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By Alyson Nyiri, CHRP

If you’re envisioning crates of Red Bull as another means of motivating performance, then you might just be on to something. Author, journalist and director of research for the Flow Genome Project, Steven Kotler, has just released a new book on the science of what he calls ultimate human performance.

In The Rise of Superman, Kotler combines meticulously researched neuroscience with real-life stories of professional athletes’ experiences with flow and tremendously heightened performance. HR Professional caught up with him at his ranch in New Mexico, where he extrapolated on how ultimate performance applies to our working lives.

What is flow?

When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first pioneered the term flow in the early 1990s, he defined it as the psychology of optimal experience. He discovered that when individuals are actively engaged in using their capabilities or skills in the service of meeting a defined goal, they experienced flow more often and were more productive and satisfied with their lives. Flow, or being “in the zone,” happens when we engage our skills with a challenge on an ever-increasing trajectory. This leads to an amplified sense of mastery and self-efficacy, leading again to an increase in the skill-challenge ratio.

Human performance

Investigating human performance is not a new pursuit. Many disciplines, from archeology to psychology, have researched performance for over a hundred years. Much of what we know about human performance stems from various early evolutionary processes, such as learning to hunt as a group and in cooperation with other carnivores. Later studies began to look at how society functions and how individuals functioned within systems, such as organizations.

In the last 25 years, we have seen a huge leap forward in what we know about human performance. Why? Neuroscience, according to Kotler. He discusses how neuroscience and neurobiology allow us to “peek under the hood” to see the actual chemical transformations taking place as a person learns a new task and, under certain circumstances, experiences flow. We now have the ability to work backwards and figure out what is triggering the state of flow.

The best possible version of ourselves

Kotler delves deeply into the flow experiences of sports athletes. Their ability to make critical decisions mean the difference between life and death, making mastery of flow a necessity. Neurobiology shows us the specific neurochemical changes happening in the brains of athletes during a flow experience. As these athletes move through the stages of flow, their focus tightens and the brain stops multi-tasking; concentration is total and decision-making is near perfect. The doors of perception narrow, allowing the athlete to assimilate and apply incoming information with more speed and accuracy than non-athletes.

And the rest of us? Kotler says athletes do not have a monopoly on flow. Flow is ubiquitous and can be accessed by anyone, provided certain conditions are in place first. We need the right mix of challenge and skills. We need to be pushing ourselves to ever-increasing levels of performance. And that push needs to be driven by something that is intrinsically motivating to us – it is in actively pursuing things we love that we find the “best possible version of ourselves.” The more emotionally powerful the experience, Kotler says, the more chance the details of that experience get moved from our short-term storage into long-term memory. Flow increases our performance over time resulting in long-term successful mastery rather than the short-term success.

The 10,000-hour rule

This brings us to the idea of practice. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule, whereby a person can only achieve mastery of something by practicing for an accumulation of 10,000 hours. However, new developments in neuroscience suggest otherwise. In a recent TED Talk, neuroscientist Chris Berka, CEO and co-founder at Advanced Brain Monitoring, demonstrated how neuroscience has led to a breakthrough in learning, effectively cutting the 10,000 hours in half. Utilizing the latest neurotechnology, Berka’s team mapped the brains of experts in various fields, such as scientists, marksmen and golfers, and used the neural map of their brains to cut training time of novices.

Can flow be found at work?

A 2013 McKinsey study finds that top executives in “flow” are five times more productive than out of it, which suggests that flow can indeed be found in the workplace. The McKinsey study discovered that for peak performance to occur, IQ and emotional intelligence (EQ) are necessary. Meaning quotient (MQ) is also required; MQ is described as involving high stakes, excitement, a challenge and something the individual feels will make a difference. The authors of the study point out that when a business environment’s MQ is low, employees put less energy into their work and are less engaged, resulting in a substantial opportunity cost of lost productivity.

Flow for individuals and groups

Flow states occur when we are engaging in something meaningful to us and our skills are being challenged at incremental levels, and it can be done alone or with a group. Organizations, says Kotler, are built to allow and reward vertical mobility.

“If you want to be a flow-based organization, you will have to figure out how to incentivize horizontal mobility,” he said. “People have to be able to follow their passion, follow their curiosity and follow things they are intrinsically motivated by.”

For example, to encourage lateral thinking, Facebook offers a “hack-a-month.”

“You can go anywhere in the company for a month and if you like it, you can petition to stay there,” said Kotler. “This allows you to constantly increase the challenge/skills ratio and allows you to lateralize if you are stuck.”
Facebook, though, has prioritized group flow. Using open office plans and putting teams of people working on specific projects at walking desks facing each other, group members can see and respond immediately to other members’ frustrations or enthusiasm.

The future of flow

Flow research continues, and is fertile ground for new ways of improving performance, production, motivation and commitment in organizations. With the release of his new book, Steven Kotler and colleague Jaime Wheal have launched the Flow Genome Project. The project is a trans-disciplinary, international organization dedicated to “mapping the Genome of Flow by 2020 and open sourcing it to everyone.”

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