When I saw the impossible for the first time, I was nine years old. This was 1976, the bicentennial year. The supplier of the impossible was my younger brother. He was seven years old.
It was late afternoon. Brother had come home from a friend's house, greeted Mama and immediately pulled a bright red sponge ball from the front pocket of his mud-spattered jeans.
My brother held it in his right hand, calmly placing the ball in his left hand, clenching his fist and holding up the closed appendage so everyone could see it. Someone was asked to blow on it. Mom made the honors. And then my brother opened his hand and blew into my thoughts ̵
Well, for most, a vanished sponge ball is not a decent trick. But remember, I'm nine and have never seen a disappearing ball. Still, I knew that my little brother was not magic. So there had to be an explanation, an ability, a method. This was an amazing realization. It meant that the impossible had a formula. And more than anything I ever wanted, I wanted to know this formula.
Which explains a great deal about what happened next … Next I started to study prestidigitation. Card tricks, coin tricks, even those damn sponge balls. When I was ten years old, I was essentially living in Pandora's Box, the local magic shop.
Magic flourished in the 1970s. Top magicians went on a regular tour and made a stopover in Cleveland, Ohio where it all went down for reasons beyond comprehension. That was ridiculously lucky. It meant that sooner or later anyone who was anyone in this world would come to my world. As a result, I got to see the impossible up close and all the time.
The most important lesson of those years was that, no matter how insanely unlikely a trick appeared at the front end – just like this missing ball – there was always a method at the back of the head. Impossible had a formula.
This discovery has never left me. In fact, I have spent my entire professional career searching for these formulas. And not just in magic. The answers I discovered were the food for my books. The Rise of Superman for example, was a study of action athletes who are expanding the boundaries of physical possibilities and redefining the boundaries of our species. In Tomorrowland it was innovative inventors who turned science fiction ideas into technology. In 19459011 Bold it was entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson – the ones who had created impossible business empires in record time.
And what did I learn in all this work? Whenever the impossible becomes possible, we see the results of a state called flow.
For anyone unfamiliar, flow is defined as the optimal state of consciousness in which you feel best and give your best. It's the peak moments of total absorption as you focus on the task at hand so that everything else disappears. Action and consciousness merge. Your sense of self disappears. Her sense of time is distorted. Throughout the area, all aspects of mental and physical performance go through the roof.
The reason is biological. Each of us is hardwired for optimal performance. The river is universal – a built-in function of human machines. The condition shows up at any location, provided certain initial conditions are met.
So, what are these initial conditions? It has been found that flux states have "triggers", which is the technical term for preconditions leading to more flux. There are twenty in all: ten people drive one person into flow and ten do the same for a team (and create the common, collective version of the state or "group flow").
What all these triggers have in common is attention. Flow does not show until all of our attention is focused right here – so the prerequisites are: setting up your mind and driving the mind into the present moment.
And those who have achieved this impossible, what have they done better than most? They have prioritized the flow by incorporating these triggers into all aspects of their lives, maximizing the time they spend in the state. That's the real secret.
To study this phenomenon in more detail, I founded the Flow Genome Project in 2013 together with high performance expert Jamie Wheal. We are one of the largest open source Human Performance research projects that continues to engage in the study and training of peak states such as Flow.
Interestingly enough, when we started this business, one of our basic assumptions was that teaching people to use these triggers would be pretty damn hard. But over the last five years we have learned one of the clearest lessons – and after working with people who have been widely publicized by experts like the US Navy SEALs – the river is remarkably easy to train.
For example, a few years ago, we teamed up with Google for a six-week collaborative learning exercise. Working with about sixty Googlers from across the company – sales, marketing, facilities, engineering and whatever – we have them in four high-performance basics (and I mean basic skills – like getting enough sleep at night) and using four Flow Trained systems triggers. Everyone did about one hour of homework a day. After six weeks, we saw an increase in fluxes of 35 to 80 percent. And that is not a one-time thing. In our online training we see an average increase of 70 percent (we measure for seven different government indicators).
These are amazing numbers. And that does not mean that our Kung Fu is exceptionally bad. They mean that people are hardwired for high performance. With a little knowledge of how the system works and some practice, we can all make a significant difference in our lives.
How to Trigger the River
One way to start is to understand the main flux triggers. I will sketch four of them below. Learning how to use them is the key to learning how to increase the time we spend in this state.
Trigger 1: Complete Concentration
The flow requires complete absorption in the task at hand. One of the easiest ways to maximize the flow is to minimize the distraction. Turn off your phone, turn off the email, and attach a Do Not Disturb sign to your door. Research shows that 90 to 120 minutes of uninterrupted concentration blocks work best. Our recommendation – prioritize the flow by making the first 90 minutes of your day at a time when you can block the world and prioritize your most critical task. This is one of the main reasons why action and adventure athletes were so good at generating flow – they work in incredibly high risk environments. For those of us who are not interested in physical risks, you can take intellectual, creative, or social risks. The most important thing is to learn to take on challenges consistently, to take the risk and use it to get your attention.
Trigger 3: Immediate Feedback
Immediate feedback means we know where we are and where we are going. Therefore, we do not have to draw our attention from the present to correct the course. Back when I was doing magic, it always meant doing tricks in front of a mirror. Today, as a writer, this means an incredibly close relationship with my editor. Whatever the case, tighten up your feedback loops. Forget about annual or quarterly progress reports that tend to work better on a weekly if not daily basis. If this is not available to you at work, you will find a feedback partner – someone who will help you with the tax.
Trigger 4: Balancing Challenge and Abilities Balance of abilities is the main trigger for the flow. The idea here is that we pay the most attention to the task when the challenge of the task exceeds our capabilities. But only a little. The goal is to stretch, but not to snap. That can be difficult. Since this sweetspot is located just outside our comfort zone, it is necessary for you to learn to feel unwell.