Transcript: Flow States: Getting High While Totally Sober – Steven Kotler
Please enjoy this transcript of our interview with Steven Kotler.
Steven Kotler, expert on flow states and Director of Research for the Flow Research Collective, talks to us about his first experiences of flow, and how psychedelics have played a part in his career. We discuss the problems facing our society, and how a scientific understanding of flow states could help us change the way we approach vital cultural issues.
In this episode we talk about:
- Steven is an expert in ‘flow states’ – that feeling of being ‘in the zone,’ totally focused on a task and connected to a greater awareness
- His first psychedelic experience with MDMA helped him realize that the brain could produce similar states without external influence
0:00:29 Paul Austin: Hey, listeners, and welcome back to The Third Wave podcast. For all of you new listeners, my name is Paul Austin and I’m the host of The Third Wave podcast. And for those of you who are returning, welcome back. Today we have another excellent podcast for you and this one is with a New York Times bestseller and award-winning journalist, who I’ll get into in a little bit. His name is Stephen Kotler. We had a pretty lengthy conversation this time, around about an hour-and-a-half, but all really good stuff that we went through in the podcast.
0:01:01 PA: So to start with per usual This Week in Psychedelics, just to keep everyone up-to-date on some things that have been going on in the psychedelic space, you can consider this your weekly digest to get everything that you need. First, let’s start off, MAPS have added new cryptocurrencies Ethereum and Litecoin to its donation currencies in addition to Bitcoin, which will help to expand the opportunities for cryptocurrency philanthropy.
0:01:27 PA: So I’ve actually, on a personal note, have been getting into cryptocurrency over the past couple of weeks. It really will redefine how we as a society and culture interact with money. I read this collection of essays and talks called The Internet of Money, which is an excellent starter resource for anyone who wants to learn more about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. In fact, about nine months ago, I bought some Bitcoin for the usual purpose of anyone who’s interested in psychedelics, and I then didn’t use it for whatever reason. And I had about $300 worth of Bitcoin, and this is back in September, I believe. And then, for whatever reason, I checked it again in May or June, and all of a sudden I had $1300 in Bitcoin, because it’s gone up so much, so on accident I made about $1000 from an accidental investment in Bitcoin.
0:02:15 PA: Cryptocurrency is really fascinating. I think it’s going to completely transform the financial system that we currently live in, and I’m excited to see what happens with it, so it’s really cool that MAPS is doing this. And in fact, they’re celebrating this with an August 13 cruise on the San Francisco Bay to benefit MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD research. So this podcast will be released in August 12th, so the following day, August 13, there will be this cruise, so check it out if you feel like doing so.
0:02:46 PA: Second bit of news. Stephen Bright, who we actually interviewed on the podcast when we launched our podcast initially, as I interviewed him in November 2016. He is the head of a psychedelic research organization called PRISM, which is based in Australia. Recently spoke at TEDx Melbourne about the psychedelic renaissance. You can listen to that podcast interview with Stephen to get a more in-depth feel for the state of psychedelic research.
0:03:12 PA: Last bit of news. A friend of mine, I wanna say Leia Freedman, is putting on an event in Boston called A Trip to the Past: Boston’s Psychedelic History. It’s the first big event that the Boston Entheogenic Network has organized. Don Lattin, again, one of our previous guests, will be there. And basically it’s September 15th-17th, 2017. It’s also supporting MAPS research. There will be a psychedelic story hour, book talks, a walking tour and a speaker panel. And I’ll quickly read the description for you.
0:03:48 PA: Retrace the steps of the Harvard Psychedelic Club with author Don Lattin at Harvard University, Boston University and other landmarks in the Boston area. Learn more about the stories behind Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, Andrew Weil, Walter Pahnke and more. This is brought to you by Boston Entheogenic Network in collaboration with the Northeastern University, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. It will be a three-day community gathering and feature a small series of events across Greater Boston. So we’ll provide a link to that in the show notes. A Trip to the Past: Boston’s Psychedelic History, September 15-17, 2017.
0:04:26 PA: One last note. There was an article just published in the Financial Times in which I was briefly quoted. Hold on, I’m gonna pull it up on my computer. That talks about the resurgence of microdosing in Silicon Valley, and the name of the article is How Silicon Valley Rediscovered LSD. It’s an extensive article. James Fadiman is of course featured in it. Molly Maloof, who I had a recent conversation with and who we’re hoping to bring in the podcast as well. She’s a doctor who does personalized medicine with Silicon Valley executives, some of whom integrate microdosing LSD into their daily routine. So I’d recommend checking out that article as well. It’s a well-written article, super extensive, tracing the history of LSD up to its current times and how that has informed and influenced what’s been going on in the tech world in Silicon Valley.
0:05:16 PA: That’s it for This Week in Psychedelics. More about our guest Steven Kotler. I first heard of Steven on The Unmistakable Creative podcast about three years ago, and was really interested in the work that he’s doing with the Flow Genome Project. So Steven is a New York Times best-selling author, he’s an award-winning journalist, and he’s the co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project. Basically he’s one of the world’s leading experts on ultimate human performance, and in his most recent book Stealing Fire he talks a lot about psychedelics. And particularly in microdosing, Burning Man as well. So I had to bring him on the podcast to just get a bit more insight into his own psychedelic experiences, which we get into in the very beginning, both with MDMA and a few other things, as well as his thoughts about why psychedelics will be critical tools and critical technologies going forward to initiate flow states and help us to solve complex problems in the world that we’re living in.
0:06:00 PA: So this is a far-ranging conversation. It goes about 70-80 minutes, a little bit longer than usual. However, I think Steven is probably one of the best guests that we’ve had on, in terms of his, not only his credentials, but just his breadth of knowledge. So I highly recommend listening to the whole thing. If you do enjoy the podcast we ask you to please, please, please leave a review on iTunes, and if you’re so inclined, maybe a small donation on Patreon as well, patreon.com/thethirdwave. That helps to support this podcast so that we can continue to invest and making it better and higher quality for you listeners, and I think more importantly so we can continue to expand the message of the utility of psychedelics and the importance of de-stigmatizing them, re-legitimizing them, and re-integrating them into our global culture and society. So without further ado, I bring you Steven Kotler.
0:07:20 PA: Tell me about that first MDMA experience, what was it like?
0:07:23 Steven Kotler: So you have to understand that I grew up a punk rocker, in radical sub-culture, and a lot of the people around me did a lot of drugs, they were in and out of jail. It was a heavy scene. People died, there was costs. And so my job often was to talk to the cops. I was the guy. And I originally ended up with the job because most substances don’t affect me very strongly. The technical term, inside the psychedelic community, is they call me a hard-head. And this is the key thing. When I go to the doctor and have surgery, I have to tell them that opiates won’t work as well on me. It’s every… It’s any substance, it’s any mind-altering substance. So in the beginning, by the end of it, I was the guy who stayed sober and I was sober almost completely until I was 21, 22.
0:08:15 SK: Really, I had smoked some pot, but really hadn’t done many substances. And this was early ’90s and I was in college and a friend of mine… MDMA was showing up and we heard about it, so some friends of mine had decided they were gonna take a semester off of college, and to fund their semester off of college they bought a pound of MDMA from some cooks up in Oregon, at Reed College. And they get it. Now mind you, nobody… It’s eight cents a hit at that point, that’s what they paid for it. Nobody’s really seen this drug. They don’t know how to pack it. They buy gel caps, they’re trying to pack hits into capsules. It was the only time in my life, ’cause I came down off that drug, and this was actually a very pivotal moment, or it led to a very pivotal moment, and that ultimately led to a lot of my work with Stealing Fire and things like that.
0:09:08 SK: And I’ll walk you through the story, which was when I came down. So emotionally, I was just closed off. I’d always been really closed off. And love was not something I really understood, felt, whatever. So this was really the first time in my life I had ever really felt pure love. That was my experience. And when I came down it was the worst experience of my life, ’cause I hit… My choices, as far as I could tell, was I would either become a drug addict and spend my life on MDMA, or I’m gonna kill myself if I don’t feel that way again. That was where I was when I was coming down. That was a difficult emotion. It took a lot of months and years. And one of the more interesting experiences of my life was a couple of years after that, four or five years after that, I was… I don’t know how to tell this story in a polite, clean way, so let’s just say I was in bed with a woman who I had been really attracted to for a lot of years.
0:10:00 SK: I had a crush for years and years and years, and finally we get together, we’re in bed, and I get up to go to the bathroom, I’m taking a piss, and while I’m pissing I feel all the MDMA drop out of me. The drop that you get, and I’m like, “Oh, crap. The drug’s going away.” And then I stopped and went, “Wait a minute, I am totally sober. I haven’t smoked anything, drank anything, taken a drug.” This is the exact same feeling I had that first time when I nearly overdosed on this stuff. And it’s the same feeling, completely using endogenous neurochemistry, nothing external. And this was really… I was in my early 20s, it was long before I had started researching flow at any depth or anything else like that.
0:10:43 SK: Very early on I realized that anything you could produce pharmacologically externally, you could produce endogenously. And who knows if that’s 100% accurate at this point, but at that point, that was the realization I had and it blew my mind. It’s essentially the central pieces underneath Stealing Fire. That all these various things, whether it’s sex, or drugs, or meditation, or flow states, or whatever, neurobiologically they’re the same experience. And that was the first time I actually got the experience of that. For me that was the seed kernel of the idea that 25 years later became Stealing Fire.
0:11:23 PA: That’s really cool. So I have a couple of follow-up questions. One, what you are describing sounds a lot like me, in terms of when I was 19, I did LSD for the first time. Before that point… Again, I live in my head a lot, very thinking-oriented. I’m always coming up with new systems, new ideas. And that first experience that I had on LSD was this complete unraveling and opening of all of my emotions, where I finally just felt totally connected and loved and accepted and understood, and it was like this beautiful thing. And then from that experience that was so profound and insightful, and what put me on this kind of like what people would call a personal development kick where I was like, “Okay, I understand that this feeling inside of me is under-developed. I understand that for that reason, I may be missing out on certain things or whatever it might be.”
0:12:11 PA: And I wanted to do things to help overcome that, so that’s when I got into meditation, that’s when I got into understanding, reading, that’s when I got into traveling a lot. So all these different experiential things that seemed to help me kinda get back into that state of mind. What was that like for you? You had that first MDMA experience, and then you had this realization a few years later. Was there a growth process for you in between that led up to that point? Or… Yeah, what was that growth process like?
0:12:37 SK: So I have talked about this a couple of times on a couple other podcasts, but… So one of the reasons I was completely sober for that three-year period is, as I said, really crazy punk rock crowd. A lot of people got sober along the way. A lot of people, NA, AA. And I got dragged to an open AA meeting early on. I was maybe 18, 19, and I wasn’t… At that point, honest to God, maybe I had been drunk four or five times, and smoked pot four or five times total, but I had no emotional control. None. Hadn’t really felt much love, but boy, did I feel everything else, and I couldn’t control it. Rage, all that. Everything you could possibly feel that way. And when I got to AA, I went, “Wow, I can learn emotional control here.”
0:13:26 SK: So I spent three years going to AA meetings, staying sober. Not ’cause I really… It was a drug or alcohol thing, but because I knew if I was gonna live… Like if I was gonna make it out of my 20s, I had to learn that emotional control. And I think what happened with MDMA, I think from AA and from that period, I learned to control most of my negative emotions. There’s a whole other side to that coin which is, and we talk about this a little bit in Stealing Fire and it’s certainly, and I talk about it in Rise of Superman, as well.
0:14:00 SK: There’s a whole spectrum, the ecstatic spectrum, these are very positive emotions and you need to know how to navigate those just as well. A lot of people hear people talk about learning to control your emotions and hold on to it. It’s not just the negative ones, the positive ones are just as dicey on a certain level. And I had to… It took me a really long time to get constant, like if you talk to friends of mine they’ll tell you, I’m still not good at love. I’ve got a business partner, one of my business partners, in something. He’s British and everytime we get off the phone… What is it about Europe where they’re so emotionally closed until they’re not and then they gush all over you? I don’t understand that, but whatever. At the end of every call he’s like, “Well, I love you, man,” and I’m like, “Man, don’t say that to me ’cause I’ll come back with fuck you.” You know what I mean? “I’ve got nothing to say to you.” So I have to warn you, my wife and I run an animal sanctuary.
0:14:54 PA: Okay.
0:14:54 SK: I’m talking to you with Juan, there are like 17 dogs behind me. There’s, I think, eight chihuahuas in here with me and a miniature poodle.
0:15:01 PA: I was reading about this on your… I was looking through your personal website, a little bit, and I think there’s a little blurb on there about you, about how you’ve been running the rescue for sometime.
0:15:10 SK: Yeah, my wife and I’ve been doing it for about 10 years.
0:15:12 PA: What got you into that, then, what got you into the rescue thing with the chihuahuas?
0:15:16 SK: So, I’ve always been an animal geek.
0:15:19 PA: Okay.
0:15:20 SK: Always. And as a journalist, when I was starting out, I would go… One of the things you discover as a journalist is… I wanted to write a… In fact, at some point I may. I wanted to write a biography of my time as a freelance journalist and call it Scam. And now, mind you, it’s a different world now. But, back in the ’90s…
0:15:35 PA: Are you the scammer or are you getting scammed?
0:15:38 SK: What I figured out is that with six months runway, I could pretty much go anywhere in the world and do anything I wanted to. It took a lot of work to set up, massive amounts of work. But if I wanted to go to Madagascar to study with MacArthur Genius award-winning primatologists for months on end, and get the entire trip paid for, I could figure it out. You had to line up five or six articles, it took a while and there was a lot of stuff to do, but you could do it. And so what started to happen is I started to realize that I was going extraordinarily far out of my way to spend time with scientists who were spending time with animals. Over and over and over again.
0:16:20 SK: I would work for years to go spend a week somewhere in Africa watching some species or other, over and over. Simultaneously, I always believed that a part of your life should be service and I don’t believe this for… There’s no broad metaphysics underneath this. I honestly think I’m an artist. And left to your own devices as an artist, you will end up being a selfish asshole. That is… Right? ‘Cause you spend all your time in your head focused on your work, all about you. And then when I come out in the world, I publish a book, I come out in the world. What happens? For three months people just ask me questions about me. It’s really easy to become a crazy narcissist along the way.
0:17:05 SK: And I realized that one of the ways to defend against that was to make altruism a fundamental part of my life, it had to be woven through my life in such a way that it was always there. ‘Cause it was the only way I could protect against the asshole-ness that comes with being a writer, I think. It was for me, just my personality. So, at the time, I had spent seven years creating something called the Reporters Gym, it was with the LA Lakers, it was with Dave Eggers, after school tutoring organization. And we were teaching inner city kids how to be sports writers as a way out of the ghetto. And it was a really cool program, it was awesome. We ran it for a couple of years, really had a great impact.
0:17:48 SK: And the problem was, I just sucked, I sucked with the kids. I didn’t know how to teach teenagers. I’m either a teenager myself, or I’m a jerk, apparently, there’s no middle setting. And on top of it, my heart wasn’t in it. I was doing the work ’cause I thought I should do the work, my heart wasn’t in it. Same time this was going on, I met my wife who was doing dog rescue, which was all this stuff… I was going to hang out in Africa with people who were doing primate rescue essentially. You could call it a lot of other things and conservation biology and rainforest, but it was just primate rescue and I met a woman who was doing dog rescue and it suddenly dawned on me, I was like, “Wait a minute, this desire to be around animals all the time, I can couple it with my desire for altruism.”
0:18:36 SK: I also realized that dog rescue, especially the way we do it, it’s in our house. It’s in my face all the time. There’s as I said, 12 or 13 dogs around me right now, or 14 dogs, whatever it is. So that level of selflessness that’s required to take care of… We do hospice care and special needs care. So we work with very old and very sick animals. That requires a lot of focus outside myself and it’s in my face all the time. Which I think is important, for me at least, ’cause it balances what kind of creativity does to you in terms of being so focused. And especially when I’m down the rabbit hole of a book, I can go weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks without talking to anybody, maybe my wife.
0:19:20 SK: But my focus is that I’ll write 11, 12 hours a day, come up, watch a movie, go to bed, do it again, for months on end, that kind of stuff. That’s really a lot of focus on yourself in your head, you know what I mean? So, I find it’s very useful to guard against myself in active ways, rather than just be passive about it, that’s just me. Some of it is, I loved animals, I’m crazy about animals. I’ve worked on environmental issues forever. In three weeks in Squaw Valley, I’m launching with a huge team a conference, concert and innovation accelerator called Creating Equilibrium that is aimed at kind of bridging the gap between technologists and environmentalists to solve environmental challenges, like biodiversity, and biodiversity is where we’re focusing our attention this first year.
0:20:07 SK: So, fighting for the environment has really been important. Everybody has their goals and one of mine is when I’m done, I wanna make this world a better place for animals. That’s something I do. Every day I wake up and I’m like, “Alright, how do I improve relations between humans and animals? How do I make it better for animals here?” That’s a thought, it’s one of the three things I focus on every day.
0:20:27 PA: That’s kinda like this, I wanna dig into this a little bit more, but kinda the tail end of this conversation reminds me of this book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.
0:20:34 SK: That’s so funny, I have that on my to-read list. It’s sitting behind me. Haven’t read it yet. I know the book.
0:20:40 PA: It talks about that relationship, right? So when we, as humans, we cultivate these, we don’t perceive ourselves as being above, but rather we perceive ourselves as being part of a larger ecosystem, and that’s when this mindset of cultivation and taking care really comes to the forefront, rather than what you’re talking about, this more aggressive, growth-dominated oriented mindset, that’s really dictated industrialization and nation state building for the past 500 years. So that, even this personal transformation, not transformation, but these personal boundaries that you’ve set up for yourself where you’re weaving in altruism, that also seems to be indicative of some things you talk about in Stealing Fire, which is like a lot of leaders in today’s world, right? We’re starting to re-learn the importance of altruism, because of things like, for example, accountability in the internet.
0:21:27 PA: So we had this major issue recently with Uber, where because they had such an aggressive kind of misogynist culture, their CEO ended up having to step down, there were a number of people on their advisory board who had to step down. And I think it’s because a lot of people in these tech circles, like you’re talking about, they kinda get stuck in their own bubble. So I was curious if these own experiences that you’ve had with becoming more altruistic, weaving it in, is this something that you talk about in your more public conversations when you’re doing consulting or work with corporations or organizations, or anything like that?
0:22:00 SK: Depends when I’m there. First of all, the answer is, really depends how long I’m there. I do talk about this stuff occasionally, this is, none of this is hidden, you know what I mean? A lot of it’s in Small Furry Prayer, which is my book about the relation between humans and animals and the work we do here as well. The average corporation, for example, who brings in the Flow Genome Project brings us in for a day or two, and we’re there to train them up in flow, and that’s what we’re focusing on, and there’s a lot of emotional components in high performance. We talked earlier a little bit, there’s a fundamental level of emotional control required, right? We talk about that at the end of Stealing Fire. This is not, if you come to the Flow Genome Project, anybody can take one of our entrance level courses, but if you wanna take one of our advanced courses, you’re gonna get a letter in the mail that says, “Hey, thank you so much for your interest in this course. Know that if you’ve got emotional issues that are unresolved, don’t take this course. We’re gonna make you worse, it’s gonna mess you up. Don’t do it, go work with whoever you need to work with to get through this stuff then come back.”
0:23:05 SK: And that’s very, it’s very true. High performance, there’s a cliche, a saying that I like here, which is, if you hit a tree moving 10 miles an hour, you dent a fender. You hit a tree at 100 miles an hour, you crash up the car. When you’re working with high performance, it’s the same thing, right? When you start getting a lot of flow going in your life, everything accelerates. Everything. Your thoughts accelerate, everything that happens in your life really starts to pick up speed. You’re pulling a lot of energy in a, stupid metaphysical sense of the term, I guess. And you have to be careful, you have to have some emotional control, there’s no way around it. Same thing if you’re plan… If you’re interested in psychedelics, if you’re interested in these, meditation is a softer path there, but psychedelics, we were talking about MDMA. That’s a sticky substance. You come down from doing MDMA for the first time, you wanna do more MDMA.
0:23:58 SK: The first thing you confront is the fact that this is sticky, and if you don’t have some self-control, you’re gonna have some addiction problems one way or another. There’s just no way around it, you have to have the control and the responsibility, and the proper structures in your life, to really run these experiments successfully over time. ‘Cause these are powerful substances, they’re fundamental motivators in the brain, right? This is the very stuff that evolution designed to drive us through our lives, and you’re playing with it at extremely intense concentrations, right? And then it’s producing all kinds of crazy effects. Oneness with everything. Remember the first time you felt one with everything? When you’re done feeling one with everything, you wanted to feel that way again.
0:24:41 PA: Yes, that’s why I did LSD like 12 times in the first six months.
0:24:45 SK: Yeah, nobody talks about it, but the God drug, right? For lack of a better term, here, it’s sticky, too. People who get into it through meditation too, you see it, there’s a reason people are willing to spend five, six, seven hours a day sitting in the full lotus position. It’s not ’cause sitting cross-legged on the floor is so fun. It’s really not what’s going on. It’s the neurochemistry you can trigger and it’s powerful, it’s sticky, it’s sticky then too, but when you really concentrate it in a psychedelic form or with some of the technology that’s come in where it’s instant on, instant off, we need fortitude, we need control, we need a lot of responsibility. This is not for everyone.
0:25:22 PA: And talking about this reminds me of microdosing, right? Because microdosing is one of those things that it seems to be this trajectory of day 0 to day 90. So these high doses, right? The sense of having a mystical experience, connection, oneness, you have that experience, you come down from it. They can be sticky, right? But it also can be difficult to integrate. And this insight that you just were talking about, how 10 miles an hour to 100 miles an hour, this just got me thinking a lot about microdosing because a lot of people are getting into microdosing, and microdosing seems to be like meditation on steroids. Where basically, you’re taking low doses of LSD a couple of times a week. I did it for seven months, I still do it once or twice a week. And what I noticed is, because I had done a lot of work before I started a microdosing regimen, this was maybe three to four years of personal development work, when I started microdosing, it accelerated everything and it ended up working out really well.
0:26:15 PA: But I’ve talked to other people and it doesn’t work out so well. And I think it’s because of the exact reason that you’re talking about, is that infrastructure isn’t built yet, and so if they try to accelerate things through this process of microdosing, then they just accelerate this process of destruction a bit faster and if they don’t have a container for it, a context, then it can end in disaster.
0:26:36 SK: We do some work with the US Special Forces and Navy SEALs. One of the things that is at the absolute core of SEAL training is in a crisis situation of any kind, you revert to your base level training. And to put this in simpler terms, the more fear in the system, the less options you have. The extreme example is fight or flight. You only have three options. You can fight, you can flee, or you can freeze. And that’s neurobiological. Norepinephrine, which governs fear, limits the options the brain has, limits the choices. Which is why, for example, when people do Ritalin or crystal meth or those kinds of speed drugs which are Norepinephrine drugs, they’re really great at doing repetitive tasks, the same thing over and over and over again. But really broad and far-reaching creative insights, those don’t show up. And they don’t show up because Norepinephrine doesn’t allow a lot of that.
0:27:32 SK: So if you haven’t done the work, when fear gets in the system, it’s going to start limiting your choices. You’re gonna go back to your training, whatever your training is. When we’re talking about this kind of work, it’s your emotional training, ’cause that’s what you’re messing around with a little bit. And the other thing is you can’t… The funny thing about personal development, as you know, I hate that term, but…
0:27:55 PA: Me too. [chuckle]
0:27:56 SK: The funny thing about it is you can do all the work in the world, go to seminars, learn to [unclear speech]. Until it works when you’re in a fight with your wife or your girlfriend, you haven’t learned it. Until you are in a crisis situation and instead of reverting back to asshole version 101, you’re now at asshole version 201 which is slightly better, then you know you’ve done the work, then you know, “Maybe it’s time… ” You know what I mean? That’s one of the ways you can test it is, how do you do in your own life stone cold sober in crisis situations? If you’re still losing your shit in crisis situations, you probably shouldn’t be playing too much with these technologies. You should probably be doing some basic work first.
0:28:38 PA: What is that basic work? If you go in somewhere and you need to build that up first, what basic work do you do?
0:28:44 SK: I don’t know what that work is, honestly. Some of it… Okay, so let me… I take that back.
0:28:50 PA: At least you’re honest, right?
0:28:52 SK: Some of it is… What you need is a little bit of space from your thoughts. One of the great things that meditation gives you, it gives you that gap. So you’re not quite as reactive. The thought arises, you have a second to look at it before it attaches to emotion. ‘Cause once that thought becomes emotion, once you look at that thing and go, “Oh. My God, that’s a fricking threat,” you’ve lost control. By that point, all the neurochemistry has rushed in, you’ve changed your physiology, you can’t go backwards. And the great example of this is… One of the things that I train people in is reframing. Cognitive reframing. One of the things, this research was just done at Harvard, if you’re feeling anxious, the old suggestion is get control of your breath. Breathe in really slowly, long exhales, that sort of thing, it will calm your nervous system down. And it will, but it’s a slow intervention. It’s gonna take three to 10 minutes.
0:29:42 SK: It’s much easier to look at that anxiety and reframe it. And literally, if you look at that anxiety, feel it, and you say to yourself, “This is excitement. This is excitement. This is excitement.” It’s easier to turn anxiety into excitement. They’re the same signal. They’re both Norepinephrine. So there’s no difference. Neurobiologically, it’s the same signal. The only thing different is the frame we build around it. It can either be anxiety or excitement. In fact, when you start going into lower mammals, like down around cows, for example, cows can only feel anxiety and curiosity. It’s either/or. And they switch back and forth. This is Temple Grandin’s work, if you ever wanna look at it. Temple Grandin did this work. They switch back and forth. They can’t feel both at once. Humans can sort of feel both at once, but again, it’s kind of a binary. So if you can reframe anxiety as excitement, if you can get into that gap, thought arises and before it becomes emotion, you can build the frame around it, you can calm it down, you don’t have to do all this stuff on the back end.
0:30:41 SK: So I think part of it is some kind of breath work, meditation practice, mindfulness practice. Box breathing is what I like, which I always think is meditation for dummies, but it will give you space to do that. And some of it is just, I think, also a daily gratitude work. Kind of the positive psychology basics, which is mindfulness and a daily gratitude practice. Those things are very, very useful. The gratitude practices will train your brain to look for positive information instead of negative information, and it’s wired to look for negative. We’re built that way. That’s how our danger detectors work, that’s how our filters work. So you can tilt it with a daily gratitude practice. It gives you an access to all kinds of different information. Fundamental for creativity, really important to get that new information as kind of a baseline for creativity, so it matters in high performance. But it also matters in emotional control.
0:31:35 SK: I think those two things are really rock bottom basics. And then you just gotta take a deep look at your life, and then fight your way up that ridiculous [unclear speech] mountain, you know what I mean? I’m a big real Rilke fan. Rilke said, “Live the questions.” And it’s kind of a cliche, but honest to God, I think for me that’s been the best way forward.
0:31:56 PA: Live the questions.
0:31:57 SK: Yeah, live the questions.
0:32:00 PA: What are your questions?
0:32:00 SK: I’ve always said all this work that I’ve done with flow, with all these mind-altering technologies, one of my fundamental questions has always been, “Where does the information come from?” When you’re in these states, everybody has the same experience. Some of it, I can be in the… Look, I understand the neurobiology maybe as well as anybody on the planet right now, and I can look at some of it and go, “Okay, I understand how Norepinephrine and dopamine are tuning signal to noise ratios and I’m seeing more patterns and more connections and I’m thinking that.” I get all the actual physics. But there are occasionally bits of information that come through where you go, “Where the hell did that come from? How did I know that?”
0:32:40 SK: And let me give you a classic example. The example I always give people on this is, one of the more profound flow states I ever had took place in Santa Monica. I was surfing and I was at Topanga, I believe. So just up from Santa Monica in Topanga Canyon. It’s a very fast wave and it was a pretty big day. I took off late and the wave jacked up and I realized it had sort of sucked back off the reef, and it was closing out on me. And I dropped into an immediate flow state and I linked together like six moves. Off-lip cutback into a floater, into a blah, blah, blah. But I… Here’s the thing. I was an intermediate surfer, I had never done any of those moves before, right, at all, let alone six in a row, so you can say, “Okay, Steven, well, you were in flow. We know your muscle reaction times were way amped up, we know that pattern recognition was going to full bore, and all that stuff,” and all that stuff was great. That explains the physicality of it, but there’s still information. An off-the-lip cutback requires me to move my body in a very specific direction, at a very specific time, and then change that direction, right?
0:33:46 SK: That’s information, that’s data. That wasn’t anything I knew how to do. So you can say, “Okay, well, maybe you’ve seen enough videos of off-the-lip cutbacks, that you have mirror neurons, you internalized it and it was reaching into the surf movie database.” Okay, fine, I see that and maybe I see that for one or two moves, but I did about six moves in a row that I’d never done before, I’d never seen combo’d in that way. It stretches the limits of my credibility. I was not a particularly good surfer. So I look at that and I go, “Well, I don’t know, where did that information come from? Is it metaphysical, is it coming from some place outside of myself, I have no idea.” It didn’t feel internal to me, it felt greater than the sum of my knowledge at that point and where did that information come from?
0:34:32 SK: That’s not an unusual experience in a flow state, in a psychedelic experience and certain kind of meditative states, that’s a very common experience. I tend to be a hardcore rational materialist, I tend to think there’s scientific explanations and then we don’t have to reach into the metaphysics, but there’s a long line going all the way back to Karl Jung’s collective unconscious and Teilhard Chardin in the noosphere, like a lot of people have been poking at this, right? A lot of people have been trying to live this question. To me, one of the easiest ways to live that question is to spend as much time as I possibly can in flow exploring these states and trying to probe that. That’s one way to live that question. Another way to live that question is to do what I’ve done, which is start a giant neurobiology research company, so we can investigate it further.
0:35:18 PA: Let’s talk a little bit about that, because that’s one thing that I wanted to dig into a little bit more with you was the Flow Genome Project. I read the brief description and watched the brief six-minute video that you have on your site. You guys are basically trying to map flow states. Love to hear a little bit more about that, how do you map flow states? In what way does that occur? What are you guys doing at the Flow Genome Project?
0:35:37 SK: Those are great questions. So when we originally started out the Flow Genome Project, the goal was to really help put flow states on a hard science footing. At the time, it was really necessary. The flow has sort of… 2000s, a woman named Huda Akil, who is one of the world’s leading experts on endorphins. She’s at the University of Michigan, and she was the president of the American Society for Neuroscience. And she told Gina Kolata of the New York Times that endorphins in the brain producing flow states is a total fantasy of the pop culture. So, it was total crap. Now, as it turns out, she was wrong. We didn’t figure that out till 2007-2008, until our imaging technology got to the point that we could actually see endorphins in the brain, and this work was done in Germany, and it was done again in Italy, it’s been done all over now.
0:36:20 SK: But at the time, once she said it, flow research ground a halt in America, basically, it just, you couldn’t get funding for it anymore, ’cause she was so well known that just, it killed it and the new age at the same time, they loved the term flow. It was very in line with a lot of things the new age community had been thinking. Millennials really adopted a lot of new age language, took it out of the new age and sort of made it very mainstream, but all of that made scientists hugely uncomfortable. And so, research in America pretty much had dried up, and I got a chance to sit down with one of the guys who ran the neuroscience wing of the National Science Foundation and briefed him on what we wanted to do in terms of flow research and he just started laughing in my face.
0:37:06 SK: I realized that doing this inside of academia was gonna be incredibly difficult. At the same time, my friend Andrew Hessel, who’s a synthetic biologist, sat me down and he knew what I’ve been trying to do. And that for years, I’ve been trying to get scientists to start a research program inside of academia for this. He sat me down and said, “Look, man, you can’t do this inside of academia.” He runs, among other things, the world’s first non-profit cancer research foundation. And he couldn’t do what he wanted inside of academia. He had first-hand knowledge and he said, “Look, you gotta do this outside of academia, and if you do, I’ll join your board, I’ll back you,” and I ended up broaching that idea with a bunch of other neuroscientists I knew and they all said the same thing, “If you do this, we’ll back you. You can’t do this in academia, but you know as much as anybody we know about this topic and, yeah, let’s do this.”
0:37:57 SK: So that’s sort of where my, Jamie had been doing a whole bunch of other stuff on his side of the Flow Genome Project, that was sort of my back story with it and where it came from. And the early goal was to just take the terminology, stabilize the language, establish a common language around this stuff and take it away from the new age and just show people how much research had actually been done. The other problem was, scientists were balkanized. The EEG guys didn’t know what the neurochemistry guys were doing, didn’t know what the psychologists were doing and it got, I was on the phone with one of the world’s leading flow psychologists, and I had to explain the neurochemistry of flow to her, the last time she had paid attention was the ’70s and it was like this was the early 2000s, it was that balkanized.
0:38:37 SK: So we had to find a way to bridge those gaps, Rise of Superman was that goal. We established the common language, we put all the research in one place at one time, and what was so spectacular about the end results is, once that was done, flow research very quickly ended up on a hard science footing. That happened very, very quickly, I was shocked. I thought it was gonna be a little tiny piece that we were putting forward in a huge puzzle, but it was sort of like, there were so many people who are waiting for validation, that suddenly flow research exploded. Some of it had to do with the fact that Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman had been pounding at this stuff for so long and doing such a fantastic job, and I came along and got to popularize some of it.
0:39:19 SK: It’s just, the time was right. Anyways, you asked what we do at the Flow Genome Project, and we do three things. We’re a research and a training organization. On the research side, I think we’re the world’s largest open-source research project into ultimate human performance. And if you’re dealing with really squishy topics like flow, one of the best ways to approach them is a big data approach. So we have a huge community. Flow Hacker Nation is 80,000 people strong. So if we put out a flow survey… If they get 500 answers to a survey in a typical science study, that’s robust. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s original flow study was the largest psychological survey anybody had ever done. I think 22,000-25,000 respondents globally in the end. But it took 15 years to do it.
0:40:07 SK: Our flow profile, which it’s a [unclear speech], it says if you’re this kind of person, you’re likely find flow in these directions, which anybody can take for free on the Flow Genome Project website has become the largest study ever done on optimal performance. Some 70,000 people have taken that survey, because the internet, crowd sourcing this stuff allows us to go big really fast. So we’re working on our very first flow and creativity studies and a deeper flow trigger study right now. We’ll be launching them, so along with one of the very first… I think it’s the very first comparative study ever done between flow and psychedelics. And we’re teaming up with some researchers in Imperial College, David Nutt’s group in London.
0:40:49 SK: And we’ll be doing a lot of the great [unclear speech] work with psychedelics and we’re gonna do the first comparative study. And you asked earlier about what questions are interesting. Side by side, comparative studies between altered states of consciousness are really neat. And we’re just seeing the first of it. A couple of months ago, somebody compared Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques against Zen techniques, I think, using MRI and EEG. That stuff hasn’t been done, and we’re getting to the point that we can start doing that. That’s really cool. Those are the next questions. I’m really excited about that kind of work, ’cause we’re gonna get some information. I’ve said for a while that one of the things that annoys me, and I know it’s necessary but it annoys me about so much of the psychedelic research that’s gone on so far, is all people are doing is re-doing studies that were done in the ’60s, ’cause we don’t trust those goddamn hippies. We don’t trust the goddamn hippies, so we’re re-doing all that stuff with rigorous modern double-blind standards and what are we finding out most of the time?
0:41:46 PA: The same thing.
0:41:47 SK: Right. The same thing. So I get why we have to do it. I totally do. I understand and I applaud researchers who are doing it. I really do. Thank God for them. But can we please get to the next question?
0:42:01 PA: Which is how do you combine it with other modalities. And I think what you’re talking about with the Flow Genome Project and what you set up is exactly what we at The Third Wave are trying to do with psychedelics. We’re looking at how we can popularize the message to a more mainstream crowd to basically strip away the terminology that was used in the counterculture in the ’60s and ’70s, and use new terminology to make it more palatable.
0:42:23 SK: Years ago… I’ve known Rick Doblin and the guys at MAPS forever.
0:42:27 PA: Oh, they’re great. Yeah, I love MAPS.
0:42:27 SK: So I wrote a really… I still think it’s the most cutting edge. ‘Cause I wrote about psychedelic therapy when it was totally underground and illegal and they were using combinatory therapies. It was a patient who was dying, a young woman who was dying, and they were blending MDMA, with LSD, with marijuana, just combinatory therapies for end of life. But in it, I was interviewing Rick Doblin and he said, “My motto is ‘Tune in, turn out, go to a bake sale.'” He was like, “Look, if we wanna make this work, that’s what it’s gotta be. It can’t be sub-cultural.” And it can’t be. We can’t explore… Working with consciousness can’t be fringe. It’s gotta be… One of the things Stealing Fire is about, if we want the skills we really need to survive in the 21st century, the reason creativity, cooperation, these things are so hard to train people up in, is ’cause we keep trying to train up skill sets and we need to be training up states of mind. That’s what the research shows conclusively over and over. A hundred years of data, 150 years of data at this point says if you’re interested in higher cooperative states, higher creative states, you have to shift your consciousness. This skill set doesn’t work. You have to, at some point, shift your consciousness and have the skills. You need them both together.
0:43:45 PA: So what’s preventing us from doing that as a society, a nation, a globe?
0:43:49 SK: I’m gonna use two really fancy annoying words here. These are anthropological words. Anthropologists talk about two kinds of societies in the world: Monophasic versus polyphasic. Monophasic means you prefer a single channel of reality. We are monophasic. Most Western cultures are monophasic, meaning normal waking consciousness unadulterated is reality. Everything else, dreams, what happens in psychedelic states, visions, they’re not quite as real, they’re not quite as trustworthy, the information isn’t accurate. Polyphasic societies are societies where they present multiple channels of reality. So these are classic shamanic cultures where shamans interpret dreams and blow… All that stuff. That’s the old version of it. And by the way, we became crazy monophasic mostly during the French Enlightenment when the scientific method got developed. You have to understand that becoming monophasic, developing the scientific method, this was phenomenal. This was the great driver of civilization. It was the ultimate gas pedal and it was awesome, it was a great, great, great intervention.
0:45:00 SK: But we’ve taken it way too far. We’ve just [unclear speech] red-lined for way too long, we now need to stop and go back and say, wait a minute. There are other states of consciousness that, yes. Maybe we don’t wanna treat dreams as a valid state of consciousness. Flow states, on the other hand, if you know what you’re doing in them, you know how to separate fact from fiction… I always tell people, “The difference between flow and mania, it’s a thin line.” I always tell people, “Don’t go shopping in a flow state. Everything will look good. You’ll come back bankrupt.”
0:45:26 PA: More impulsive. Impulsivity, yes. This is what I’ve experienced with microdosing, is I’ll buy shit from Facebook ads and I’ll be like, “Why the fuck did I buy that? Oh, I’m microdosing. Okay, that’s why.”
0:45:26 SK: Yeah, your prefrontal cortex is down-regulated, so impulse control is down-regulated. Pattern recognition, which is, “Oh, my God, this thing looks good,” it’s up-regulated, it’s going crazy. So, “Yes, I really needed this purple velvet Victorian frock coat and hat, absolutely, for $3000. ‘Cause it’s the walk at Burning Man.” I mean, like, really? That would be…
0:46:06 PA: So, impulsivity, it’s tied to flow-state, getting outside the pale. My follow-up question to this is practical in nature, and you talk about this in Stealing Fire a little bit, especially towards the end, is will these flow states… This is a fear that many in the psychedelic space have is a backlash. You talked about at Burning Man, how surveillance is increasing now. What do you perceive as being that relationship between…
0:46:28 SK: I was gonna say I’m sort of addressing this in my new book, which it’ll be done next week and it’s a novel, but I’m addressing this in novel form. I think when it comes to revolutions in consciousness, there’s the fast and the slow version. Historically, every time we’ve tried to do it really fast… Tim Leary tried to do it really fast, right? “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” The rave-culture of the ’90s. “Ecstasy’s gonna save the world,” right? It was the same thing. They tried to do it really, really fast. Has not worked. The places that where it’s actually really engendered change, and I’m not making an argument for this, I’m just pointing this out as a historical fact, is when the mind-altering technique is couched in a framework.
0:47:09 SK: When the rites of Eleusís was couched inside of this entire mystical experience that the Greeks built and there was a whole tradition around it, or the Rastas built a very thorough tradition around pot-smoking, they stabilized the experience inside a tradition. In other words, to put in psychedelic terms, everything we know about psychedelics is set and setting matters, and it matters at every scale. You have to have the cultural containers. Not just the room has to be good, the cultural containers has to be strong enough to stabilize and things like that. So when this has worked, it’s happened very slowly. What is different now is we get to replace the religion with science. We get to say, “Look, this is the roadmap. We know what’s going on in your brain and your body. It’s no longer super crazy or mysterious and we can work with it. There are rules, there are playbooks.”
0:48:00 SK: In Stealing Fire, we break down the five known pitfalls of this kind of work. These are places people go wrong… Or the four. These are places people go wrong all the time. We have that information at this point, so we get to steer with science for the very first time. We used to have to steer with religion. Now we get to steer with fact and so hopefully we won’t blow ourselves up this time. Hopefully we can stabilize it. Because every other time… We said this in Stealing Fire. Pretty much every other time we’ve tried this, it’s gone horribly wrong. We’re not very good at this one. And what’s interesting about it this time is the ’60s were millions of people. Now it’s tens of millions to hundreds of millions of people who are playing with these things, who are experimenting with these things. It’s high times on Main Street, as we point out. My mom, my suburban, Cleveland, Ohio mom is a Reiki master and has a meditation practice and does yoga and she’s 70-some years old. This is what Main Street looks like now.
0:49:02 SK: So, we’re conducting this experiment at a huge level, and the consequences of getting it wrong now could actually be society-wide, which is interesting. We’ve never been in that position before.
0:49:15 PA: And global society-wide, I think this is a point that you make in your book, and Daniel Pinchbeck just wrote a book about this called How Soon is Now, the fact that we’re dealing with an ecological crisis. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this is occurring at this point in time, because we seem to be needing or seeking out the sense of connectedness and togetherness, the sense of moving forward as a community rather than as individuals. It seems like if we fail now and if we can’t reintegrate consciousness and flow states, or you talk about selflessness and timelessness, these aspects of understanding and transcending the ego, some people would go so far as to say we might not have a home to live on very much longer.
0:49:57 SK: I might be one of those people who might go that far. One of the reasons I started Equilibrium, the event we talked about, is to work on biodiversity. Biodiversity, for example, is one of those secret hidden issues that very few people think about. And the reason is because plants and animals, not really humans. Most people can’t get past the human boundary. You really need to dissolve and expand outward to start to see nature. There’s 50 years of eco-psychology that talks about this. One of the reasons I have a conference to bridge the gap between technologists and environmentalists, is eco-psychology, which is literally just the study of how do we psychologically interact with the environment, tells us that if you live in cities and you stare at screens, at a perceptual level you’re not going to take in the natural world.
0:50:44 SK: You’re literally not taking in the data, you’re not seeing the natural world. As a result, how the hell do you take care of something you can’t even see? It’s not even part of your reality. It’s not there. You have to remember that the bandwidth of consciousness is about 2000 data bits. That’s how much information you can take in per second. The majority of those data bits are dominated by dangers in the environment. 67% of all that information comes in. It’s just, “Did something move? Is something threatening me?” You’ve got a little slice of data to work with and if you’re staring at screens, and you’re living in cities, and you’re not seeing nature, your brain goes, “Look, man, I can only give you so much critical information. I’m gonna filter out this stuff that you don’t pay any attention to.” Have you focus on the screen, kind of thing, instead of the trees outside. This has ecological consequences, one of which is we don’t pay attention to plants and animals, which is why we’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction. The fifth great extinction killed off the dinosaurs.
0:51:41 SK: Flow states, psychedelic states, meditative states expands the information we have access to. We take in more information. It’s why you tend to connect to nature in these states. You’re actually seeing the natural world for the first time for a lot of us ’cause you’re suddenly taking in that information you weren’t normally taking in. The point about biodiversity is, and this was recent research done at Stanford, we don’t reverse the slide. The web of life isn’t a metaphor, it’s literal. And by killing off plants and animals, we’re breaking the web of life. Paul Ehrlich just did research that says he thinks we’ve got three generations until we pass the point to no return. And what the point of no return means is we just passed the carrying capacity of the planet. So, it can no longer hold seven billion people.
0:52:28 SK: As a general rule, the planet tends to find a way to take care of those disasters, whether it’s plague or ecological crisis or whatever. It’s gonna reset. It doesn’t really care much about us as a species. Look at how big the dinosaurs were and they’re completely gone. This happens, this is just the way life works. And if we’re not careful, if we don’t access these states and start seeing more of the world around us, I think it’s critical. I started the flow work very early on, Jamie and I, this was always part of our mission. It’s like the Flow Genome Project, our interest is training up the best of the best, so they can go out and help us save the world. Sounds ridiculous, but I think… When Peter Diamandis and myself wrote Abundance, everybody thought it was this happy, positive, incredible, we can use technology to solve our grand challenges book, which it is.
0:53:19 SK: But it was abundance or bust. We either do this, or we’re gonna have maybe insurmountable challenges. So to me, if we’re gonna actually solve this, it’s gonna require the greatest cooperative effort in history. And that doesn’t just mean everybody working together, it means everybody performing at their very best working together. So one of the reasons I got involved in flow research and human performance research, was that was the goal there, ’cause I think it’s critical at this point.
0:53:47 PA: And it is critical, and I think it’s even… A follow up question to that is, what makes you optimistic? Because I think optimism is really critical and I have a lot of optimism and that’s largely why I’m doing the work that I’m doing. But I know a lot of people who are very pessimistic, who are very kind of, “Oh, we can’t do this, it’s too late.” What makes you optimistic that this is possible and that we can achieve this? That we can kind of come together as a community and overcome this massive ecological crisis.
0:54:15 SK: I don’t know… I mean, I have answers for you. So some of it, and this is in abundance. We are neurobiologically wired to be pessimists on a lot of levels. We’re personal optimists, but we’re global pessimists. And this is fundamental neurological hard-wiring, made a lot worse by the news cycle and by a billion media channels. So let me just break it down really simply. As I said, we take in… So, consciously, we talked about a second ago, it’s 2000 outputs. You know how many inputs come in? Tor Nørretranders, in a great book called The User Illusion, which is the best book on consciousness ever written and everybody should read it if you’re interested in this stuff. There have been a lot of different estimates on how much data do we take in per second. The oldest estimate that most people trust is Marvin Zimmerman’s, and he just counted up inputs of senses. And he came up to 11 million.
0:55:07 SK: Tor Nørretranders redid this in The User Illusion. The number jumped to 400 billion. Everybody agrees that 2000 is consciousness. That’s pretty much well established, so the reduction is enormous. So how does this happen? Well, the information comes in and the brain passes it through filters. The first filter it stops at is the amygdala. This is our danger detector. So one of the reasons when positive psychologists talk about, “Hey, we’re tilted to see more negative than positive.” This is why. It’s ’cause neurobiologically you’re taking in 400 billion inputs a second, and the first filter all that stuff is encountering is your danger detector. So the first thing that’s happening is anything that is new in the environment and could be threatening or is moving and could attack you, that it gets priority. Any threat anywhere gets priority. Here’s the problem.
0:55:58 SK: There’s a lot of problems with that, but the amygdala was designed in an era of immediacy. The threats are the tiger in the bush. So the amygdala is designed for immediate threats. Most of the threats we face in the modern world are probabilistic. The economy might nose-dive, terrorists might attack, my girlfriend might break up with me, that sort of thing. The amygdala isn’t designed to handle probabilistic dangers. It cannot shut off until the danger is gone completely. Probabilistic dangers are never gone completely. This is why in the modern world, on a general lay, is just we live in a low-grade state of crisis all the time. This is one of the main reasons why. It is made worse by a million media channels. The media understands this. The old newspaper saw, if it bleeds it leads. The reason that exists is ’cause of the amygdala. All they’re saying is, “Look, man, we can con you into watching this news program by leading with really horrific, negative news, ’cause you’re entirely neurobiologically hard-wired to pay a ton of attention to this stuff.”
0:56:58 SK: And for every negative bit of information that you take in, take six or seven positive bits to twist it around. Get yourself looking at anything other than the fearful data that’s coming in. So in the modern world, if you don’t filter out your news cautiously. And if you don’t… If you’re not aware of this stuff, you’re gonna think we’re on a perpetual crisis all the time. So the world appears a lot worse than it actually is. So one of the reasons I’m optimistic, is ’cause I understand the neurobiology. I have enough cognitive literacy to understand what’s going on in my brain, in my body, and that I’m hard-wired to look at things in a certain way. So that’s first of all. The other thing is, I’ve spent my career kinda on the cutting edge of both environmental challenges and technological challenges. And I always say like… I have a friend named Peter Diamandis who I met 25 years ago, when he had this little idea called the XPRIZE.
0:57:51 SK: His goal was, “I’m gonna try to open the space frontier.” And he started the XPRIZE ’cause he wanted to have a contest to try to open it. And he built the International Space University so he could train the next generation of space reachers. Then he started the Zero Gravity Corporation so he could take people on weightless flights, give them a taste of what that would feel like. And then for super billionaires, he started that company where he flew people out to the space station, at $20 million dollars for the ticket. And then he started an asteroid mining company ’cause that’s material where… He surrounded the problem, but here’s the thing, the private space industry… When Peter started this, I wrote the very first article about the XPRIZE in any major publication. And so I’ve known Peter forever.
0:58:34 SK: Everybody, I knew everybody I’d interview, NASA, every aerospace corporation I could talk to, they all thought he was out of his mind. “It’ll never happen. No private citizen can open this. Are you crazy? It’s a total impossible. Forget about it, never.” Well, the private space industry is now a multiple-billion dollar industry, ’cause my friend ran a contest and a bunch of like-minded people jumped in. Like, why do I think this stuff is doable? ‘Cause I watched my friend Peter, who’s no different than anybody else you know, puts his pants on the same way, do the impossible. I, in Rise of Superman… I always say that the action-adventure sport athletes I wrote about, one of the things you have to understand is they reinvented kinesthetic possibility, what is possible for our species.
0:59:18 SK: These are people, when I, in the early ’90s, the group that I was writing about, who I met, these are a rowdy, irreverent, punk rock bunch of people with not a lot of natural advantages. Most of them didn’t have a lot of education, most of them didn’t have a lot of money, a ton of them came from broken homes and horrific childhoods. And yet they reinvented what was physically possible for our species. So why do I think this stuff is solvable? ‘Cause over and over and over, that’s what I’ve done in my life. I’ve studied how do people do the impossible? That’s my fundamental question. What does it take to do the impossible? And I looked at it in every domain you could possibly look at it, and written eight books about it, from every angle could possibly explore this question.
0:59:58 SK: I’ve seen it over and over and over again. So both cognitive literacy, I understand how the brain is hard-wired. I’ve had first-hand experience with what the impossible looks like. When I was a journalist, my job was to cover those moments science fiction became science fact. So the first time, for example, an artificial vision implant was turned on, I was in the room. In fact, I was what was seen, but that’s a totally different story and that was accidental, but literally, up until that moment in time curing blindness was a biblical miracle. Jesus cured blindness. And then in 2000, so it was a Wire magazine cover story. A guy, literally like a maverick inventor working almost by himself in a sort of illegal shop, in a garage in upstate New York, builds a brain implant, puts it in. I meet a blind guy, he’s been blind for 20 years. They turn this thing on, two days later, he’s driving a car around a parking lot. So over and over and over in my life, I’ve seen impossible happen first-hand.
1:01:00 PA: I wanna hop in here because I just wanna weave a couple of patterns that we’ve been talking about in our conversation. What you’re talking about is… I feel like there are more people, Joseph Campbell would call it like a hero’s journey in a way. There are more people who are stepping up into this sense of power and excitement, building these big dreams, having these big dreams, like your friend Peter, and then doing whatever it takes to get there because of the passion, the interest and the excitement they have, the love for it. And I think, again, that comes back into information and data processing is where does this come from. And I think it largely comes out of necessity, in many cases.
1:01:37 PA: People like you and me and Peter, they see a problem and then for some reason, they wanna solve it, or they wanna fix it, or they wanna build a more efficient or a better system, whatever that might be. And I think that’s for me why I’m optimistic is because I think more and more people are recognizing that and they’re getting this sense of discomfort and discontent, and they wanna step out of the norm and start to build their own thing. And we’re seeing this now with the democratization of all this technology, where it’s cheaper than it ever has been in the past to start your own business or build your own idea or branch out and do whatever because we’ve built efficient enough systems where we’re starting to free people from the confines of this really kind of industrialized mono-culture that we’ve built over the last 300, 400 years. And then when you put in flow states into that, it just helps to accelerate the process as long as the infrastructure is there before people really go for ultimate human performance.
1:02:29 SK: You said a lot of things there.
1:02:32 PA: Did I?
1:02:33 SK: Yeah, so the one thing I wanna say, ’cause I hear this a lot when I talk to millennials, and I just wanna think about this for a second. So you talk about the capitalistic mono-culture, blah, blah, blah.
1:02:46 PA: Yeah.
1:02:46 SK: All those restraints, all those limits, and you’re not wrong, of course, you’re not wrong. I know what you’re talking about and you’re not wrong, except you’re really wrong, and let me tell you why I think you’re also really wrong, which is, it’s the same problem you have with altered states. So a lot of people, they start getting into flow, they start getting into psychedelics, then get stuck. They want to feel that all the time. They wanna be… Well, the question I get more than anything else is how do I live in flow?
1:03:13 SK: And one, it’s not neurobiologically possible, and we can talk about that if you care, but the more important thing is you wouldn’t want to. The information is in the contrast. If you can’t compare what you feel like in flow when you’re having that sensation of oneness with everything, if all you feel is oneness with everything all of the time, then individual consciousness is gonna be the thing we’re questing after. It’s the opposition of the bull, that’s why in the end of Stealing Fire, we say you can’t escape the human condition. It’s the push and pull between the bull and why I jumped in front of the capital… What you said about capitalism is, look, I exist ’cause I had that system to push against.
1:03:55 SK: The limits of it gave me a lot of energy, a lot of fight. Right, A. That rebellion was very, very useful for me. The other thing is tucked inside of that is competition, and it’s really easy to look at competition and say, “Oh, it’s an awful motivator, it’s not… ” On a lot of levels, it can lead to a lot of problems. It can lead, for example, straight into the last financial crisis and a bunch of guys on Wall Street stealing a shit ton of money. It can produce that, but it also is the fire that drove me in a sense. I’m competitive as hell, I wanna be the best writer in the history of the universe. Now, I get… By the way, there’s no such thing as the best writer in the history of the universe. It’s a made-up title and I could care less about beating you or the other guy or whatever. I’m competing against myself, but that drives me.
1:04:46 SK: I always say that the people I’ve seen who have taken on the impossible, they’re running away from something, just as fast as they’re running towards something. That double motivation is really useful and I think, ’cause it’s just too hard to run towards something. It’s too difficult to get to the impossible if you have one motivation. You need a lot of different lines of passion intersecting. I always say that curiosity, when you get multiple lines of curiosity intersecting, you get passion. When you add intersectional bunch of passions, now you’re starting to get purpose. You need as much help as you can ’cause the motivation is hard, ’cause it’s easy to sit on the couch and watch West Wing reruns.
1:05:29 PA: I mean they’re pretty funny, it’s a great show…
1:05:32 SK: Nobody outwrites Aaron Sorkin. Nobody outwrites Aaron Sorkin, that’s just what it is.
1:05:36 PA: You’re right, and I think… I’m 26. So when I see these ideas and I perceive these things that are going on, I get excited. I get excited about the changes that are occurring, I get excited about the chaos that we’re going through, I get excited about… There are so many different things and I think, like on an individual personal level, I have been, for example, microdosing on the past couple of years and this is something we often talk about on the podcast. And what I’ve started to notice is, I’ve been more or less microdosing the last two years, I’ve had a few months off here and there, by and large it’s like once or twice a week. And all the things that you’re now talking about in these conversations, the sense of, you see, you pattern recognition, impulsivity. I’m starting to notice that I was going really in this direction, whatever that direction was, in a very strong way. And so I’m stepping back and getting more context and slowing down.
1:06:30 PA: And not trying to basically talk about a whole massive idea in the confines of 30 seconds is probably a good idea. So thank you for calling me out on that, I guess, and making the point that we exist in intention and that you have this passage in Stealing Fire which basically talks about how, I forget the exact wording, but it’s… You can’t always be in flow states, you have to sometimes go back into these states of being that are monk-like in a way to be able to really contextualize the experiences you’re having for a better life, for a better world, or whatever that might be. And I think ultimately that seems to be what we’re both after, what your work has done, what we’re trying to do, what the communities that we’ve cultivated and developed, whether that’s around flow and psychedelics, is it’s by and large, how are we utilizing these states of flow to make our realities. And like you said, in these monophasic realities, that’s one reality, but how are we making that better for ourselves in our community through altruism and other things.
1:07:32 SK: It’s all of that. All this stuff, to me, is about the fact that we’re just… There’s two ways when you’re faced from a biological level, when you’re faced with scarcity. The fundamental law of evolution is competition. We’re faced with scarcity, what do we do? Well, there’s two possibilities. You can compete over scarce resources, that’s one, and up till very recently, that was really the only possibility. The other one is, you can make new resources. It’s what technology allows us to do, that’s what we’ve gotten. So the abundance has become an option. So the other answer to the riddle of survival is innovation, and I think that’s what all these states are. A fundamental… We’re hardwired for this. This is why Ronald K. Siegel at UCLA discovered that pretty much every mammal on earth has found a way to alter its consciousness. Added to all that, we’re wired for this, this is how we think creatively, this is how we innovate our way out of problems. I think they’re both viable. Competition doesn’t go away, but there’s a way to do this cooperatively if we want to.
1:08:41 PA: And living in abundance, I think is a great way to do that. So let’s wrap up there, it was a pleasure to have you on the show, but before we leave could you just tell our listeners where they can find you, maybe the URL, your Twitter or whatever might be the best way to reach out.
1:08:54 SK: Yeah, stevenkotler.com, my website. S-T-E-V-E-N K-O-T-L-E-R, that’s where you’ll find me. If you’re interested in digging deeper into flow, flowgenomeproject.com, that has a pretty low profile. So if you want more flow in your life, that’s the best place to start. The easy place to start. And I’m steven_kotler on Twitter, which is actually the best way to probably have a conversation with me.
1:09:20 PA: Great. Well, Steven, thanks so much for joining us to talk about all things related to your personal experiences into flow states, into the state of the world that we’re currently in. It was a real pleasure to get a chance to get to know you and chat with you.