Achieving Peak Performance With Flow

Achieving a ‘state of flow’ is touted as a sure formula for success in any endeavor. It is a transcendental state wherein one is at the optimal best while truly enjoying the task at hand and achieving peak performance. The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler offers an insight into how top performers in extreme sports can push boundaries, and achieve feats time and again. It examines the correlation between their peak performances and their ability to get into the ‘flowstate’ or ‘the zone’.

With examples of performers from extreme sports, Kotler shows the connections between neurology and flow state, how to induce it, achieve it, and how to use it to enhance performances.

What is the Flow State?

The flow state is a state of the mind where the performance of an individual is at the peak. It is a state wherein the individual is completely immersed in the activity, task, or work at hand – so much so that the surrounding environment seems to melt away, making the experience profoundly spiritual.

In the flow state, often, creative output and problem-solving capabilities are enhanced. When Laird Hamilton rode the ‘Millennium Wave’ off the Tahiti coast, he performed a ‘never-been-done-before’ move of placing his hands on the opposite side of his board in the water, to prevent himself from getting sucked into the hydraulic, just as the wave began to break near the coast ridden with reefs. This creative insight came to him because he was in a state of flow during the surf, without which, he would have died.

Many describe the flow state as a spiritual experience, where they have heard the voice of their subconscious creative intuition.

Dean Potter, the famous climber, attributes his success at climbing the Fitz Roy icy mountain (three times the size of New York’s Chrysler building), to his inner Voice that guided him. During his climb, he made 670 ‘correct moves’ without any equipment. Even one wrong move would have resulted in death.

In the flow state, many have experienced the phenomenon ‘egoloss’, a sense of becoming one with their sport, where they cease to exist as individuals.

The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler
The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

Flow State And Neurochemistry

The experience of ‘flow state is tied to neurochemistry. As an individual experiences flow, the brain releases chemicals that help augment the state and its experience.

  • Dopamine – Dopamine helps in sharpening one’s focus and finding new solutions. It helps the brain in adjusting signal-to-noise ratios, essentially to filter what is useful from all the information received. It also helps manage the feeling of excitement, desire, and engagement to explore and reward with the ‘good feeling’ for exploratory behaviour.
  • Norepinephrine – It boosts skill and helps in maintaining focus. It also increases blood sugar and thus energy. Norepinephrine is known to speed respiration and heart rate, making sure that the muscles don’t wear out. It also helps in increasing arousal, attention, and emotional control, keeping one focussed.
  • Anandamide – Combined with norepinephrine, anandamide boosts creativity, increases lateral thinking (the brain’s ability to make new connections), and helps reducing feelings of fear. This makes one more comfortable with testing new ideas.
  • Endorphins – Endorphins primarily relieve muscle pain, giving extreme athletes the ability to endure when they push their bodies to the limit. They are more powerful by a factor of one hundred than any medical morphine.
  • Serotonin – Serotonin is released in the body after one achieves the state of flow. It gives one the ‘afterglow’, and keeps one coming back for more

The neurochemicals are vital in the experience of the flow state and are responsible for the ‘feeling’ itself, as well as the physical abilities that are connected with being in the flow state.

Parts Of The Brain That ‘Switch Off’

If the flow is a state of peak performance, the brain must work in overdrive, ensuring that the parts responsible for complex thought are whirring in action.

However, on the contrary, some parts of the brain actually switch off during the flow state. This happens due to the process of transient hypofrontality, in which parts of the prefrontal cortex that controls complex thought shuts down. The superior frontal gyrus, responsible for introspection and self-awareness, begins to shut down when a person gets immersed in any task.

Additionally, the orientation adjustment area that helps a person orient oneself in relation to their surrounding environment slows down as well. This leads to the feeling of ‘oneness’ during an intense flow state, for example, the feeling of being one with the universe during deep meditation.

If the brain slows down or shuts down certain parts, what leads to peak performance?

A decrease in self-awareness leads to less doubt and increased action on novel ideas. While it can be argued that in extreme situations, for example, living in the wilderness, will require extreme prudence, a decreased self-awareness is detrimental. However, in extreme sports, where split-second decisions are required to escape death, not being able to second-guess can have its pros.

The lack of inhibition when these parts of the brain turn off, prove to be advantageous when success is dependent on creative split-second decision.

Flow Means Engagement And Setting Achievable Goals

Once a person experiences the flow state, it is natural to want to re-experience it. In order to recreate that experience, one must endure meeting the following conditions – 

  • Firstly, the activity itself should be its own reward, essentially, the task should be rewarding intrinsically. For example, a person who wants to run a marathon should firstly, love running, thereby feeling a sense of accomplishment even after a long run. This condition is essential for others to follow and help achieve the flow state.
  • Second, one needs to achieve a high level of absorption and concentration on the task at hand. One needs to be focused on the present moment to achieve this. Thus, while training for the marathon, the person will have to concentrate on his breathing to avoid thought that could distract.
  • Thirdly, the task should be challenging and not impossible to do. the task needs to have the right level of difficulty, without which, entering a state of concentration to achieve flow state is near impossible. Studies have placed a difficulty level of 4% higher than a person’s current skill level to successfully concentrate.
  • Once a person enters the flow state, they will need to achieve continuity. In order to continue to be in the state of flow, one has to have clear goals to maintain concentration. These goals have to be immediately attainable. They cannot be the same as the life goals one set. For example, if the person’s life goal is to run the marathon, then the immediate goal to maintain the concentration for the flow state could be keeping a track of the number of road signs he/she passes. Each sign passed becomes the immediate goal achieved.

The Right Mindset

What makes the top performers of extreme sports excel? Is it hard work and dedication, or natural talent?

The way one chooses to answer these questions determines one’s ability to perform at the highest level. This brings up the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

  • Fixed Mindset – A fixed mindset is a belief that skills and talent are innate, that one cannot change this fact, and that one has to work with a limited, predetermined level of skill. Such people think, ‘I wish I had the talent’, rather than, ‘What can I do to achieve that?’ 

They perceive growth as futile by placing unnecessary limits on their ability and progress, making it harder for them to push themselves towards set goals. They believe that they can’t improve, and thus see little improvement.

  • Growth Mindset – People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, perceive talent and skill as results of determination and hard work. They are more open to the possible improvement and potential for growth. They are able to, thus, push themselves out of their comfort zones, and reach their true potential.

An experiment conducted on fort race-car drivers showed that those who had a growth mindset entered flow states faster irrespective of the dangers and misfortunes they encountered and proved to be the top performers out of the group of forty as well.

Thus approaching the flowstate with the right mindset is vital.

Finding Like-Minded, Passionate People

In order to make achieving and maintaining a flow state is to find like-minded people that share the same interests, or join a community that is as dedicated.

Human neurology and the release of neurochemicals, thankfully make creating strong social bonds within communities of like-minded people easier along with enhancing performances. For example, a mountaineering group, which has nothing else in common but the intense climb ahead of them will have a strong social bond form within it. 

This is because being part of a group that shares similar interests can help enhance performances. Moreover, neurochemicals have nothing whatsoever to do with the social backgrounds or political views of others.

Individually, humans tend to attribute extraordinary achievements to flukes. In a group that shares similar interests, any extraordinary feat garners admiration and compliments that increase confidence, encouraging one to further push their limits in achieving the extraordinary.

One of the world’s most extreme sports, double ski BASE-jumping was born from a simple bet. In the days when bungee jumping was new, a group called the Primal House had an ongoing bet. The one, who would come up with the best bungee trick, would win a $2 bill that was tacked to the wall. This bet soon grew to see the formation of BASE jumping and then to double ski BASE-jumping, which included BASE jumping and landing on a ski slope, skiing, and BASE jumping off the mountain again – all in one single move!

Understanding Flow

The mind is perhaps the least understood, most powerful tool humankind has. Its strength, still untapped, can be seen in nascent studies that have been conducted so far.

In an experiment conducted to measure how visualization exercises affect one’s physical strength, participants were divided into 3 study groups. The first group included those who did nothing. The second was asked to increase strength with exercises, and the third group was asked to only visualize themselves doing exercises to build strength.

While it was obvious that the second group showed the most results in terms of increase in strength, it was also found that the third group saw an increase in their strength by 35%, by merely visualizing.

Even novel technologies have shown that neurology affects performance. Technologies such as fMRI and EEG, which measure blood flow and electrical brain activity respectively, have helped understand how the brain state, or the chemical configuration of the brain changes when one enters the flow state. 

These technologies, such as the EEG-based unit BrainSport, are more widely available and compact enough, thus not needing athletes to visit labs to get reading. Additionally, they have reduced the need for anecdotal evidence to understand the how and why of flow, and have created a pool of information to help understand how to use flow.

Pushing To Set The Bar Higher

Humanity has the ability to push the limits and set higher milestones with each passing year. Moreover, with every milestone reached, or groundbreaking innovation made, humans learn something new about possibilities, and that the sky is the limit. This effect of learning is called the Roger Bannister Effect.

Roger Bannister was the first person  – out of many who tried – to break the record of running an under a four-minute mile in 1954, clocking a 3 minute and 59.4 seconds. Bannister’s record was broken only two months later, and then twice again within 5 years. A high school student was able to break the record ten years later.

This showed that Bannister broke the ‘under four-minute mile impossible run’ psychological barriers and changed the perceptions of what is achievable. People’s perception of what is achievable changes with every new milestone that is reached.

In the 1999 X Games, Tony Hawk broke the records in skating by achieving the first-ever 900 tricks (2.5 turns in the air). Tom Schaar, broke the record in 2012 with 1080 (3 complete turns) at the mere age of 12.

Schaar had the benefit of a long line of positive role models, and was able to look beyond possibilities. He, in other words, had a mindset of flow.


A flow state is a state of performing at one peak and doing the absolute best. It isn’t only attributed to talent but has its roots in neurochemistry. Everyone can harness it, because one will have more information on achieving flow in one’s respective field, than the person who achieves greatness before.

The more information available, and the greater the knowledge on peak performances and flow, every next generation will be able to achieve amazing feats!