January 11, 2021
Below is a lesson from Steven Kotler’s “Art of Impossible”, a practical playbook for peak performance, as well as our key learnings.
The Blue Courage team is dedicated to continual learning and growth. We have adopted a concept from Simon Sinek’s Start With Why team called “Learn, Share, Grow”. We are constantly finding great articles, videos, and readings that have so much learning. As we learn new and great things, this new knowledge should be shared for everyone to then grow from.
The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer
By Steven Kotler
What Is AoI About?
The Art of Impossible is a practical playbook for peak performance.
Put differently, we are all capable of so much more than we know. It doesn’t really matter what the “more” that you want is—maybe you want more productivity; maybe you want a more meaningful life; maybe you want to be the first person to live on Mars—the formula is always the same.
Why? We’re all human, we all share the same biology, and the secret to peak performance is getting our biology to work for us rather than against us. How do you do that? That’s what the Art of Impossible is all about.
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In much broader terms…..
History is littered with those moments in time when the impossible became possible.
This could be athletic impossibles like the 4 minute mile or intellectual impossibles like Einstein’s theory of relativity or cultural impossibles like Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus or innovative impossibles like the Wright Brothers flying for the first time.
Over the past three decades, these moments have been the focus of my work. I’ve spent thirty years studying how people pull off the impossible in every domain imaginable: sports, science, technology, business, art, music, culture, even in “impossible” altruistic endeavors like environmental cause work (saving a rainforest or protecting a dying species) and animal rescue etc.
During this period, I have worked with the very best of the very best in all of these domains and done extensive neurobiological research into what allows individuals and teams to pull off such extraordinary feats. Everything I’ve learned over this period has since been systematized into an easy-to-follow how-to format that anyone can use to significantly improve their lives and their performance—this is what Art of Impossible is about.
If I were to summarize the key lessons from all that work in a four major bullet points, here they are….
- We are all capable of so much more than we know—this is most consistent lesson from all my time on the front lines of extreme performance improvement. All of us contain everything we need to tackle the so-called “impossible,” and far more of us than we would ever suspect, have the ability to actually achieve the so-called “impossible.”
Put differently, with very few exceptions, while all the people I studied in that period, became exceptional human beings who accomplished exceptional things, very, very few of them started out that way. Sure, you will occasionally meet someone who won the genetic lottery—a superstar naturally-gifted athlete; a legitimate Einstein-ian genius—but this is so rare that it’s almost not worth talking about.
As a rule, most impossible slayers start out just like you and me, but what ends up making them exceptional is the hyper-development and exceptionally devotion to and application of four cognitive skills sets: motivation, learning, creativity and flow.
It is also worth noting that these are catch-all terms that describe categories of skills—a more rigorous breakdown is below.
Motivation technically refers to: intrinsic motivation—skills such as: curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy and mastery. It also refers to all the skills required to sustain motivation over the long haul: Persistence, grit, resilience, the ability to delay gratification, the ability to overcome fear, and three different levels of goal-setting.
Learning means both the ability to acquire new skills and the ability to gather and acquire new knowledge. It also demands an understanding of the meta-processes that surround learning—things like the scientific method, first principle thinking, or the tools of investigative journalism etc.—that are all ways to validate what you’re learning. Finally, learning involves developing self-awareness—that is, being able to understand and regulate your emotions, being able to identify and cultivate your strengths, being able to identify and train up your weaknesses, and being able to control your thought patterns (optimism, pessimism, mindset, locus of control, etc.)—and social awareness, or things like active listening, empathy, and good communication skills.
Creativity is a set of skills because creativity is a process. The ability to produce novel ideas that are useful—the technical definition of creativity—actually requires a whole subset of talents: information gathering, problem identification, idea generation, pattern recognition, decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, risk-taking, idea execution and such. So creativity is a stand-in term for all of these additional skills.
Flow is defined as “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” More specifically, when we talk about flow, we are talking about a state of consciousness that significantly amplifies many of our other skill sets. These include: motivation, productivity, learning, creativity, empathy, collaboration, cooperation, communication, fulfillment, meaning, purpose, passion and joy. Thus, flow is a meta-skill that turbo-boosts a ton of other skills.
- Everyone is hardwired for peak performance. There is NO secret. Human beings are biologically-designed to tackle incredibly large challenges. In fact, everything we might consider “peak performance” is quite simply getting our biology to work for us rather than against us. That’s it.
This is also why Art of Impossible takes a “neuroscientific approach” to human performance. If you want more of a skill—say flow, or motivation—neuroscience gives us basic biological mechanism: How the system works, how we can get the system to work for us, and how to get it to work for us in a reliable, repeatable manner (by anyone, at any time, ever).
Too often in peak performance, someone figures out what works for them and tries to teach it to other people. But too many basic traits that impact human performance, things like risk-tolerance or introversion v. extroversion, are genetically determined and locked into place by early childhood experience. This is why what works for me is almost always guaranteed not to work for you.
But neurobiology scales. It is the very thing evolution designed to work for everyone. Thus, if you can get your neurobiology to work for you rather than against you, you significantly improve performance.
What’s more—and this is a crucial point—the system wants to work that way. We humans have been built for taking on large challenges and when any system isn’t used for the purpose it was designed for—bad things happen. In fact, a great many of the “dis-eases” that plague our modern world—anxiety, depression, overwhelm, burnout, lack of meaning, lack of purpose, loneliness etc.—stem from people not fulfilling their potential.
The brilliant psychologist Abraham Maslow once explained it this way: “Whatever a person can be; they must be.” We are hardwired to exceed our limitations and fulfill our potential and doing anything less is, quite literally, bad for us.
Simply put: Not going big is bad for us.
- Our Potential is Invisible—Especially To Ourselves. The main reason that most people don’t realize they’re hardwired to tackle impossible challenges (or achieve hard goals) is that human capability is an emergent property.
Emergence is a technical term—it means the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A hurricane is a classic example. You can’t look at a tropical storm and see a hurricane. Sure, you can detect many of the elements that combine into a hurricane—gale force winds, heavy rain, etc.— but the actual thing is not there until it’s there. The hurricane emerges from the all of these individual parts but it’s a much greater whole that is only truly visible after the fact, after it emerges.
Human beings are the same. Human capability is an emergent property. Learning is an invisible process. It takes place out of sight of our awareness. Our individual experience is “you’re bad until you’re better.” This means, we can only learn what we’re capable of by using our skills to the utmost and stretching way beyond our comfort zone, over and over again. This is actually how we discover what we’re capable of….
- It’s a system! One of the most important things that Art of Impossible does for peak performance is it systematizes the entire body of scientific knowledge. Right now, there are books written about tiny pieces of the puzzle—Atomic Habits for example. Sure habits are important, but they’re part of a larger system that includes dozens of other elements. Fixing any one element will help performance, but not a ton. The reason is you need to big picture and all the elements in it. Plus, our biology is designed to work in a certain order…do this first, do this second etc. If you don’t know the entire system and the order it’s designed to work in then, it’s hard to accomplish much. But with knowledge of the big picture, then it’s really just a matter of applying yourself. In other words, this book takes all the guesswork out of performance improvement.