Peak performance. That’s our goal.
To perform at the highest levels, we must tap into four cognitive abilities: motivation, learning, creativity, and, most importantly, flow, Steven Kotler tells us in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.
Yesterday, we looked at the importance of intrinsic drivers to maximize motivation. We engage in activities and behavior when intrinsically motivated because we find them interesting and internally satisfying. Intrinsic drivers, Steven tells us, include psychological and emotional forces such as curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and mastery.
To tap into our curiosity and passion, we begin by making a list. Steven recommends using pen and paper rather than a computer: “There’s a powerful relationship between hand motion and memory, which means, for learning, pen and paper triumph over laptop and keyboard every time.”
Step one: We write down twenty-five things about which we are curious. “By curious,” Steven writes, “all I mean is that if we had a spare weekend, we’d be interested in reading a couple of books on the topic, attending a few lectures, and maybe having a conversation or two with an expert.”
One key? Be as specific as possible. We don’t write down football or punk rock or food. “These categories are too vague to be useful,” Steven observes. “Instead, be curious about the pass-blocking mechanics required to play left tackle; the evolution of political punk from Crass to Rise Against; or the potential for grasshoppers to become a primary human food source in the next ten years.”
Specificity like this provides our brain’s pattern recognition system with the information required to connect our ideas.
Step two: Hunt for intersections. Once we have our list, identify where our twenty-five ideas intersect. “Say both grasshoppers as a food source and the mechanics of playing left tackle are on our list,” Steven writes. If we’re “into pass-blocking mechanics, [we] ‘re probably also interested in the nutritional requirements necessary to play left tackle. Insects are exceptionally high in protein—would they make a good football food?”
Steven’s point? Curiosity alone is not enough to create true passion. A better strategy is to find areas where three or four items on our curiosity list intersect. Because that’s where we find energy. “By stacking motivations, that is, layering curiosity atop curiosity atop curiosity, we’re increasing drive but not effort. This is what happens when our own internal biology does the heavy lifting for us.”
Step three: Play in the intersections. Now that we’ve identified areas where our curiosities overlap, we want to spend time learning about and investigating the intersections.
“Devote twenty to thirty minutes a day to listening to podcasts, watching videos, reading articles, books, whatever, on any aspect of that overlap,” Steven writes. If we’re “interested in supply-chain management in the health care industry and you’re also curious about artificial intelligence, then it’s time to explore the advantages and disadvantages that artificial intelligence brings to supply-chain management in the health care industry.”
Our objective is to feed our curiosities daily, a little at a time. “This slow-growth strategy takes advantage of the brain’s inherent learning software,” Steven writes. Once again, “we’re letting our pattern recognition system find connections between curiosities that make us even more curious—which is how we cultivate passion.”
We also want to pay attention to the history around the idea and the language and terms used. Here we access our brain’s love of story. “History is a narrative,” Steven writes. “Every subject is a voyage of curiosity. Someone had a question, someone answered that question, and this led to another question. And another. And another. Lucky for us, our brains love narrative—which is nothing more than pattern recognition over time.
If we “pay attention to historical details as we play around in a new subject, our brain will naturally stitch these details together into a coherent story via our biological need to link cause with effect. It’s automatic.”
When our brain puts together the narrative, it functions “like a giant Christmas tree. All the little details we learn along the way are the ornaments. But having this big tree—this overarching structure—makes those ornaments easier to hang. We don’t have to work as hard to remember them,” Steven writes. “If we construct that narrative, we’ll see learning rates increase and time to mastery decrease.”
Step four: Go Public. “Cultivating real passion isn’t an overnight process,” Steven writes. To amplify our passion, we need to experience positive feedback from others.
The goal here isn’t to overdo it and deliver a TED talk. Rather, “simple conversations with strangers will get things going. Walk into your neighborhood bar, start chatting with whoever sits next to you, and teach them about the stuff you’ve been teaching yourself,” Steven suggests. “Then do it again. Talk to a different stranger, tell a few friends about your ideas, or join a meetup devoted to the subject. An online community. A book club. And if one doesn’t exist, start your own.”
The final step is to amp up our intrinsic drivers by turning our passion into purpose. “Passion is a potent driver,” Steven notes. “Yet, for all of its upside, passion can be a fairly selfish experience. Being all consumed means you’re all consumed. There’s not much room for other people.”
Purpose acts to open us up. “Purpose shifts our attention off ourselves (internal focus) and puts it onto other people and the task at hand (external focus). In doing this, purpose guards against obsessive self-rumination, which is one of the root causes of anxiety and depression,” Steven writes. “By forcing us to look outside ourselves, purpose acts as a force field. It protects us from ourselves and the very real possibility of being swallowed whole by our new passion.”
And there’s more. “Purpose acts as a rallying cry, inspiring others and attracting them to our cause,” notes Steven. “Other people provide actual help. Financial, physical, intellectual, creative, emotional—they all matter.
Reflection: How can I heighten my intrinsic motivations? What am I curious and passionate about?
Action: Follow Steven’s five-step process to document my passions.