1: “Human flight is an ancient dream. It took us five thousand years to go from the first winged human cave drawing to the Wright brothers putting their Kitty Hawk launch into the record books,” one of author Steven Kotler‘s mentors told him. “Yet we didn’t stop there. Next it was transatlantic flight, then space flight, then the first lunar landing,” Steven writes in his book The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.
“History is littered with the impossible. Our past is a graveyard for ideas that have held this title,” the mentor continues. “In each case, impossible became possible because someone figured out the formula. If you don’t know the formula, it looks like magic. But now you know better.”
Steven experienced this reality first-hand as a journalist in the early 1990s, writing about extreme sports. He was “lucky enough to spend the better portion of the next ten years chasing professional athletes around mountains and across oceans,” he recalls.
Exhibit one: Surfing.
Surfing has been around for nearly two thousand years. During that time, progress has been extraordinarily slow. “In the millennium between the fourth century AD, when the sport was first invented, and 1996, the biggest wave anyone had ever surfed was twenty-five feet,” writes Steven.
“Everything above that was considered beyond the realm of human possibility. Many people thought the laws of physics prohibited surfers from paddling into waves larger than twenty-five feet.”
Then, suddenly, everything changed. After centuries of little or no progress, during the past twenty-five years, surfers have completely rewritten the rule book. Today, they “routinely paddle into waves that are sixty feet tall and tow into waves that are over a hundred feet tall,” Stephen observes.
And it isn’t just surfing. Progress of this magnitude was happening everywhere in action sports, from snowboarding and skiing to skydiving and rock climbing.
What Steven witnessed as a journalist during this time was “eye-popping. It was amazing. And it didn’t make any sense: Feats that were, three months earlier, considered absolutely impossible—never been done, never gonna be done—were not just being done, they were being iterated upon.”
He became consumed with understanding what was happening. How it was happening. Why it was happening.
And, most importantly: “If it could happen for me or you.”
Steven took his “obsession with this question into other domains. In the arts, sciences, technology, culture, business—pretty much every area imaginable,” he writes. “What does it take for individuals, organizations, even institutions, to significantly level up their game?
2: After decades of chasing an answer, what did Steven learn? “Whenever the impossible becomes possible,” he writes, “there’s always a formula.”
Steven uses the term formula “in the same way that computer scientists talk about algorithms, as a sequence of steps that anyone can follow to get consistent results,” he notes.
His book The Art of the Impossible is “in a very real sense, a practical playbook for impractical people. It’s designed specifically for those of us with completely irrational standards for our own performance and totally unreasonable expectations for our lives.”
He defines the impossible as a kind of extreme innovation. “As a category, impossible is all the stuff that has never been done before and, most believe, will never be done. These are the feats that exceed both our capabilities and our imagination. They lie beyond our wildest dreams in the most literal sense. Paradigm-shifting breakthroughs. Four-minute miles. Moonshots.”
He labels this category of achievement “Capital I Impossible.” Which is different from what he calls “Lowercase i impossible.” This latter phrase refers to “those things that we believe are impossible for us. They’re the feats that no one, including ourselves, at least for a while, ever imagined we’d be capable of accomplishing.”
An example? Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Steven wanted to be a writer. This goal was “lowercase i impossible” because “other than putting pen to paper on a daily basis, I had no clue how to proceed. I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know anyone who even wanted to be a writer. There was no discernible path from A to B. No internet, few books, no one to ask. It was my own private impossible.”
This instance of lowercase i impossible applies in our own lives as well. Be it “figuring out how to get paid to do what we love,” he writes. Or “rising out of poverty; overcoming deep trauma; becoming a successful entrepreneur, CEO, artist, musician, comedian, or athlete, or generally world-class at what you do.”
What do all these challenges have in common? “There is no no clear path between points and, statistically, very poor odds of success,” he writes.
3: But it doesn’t have to be that way. Steven has spent decades researching this subject and training people to overcome the odds.
It starts with biology. Not personality.
Because biology scales. Personality doesn’t.
“In the field of peak performance,” he writes, “too often, someone figures out what works for them and then assumes it will work for others. It rarely does. More often, it backfires.”
Why? Because personality varies widely. “Traits that play a critical role in peak performance—such as our risk tolerance or where we land on the introversion-to-extroversion scale—are genetically coded, neurobiologically hardwired, and difficult to change,” Steven notes.
“Add in all the possible environmental influences that come from variations in cultural background, financial means, and social status, and the problem compounds.”
The short answer? What works for one person is almost guaranteed not to work for another.
Biology is different, however. Biology scales. “It is the very thing designed by evolution to work for everyone,” Steven writes. “If we can get below the level of personality, beneath the squishy and often subjective psychology of peak performance, and decode the foundational neurobiology, then we unearth mechanism. Basic biological mechanism. Shaped by evolution, present in most mammals and all humans.”
To accelerate ourselves on the path toward peak performance, toward the impossible, we must apply and amplify four cognitive abilities: motivation, learning, creativity, and, most importantly, flow.
Reflection: What’s on my list of “lowercase i impossible” achievements I would like to achieve in my lifetime?
Action: Journal about my answer to the question above.