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The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance Hardcover – March 4, 2014
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“A thrill ride of a book, empowering in its implications of what any individual can achieve.”- Kirkus Reviews
“A fascinating primer on how athletes of extreme sports use flow to accomplish what seem like impossible goals, such as skiing down cliffs or surfing 100-foot waves. But a close reading of the book also provides great insights into how everyday athletes can use flow in their workouts and the rest of their lives.” - Financial Times
“Kotler takes on the latest research on flow through the lens of action and adventure athletics…. [writing] primarily about flow in high-stakes sports like surfing — where focus and concentration can be the difference between a tubular ride and a watery death — but the concept could also have big implications for the business world.” - Fortune
“In this high-octane study, Steven Kotler explores ‘flow’, a neurochemically rich state in which cognitive and physiological processes mesh. The stupendous physical feats of the late ski-base jumper Shane McConkey and others are riveting. Equally surprising is what we know of flow science, such as how the brain’s superior frontal gyrus deactivates to speed decision-making”- Nature
“The Rise of Superman is full of scientific explanations about why flow helps athletes perform at their peak, why this is on the upswing in recent decades, and how almost anybody can better tap their ultimate potential.”- Surfer Magazine
“Kotler focuses on extreme sports for good reason. These athletes face a constant choice, “flow or die,” and his book contains some compelling characters…Flow is rooted in the brain, and Kotler does a good job of explaining that science.”- The Washington Post
“In Kotler’s riveting and beautifully written book, he explains the neuroscience behind the mystery of the flow state, and provides the key to unlock innovation, creativity and ultimate achievement for leaders, entrepreneurs and anyone interested in the big and bold.” - Peter Diamandis, New York Times bestselling author, founder of the X Prize, co-founder of Singularity University.
”The Rise of Superman is an electrifying book about a potent state of mind. If you aren’t inspired to brainhack your way up to the next level, start again at page one.”- David Eagleman, Neuroscientist, New York Times bestselling author of Incognito.
“The Rise of Superman is a page-turning, game-changing account of the secrets of ultimate human performance—a must read for anyone interested in seriously raising the level of their game.- Ray Kurzweil , Director of Engineering at Google, author of How to Create a Mind and The Singularity is Near
”In THE RISE OF SUPERMAN, Steven Kotler breaks down the elusive and ecstatic ‘flow state’ that so many high performance athletes, musicians, and artists refer to as indispensable to their creativity and virtuosity – and in doing so, offers us a map to achieve massive upgrades in our capacities and potential.”- Jason Silva, futurist, host of National Geographic’s Brain Games
THE RISE OF SUPERMAN is a tour de force. Rare the book that is learned, clever, fascinating, and useful. This book is all four. Inspiring, impeccably researched, and supremely practical, Kotler’s book is a must-read for everyone who wants in on the secrets on how to surpass their personal best. - Ned Hallowell, New York Times best-selling author and Harvard Medical School psychiatrist
About the Author
Steven Kotler is a bestselling author and an award-winning journalist. His books include the non-fiction works: Abundance, A Small, Furry Prayer, and West of Jesus, and the novel The Angle Quickest for Flight. His articles have appeared in over 60 publications, including: New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, Popular Science, Outside, GQ, and National Geographic. He writes “The Playing Field,” a blog about the science of sport and culture for PsychologyToday.com.
Kotler is also the co-founder and director of research at the Flow Genome Project, an international organization devoted to putting flow state research on a hard science footing, and the co-founder of the New Mexico-based Rancho de Chihuahua dog sanctuary.
He has a BA in English/Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and an MA from the John Hopkins University in Creative Writing.
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Top customer reviews
The book seems filled with lots of talk of flow state with the very occasional timid suggestion of reproducing the state. Weak read.
Kotler is by no means the first author to write about the flow. The term was inaugurated by a book entitled “Flow” first published in 1990 by a University of Chicago Psychology professor named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in the process of conducting a study on happiness. He found that happy people tended to engage in activities in which they could immerse themselves and find the zone. Contrary to the early part of Kotler’s book--in which it sounds like adventure athletes cornered the market on flow--Csikszentmihalyi says that said activity could be work or hobby and that the flow is to be found in poetry writing, yoga, martial arts, copy writing, or potentially any activity in which the skill level and challenge are both high.
(To be fair, Kotler does get around to recognizing that extreme athletes neither invented nor exclusively exploit the flow. However, his—well-taken—point is that such athletes are unusually good a finding, and dropping deep into, the flow in part because risk-taking behavior is an important trigger. And for free climbers [rock climbers without ropes], mega-ramp skateboarders, and bodysuit skydivers sometimes there are only two possible states of existence—the flow and being scraped off a rock.) It should be noted that some of the elements of flow sound a lot like the states that have been described by various mystical religious traditions for centuries, e.g. the dissolution of a feeling of separation between self and the rest of the universe. Warning: religious readers may find it disconcerting to read that there are scientific explanations for states that were once attributed to communion with god or the like.
While I’ve given Kotler’s book high rating, I haven’t yet given one reason to read it—and I do recommend people read it. First, while Csikszentmihalyi is the “father” of flow research, his methods were decidedly low tech--i.e. surveys and interviews—but Kotler reports on more recent studies involving neuroanatomy, neuroelectricity, and neurochemistry. Second, while Kotler delves into the science of the flow, he does so in a manner that is approachable to non-scientists. Finally, all of the narrative accounts of extreme athletes interspersed with the more technical commentary make for a very readable book, even if one is not particularly knowledgeable of—or interested in—such sports. I gave this book a high rating both for its food-for-thought value, and because of its high readability.
I will admit that I was not so enamored of the book when I first began it, and other readers may find the same irritation. For one thing, Kotler’s adoration of extreme athletes comes off sounding like diminishment of mainstream athletes and others involved in “flowy” activities. A prime example of this is seen in Chapter 1. Kotler gives us an endearing description of how gymnast Kerri Strug won the gold in the 1996 Olympics by sticking a landing on a shattered ankle. However, he then comes off a bit douchey when he suggests that Strug’s achievement pales in comparison to Danny Way’s skateboard jumps at the Great Wall of China.
For another thing, in his zealousness to prove that extreme sports practitioners are full-awesome while mainstream athletes are “meh,” Kotler makes some comparisons that seem apples and oranges to a neophyte such as me. If they are fair comparisons, he certainly doesn’t explain why they should be considered so. The best example of this is when he states that Olympic divers took decades to achieve increases in rotation that extreme skiers and skateboarders surpassed in much less time. This seems unreasonable for two reasons. First, divers have a very standard distance in which to achieve their acrobatics. In other words, they don’t get to build a “mega-platform” that’s 50% taller like Danny Way creates “mega-ramps” that were bigger than ever before. Of course, if you can increase the distance between yourself and the ground you can increase your spins, rotations, or whatever much more quickly (yes, your danger goes up vastly, I’m not diminishing that.) Second, the divers gained zero advantage from technological improvements, but the same cannot be said for skiers and skateboarders. In other words, if you go from skis made of oak to ones made of carbon nanotubes (that are 50 times stronger and 1/100th of the weight) of course you’re going to make gains faster.
Perhaps, I’m overstating Kotler’s disdain for mainstream athletics, but that’s what happens when one uses a national hero as a set up to show how much more awesome a relatively unknown skateboarder is (among skateboarders Way is extremely well-known but he’s not a household name as the Olympian was--at least for a short time in the late 90’s.) I suspect that Kotler was just trying to convince a general audience that the athletes he’s speaking about aren’t pot-smoking knuckleheads who are as likely to be seen on <i>America’s Funniest Home Videos</i> crushing their nads on a handrail as setting a new world record. These men and women are serious people engaged in serious activities, and they give it their all. They do deserve more respect for that than they are probably given by broad sectors of the populace. Perhaps, the importance of what these folks are achieving does need to be conveyed because the demographic that reads books and the one that follows extreme sports probably has wide wings of non-overlapping area. (I’m not saying skateboarders are illiterate or bookworms don’t skate--just that the Venn diagram has substantial areas of mutual exclusivity.)
As I indicated above, in each chapter we get both some insight into the nature of the flow and its triggers and stories of adventure / extreme athletes that serve as examples of what’s being discussed. In chapter 2 we learn what the flow looks like in terms of brain waves (i.e. high theta/low alpha, or between meditation and a relaxed / resting state of wakefulness.) In chapter 3, we learn about the neuroanatomy of the flow in terms of what areas of the brain it lights up, and that it’s at least as important what areas shut down. In chapter 4, we learn about the neurochemistry of the flow and that a cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin makes up the chemistry of flow, but, critically, not so much with the adrenaline. The subsequent chapters deal with triggers of the flow, and what conditions best set up achievement of this state of mind.
Chapter 9 stands out as an important, but quite different, portion of the book. It deals with the downside (or dark side) of the flow. This has a lot to do with the fact that the aforementioned internal substances (and the flow state in general) are quite addictive. While it’s unfair to say, and unlikely, that the extreme athletes Kotler writes about (i.e. the ones at the top of their games) are drug addicts as some might assume of skate boarders, snow boarders, and the like, it may not be unreasonable to say that they have a kind of monkey on their backs—albeit a perfectly legal one.
As I’ve said, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in this state of mind. One needn’t be interested in extreme sports to get a lot out of the book.
The strengths in this book are also some of the weaknesses. You will gain a new appreciation of action sports heroes that deserve greater recognition. Discover the accomplishments of legendary surfer Laird Hamilton, skateboarding sensation Danny Way (although you will gain more from watching the documentary "waiting for lightning" which is available on Netflix), rock climbing fanatics Alex Honnold and Dean Potter, among others. I knew many of the stories but Steven Kotler is a journalist and knows how to trigger intrigue. The concept, science, and applications of entering into the deep psychological state of flow plays second to Steven's attempts to draw you into the death defying feats in sports. Let me be absolutely clear - if you are uninterested in adventure sports, you will not enjoy this book.
I'll give you a few examples of what I mean. Kotler describes amazing physical feats that only someone familiar with the sport can visualize:
In describing a skateboarding move by Danny Way, he writes, "Moments later, he kicks off the contest with a seventy-foot, 360 mute grab over the gap and a McTwist - an inverted backside 540 with another mute grab - out of the quarterpipe."
In describing another skateboarding move, he writes., "In 2011, Bobby Brown threw the world's first Triple Cork 1440 - which is four spins and three flips, and all off-axis."
Or there is Alex Honnold's climb up Half Dome where he writes, "Up a zesty finger crack, then a few easier pitches, then one of the route's trickier sections - a nasty boulder problem above a small ledge."
It is tough to describe a kayaking, surfing, skateboarding, mountaineering, or skydiving journey and many times, I had to re-read sections over and over to get a visual image. It was because of this that I ended up putting this book down several times. And when I returned to reading, I usually received ample reward. Perhaps the best chapter in the book is Chapter 2 with the focus on revolutionary accomplishments on two separate occasions by Laird Hamilton on a surfboard. Completely immersed in huge waves, Laird instinctively attempted moves that no surfer had ever talked about or seen before. These moves changed the landscape of surfing and you can envision every detail. In this particular chapter, you could understand how Laird in the state of flow transformed his skill set, himself, and then everyone who heard about the events. (years of training leading to moments of deep concentration, a loss of self-consciousness, a sense of control in a task that slightly exceeded his skills)
In other sections of the book, I wasn't fully convinced that flow could be given credit for innovation. More accurately, I felt as if flow was being oversold as the panacea for reaching our potential.
So why did I give the book four stars? Because this book is one of the best on the topic of flow. The description of the conditions that increase the likelihood of flow states ("flow triggers") are clear and distinguished from the actual experience itself. The neuroscience research and discussions of the quantified self offer a new window into what it feels like to be in flow. You won't learn much about how to apply the knowledge about brave action sport characters to your own life, but then again Steven Kotler doesn't make this promise. This is an interesting read, the author is an excellent writer (despite the caveats listed above), and I walked away thinking more deeply about the importance of entering into this state of flow when I write, work out, and spend time with other people. For this, I am grateful for the time spent.
Somehow the Shaolin monks are never mentioned. A non-extreme-sport lifestyle dedicated to surpassing "normal" and engendering on-demand flow capability.
The book did not transport me into a flow state.