The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler: Book Overview

What’s The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler about? What is a flow state? How does flow impact your brain and life?

In recent decades, athletes have been shattering performance barriers at a faster rate than ever before. In The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler, he argues that mastering flow is the secret to these, and other, seemingly superhuman feats.

Read on to learn about mastering flow in our brief overview of The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler.

The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

In The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler, he argues that mastering flow, or a state of deep focus, is the secret to performing at your best and unlocking your higher potential. He credits flow as the reason athletes have been shattering performance barriers in recent decades at a faster rate than ever before—climbers scaling harder routes, surfers riding larger waves, and runners running faster races, and he writes that harnessing flow will allow you, too, to achieve your most ambitious goals. Whether you’re tackling a business plan, a coding contest, or a climbing route, anyone can unlock this state of mind for better performance results.

Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and founder of the Flow Research Collective, which studies the neuroscience behind peak performance. He’s authored numerous other bestselling books including The Art of Impossible.

What Is Flow?

Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman defines flow as a mental state of deep, sustained focus. When in flow, you experience optimal engagement, enjoyment, and performance while doing an activity. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi originated the concept of flow in the 1960s while studying motivation and performance. When he interviewed different people about the times in their lives when they’d performed at their best, the participants all mentioned this state of effortless focus.

(Shortform note: In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi describes two surveys he conducted to study what made experiences enjoyable: one interviewing experts and the other surveying average individuals. Through the descriptions his interviewees provided, Csikszentmihalyi found that activities you enjoy naturally encourage the full engagement and peak performance effects of flow—in other words, enjoyment of a task is the foundation of flow. He concluded that for something to be enjoyable, you must feel a sense of growth and accomplishment and that you’ve changed as a person. To encourage more enjoyment in your life, he suggests you regularly seek new challenges in your daily activities.)

According to Kotler, we can learn a lot about flow from extreme athletes because of the high risk level of their sports. With their lives on the line, these athletes have mastered the ability to become intensely focused and tune into the states of their minds. However, while athletes specialize in it, anyone can train themselves to achieve flow. The first step to unlocking it for yourself is to understand what happens in your brain when you’re in a flow state.

(Shortform note: In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman agrees with Kotler that flow is trainable, adding that you can unlock flow through motivation, discipline, and practice. Discipline and practice are generally considered key to athletic achievement, so it may be the case that disciplined practice in itself leads to athletic gains, with or without the presence of flow. However, discipline and practice likely aren’t enough for extreme athletes, who, due to the risk involved with their sport, must achieve an exceptionally high level of focus in addition to athletic prowess.) 

The Brain in Flow

In addition to activating new regions and waves during flow, your brain also releases neurotransmitters that enhance your performance. Neurotransmitters are chemical messages that your brain cells (neurons) send in response to external stimuli. They communicate commands to your body and affect everything from your mood to your physical reactions.

According to Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, your brain releases five neurotransmitters when in a flow state (dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamides, and serotonin). These improve your ability to perform in two ways:

  1. They increase focus and energy. Dopamine and norepinephrine improve your ability to focus and recognize patterns. Additionally, when your brain releases these feel-good chemicals, you experience a burst of energy and excitement.
  2. They calm and relieve pain. Endorphins and anandamides lower your sense of fear and pain while elevating your mood and ability to think creatively. As you exit the flow state, your brain releases serotonin, which gives you a final sense of pleasure.

The Cycle of Flow

In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler cautions that unfortunately, you can’t enter a flow state on command: Flow consists of four steps, and you must cycle through pre-flow steps before you can become truly focused. However, by understanding the four phases of flow, you can learn how to begin the cycle and enter flow more easily. Let’s look at those four phases.

Pre-Flow

In order to achieve a flow state, you must first experience a phase of challenge and frustration. Without a high degree of mental exertion, your brain won’t release flow-inducing signals. For example, if your overall goal is to program a mobile app, the mentally taxing challenge you experience might be resolving a difficult bug in the code.

To move past the first struggle phase and progress toward flow, Kotler says that you must take a break and step away from the challenge. When you do this, you release the frustration you’ve been experiencing and make way for the five neurochemicals of flow to arrive.

Flow

Once you’ve relaxed your mind, refocus on your task, as doing so will often trigger your jump into flow. With your frustrations cleared away, your intuition can take over and your brain can release the neurotransmitters that allow you to be absorbed in accomplishing your task. You’ll experience a sense of control and fluidity while working.

For example, when you make a new attempt to debug your code, you might find yourself noticing mistakes in your code that you’d overlooked when your brain was overwhelmed and tired.

Post-Flow

After the flow state is over, Kotler recommends you take time to relax and process what you’ve learned. Maintaining a state of intense focus uses a lot of energy, and it’s important to recharge. In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to rush into more challenges rather than allow ourselves time to rest. However, if you don’t give yourself time to recharge, you may find it harder to get into the flow again.

Ways to Encourage Flow

Although learning to achieve more flow in your life is a process, we can explore strategies that make it easier to enter a flow state. In addition to taking a break from a challenging task, Steven Kotler explains in The Rise of Superman that there are several conditions that can trigger your brain to enter a state of deep focus.

Once you’re ready to return to a challenging task, try seeking engaging environments, setting focused challenges, developing a growth mindset, and finding a community.

Seek Engaging Environments: The first method to encourage focus is to seek an environment that activates your senses—one that is new, unpredictable, and stimulating. Kotler explains that when you’re in an unfamiliar environment, you naturally pay more attention to your surroundings because new situations contain more risks to your well-being. We’ve evolved to be highly attuned to such threats, which prompt our brains to release neurotransmitters that give us energy and focus. This means that when your surroundings are new and uncertain, focus comes more readily.

Set Appropriate Goals: The type of task you set out to accomplish also factors into your ability to focus. Since enjoyment is necessary to find flow, Kotler suggests that you find something you want to achieve because you’re internally motivated to do so rather than because of outside influence. He also suggests separating your goal into small yet challenging chunks, ensuring your goal is manageable so you don’t feel overwhelmed by the challenge.

Develop the Right Mindset: Kotler explains that many people can feel overwhelmed and get stuck at the first stage of finding flow, when they’re initially struggling with a challenge. Kotler says that developing a growth mindset is key to progressing beyond early frustrations. When you have a growth mindset, you believe your abilities can be improved with time and work. Kotler says that only when you believe you can improve can you push your performance limits.

Find a Community: Kotler says that surrounding yourself with a community of like-minded people can help you achieve flow and perform better. He explains that interacting with a group naturally satisfies several conditions that encourage flow. Since humans are social creatures, we tend to be more attentive when others are around.For instance, you might naturally perk up from a slouch when your work partners walk into the room.

The Impact of Flow

Now that you understand how flow works and how you can unlock this state of mind, let’s discuss the broader implications of pursuing flow.

According to Kotler, while flow is a powerful tool for growth and improvement, it has its downsides as well. By enhancing your ability to perform, flow encourages you to work at and push beyond your limits. Then, when you’ve achieved your most ambitious goal, you’re likely going to set even more ambitious ones.

When this happens, Kotler warns that there’s a risk of burning out or raising expectations so high that they become unwise or even dangerous to pursue. The world of extreme sports is full of such examples, with many athletes pushing themselves past their limits to the point of injury and even death. Additionally, the pleasurable feeling of being in flow can become addictive. Kotler states that people can be frustrated or depressed if they’re unable to get in a flow state for a long time.

When we’re mindful of the risks, however, flow can be a powerful learning tool to improve your personal life as well as society as a whole. On an individual level, as you experience more flow in your life, you’ll naturally become more creative and innovative as a person, allowing you to handle harder challenges and progress more rapidly toward your goals.

The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler: Book Overview

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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