Hacking the Super You

superhumanOver the years, my friend Erich and I have probably logged thousands of miles cycling together. In all conditions – cold, wet, early, or in the fading warm July sunlight – we have ridden these Maine roads together. And when you train with someone for long enough you recognize their strengths (he climbs like a scalded cat), odd proclivities (he prefers riding on the right side of someone else), and their hesitations (he often descends cautiously).

We trained for a triathlon together a couple years ago. We would meet and ride the 40km course a couple of times a week, sometimes twice in a day. We got to the point where we knew the entire course in great detail – every crack in the road, every undulation of pavement, when to push and when to recover. And more or less, it seemed we were evenly matched.

On the day of the triathlon I had a fine race and the ride was my strongest leg of the event. I was pleased to finish in the top 10% of riders. Meanwhile, Erich blazed the ride. While averaging nearly 25mph on the hilly course, for some sections he led the entire field chasing only the pace car in front of him. On that day over 800 people raced the event. Only four individuals – all pros – were faster than Erich, and only by mere seconds. I was astonished. He was dumbfounded. He beat me by over 7 minutes on the ride. And he did it in celebration of his 50th birthday.

I had many questions about where this super-Erich performance came from. As I listened to him talk about his ride, he never once made any comparisons to other riders. He never spoke of how he was performing in relation to anyone else. He didn’t talk of the event as a competition. All of his language around preparation and performance was in terms of him versus the course. Actually “versus” isn’t quite the right word. It was more that he spoke of being in tune with how he felt in each moment – riding with the road with a sense of totally embodying the experience.

Another interesting comment Erich made was that during the ride itself he was aware that he was crushing it. He knew, on an innate level of consciousness, that he was absolutely killing the course, but there was no emotion associated with it. He felt not frustration, pain, angst, or struggle – only focus. The celebration and elation would come later. During the ride itself, he was all focused execution, hyper attention to nuance, flowing with the road.

As Steven Kotler describes in his mind-bending book The Rise of Superman, this sense of “deep embodiment” is one of the external Flow triggers of immersion in the moment. In short, Flow is an induced state of energized focus, heightened awareness, complete absorption, and elevated performance. And often, exceedingly high performance accompanies Flow states.

While these states are often spoken of by top adventurers, Flow states are also common among artists, musicians, professional athletes, and yes, even business professionals. According to this McKinsey study, business executives stated that when they were at their most effective – in a state of Flow – they were more than five times more effective than their more mundane, and common, moments of activity while attending meetings, interacting with colleagues, and executing tasks.

Much has been studied and written about the importance of developing a strong creative capability for today’s busy professional in this always-on, bottle rocket economy. IBM’s global CEO study asserts that creativity, mental flexibility, and collaboration have displaced one-dimensional intelligence and isolated determination as core ingredients of competitive advantage in today’s turbulent market. Creativity is treasured among the most-valued traits of sought-after talent. Yet, creativity is hard to teach.

Here’s the thing: Flow states induce creative states. As Teresa Amabile’s 2005 study shows, Flow states often precede creative states. Early findings at Kotler’s Flow Genome Project suggest Flow states later induce up to seven times the creativity in test subjects.

While developing creative triggers can be elusive, finding Flow triggers can be more predictable. We recognize that feeling when we felt hyper-present and alive skiing through the trees, immersed in a book, hypnotized in a provocative conversation, even mesmerized by an addicting video game. These induced Flow states lead to creatively productive states, often in the following hours and days after a Flow event.

Don’t seek on-demand creativity of yourself or those around you. Instead seek those circumstances, environments, and personal and social triggers which induce your own Flow states. To inspire creativity in those around you, start by finding it yourself. Model finding those Flow states you want to encourage in others. Creative productivity will surely follow.