth, I think, is what really works.
One of the things I saw, even coming with stuff I had done with my books, is that I didn’t want to go–and this is nothing against the information marketing space–but that’s not who I am. I don’t want to peddle ultimate human performance like it’s some other info marketing product. I’m not interested in any of that. So, I had to find a way. How do I do this my way without that hard sell information marketing?
Andrew: How do you do that? I do feel you’ve hit that mark where yes, if I were to look at your business I could say, “This is an info marketing business.” You use content marketing, often it’s either in the form of a book or in content on other people’s sites like Tim Ferriss’ site, Art of Manliness, etc. and it’s just an info business. But it doesn’t feel like that. I’m wondering why. What do you do that keeps it from feeling like an info marketing business?
Steven: A couple of things. First of all, everybody knows what flow is. So, all I have to do is remind you of this experience you’ve had and then tell you you can have more of it. I’m not selling you anything. So, the first advantage is the product, if you want to call it that, is authentic. You’ve already experienced it. All it is is a training on how to get more of it. I think that’s part of it. We don’t try to sell anything.
In fact–and this is really honest–flow is not for everybody. So, if you sign up for one of our advanced courses, the first thing you’re going to get is a letter that says, “Hey, this is not for everybody. If you’ve got serious emotional problems, you should see a psychiatrist. You shouldn’t take our course. We are going to make things worse. You’re playing with very addictive neural chemistry here, really fundamental evolutionary drivers and you have to be an adult about it.” This stuff can go wrong. There’s a chapter in “Rise of Superman” called “The Dark Side of Flow.” So, we’re very open and honest and we’ve always been open and honest.
The other thing is two big information marketing things–let me scare you into buying my thing. We never scare anybody into anything if we can avoid it. We don’t delude you with anything. You get very few emails from us with our stuff and we’re always trying to offer more than we’re taking in that equation. We’re very palm-up and transparent about it as much as we possibly can be.
Andrew: I think a lot of science also keeps you from feeling like you’re an info marketer.
Steven: A lot of science. Our board is the world’s top athletes and top scientists. It’s a very kind of legitimate serious company. Look up FGP online. Peter Diamandis taught me to always launch above the line of super-credibility. I took that to heart. We did that in the Flow Genome Project.
Andrew: Quick sponsorship message and then I’m going to get to where you’ve gotten to with the business. The sponsorship message is for Toptal.com. If you’re looking for a developer, all you have to do is go to Toptal, tell them the kind of developer you want, tell them about the kind of environment you want the developer to work in. Is this someone who’s going to be working full-time, part-time, etc.? They will connect you with the right person.
All you have to do is go to Toptal.com/Mixergy. If you do, they’re going to give you 80 free developer hours. We’re talking about the top developer hours, top 3 percent. These are their peers who are rating them. Top 3 percent developers, really solid people. All you have to do is go to Toptal.com/Mixergy.
You know, you are right. It is a cold medium in the sense that I could tell if I’m trying to persuade someone on the phone if they’re–
Steven: Absolutely if it’s working.
Andrew: If they’re agreeing, if there’s any objection, am I missing something? When I do a message for my sponsors, I can’t tell that. And it’s hard to know, “Should I keep pressing the gas on this one approach?” Or should I press the break and look for something else?
Steven: I think we’re going to get the latency out of video and bandwidth is going to come. You’re going to be doing this in virtual reality in a couple of years anyway and that’s going to change the whole equation.
Andrew: I did kind of like when I did these interviews live with a live audience watching me via video. But that also has its downsides because then I play too much to them. I can see that they hate this one thing, so I walk away or they’re egging me on in this other direction and I go towards that.
There’s this Onion video about panelists who all get to see the ratings. You know when you watch a debate. They’re all watching the ratings and they’re all getting completely carried away with what they want to say instead of what they believe. That’s what was happening to me when I was doing it live.
Where is the business now? How much revenue are you guys generating?
Steven: We’re in and around half a million dollars a year. That’s in speeches, trainings. We’re starting–I’m not supposed to name names yet. But we’re starting to do very large corporate trainings. We’re working with top Fortune 500 technology companies, consulting firms, software firms. These are all pilot programs. Obviously we’re going to go from a pilot program with 100 people if it works–early signs are all that they’re working–to 50,000 people. So, that’s worth–
Andrew: 100 people in a company?
Steven: 100 people in a company now.
Andrew: Isn’t that going HR, then?
Steven: No. We haven’t come in that way.
Andrew: How do you come in?
Steven: Usually with top-tier sponsors who have come in and then we’ve run a pilot project that we’ve opened to the company and then it will be training up to the leaders at that level.
Andrew: What do you mean? They sponsor your event and then you bring it in to their people.
Steven: Well, usually I come in for a speech and then they’ll bring me in and then they’ll bring me in for a training. We’ll do a set number of people but they’ll open it up to people. We want to get metrics. We don’t want to say, “Hey, let’s come into your company. We can train up your employees. They’re going to be X,” without being able to prove to you that this is true. We’re really a data company. We’re about gathering the data and ultimate human performance. So, every time we’re doing one of these, we also are gathering more data.
Andrew: So, what’s one time that you were able to help a company measurably improve?
Steven: Yeah. The stuff that we’ve been doing, obviously people want to keep a lot of it on the QT.
Andrew: You don’t have to give me the name of the company, but you can still give me some data.
Steven: Well, some of the best data has come from–so, with that challenge/skills balance, there was this idea that one of the original flow science had that it can be a 4 percent difference between challenge and skills. That’s how much you need to step up your game–4 percent, 4 percent, 4 percent. It was a sketchy, back of the envelope calculation. We did some tests on it. We liked it a little bit more.
A friend of ours took it into his startup, a team of about 20 people, and has been applying it for about a year now steadily. And not only has he kept people in flow, what’s really interesting and really exciting, at a creative level, nobody’s really plateaued, which is really interesting. Normally with insights you get a handful of them, you plateau for a little while, you get a handful more, you plateau for a little while.
The coolest thing I’ve seen is there are no plateaus in innovation and creativity and their performance has crept up and up and up. We’re actually seeing this across the board, even with Flow Fundamentals with our digital training. We’re a year, year and a half out. Most people are reporting that they’re seeing increases a year and a half out. We thought we would see decreases. We thought there would be drop-off. We can’t account for that, but we’ll take it.
Andrew: You told our producer there would times when you would be on the floor–what was this? Your head would be down on the floor. You’d be pounding the floor and you’d just feel like you were going haywire. What caused you to do that most recently?
Steven: That comment came from writing frustration. What I said is that even if you get really, really good at this, you can still get locked out of flow for very long stretches, right? In the course of any book, I find there’s at least two times when I find myself face-down on the floor pounding the floor. I don’t even know how I got there. For years I thought to myself, “Oh my god, you’re just mad. You’re just absolutely crazy. If anybody saw this, they’d think you were totally nuts.”
And I was listening to this David Foster Wallace interview before he took his own life. He said, “You know, sooner or later in every book, you find yourself face down on the floor pounding the floor for no reason.” I thought to myself, “Thank god I’m not the only one.”
Andrew: That’s the thing that drove me nuts about–actually no, it didn’t; it happened to him–Stephen King’s book, “On Writing,” where it felt like he was constantly in flow. He just did not ask himself, “Where is this book going?” And he kept going to flow. I take it back. There was one book that made him almost pound the floor in frustration. He said he started going for long walks. It was “The Stand.” But everything else seemed to just come right out of him.
Steven: I read “On Writing” and you’re right. He doesn’t really talk about the frustration of writing at all.
Andrew: He seems to always be in flow.
Steven: First of all, with a lot of those, kind of the pop fiction writers, their volume of production is so high, I just do think they rewrite. I think they get into flow and what comes out first goes to a team of editors who work on it and that’s how they solve that problem.
Andrew: So, there’s no second guessing themselves, just let it happen. I think he even said that.
Steven: It’s sort of like improv jazz musicians, right? If you’re only always playing improve in front of a live audience, you’re going to have a lot easier access to flow than if you’re practicing eight hours a day.
Andrew: Tell me about inner-flow. I was hoping to spend more time on that. What is inner-flow?
Steven: I don’t actually know that.
Andrew: In the book, you talk about inner-flow and you give this story of Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, who’s a diver. And as she dives in, because of the way she’s thinking about the dive, she’s able to change her performance in mid-dive. Am I right?
Steven: Yeah. So, we talked earlier–yes, you’re absolute right. Mandy-Rae, she is an astounding woman who set like seven–never even knew anything about free hold breath diving–started dating Kirk Krack, who’s a free hold-breath diving master. He trained her up. In a handful of years, she set seven world records, kind of an amazing, amazing thing that she did.
Andrew: From a novice?
Steven: From a novice. A lot of it had to do with–flow has triggers. We’ve talked about this. The trigger I gave you an example of is a psychological trigger. So, what you mean by inner-flow is there are three internal triggers for flow states, psychological triggers. There are also external or environmental triggers.
But the three internal triggers, we talked about the challenge/skills balance. The other two are immediate feedback and clear goals. Immediate feedback–this is critical in business and I think this is something everybody can do. If you want to keep your attention focused on the now and you want more flow, you need to know how you’re doing.
So, most businesses have quarterly performance reviews or annual reviews. It’s not the kind of feedback you need. I have a guy on my staff whose job it is to tell me, “Is the stuff I’m writing today boring, confusing or arrogant?” If those three things are right, the piece is usually right. It’s the minimal feedback I need for flow.
So, we teach people if you’re not getting the feedback you need at work to keep your attention focused in the now, find a friend, partner up, get on the buddy system. Get that feedback you need. Make it a regular ritual. It will keep your attention focused on the present. It will drive flow.
So, the thing about free hold-breath diving is it’s an aquatic–it’s nothing but feedback. It’s a giant immediate feedback. She got instant feedback. If she screwed up and panicked for a second, she felt that pressure. So, she had immediate feedback all the way down. Clear goals–most people know to set goals. We know goals boost performance a huge amount. Just setting goals–if you look at the psychological data, it’s a 25 percent boost.
Clear goals is where people screw this up. What matters to flow is I know what I’m doing and I know what I’m going to do next. So, you can keep your attention focused and it’s very small goals. Entrepreneurs screw this up all the time because they take on goals that are way too big to be clear and they don’t know how to get there from A to B.
With free hold-breath diving, it’s, “I’ve got to make it the next ten feet. I’ve got to make it through one swim cycle, next cycle.” It’s clear goal, after clear goal, after clear goal. Action sports is great for that, one of the reasons action sports athletes get a lot of flow in their lives–packed with flow triggers. We can obviously take what they have done and import that into our lives.
Andrew: All right. Final question–our producer asked you what question didn’t we think to include in this interview. You said, “How flow can cut those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell said it takes to…” to do what?
Steven: To get to mastery.
Andrew: To get to mastery. That’s the word. How do you cut that in half with flow?
Steven: So, quick shorthand for how learning works in the brain is the more neurochemicals that show up during an experience, the better chance it moves from short-term holding into long-term storage. Flow cocktails six of the brain’s most potent pleasure-inducing neurochemicals. It’s a huge cocktail. It’s the only time you get this cocktail. As a result, the stuff that you learn in the state tends to stay with you.
So, researchers at the US military found that snipers in flow could learn target acquisition skills 50 percent faster than normal. They re-did that with novice archers, marksmen and handgun shooters, I believe, took novice, never fired a weapon before, trained them up to the expert level in flow, 50 percent less time. We see this in other studies. So, what it suggests is we know that it takes about 10,000 hours to get to mastery if you trust Malcolm Gladwell’s numbers. What the science suggests is that flow can cut that in half.
Andrew: All right. That’s a good place to end it. I promised you that we would be done at the top of the hour. The website is FlowGenomeProject.co. The book is available everywhere. But I like it from Amazon. Do you know that you guys are basically giving away the book on Amazon right now?
Steven: No, I didn’t. But Amazon has cut some great deals for people. They have always been a huge supporter.
Andrew: They’ve cut a deal with you? Is that what it is?
Steven: Yeah. The published through Amazon. Amazon teamed up with New Harvest with Houghton and their hardback in print.
Andrew: I see. Not only is it available on Kindle, but I’m a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. I love reading books. It’s available for Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Unlimited audio, which means for free I got to buy your book, which I kind of felt a little guilty about because we were doing the interview.
Steven: It doesn’t matter. I still get my royalty.
Andrew: That sounds awesome. Yeah. Kindle Unlimited is a really good deal if the books that you like happen to be in there. Frankly, if there’s one that you want to start off with, like “The Rise of Superman,” you might as well just get it on Kindle Unlimited because then you get the book included for free for less than the price of the–the monthly fee for Kindle Unlimited is less than the price than the Kindle version of “The Rise of Superman.” So, it’s a good deal. Anyway, it’s a good book beyond the deal.
Thank you so much for being in here. I’m going to keep practicing my breathing. I appreciate you being here and everyone else being a part of Mixergy. Thanks everyone. Bye.