In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler examines and investigates the science of the ultimate human performance, a rare phenomenon found among top athletes. The author finds that high performing high performing athletes enter and remain in a state of flow which enables them to produce an extraordinary performance. The flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness and oneness which makes an individual perform at his best limit through maintaining their best feeling during the performance. The flow is a form of transformation which anyone can undergo at any time after meeting certain initial conditions. However, the author finds that the majority of the population are subconscious about their full potential which impends them from entering the state of flow. According to Kotler, the flow state has various characteristics.

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One of them includes long periods of undeterred concentration where a singular task is performed in deep focus and in solitude. Secondly, flow states have clear goals which enable the mind to remain focused. Another characteristic of the flow state is the direct and immediate feedback which provides ways of improving the performance in real time. The flow state also entails a balance between the challenge and skills such that the challenge is slightly higher than the skills of a performer. Once in my twelveth-grade year, I had to use the four characteristics to cross a river through a logged tree while in a camping excursion. When injured during flow states, Danny Way, Shane McConkey, and Dean Potter were able to overcome the injuries through balancing challenge and skills; however, the three athletes had different motivations.

Danny Way is a devoted skateboard athlete who once tried to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard. Way encountered numerous adverse conditions in this fete, putting his life on the line. While trying to jump over the Great Wall of China, Way under-jumped the gap and fell for over fifty feet fracturing his ankle. With a fractured ankle, Way went back and tried to jump over the wall for the second time. This time, he was able to overcome the pain, enter the flow state, and maintain the flow state. He successfully jumped over the wall and did it four more times. According to Kotler (14), Way was able to withstand four G’s (four times his weight) while in the flow state. Way did this by balancing between his skateboarding ability level and the impending challenge. According to Csikszentmihalyi (45), the challenge/skill balance is an internal flow trigger which holds that total consciousness is obtained when there exists a relationship between the ability of an individual to perform a task and the difficulty in performing that task. The anxiety created by the thoughts of successfully undertaking the fete while injured related to the boredom that Way had after doing the same thing (Skateboarding) over and over again. He was able to find a mid-point between the anxiety and boredom which enabled him to stay in the flow state.

Shane McConkey was an American skier who was also able to stay in the flow despite injuries and adverse skiing condition. While skiing in 1993, Shane was trying to do a double backflip down a cliff. In the first instance, he landed on his head, not only injuring himself but also worrying his companion, Winter. However, having been challenged by the injury, McConkey was able to find a balance between the challenge and his ability which set him in the state of flow. In the flow, Shane was able to do a rare jump referred to as the giant, naked spread-eagle. After cheating death, Shane refused to accept that there might be skiing limits that he couldn’t achieve. Similar to Way, McConkey was anxious about the danger posed by the jump and the injury in the first jump. However, in a bid to outdo the boringness of lifelong skiing, he found a mid-point between the boringness and his own anxiety.

Dean Potter was a climber who was able to climb one of the world’s most dangerous mountain to climb, Mount Fitz Roy. The climber was able to overcome ferocious weather and vertical climbs through free soloing. Free soloing is a difficult and dangerous approach to climb as it does not the traditional mountaineer approaches. While Potter was able to use his skills to climb to the top of Fitz Roy, down-climbing proved to be more dangerous due to the nature of the mountain. According to Kotler (65), Dean Potter chose to use base jumping, an approach similar to skydiving. His success the Fitz Roy base jump was built on his ability to balance between anxiety and skills, a fete he had already acquired during a previous training. In the training, Potter and friends were base jumping down a 1,200 feet open-air pit where, with almost 300 feet to the ground, when the holding rope flayed and cauterized his skin. In pain and having cut his flesh badly, Potter was able to release himself and reached the base of the pit. The agony felt during that training seemingly created a form of anxiety inside him while trying the base jump of the Fitz Roy. Finding a mid-point between his base-jumping skills and the anxiety from a previous painful incidence enabled him to successfully climb down the dangerous Patagonia mountain.

Although the three top athletes acquired the same triggers to the flow state, the source of their motivations varied. According to Kotler, “the ghosts that hunt for Danny Way are unremitting” (16). Psychologically haunted by the ghosts of his deceased father, alcoholic mother, deceased stepfather, an injured brother among others, Danny was able to obtain a form of unrivaled motivation to the flow. Shane McConkey found his motivation from the lack of fear of death and for the love of his sport. Finally, Dean Potter was motivated by the need to solve the puzzle on how Mount Fitz Roy can be climbed without the traditional mountaineer’s approach, which had proven impossible.

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harpercollins Publishers, 2009.
  • Kotler, Steven. The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Amazon Publishing, 2014.